We THE STATE OF ALOHA
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.