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King David Kālakaua: Royal Folklorist

This blog post is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits.

Portrait of a man in formal dress.

King David Kālakaua. This undated photo is identified only as [Hawaii album, p. 46, portrait of man] and is part of an album of photographs and cartes de visite from Hawai’i that includes prominent Hawaiians with many photos that have not yet been identified with certainty. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

King David Kalākaua (1836 – 1891) is often known outside of Hawai’i by his nickname, the Merrie Monarch, so-called for his patronage of Hawaiian music, dance, and culture.  He loved the traditional Hawaiian dances, and so helped to revitalize a waning tradition of hula. The Merrie Monarch Festival, which honors his memory, is a celebration of Hawaiian culture that draws many tourists. In helping to preserve Hawaiian traditional culture, this festival is appropriate to honor a king who strove for those same goals. But for those who do not know much of Hawaiian history, Kalākaua is sometimes seen simply as a lover of music and dance, without a good understanding of the importance of these traditions. There was a serious side to this king and his efforts on behalf of Hawaiian culture and the Hawaiian people, which make him worthy of our appreciation as a hidden folklorist.

Kalākaua grew up with a classical education in both English and Hawaiian, as fitting a son of a high-ranking Hawaiian family, in one of the most literate nations in the world at that time. He and others of his generation benefited from the work of King Kamehameha II (1797 – 1824) and those who carried out his vision of creating a literate Hawai’i. People of that time were commonly educated and there were books and newspapers in Hawaiian.

Hawaiians’ knowledge of themselves as a people depended entirely on the memory of those who could chant ancient verses. By Kalākaua’s day, Hawaiian memory of their traditions and ways of doing things was in danger. The population of native Hawaiians had crashed due to exposure to diseases from abroad — diseases from which Hawaiians had no immunity. Contact with Americans and Europeans was causing changes in Hawaiian society that further imperiled Hawaiian language, knowledge, and culture.

A culture that passes down its knowledge only by oral history is much more in danger of losing essential parts of its traditions and history than one that uses the written word to back up oral traditions. But writing down ancient legends and myths was a more controversial activity than publishing a newspaper. It was, in fact, prohibited by Hawai’ian tradition to write down some of the sacred texts.

Here, too, King Kamehameha II had provided a clue for a way forward. He had broken the tabu system of prohibitions of his time by the simple act of sitting down to a meal with a mix of male and female guests. Prior to his action, men and women were required to eat separately. But Kamehameha II knew that customs would need to change for interaction with Hawai’i’s new trading partners to go forward, and  king might do what a commoner could not. So, using Kamehameha II’s example, Kalākaua took up the the task of seeing that Hawaiian oral traditions were written down, including some sacred chants, despite some objections from traditionalists.

Preserving the hula, the traditional sacred dances that made reference to the myths and legends of Hawai’i, was one way to help preserve Hawaiian culture and language. Kalākaua called it “the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” The chants associated with hula must be performed correctly, so the singers must know the language as well as the dance. For an example of hula as it has been preserved through continuous efforts to keep Hawaiian traditions alive thanks to Kalākaua and those who followed his example, see the video of the performance of Unukupukupu: Hālau Hula of Hawai’i Community College, Hilo, Hawai’i at the Library of Congress in 2012 (also on Library of Congress YouTube). The founder of this hula school, Dr. Taupourī Tangaro, explains that “the vision of Unukupukupu is to bring into a modern global context an awareness of the role and the spirit of hula as one of the world’s sacred dances of environmental kinship” — a goal that Kalākaua would certainly endorse. (See a PDF of Tangaro’s short essay here.)

As king, Kalākaua could ask scholars to work with those who had memorized ancient verses to write them down in Hawaiian. The most controversial challenge he set scholars to work on was writing down the Kumulipo. This was a sacred chant performed only in ceremonial contexts, containing the Hawaiian creation story as well as the lineage of royalty. The Kahunas, the keepers of these traditions, understandably objected. But Kalākaua prevailed and worked to see that this and other stories of Hawaiian history and myth were written down. Then he went further, and wrote a book in English.

