Kalakaua's Famous Last Words?
We thought we knew Kalakaua’s deathbed words. We were wrong.
Photo: Bishop Museum
"Tell my people I tried.” These are often said to be the last words of HONOLULU Magazine’s founder, King David Kalakaua. The quote has been so widely repeated, we fell prey to it ourselves in our November story about life in Honolulu, circa 1888. But when a reader disputed it, we dug into the historical record and discovered that these were not Kalakaua’s last words at all.
So what were they? Here’s what we found:
Eighteen people were at Kalakaua’s bedside in the San Francisco hotel room where he died, on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 1891. They included U.S. Navy Adm. George Brown, who had been accompanying Kalakaua on his travels, and Robert Hoapili Baker, Kalakaua’s aide-de-camp. On Jan. 29, the day that news of the king’s death—along with his remains—arrived in Honolulu, The Daily Bulletin newspaper reported: “His last words in English were spoken to Admiral Brown, Tuesday morning, and after that he murmured only a few Hawaiian words of endearment to Colonel Baker, lapsing into his last sleep soon afterwards.”
A similar account appears in the February 1891 issue of Paradise of the Pacific, our predecesor, but it actually quotes Kalakaua’s words to Brown as, simply, “Well, I’m a very sick man.”
A short biography of Kalakaua, written in Hawaiian and published in time to sell on the day of the royal funeral, offers a slightly different but even more detailed account. Hawaiian language scholar Puakea Nogelmeier pointed us to this source, entitled Ka Mo‘olelo o ka Mo‘i Kalakaua I, and written by Joseph Poepoe, a friend of the Kalakaua family.
In this version, translated for us by Nogelmeier, the king smiles at Brown and says a few words to him, “as though giving his last and loving farewells … .” Then he says to Baker, “Aue, he kanaka au, eia i loko o ke kukonukonu o ka ma‘i!,” or “Alas, I am a man who is seriously ill.”
The translation continues:
“These were the king’s final conscious words, and that was the end. Afterwards, there were only words in the wilds of thoughts that were weakened and straying; and as his spirit neared its glide onto the wings of the dark vale of death, he spoke of the last things appearing in his thoughts, showing that his mind wandered again and was in the times long before his rise to the Hawaiian throne, many years past.”
See the complete translated passage, at honolulumagazine.com/lastwords
So where did “Tell my people I tried” originate? As best we could determine, it first appeared in The Last King of Paradise, a 1952 biographical novel filled with scenes, characters and dialogue that the author—who was, after all, a novelist—simply made up.