July 28, 2023 | Scott Mazza

Defiant Facts About Princess Ke’elikolani, Hawaii’s Fierce Defender

Everyone has heard of courageous queens like Elizabeth I and Cleopatra, but how about Ke’elikolani? This royal Hawaiian bravely defended her country, refused to submit to colonial rule, and literally stopped a volcano—all while dealing with heartbreaking personal tragedy. Prepare to rebel: here are 42 defiant facts about Ke’elikolani, Hawaii’s fierce defender.

1. Humble Beginnings

On February 9, 1826, baby Ruth Ke’elikolani entered a life of luxury. The royal Hawaiian’s mother was a renowned High Chiefess named Kalani Pauahai—but tragically, Ke’elikolani wouldn’t be able to learn the ropes from her well-established mother. Kalani Pauahai died giving birth to Ke’elikolani. She was only 22.

Princess Ke’elikolani

2. Quick Delivery

Though little Ke’elikolani couldn’t have known it, she was born into a significant amount of family drama. Mere months before Ke’elikolani’s birth, her mother got married in what looked like a shotgun wedding. Ke’elikolani’s mother gave birth to her suspiciously soon after a marriage ceremony.

Ke’elikolani facts Shutterstock

3. Colonial Poison

Even though Ke’elikolani was proud to be Hawaiian, she gave in to some European trends, wearing Victorian gowns and styling her hair like the heroine of a 19th century period drama. The reason for her changing appearance was heartbreaking: as missionaries came over to Hawaii, the island’s women—even the chiefesses—became insecure about their appearance. The standard of beauty changed to become more European, with traditional Hawaiian beauty becoming less valuable.

Ke’elikolani facts Wikimedia Commons

4. Deep Breath

Ke’elikolani’s full name is Ruth Luka Keanolani Kuanajoahoa Ke’elikolani. She’s usually just called Ruth Ke’elikolani for obvious reasons.

Cyrus The Great factsShutterstock

5. Good On Paper

When Ke’elikolani was 15 years old, she walked down the aisle. The young royal netted an appealing match: The Governor of Hawaii, William Pitt Leleiohoku. Attractive, well-established, and age-appropriate, it seemed like the marriage would be a great success—but the couple was doomed to a heartbreaking end. 

Ke’elikolani facts Pixabay

6. A Pitt of Sadness

Very quickly after his wedding to Ke’elikolani, disaster struck. William Pitt Leleiohoku fell victim to the terrifying measles epidemic. He passed on at just 27 years old.

Ke’elikolani facts Shutterstock

7. Dynastic Love

Eight years after Ke’elikolani’s first husband tragically died, the Hawaiian princess felt like she was finally ready to love again. She married Isaac Young Davis. As the grandson of the Isaac Davis, the Briton who settled Hawai’i, and Kalukuna, a prominent Hawaiian woman, Isaac Young Davis was quite the catch.

Ke’elikolani facts Wikimedia Commons

8. Noted Hottie

Ke’elikolani’s new husband Isaac Young Davis was known for being quite attractive. He was 6’2” tall, and in letters by travelers who visited Hawaii, multiple women commented on his handsomeness. Unfortunately, Ke’elikolani didn’t seem to agree. The couple did not get along—but things would get much, much worse.

Ke’elikolani facts Shutterstock

9. The D Word

Back in the day, divorce was very controversial—so you know a 19th-century marriage was bad when the couple went to court. After eight unhappy years, things devolved so horribly between Ke’elikolani and Isaac Young Davis that they ended up cutting all ties. In 1868, they finally divorced.

Outrageous Reasons for Divorce factsShutterstock

10. Bow Chicka Wow Wow

When Ke’elikolani became pregnant by Davis, the couple were already separated. They only meet to discuss business over the course of their 11-year estrangement, though apparently, sometimes they mixed business with pleasure.