A woman in a patchwork dress with a flowered garland on her head, dancing.

Unidentified hula Dancer, from a 19th century photo album. King David Kalākaua has been credited with preserving and revitalizing the hula. Undated. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.09890

Seeing that Hawaiian histories, legends, and myths were written down in Hawaiian for Hawaiians of his time and the future was one vision. But the creation of his English-language book that told the stories in prose, The Legends and Myths of Hawaii: The Fables and Folklore of a Strange People (1888), was a very different exercise (the link leads to an online copy at archive.org). The work seems to have been a team effort. In his short preface to the book, Kalākaua acknowledged six people who had contributed to the volume, although it is not clear what roles all of them played. Among them were his sister, then heir apparent Princess Lili’uokalani, who would later publish her English translation of the Kumulipo, and Emma Ka’ilikapuolono Metcalf Beckley (later Emma Ka’ilikapuolono Metcalf Nakuina), who published her own short book of Hawaiian folklore in English, Hawai’i, its People and their Legends, in 1904. These women were scholars fluent in both English and Hawaiian who may have been among those who wrote down and translated some of the original texts that appeared in the book. Kalākaua also credits the Hon. R. M. Daggett, who wrote the introduction providing a history of Hawai’i, and historian Abraham Fornander, whose work, An Account of the Polynesian Race: Its Origins and Migrations, was the accepted history of the Hawaiian people at the time and provided the basis for Daggett’s introduction. It seems to me that it was important that this book brought together a team of people to produce it, especially Princess Lili’uokalani and Emma Ka’ilikapuolono Metcalf Nakuina, as these women and many others since have carried on the work of both documenting Hawaiian culture and finding ways to help non-Hawaiians to learn about Hawai’i. 

An interesting feature of Fornander’s history of Hawai’i, and therefore Daggett’s history as well, is that it drew on what Fornander himself calls “Hawaiian folklore” for the unwritten history of early Polynesians. He saw similarities between Hawaiian cultural ideas and those of the ancient Cushites of Nubia, and so launches into some 19th-century speculation that the Hawaiians were a Middle Eastern people who had spent time in contact with Cushites. He rejected the idea that Polynesians originated in Malaysia on cultural grounds. Apparently this idea caught Westerners’ imagination, as it is repeated in newspaper stories about Hawai’i of that time. Today, archaeological and genetic studies support the origins of Polynesians in Malaysia. More interesting is that Fornander accepted the Hawaiian’s history of themselves as people who migrated to Hawai’i from southern islands, including Tahiti, starting in the 6th century CE, with a second migration in the 12th century. This was later rejected by archaeologists as they could not confirm settlement until the 13th century. But recent discoveries of ancient graves in Micronesia, and the discovery of  petroglyphs and artifacts in Hawai’i, suggest that both the Polynesian migration and the first discovery of Hawai’i may have occurred much earlier than once thought. Artifacts found in Hawai’i were made in about 450 CE, a date more in keeping with the Hawaiian traditional history.

Dancers Hawaiian dress perform with drums in front of a pavilion.

[The Royal Hula, Honolulu]. No date, appears to be 19th century. Victor Clark Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.  //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a40896

The legends Kalākaua chose present tales of human heroes whose adventures are tied in with the actions of gods and godesses. The  first story, of the abduction of Hina, the wife of an important chief, is framed as a story about the “Hawaiian Helen of Troy,” and there are indeed parallels of a royal abduction and a consequent war. This comparison is a clue to the way that this book of legends and myths was to be used. The presentation and selection was intended to help non-Hawaiians understand Hawai’i better, and have respect for their tradition. Comparing ancient Hawaiian stories of origins with legends like that of the Iliad and the Odyssey was one way to achieve this, and one that was already being used by Westerners like Fornander.

