Almost a century after his death in 1876, much of Kamakau’s work was collected, edited and translated to produce books that stand today as cornerstones of knowledge about Hawai‘i’s past. In 1961 Ruling Chiefs of Hawai‘i was published, a four hundred-plus-page political history of Hawai‘i beginning with the great fifteenth-century chief, Umi a Liloa, and ending with the death of Kamehameha III in 1854. Over the next three decades, three more collections of Kamakau’s writings were published: Ka Po‘e Kahiko (The People of Old), Na Hana a ka Po‘e Kahiko (The Works of the People of Old) and Na Mo‘olelo a ka Poe Kahiko (Tales and Traditions of the People of Old). These books shared Kamakau’s writings on everything from past methods of agriculture, fishing and warfare to Hawaiian spirituality, medicinal practices and ancient tales.
While modern recognition for Kamakau has been both potent and abundant— Native Hawaiian scholar Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa, in the introduction to Ruling Chiefs of Hawai‘i, called Kamakau “the greatest Hawaiian historian ever born”— those of his own generation were also aware of the value of his knowledge. When Kamakau fell seriously ill in early 1866, the English-language newspaper Pacific Commercial Advertiser worried, “Next we hear of him may be his obituary or kanikau [funeral dirge], and he who surpasses all living Hawaiians in his knowledge of the ancient traditions and history of his race will have passed away.” He recovered from that illness and began his most productive period of writing.
Kamakau died on Sept. 5, 1876. When the members of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s legislature received the news, they adjourned out of respect. Before leaving, they passed a resolution that read in part: “As a historian and legendary writer he stood peerless and alone among the present sons of Hawaii. The pages written by the lamented deceased would fill many a volume; volumes which would grace the shelves of the proudest libraries.” Those words were prophetic, as Kamakau’s volumes are today ubiquitous on bookshelves throughout Hawai‘i. In 2000, after seeking permission from family descendents including Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau III, organizers founded a Hawaiian-language charter school in Kane‘ohe, O‘ahu, under the name Ke Kula ‘o Samuel Kamakau. A new generation of students, destined to one day themselves be ka po‘e kahiko (people of old), continue to read, memorize, chant and pass on—in their original language—stories gathered by a forward-thinking and passionate nineteenth-century Hawaiian.