The Military Forces of King Kalakaua's Reign—The Hawaiian Model Re-evaluated

Saturday, January 7, 2012
Sheraton Ballroom II (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Neil B. Dukas, National Coalition of Independent Scholars
First presented February 2010 as part of the annual “Experts at the Palace” lecture series organized by the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Historic Preservation Graduate Certificate Program, this material represents the latest research stemming from work originally collected in preparation for A Military History of Sovereign Hawaii (Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 2004). The presentation is profusely illustrated, including many unpublished photographs.


Until the year 1898, Hawai‘i was a sovereign nation. Like the vast majority of contemporary nation-states, the Kingdom of Hawaii possessed its own postal system, currency, diplomatic corps and yes, military forces. This presentation will endeavor to make clear both the vision and reality of King David Kalakaua’s military organization. Few visitors to the Islands today are aware that the kingdom possessed anything resembling a formal military establishment beyond the largely ceremonial “King’s Guard” whose legacy is routinely showcased for tourists. Military historians are likely to be surprised at how much was actually achieved during Kalakaua’s reign (1874-1891), employing mostly volunteer militia and the Prussian military archetype. Historians, furthermore, are certain to gain fresh knowledge and perspective on how an all but forgotten citizen army at once served and failed the community. To do this effectively I believe it useful to employ some form of comparative benchmark. For that measure I have selected another fledgling nation-state, Canada (circa 1885). The results are revealing, including comparable standards of recruiting, training and professional achievement.

I will examine the relevant political history of Hawaii, as well as the influences and life experiences that helped shape King Kalakaua’s military model, including foreign incursions, the annexation movement, filibusters, riots and mutiny. Particular attention will be paid to the years 1885-1889; the period that came closest to reflecting a viable and sustainable defense capability for Hawaii. The presentation will note both the successes and failures of Kalakaua’s efforts at force development, including the “Primacy of the Pacific” policy, 1887 coup and ultimately devastating 1889 rebellion. As a failed nation-state, Hawaii presents some interesting questions. New research enhances our understanding of the important symbolic and practical role played by Hawaii’s armed forces in sustaining the nation.

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