Kalākaua needed a text that he could present to visitors to Hawai’i or take with him to give as a gift on royal visits to other nations. A gift that could present some engaging stories from Hawaiian cultural traditions would, it was hoped, help to show the ingenuity of Hawaiians, the fact that they had kept their history, and that their rulers had a lineage. He wanted to use devices that told the reader that Hawaiians were not so different from themselves, hence the use of Western epics by comparison. This use also explains why the legends often include a good bit about the history of the major characters, these were real people according to traditional history, and they had biographies. Their stories, like the stories of ancient kings of Europe, tell something about the character of their people and the culture of ancient times. They may contain some history and some fiction. They may have occurred in different places than told as legends, which often attach themselves to more than one place. But there is meant to be a message given that is true in spirit, as legends tell of how the people of the past became the people of today.

A group of dancers in native dress perform on stage.

Faculty and staff of Hawai’i Community College, Hilo, Hawai’i performing hula with Unukupukupu at the Library of Congress in 2012. Groups such this continue to pass on the hula along with Hawaiian language and traditions. American Folklife Center photo.

Perhaps the section of the book that has the most bearing on current events is “The Apotheosis of Pele,” which begins on page 139. This is the myth of the goddess Pele, who is associated with Kīlauea, the volcano currently erupting. I lived for a short while in Seattle, and was there when Mt. St. Helens erupted. People who live with volcanoes may have varying degrees of belief in the gods or goddesses associated with them. But active volcanoes hold the power of life and death over those who live near them. They also are changeable — not unlike people. So it is understandable that they are often spoken about as living beings, as him and her, with observations about how they are on a given day. Hawaiians are reported in papers as saying that Pele is causing the current eruption. This doesn’t mean that they don’t also listen to reports of scientists. But it is important to know who you are living with when your neighbor is a volcano, and respect for the power of that being is simply common sense. So it is interesting to read of the story of how Pele, a young woman who fled into volcanic caves to escape an unwanted suitor, was transformed from a human being into the fire goddess of Kīlauea when the volcano erupted, as written down in the late 19th century by a Hawaiian king.

The book King Kalākaua wrote 130 years ago, with the help of his team of scholars, had mixed success in the United States. Newspaper stories and travel books about Hawai’i at the time, as Kalākaua well knew, described Hawaiians as “savages” or “a primitive people.” So some reviewers doubted that a savage could write a book. It was described as “purportedly” written by King Kalākaua. Some suspected it was really written by Daggett, rather than edited by him. The American Anthropologist published a review that tried to correct this impression, saying that “though Kalakaua is known to be a writer of good English, and is probably fully competent for the production of these tales, no doubt the volume has benefited by the collaboration of Mr. Daggett, who in addition to his editorship supplies a valuable introduction…” (American Anthropologist, Vol. 3, No. 1 [Jan., 1890], pp. 98-100).  Nevertheless the book has stood the test of time, especially for Hawaiians and visitors to the islands. It has been a local best seller since publication and was most recently reprinted in 2013.

In his short reign, King Kalākaua worked to preserve the performing art traditions of Hawai’i and saw that written versions of its oral traditions were created. His book of legends and myths, and the celebrations held during his lifetime that presented traditional music and dance, are examples of the many ways he contributed to a revitalization of Hawaiian culture and language, as well as helping to spread a greater understanding of the Hawaiian people and their history, an effort that continues in the present day.


Gramolini, Allison. “Polynesian Migration” 2011, available via Sea Semester, Environmental Studies at Woods Hole and at Sea.

Hall, Stephanie. “How Hawaiians Saved Their Language,” Folklife Today, May 24, 2017.

Hawaiian Album. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Kalākaua, King David. The Legends and Myths of Hawaii: The Fables and Folklore of a Strange People, 1888.

Unukupukupu: Hālau Hula of Hawai’i Community Colllege, Hilo, Hawai’i, performance at the Library of Congress in 2012 (also on Library of Congress YouTube). Read an essay about this performance by Dr. Taupourī Tangaro (PDF, 2 pp.).