Secret and Safe: Hawaiian Royal Burials and the Missing Bones of Kamehameha the Great
The magical properties associated with the bones of Hawaiian kings were valuable to the ancient Hawaiians, and were even seen potentially dangerous. Great rites and elaborate ceremonies were performed to ensure the safe keeping of the ancestors.
In the year 1810, the islands of Hawaii were finally unified under one ruling dynasty. The founder of the newly established Kingdom of Hawaii was the warrior chief of Hawai’i Island (the largest of the Hawaiian Islands), Kamehameha I, known also as Kamehameha the Great.
Nine years after his unification of the Hawaiian Islands, Kamehameha I died, and was succeeded by his son, Kamehameha II, who ruled jointly with Ka’ahumanu (the favourite wife of Kamehameha I) as regent.
Ka’ahumanu, widow of Kamehameha I with Charles Kana’ina . Ka’ahumanu was said to be one of the most influential leaders in Hawaii's history. Illustration circa 1816. Public Domain
Death in ancient Hawaiian society was a serious matter, especially when it concerned powerful and influential individuals such as the king of Hawaii. According to traditional Hawaiian belief, the iwi (bones) of the dead contained mana (a divine power) that benefitted those who were in possession of these bones. It was believed that the greater the amount of mana within the iwi, the more potent the power of these objects.
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The bones of Kamehameha I, for instance, are said to have accumulated a great amount of mana due to certain factors such as; the time of his birth, which coincided with the passing of Hayley’s Comet; and his numerous successes in the field of battle. Thus, it was vital that the bones of the first king of Hawaii did not fall into the wrong hands, for fear that the king’s mana would be transferred to the enemies of his dynasty.
When Kamehameha I died in May 1819, his body was ceremoniously prepared for the afterlife, which included the removal of the flesh from the bones. After these ceremonies were performed, the bones of the deceased king were taken to a secret place to be buried, so that the mana of Kamehameha I could be protected. This ancient custom is known as the hunakele, which means ‘to hide in secret’. It is unsurprising then that this task was carried out by the king’s most trusted advisors, Ho’olulu and Hoapili. To further ensure the secrecy of the location of king’s bones, the burial was conducted in the night.
One of the few paintings made of Kamehameha while he was alive, and reportedly his favorite. Public Domain
Incidentally, when the bones of Hawaiians stored in modern research centres on the mainland were repatriated to their descendants, they were transported in secrecy at night by a group known as the Hui Malama I Na Kupuna o Hawai'i Nei (Caring for the Elders of Hawai'i), in accordance with Hawaiian customs.
As a result of this secrecy, the final resting place of Kamehameha I remains a mystery. Nevertheless, this has not stopped people from speculating on its exact location.
For example, some believe that the bones of Kamehameha I are resting in Moku’ula, the royal residence of Kamehameha III from 1837 to 1845, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Moku’ula is also the burial site of several other Hawaiian royals, thus allowing such speculation to arise.
A depiction of a royal heiau (Hawaiian temple) at Tiritatéa Bay (now Kealakekua Bay). Illustration circa 1816. Public Domain
Legend also has it that the bones of Kamehameha I can indeed be found in Moku’ula, and even specifies that they are located in the grotto of a half-dragon, half-woman creature called Kihawahine. Others believe that Kamehameha I’s bones are to be found in the Iao Valley of Maui, another site where many Hawaiian chiefs were buried. It has also been said that David Kalakaua, the last king of Hawaii, ordered 2 sets of bones, one of which apparently belonged to Kamehameha I, to be re-interred in the Royal Mausoleum in Nu'uanu Valley on the island of Oahu.
About a decade ago, an old map purportedly indicating the burial site of King Kamehameha I in Kailua, Kona, Hawai’i, came to light. This burial site may have been destroyed due to later development of the area. However, the public nature of the area suggests that this was unlikely the burial site of Kamehameha I, who would have been buried in a more secret site.
Even today, King Kamehameha is not forgotten. Every June 11, Hawaiians celebrate the holiday King Kamehameha Day. On that day, flower lei are draped over the famous Kamehameha statue called “The Conqueror,” which stands in front of Ali'iolani Hale in Honolulu , and on the four other statues which represent the famed king. The other statues are located on Oahu, Hawaii Island, Maui, and in Washington D.C. King Kamehameha Day also involves ceremonial parades and other cultural observances.
Statue of King Kamehameha I, standing in front of Ali'iolani Hale in Honolulu. Cast: 1881, bronze with gold leaf. J JMesserly / Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps the bones of Kamehameha I may never be found, and are still resting in a cave somewhere on the Hawaiian Islands. It is perhaps as the king desired, as the years of military campaigns to unify Hawaii must have taken a toll on the great man, and death brought eternal rest along with it, so long as his remains were not disturbed.
Featured image: Artist’s representation of Kamehameha the Great ( civilization.wikia.com)
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