The year was 1872. On his deathbed, Lot Kamehameha turned to his cousin, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, and offered her the Hawaiian throne. The princess declined, and Lot—last of Kamehameha the Great’s direct descendants to wear the crown—died without naming his successor.
There were two claimants to the throne: David Kalakaua and William Charles Lunalilo. Although Kalakaua was descended from highborn chiefs, it was clear that Lunalilo had the more impressive bloodlines. His grandfather was Prince Kaleimamahu, half-brother of Kamehameha I. His grandmother was Princess Miriam Kalakaua Kaheiheimaile, sister of Kamehameha’s favorite wife, Queen Kaahumanu. Lunalilo, in fact, was considered to be the highest-born alii of his generation.
Lot, however, considered Lunalilo to be incapable of leading the kingdom. Lunalilo was pampered, self-indulgent and undisciplined. In 1871, on his father’s advice, he even resorted to having his own wealth monitored by guardians. Still, when the special election was held on January 1, 1873, Lunalilo was nearly a unanimous choice over Kalakaua. The next day, he walked to Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu to take the oath of office.
Two related issues occupied much of Lunalilo’s reign as king. Hawaii’s growing sugar industry required a natural market to absorb its increasing production, and Lunalilo worked to give Hawaiian sugar unhindered and untaxed access to the American market. At the same time, the American use of Pearl Harbor on Oahu was openly considered in exchange for the reciprocity treaty. In April 1873, the American businessmen proposed the idea of ceding the harbor to the U.S.
Lunalilo, acting on the advice of his advisers, seemed ready to cede the land for the economic benefits of reciprocity. A rising swell of opposition by Hawaiians, however, forced him to reconsider. The king’s reputation was tarnished in the eyes of his people.
More alarmingly, Lunalilo’s health was in rapid decline. The first signs of illness appeared in August 1873, just eight months after he assumed the throne. His personal physician noted that the king “cannot live very much longer unless he totally abstains from the use of intoxicating drinks.”
In November, Lunalilo traveled to the Big Island, hoping that the change of scenery would revitalize his health. By January 1874, however, the frail king returned to Oahu. On his deathbed, he requested a burial at Kawaiahao Church. He wanted, he said, to be “entombed among (my) people, rather than the kings and chiefs” at the Royal Mausoleum in Nuuanu Valley.
Lunalilo died on February 3, 1874. He was 39.