Ke’elikolani factsShutterstock

11.  Large And In Charge

Ke’elikolani was a large woman. At over six feet tall, she gained weight as she aged and ended up exceeding 400 lbs.

Ke’elikolani facts Wikimedia Commons

12. From the Mouths of Babes

Due to her size and fierceness, children would sometimes become scared when Ke’elikolani walked towards them. The children’s fear broke the Hawaiian ruler’s heart, as Ke’elikolani utterly adored children.

Ke’elikolani facts Public Domain Pictures

13. A Leaf Bud by Any Other Name

Ke’elikolani’s name means “leaf bud of heaven.”

Ke’elikolani facts Pixabay

14. A Mother’s Pain

Ke’elikolani had an utterly brutal time when it came to motherhood. Her first son by her first husband, Leleiohoku was named John William Pitt Kina’u. He passed on just a few months shy of his 17th birthday. Her second son by her second husband Isaac Young Davis was named Keolaokalani Davis. He didn’t even reach his second birthday.

Ke’elikolani facts Shutterstock

15.  Someone Give This Woman a Break

Determined to be a mother, Ke’elikolani decided to adopt a little boy. In a touching gesture, she named him after her beloved first husband Leleiohoku. The Hawaiian princess had her adopted son recognized with a fancy title, the Crown Prince of Hawaii. Sadly, he too would die too young to take the throne. He perished of rheumatic fever at just 22 years old.

Ke’elikolani facts Wikimedia Commons

16. Step Off

Most Hawaiian royalty gave into the missionaries’ demands. Not Ke’elikolani. She staunchly defended traditional Hawaiian culture, insisting that her people’s ways not just be tolerated, but celebrated. While Missionaries thought she was barbaric, she has gone down in history as a champion and an inspirational activist.

Ke’elikolani facts Pixabay

17. Pass the Tissues

Ke’elikolani was the godmother of the most famous Hawaiian royal, the stunningly beautiful Princess Ka’iulani. The duo were very close, with Ka’iulani giving Ke’elikolani a heartrending nickname: Mama Nui, or “great mother.” This only gets more moving when you remember Ke’elikolani’s awful experiences with motherhood.

Ke’elikolani facts Wikipedia

18. Watch Your Back

Ke’elikolani may have been wealthy and royal, but her life shows that money can’t buy happiness. With all the tragedies in her personal life, it’s no surprise that she became bitter as the years went on. The princess was known for inspiring profound fear. If she didn’t like you, she’d make it very clear that she wanted you to leave her island.

Natalie Wood FactsShutterstock

19. Friends in High Places

While some people feared Ke’elikolani, others admired her. As much as she inspired terror, she also provoked deep reverence. She was known to be incredibly loyal. If she approved of you, you had an ally for life.

Ke’elikolani facts Shutterstock

20. Interpret This

Ke’elikolani refused to speak English as often as possible. Instead, she absolutely insisted on using her people’s tongue. She spoke and wrote in Hawaiian, requiring her audience to use an interpreter if they didn’t understand her language. She also made a special point of speaking Hawaiian with her sons, hoping that they would carry on the traditional language.

Ke’elikolani facts Pixabay

21. Unforgivable

Ke’elikolani and her second husband had an extremely unhappy marriage. From Davis’s perspective, things never could have worked, because of one heartbreaking betrayal. After Ke’elikolani gave birth to their son, she followed the Hawaiian tradition of “hanai” and gave the child to her beloved cousin Princess Bernice Pauahi. Davis could never forgive her decision.

Ke’elikolani facts Wikimedia Commons

22. Form and Content

In 2004, documentarians honored Ke’elikolani with a film about her life. They did their homework: instead of just producing the movie in English, they made sure to also create a version of the film in the Hawaiian language so near and dear to Ke’elikolani’s heart.

