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.
Princess Ke’elikolani Facts
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 died at just 27 years old.
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.
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.
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—personal and legal. In 1868, they finally divorced.
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.
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.
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.
13. A Leaf Bud by Any Other Name
Ke’elikolani’s name means “leaf bud of heaven.”
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 died 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 away, 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 died in childbirth, Ke’elikolani was adopted by a prominent Hawaiian noblewoman, Ka’ahumanu.
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.
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.
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 away. 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 death, Ke’elikolani was 58 years old and owned more land than anyone else in Hawaii.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
38. Heartbroken Again
Sadly, as we already mentioned, like all Ke’elikolani’s children, Leleiohoku did not live for long. He died of rheumatic fever at just 22 years old. But few people realize the secret reason behind Ke’elikolani’s devastation at his death. 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 death, everything came crashing down.
39. Dashed Dreams
Leleiohoku was supposed to succeed Ke’elikolani. If he hadn’t died, 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.
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.
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.
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.