The Maui News - - NEWS - BEN LOWENTHAL Ben Lowenthal is a trial and ap­pel­late lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is 808sta­te­o­faloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” al­ter­nates Fri­days with Sarah Rup­penthal’s “Neigh­bors.”

can still see him just about ev­ery­where we go. He proudly stands tall draped in his red-and-yel­low feath­ered cape on a sign des­ig­nat­ing a point of in­ter­est. When I was a kid, his face was front and cen­ter on our li­cense plates.

Then there are the stat­ues. In the tiny for­mer plantation town of Hawi on the Big Is­land just a few miles from his aus­pi­cious birth­place, you can find the star­tlingly re­al­is­tic-look­ing painted statue in front of the old court­house and civic cen­ter. The de­pic­tion shows him with­out an ounce of fat on him and thick mus­cu­lar legs and arms. It’s the same statue high above the ap­pro­pri­ately named King Street in front of the Hawaii Supreme Court and the same statue at the Capi­tol in Washington, D.C.

At this point, you can ask just about any lo­cal or any­one who’s been here long enough to pic­ture our first King: Kame­hameha the Great. Most will de­scribe a large, Na­tive Hawai­ian man with phys­i­cal prow­ess and strength. But is it ac­cu­rate? What did the real King Kame­hameha ac­tu­ally look like?

The Kame­hameha de­picted on signs and stat­u­ary show a young Na­tive Hawai­ian war­rior. Most im­ages of the man do not show his Western cloth­ing and weapons. In fact, there are no ex­ist­ing por­traits of the young Kame­hameha.

Con­tem­po­raries de­scribed the am­bi­tious chief as fear­less, strong, tall and “moved in an aura of vi­o­lence.” But de­spite these col­or­ful de­scrip­tions, no one drew a pic­ture of the man for many years. In fact, there is only one known Western artist that en­joys the dis­tinc­tion of paint­ing a por­trait of the king.

In late Novem­ber 1816, a Rus­sian ship called the Ruick docked off the coast of the Big Is­land. Kame­hameha had al­ready united the is­lands through war and a treaty with Kauai. He was the undis­puted ruler of the is­lands.

Capt. Otto von Kotze­bue learned that ob­nox­ious sailors be­fore him in­stilled an anti-Rus­sian sen­ti­ment among the chiefs and Kame­hameha him­self. Not want­ing to suf­fer the same fate as the late Capt. Cook decades be­fore him, Von Kotze­bue stayed aboard while he sent a party of ex­pend­able non­sailors. Iron­i­cally, the cap­tain read­ily dis­patched “sci­en­tific gen­tle­men” to see the king: a doc­tor and am­a­teur zo­ol­o­gist he had picked up in San Fran­cisco who claimed to have met Kame­hameha, a botanist, whose habit of dry­ing herbs on board the ship an­noyed the cap­tain, and the artist — the French­man Louis Cho­ris.

Things did not go well at first. The king, ac­cord­ing to Cho­ris, “re­ceived us frigidly.” He would later draw a sketch of the meet­ing. He stood with the oth­ers clutch­ing his sketch­book sur­rounded by na­tive war­riors, ag­ing chiefs and court at­ten­dants be­decked in feath­ered capes and hel­mets. They bore their tat­toos and gripped their weapons — some spears and clubs and Western weapons. The women were naked.

Kame­hameha dom­i­nated the scene. Cho­ris wrote that “The old king, in front of whose house we landed, was sit­ting upon a raised ter­race, sur­rounded by his wives, and dressed in his na­tive cos­tume, a red malo and the black tapa, the wide beau­ti­ful folded cape of black cloth.”

For­tu­nately for them, the grave mood changed when Kame­hameha rec­og­nized his doc­tor friend. At that point, he be­came ge­nial and wel­comed them. It was safe for Capt. Von Kotze­bue to step ashore and meet him.

And while wait­ing for the cap­tain, the king agreed to sit for Cho­ris and let him paint his por­trait.

“I asked Tam­meamea per­mis­sion to do his por­trait; this prospect seemed to please him very much, but he asked me to leave him alone an in­stant, so he could dress. Imag­ine my sur­prise on see­ing this monarch dis­play him­self in the cos­tume of a sailor; he wore blue trousers, a red waist­coat, a clean white shirt and a neck­tie of yel­low silk. I begged him to change his dress; he re­fused ab­so­lutely and in­sisted on be­ing painted as he was.”

The king would later sit for Cho­ris again that day. What emerged from the sit­tings is the only con­firmed and known por­trait of the monarch. He’s older and deep lines are fur­rowed across his face. His hair is short and shorn.

The king was quite pleased, and Cho­ris left many copies be­hind. These copies found their way to skilled Chi­nese drafts­men who made even more copies of the “Napoleon of the Pa­cific.” Some copies show him wear­ing a red vest. Oth­ers have him shrouded in kapa. But the face is largely the same one drawn by Cho­ris.

These copies are still around in mu­se­ums all over the world. It has been copied sev­eral times over and re­mains the only true de­pic­tion of Hawaii’s first king. And for the record, he looks noth­ing like the face on our old li­cense plates.

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