The picturesque Hawaiian islands have long been a favorite vacation destination for Americans but few visitors know about their tumultuous past – including the sordid overthrow of the ruling monarchs by mercenaries in the early 20th Century. Gaellen Quinn, author of the new novel, The Last Aloha, takes us back to those fateful times.
Imagine a 19th century period film like those produced by Miramax or Merchant Ivory. But instead of being set in royal England or Europe, picture a kingdom with an elegant palace surrounded by banyan trees, stately homes on palm-lined drives cooled by the ginger-scented trade winds. The cast, in Victorian dress, have a variety of tinted faces – Polynesian, Asian, European and American.
In the nearby village, gabled New England style houses with clapboard fronts sit side by side with tidy thatched homes, their gardens filled with a profusion of bright flowering trees and shrubs. Native women wear loose Mother Hubbard gowns in a blare of scarlet, blue, green and yellow. Native men sport white trousers and bright shirts and all wear flowers hung about their necks or wrapped around the brims of their straw hats.
Boys with ukuleles and guitars sit on the street corners strumming and harmonizing, not for any coins, just for the joy of it. Flower sellers offer their blooms. Riders in long, divided skirts canter by, their mounts festooned with garlands. Residents of all colors and social levels freely intermingle along the avenues, exchanging gestures of friendly greeting, and in the afternoon, they promenade past the city hotel where the Royal Band plays their latest compositions.
In the late-19th century, Hawaii was just such a kingdom, until descendents of American missionaries overthrew the monarchy in 1893.
How did Hawaii Become Part of America?
2009 marks the 50th anniversary of Hawaii’s statehood, but few know how Hawaii became part of the United States. Even James Michener’s sweeping epic, Hawaii, first published in 1959 when Hawaii became a state, barely mentions the Hawaiian monarchy or its overthrow.
Many have the impression that when the missionaries arrived in Hawaii, the natives lived in grass huts and never developed beyond that until Hawaii became a U.S. territory. Yet just two decades after first contact with American missionaries in 1820, the Hawaiians had established a constitutional monarchy, the people had the vote, and even though they had only acquired an alphabet in the early 1800s, Hawaiians had a literacy rate that exceeded most educated modern countries.
The Hawaiian monarchs were multilingual, accomplished statesmen, writers, poets and musicians. The last king, Kalakaua, was the first monarch in the world to circumnavigate the globe, and was received with all royal honors in the courts of Asia, Egypt, Europe, by Queen Victoria in England and by the Pope in Rome. He was also the first monarch ever to visit the United States.
In 1887, Lili’uokalani, who became Hawaii’s last queen, traveled as a specially invited guest to Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in London, where royalty from around the world gathered to celebrate fifty years of Victoria’s reign. On her way across the American continent,
Lili’uokalani was received by President Cleveland in Washington, DC and feted by high society in Boston and New York.
At home in Honolulu, the royal Hawaiians entertained such luminaries at the Duke of Edinburgh and the writer, Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson became close friends with the Hawaiian rulers, including the young Princess Ka’iulani, heir to the throne.
Ka’iulani later went to study in Great Britain, and while she was there, American missionary descendents seized control of Hawaii. Queen Lili’uokalani worked ceaselessly to appeal to the US president and congress for justice. And, Ka’iulani, though she was just seventeen, traveled from England to the United States to plead the cause of her people. She spoke at places like MIT, Wellesley College and the National Geographic Society, and met with President Cleveland. Everywhere so many people pressed to see her that the police had to be called out to manage the crowds. But it was to no avail. The kingdom was never restored.
From Missionaries to Mercenaries
By the time the grandchildren of the first missionaries to Hawaii were born, the United States was facing the devastating aftermath of the Civil War. The Board of Missions in Boston advised the missionary families that they could no longer support the small islands so far away. They urged them to turn their congregations over to native preachers and return to Boston to be reassigned to help with the crisis at home, or they’d be on their own.
Because the missionaries enjoyed a close relationship to the Hawaiian monarchs, many had status and privileged lives in the islands and they chose to stay. They sent their sons to study business and law at places like Columbia University in New York. But in the 19th century, Columbia University’s political science department was based on Social Darwinism – the philosophy that only the Teutonic races had the intelligence for self-rule.
After being educated in the United States, the former missionaries’ sons returned to the islands imbued with a sense of political and intellectual superiority, compounded by their long-standing Puritan sense of moral superiority. Their Yankee blood rankled living under a monarch; their great-grandfathers had ousted King George’s rule from the United States and set up a republic. As men of their time, they were also infected by racial and gender prejudice. For white men to be subjects and bow before a monarch of color was a reversal of the ordinary relations they were used to in America. And to be ruled by a woman of any color was almost unthinkable.
