The Hilo statue of Kamehameha I, after just six years, has suffered damage visible as the red areas on the king's shoulders and speckled areas throughout his clothing.

statue degrades

By Rod Thompson

HILO >> Nearly 200 years after Kamehameha I united the Hawaiian Islands, the king's reputation stands unblemished. His statue in Hilo is not so lucky.

Something is eating away at the bronze statue erected less than six years ago in the Wailoa River State Recreation Area fronting Hilo Bay.

Big red blotches of copper color are showing through the gold cape that covers the king's shoulders. Smaller speckles of red are showing through the remainder of his gold clothing.

The bronze that makes up the statue's body is also showing "weathering," says private conservator Laura Gorman.

Gorman will do tests next month to determine the problem. She will also wax the areas of exposed bronze, similar to the way a car is waxed, she said.

The statue has become very popular, said Terry Plunkett, of the Mamalahoe (East Hawaii) Region of the Kamehameha Schools Alumni Association. "All the tour vehicles stop there every day," he said. Local people go there for Christmas gatherings, family reunions, weddings and so on, he said.

The alumni erected two plaques yesterday at the base of the statue, which describe Hilo Bay in Kamehameha's time.

One plaque shows a map of the Hilo area around 1800. The other has a painting by artist Eddy Yamamoto showing Kamehameha at the bay around that same time preparing the fleet of 800 big "peleleu" canoes with which he made a second attempt to conquer Kauai following an earlier attempt defeated by a storm.

The second attempt also failed when an epidemic killed many in his invasion force after they arrived on Oahu.

Those failed invasions led nearly two centuries later to Hilo receiving the now-tarnished statue.

In the mid-1980s the Qintex company, then owner of Princeville resort on Kauai, thought it would be nice to have its own copy of the Kamehameha statue of which other, nearly identical versions stand in Honolulu, North Kohala on the Big Island and Washington, D.C.

The others reach 14 feet to the tip of Kamehameha's spear. The Princeville one reached 18 feet.

But Kauai people did not want it, proudly pointing out that Kamehameha never conquered their island. The king eventually joined Kauai to the rest of his kingdom through diplomacy.

The Princeville statue went into storage until Kamehameha Schools graduates learned about it and said they would be happy to have it in Hilo. It was unveiled facing Hilo Bay on June 10, 1997, the day before Kamehameha Day.

Over the years, the Honolulu statue may have been somewhat protected by its position among buildings, Gorman said.

The North Kohala statue, which is the original, is the only one that is painted rather than gilded, so the paint probably protected it.

The Hilo one faces the sea unprotected. "Ours gets a great frontal assault from salt and water," said Plunkett.

Gold leaf is supposed to protect metal, Gorman said. "It could be a bad gilding job," she said. But it is also possible that the Italian manufacturer used gold paint or maybe a cheaper metal designed to look like gold.

The state Department of Land & Natural Resources will pay for Gorman's preliminary work, said state parks official Glenn Taguchi. No one knows the repair costs, but the Kamehameha alumni will be seeking grants and contributions, Plunkett said.

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