Bettie Page FactsShutterstock

23. Rich, but Make it Ethical

When she was alive, Ke’elikolani was one of the richest women on the Hawaiian Islands. After she passed on, the majority of her land wasn’t used to bankroll the powerful. Instead, it went to creating schools that would educate Hawaiian children and teach them about their culture. In 1997, a college in Hilo was named after Ke’elikolani.

Ke’elikolani facts Wikimedia Commons

24. Street Cred

Ke’elikolani refused to be one of those sitting duck royals. She actively participated in government, becoming a member of various councils and even working as Hawaii’s Governor for two decades.

Ke’elikolani factsWikimedia Commons

25. Storm Pipes

There are no recordings of Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani’s distinctive voice, but it has been described as a “distant rumble of thunder.”

Ke’elikolani factsPixabay

26. Independent Woman

Ruth Ke’elikolani had no time for European influence. Even though she could have lived in one of the many estates she inherited from her father and first husband, Ke’elikolani preferred to spend her time in a traditional stone hut, hanging out with hula dancers and listening to Hawaiian chants.

Ke’elikolani factsWikipedia

27. Actual Superhero

For Ke’elikolani, Christianity had nothing on the traditional Hawaiian pantheon of Gods. On one fateful day, her devotion was amply rewarded. In 1880, disaster struck Hawaii. A massive volcano named Mauna Loa erupted and was about to destroy the city of Hilo. Ke’elikolani immediately leapt into action, chanting to the goddess Pele to stop the lava’s flow. Miraculously, Ke’elikolani’s offerings and “oli” (chants) worked. The lava stopped at the boundary of the city. Hilo was saved.

Ke’elikolani factsPixabay

28. Use Your Imagination

To this day, photographs of Ke’elikolani are extremely rare. Unlike many Victorian royals, she usually refused to have her photo taken. There are only about a dozen pictures of the Hawaiian princess.

Creepy Stories FactsShutterstock

29. Close to Home

Ke’elikolani may have decided to give her child to her cousin for a reason that was even closer to home. After all, she had gone through the ritual (called hanai) as a child. After Ke’elikolani’s mother perished in childbirth, Ke’elikolani was adopted by a prominent Hawaiian noblewoman, Ka’ahumanu.

Ke’elikolani factsShutterstock

30. Squad Goals

Ke’elikolani was surrounded by powerful women throughout her life. She was extremely close to her cousin Princess Bernice Pauahi and her god-daughter Princess Ka’iulani. As part of hanai, Ke’elikolani was also raised by a power-duo: the legendary Queen Ka’ahumanu and Princess Kina’u.

Ke’elikolani factsWikimedia Commons

31. Woman’s Best Friend

Dog people rejoice: you can claim Ke’elikolani as one of your own. She adored her pets, two tiny white poodles.

Ke’elikolani factsPixabay

32. End of an Era

Ke’elikolani was fierce, but not even she could conquer death. On the morning of May 24, 1883, the royal Hawaiian peacefully passed on. She’d been suffering from an intense fever for over a week, but didn’t realize how much danger she was in. By the time she sent the doctors, it was too late. She died surrounded by family members. At the time of her passing, Ke’elikolani was 58 years old and owned more land than anyone else in Hawaii.

Ke’elikolani factsPixabay

33. Wagging Tongues

Throughout her life, Ke’elikolani struggled to quiet rumors of a disturbing personal scandal. For a princess, nothing could be more dangerous than people doubting your claim to the throne—and yet this was the exact rumor that plagued Ke’elikolani’s reign. However, Ke’elikolani had powerful allies, and they went to bat for her. Her half-brother King Kamehameha V and the next elected King Kekaulouohi both declared that she was part of the royal family. But the scandal was far from settled...

Ke’elikolani factsWikimedia Commons

34. My Head is Spinning

According to Hawaiian tradition, Ke’elikolani had two dads which, er, made it hard to figure out whether she could claim to be royal, according to Western ideas of inheritance. One of her dads, Kekuanao’a, was married to Ke’elikolani’s mother Pauahi when she gave birth. Sounds like an open and shut case, right? If only. Some people believe the truth was far, far darker. 