The missionary descendents had vowed loyalty to the Hawaiian monarchs and had been vastly enriched under their rule. But in the end, the position and wealth they’d gained was not enough. They wanted control and to see Hawaii as part of America.
The Hawaiian monarchs were skillful in fending them off, but through years of machinations and intrigue, the missionary descendents worked to topple the throne. In 1893, they colluded with the American minister in Honolulu to illegally land marines without the United States government’s knowledge and forced Lili’uokalani, Hawaii’s last queen, to surrender. Then they began to petition the United States to annex the islands, but the US government wasn’t interested.
It wasn’t until the Spanish-American War in 1898 when the US began to send troops to fight in Manila that the US Congress recognized the strategic importance of Hawaii and moved to annex the islands by a joint resolution.
Finding Old Hawaii
Few would consider travel to Europe without getting to know the history. But every year, millions go to Hawaii and never see past the sun, surf and natural beauty. Yet, the traveler who seeks a richer experience, through knowledge of the history of the first Polynesian discoverers of Hawaii and the charming kingdom they created, will not be disappointed. Remnants of that vanished time remain and its spirit is also very much alive in the hearts of the Hawaiian people, expressed in the renewal of their culture through music, dance, voyaging, crafts and the warmth of their aloha.
Historic Honolulu Highlights
As the former seat of the monarchy, Honolulu offers a concentration of historic sites associated with the Hawaiian Kingdom, several in walking distance of each other and others easily accessible by car. Here are just a few of the highlights:
364 S. King Street, website
“The only royal palace on American soil,” was the seat of the Hawaiian monarchy and the scene of royal balls and events associated with the intrigue of the overthrow. The last queen of Hawaii was kept prisoner in an upper room at the palace. Guided tours are available Tuesday through Saturday.
Royal Hawaiian Band
The last living link to the monarchy era, the Royal Hawaiian Band performs free concerts on ‘Iolani Palace grounds on most Fridays, weather permitting; from 12 noon to 1pm. Check their schedule online.
320 S. Beretania Street, website
The home of Lili’uokalani, the last queen of Hawaii from the time of her marriage until her death in 1917. Today Washington Place is part of the official residence of the governor of Hawaii. Though the governor no longer lives here, the historic home is still used for state occasions and other events. Tours are available only by special arrangement, but the house and grounds may be viewed from Beretania Street.
Kawaiahao Church and Graveyard
957 Punchbowl Street, Honolulu; Tour Information (808) 522-1333.
Kawaiahao Church, built from slabs of coral rock, is the first missionary church on O’ahu. In the graveyard at the back many prominent missionaries are buried, including Sanford Dole, who became the head of the provisional government that overthrew the monarchy and later the first president of the Republic of Hawaii. Across the street is the Mission House Museum (website)
2261 Nuuanu Avenue, (808) 536-7602
Many of the kings and queens of Hawaii have their final resting places in the Royal Mausoleum. There is an historic chapel and an underground crypt where King Kalakaua, Queen Lili’uokalani, Princess Ka’iulani and other members of their family are buried.
2162 Nuuanu Avenue, website
Across the street from the Royal Mausoleum, Nuuanu Cemetery is the site of the grave of Lorrin Thurston, the arch-conspirator of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, as well as many other historic graves.
Merrie Monarch Festival
Merrie Monarch is a week-long festival of Hawaiian culture including hula kahiko, the ancient hula danced in the time of the Hawaiian monarchs. It’s named for King Kalakaua, the last king of Hawaii, who restored many of nearly-extinct cultural traditions including myths, legends and hula. Hula was the means by which history, stories and every aspect of Hawaiian life was expressed and passed down. The festival is held each spring in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii.
About the Author & the Photos
Historic sites listed here provide the setting for many scenes in Gaellen Quinn’s new novel, The Last Aloha. Inspired by true events, The Last Aloha paints a vivid picture of the final days of the Hawaiian monarchy – when the last queen struggled against American missionary descendents to save her throne. For more information see www.gaellenquinn.com.
Photos are provided by Clifford Kapono, author of Historic Photos of Honolulu, 200 rare photographs that tell the history of Honolulu from the latter years of Hawaiian monarchy starting in 1850 through statehood up to 1970.
Both books are available everywhere at fine bookstores and online.