He never lived up to the standards set by his father. But it’s doubtful that anyone could have fared better. After all, how do you follow the legacy created by Hawaii’s greatest king?
The son of Kamehameha the Great and Keopuolani, the king’s highest-ranking wife, Liholiho was born in November 1797 in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii. At the age of five, he was declared to be his father’s eventual successor and began learning the religious and political traditions of Hawaiian rule.
Kamehameha the Great died in 1819, and Liholiho, per tradition, headed to the mountains for a period of mourning. Upon his return, the young king met with the Council of Chiefs, which included Keopuolani as well as Kamehameha’s favorite wife, Kaahumanu. It was decided that Liholiho would assume his father’s ceremonial role, while Kaahumanu would serve as kuhina nui, or prime minister. In practical terms, Liholiho held very little power.
The new king was generally well-liked and admired. As one American missionary observed, “There is nothing particularly striking about his countenance, but his figure is noble, perhaps more so than that of any other chief; his manners polite and easy, and his whole deportment that of a gentleman.”
Within six months after assuming the throne as Kamehameha II, the religious and political code of old Hawaii, collectively called the kapu system, was abolished. It’s believed that Kaahumanu and Keopuolani persuaded Liholiho to eliminate the kapu system by eating a meal with women—a definite taboo at the time. It’s also said that the Hawaiians had grown increasingly dissatisfied with the ancient system.
Liholiho’s reign was also marked by his efforts to ensure the lasting independence of the Hawaiian kingdom. In 1793, British Captain George Vancouver formed an alliance with Kamehameha I to protect the Hawaiian islands from foreigners. That agreement, however, was never officially acknowledged by the British government. Thus, in 1823, Liholiho and his favorite wife, Kamamalu, sailed to England in an attempt to finalize his father’s negotiations with King George IV.
Liholiho and Kamamalu arrived in England in May 1824. Sadly, before Liholiho could meet with his British counterpart, both he and his queen contracted the measles. Kamamalu died on July 8. Six days later, Liholiho himself succumbed to the disease. Their bodies were placed in extravagant coffins and returned to their homeland.
Although the reign of Kamehameha II lasted only five years, it was an eventful period that helped shape the future of the Hawaiian kingdom. One wonders what legacy Liholiho might have created for himself if not for his untimely death.