They think that Kekuanao’a was both Pauahi’s husband and her father. This would make Ke’elikolani’s dad both her father and her grandfather. And it only gets weirder from there.

Ke’elikolani factsShutterstock

35. And the Father is...

Ke’elikolani’s half-brother said that Kekuanao’a was not Ke’elikolani’s father. In a scandalous twist, he insisted that Pauahi was already pregnant when she married Kekuanao’a, making Ke’elikolani’s father the High Chief and Governor Kahalaia. For traditional Hawaiians, all this was business as usual—until King Kamehameha I declared that all royals had to have a “Christian” birth, as in: one dad. Even after Kekuanao’a declared that Ke’elikolani was his daughter and raised her as a royal, she had to fight to keep her throne.

Weird House FactsShutterstock

36. Someone Call Olivia Pope

When David Kalakaua took the throne, he refused to acknowledge Ke’elikolani’s honored place in the royal family. The newspapers had a field day with the snub, as they drew attention to Kalakaua’s cruel rejection. But that’s not even the worst part: this betrayal cut far deeper than the press realized. Ke’elikolani was extremely close to Kalakaua’s brother, Leleiohoku. She was even his adoptive mother. Now that’s some family drama.

Ke’elikolani factsWikipedia

37. Using the Oppressor’s Tools

Even though Ke’elikolani didn’t have much time for European nonsense, she made sure to play it smart. She didn’t just adopt Leleiohoku through the traditional Hawaiian practice of Hanai. She also filed paperwork and made sure to claim Leleiohoku through Western law too.

Ke’elikolani factsShutterstock

38. Heartbroken Again

Sadly, as we already mentioned, like all Ke’elikolani’s children, Leleiohoku did not live for long. He succumbed to rheumatic fever at just 22 years old. But few people realize the secret reason behind Ke’elikolani’s devastation at his demise. In losing Leleiohoku, she didn’t just lose a son. She also lost her legacy and the dream nearest to her heart. Scholars believe that Ke’elikolani had set a brilliant plan in motion years earlier. With Leleiohoku’s passing, everything came crashing down.

Ke’elikolani factsShutterstock

39. Dashed Dreams

Leleiohoku was supposed to succeed Ke’elikolani. If he hadn’t passed on, he would have inherited all her wealth and become the richest person on the island. This was not an accident: Ke’elikolani figured that if Leleiohoku had all these resources, he wouldn’t have to argue with the Legislature to get things done. He’d be free to build the proud Hawaii that Ke’elikolani treasured so much. With his death, that dream died too.

Ke’elikolani factsPixabay

40. Fading Beauty

While Ke’elikolani was known as a beauty in her youth, historians noticed that her nose became increasingly disfigured over time. The official record states that Ke’elikolani’s nose was maimed in a nasal passage surgery, but dark rumors insist otherwise.

Ke’elikolani facts Wikimedia Commons

41. The Nose Knows

Apparently, Ke’elikolani and Young Davis often fought viciously, with Young Davis assaulting his wife more than once. Many people believe that he broke her nose, contributing to the loss of her once-renowned beauty.

Ke’elikolani facts Shutterstock

42.  Cheers to a Real One

Ke’elikolani has gone down in history as one of the most influential Hawaiian women of all time. Her greatness lay in her unyielding pride in her culture, but also her clever ways of working around European expectations. She used Western law to strengthen her power, adopting Leleiohoku through Hawaiian custom and Western legalese, and held onto her land with the same double-dealing. If she hadn’t had the foresight to do this, her lands probably would have been taken and the Kamehama schools would never have existed. But because Ke’elikolani always had her eye on the bigger picture, Hawaii still feels her powerful legacy to this day.

Ke’elikolani factsWikimedia Commons

Sources:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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