King David Lamia Kalākaua, who was dubbed “The Merrie Monarch,” was the last Hawaiian monarch. He ruled the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1874 until his death in 1891, but his ascension to the throne has been controversial. Shortly after the death of King Kamehameha IV, whose family had ruled the kingdom since 1795, the Hawaiian legislature decided to elect a citizen on (chief gentleman) instead of the king’s widow. The decision sparked an all-out riot. When the Queen’s supporters stormed the Honolulu Courthouse, British and American sailors stationed in Honolulu Harbor were called upon to quell the fighting and Kalākaua was sworn in the next day.
By the time of Kalākaua’s rule, the Native Hawaiian heritage was in grave danger. Christian missionaries began arriving in the islands in the 1820’s, introducing diseases that killed native Hawaiians, alienating the islanders from our traditional polytheistic religion and infiltrating the political system to suppress native culture and beliefs. One of the most important ways they did this was by banning public performances of the hula, a dance regarded by missionaries as “Vile pagan chants“.
Kalākaua sought to restore a unified sense of national pride among Hawaiians, and his reign ushered in a period of cultural renaissance across the islands. He lived by the slogan Ho’oulu Lāhui (Increase the Nation) and sought to remake Hawaii for the sake of Hawaiians—all of which revived traditional customs such as language, music, arts, and traditional medicines that had long been suppressed during the era of his proselytizing-influenced ancestors. Among his coronation accomplishments was the preservation of the hula. As Kalakaua famously said: “Hula is the language of the heart, and thus the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.”
For many people around the world, hula might conjure up images of tiki bars, plastic dancers shaking their hips on car dashboards or something that only happens at beach resorts. But long before the hula was commodified and appropriated, it was a sacred dance among Native Hawaiians—an ancient practice that served as an archive of our stories, beliefs, and way of life. Prior to the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778, there was no written language in Hawaii. Instead, the ancient Hawaiians used oral traditions and the hula to pass their identity and culture from one generation to the next. Even when the practice was outlawed, Hawaiians took the hula underground, continuing to secretly teach the forbidden dance in caves and remote areas.