The last princess of Hawaii

I drove a friend to the airport today – she’ll be flying through Hawaii and stopping over for a few days.  Rather than staying on Oahu or going to Maui or the Big Island, like most tourists, she’s going to Molokai and is even going to see my parents.  I’m so jealous I could cry.  I love Wellington, and I love my life, but I miss my islands desperately.

As I drove away from the airport, back to my little house to spend an afternoon baking, I thought of another island maid, torn between two cultures and dreadfully homesick for her own islands as she studied in a cold land halfway across the world.  Ka’iulani, the last princess of Hawaii, also loved her temporary adopted homeland, but she must have missed her home as much as I do: missed the tradewinds, and the easy warmth of the people, missed the endless green lawns of her home, the soft sound of the waves hitting the shore.

But I’m getting ahead of myself just a little.  This story starts much earlier.

Hawaii today is the 50th state of the USA, but in the 19th century, it was an independent kingdom, recognised by all the major powers in the Pacific arena.  Staying independent in the face of the imperialist ambitions of major European and American powers had always been a delicate balancing act for Hawaii.  England had Australia and New Zealand, Tokelau from 1877, and the Cook Islands from 1888.  Germany had strong interests in Samoa, which would eventually lead to their annexation of Western Samoa as German Samoa in 1900.  France had Tahiti.  Spain had the Philippines.  And America looked West covetously, and saw the deep waters of Pearl Harbour as the perfect stepping stone across the Pacific.

Hawaii retained its independency in the face of these stronger powers by playing them off each other, and getting all the major Pacific powers to agree that Hawaii remain independent.  Still, safety was fragile.  The US & UK almost ended up at war with Germany over a confrontation in Samoa in 1887, and any shift in the Pacific powers could destroy the truce over Hawaii.

Hawaii itself aligned most closely with Great Britain.  Rather than blaming Great Britain for the Paulet Affair, when a British naval Captain occupied Hawaii for half a year, they credited Queen Victoria with restoring their independence.  Queen Victoria had agreed to be godmother to a Hawaiian prince in the 1860s, and Hawaiian monarchs modeled themselves on their English counterparts.  At one point Hawaii, fearing an American takeover even petitioned to become a British Protectorate and a member of the Commonwealth, as that was far preferable to being annexed by the US.  Great Britain, fearing the repercussions (as they had agreed that Hawaii remain neutral and independent), refused.

To add to the delicate situation in Hawaii, the Hawaiian monarchy was in a literal decline.  Monarchs died young, without children.  When they did have children, those children died in infancy or childhood.  The crown passed to cousins, and nephews, and finally became an elected issue – with candidates chosen from the few remaining descendants of Kamehameha I.

Thus, when Princess Victoria (named in honour of the British Queen and her role in the Paulet affair) Ka’iulani (the royal sacred one) daughter of a Hawaiian princess and a Scottish immigrant, was born in 1875, it was a cause for celebration throughout Hawaii.  Her uncle Kalākaua had become king the year before, and she would become second in line to the throne, after her aunt, Lili’u’okalani.

Ka’iulani had a happy childhood, despite personal tragedy (she lost her mother at 9), and growing problems in Hawaii.  Kalākaua tried to promote ‘Hawai’i for Hawaiians’, but numerous foreign interests, most notably American businessmen, resisted any attempts to limit their power.  Over the course of the 19th century the common Hawaiian’s had lost most of their land.  They had seen their language replaced by English as predominant language for government and business: severely limiting the ability of anyone who didn’t speak English to negotiate legal and business deals.  And now foreign interests wanted to control the government itself.

Young Kaiulani (between the two kahili bearers) enjoy luau with friends at Ainahau. 1880s

Young Kaiulani (between the two kahili bearers) enjoy luau with friends at Ainahau. 1880s

In these times of unrest Ka’iulani was seen as a beacon of hope.  She was intelligent, charming, a talented artist and musician, and astonishingly beautiful by any standard.  She met painters and poets (Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a poem for her, calling her “bright of heart and fair of face”), and won over world leaders and the public alike.

Kaiulani, ca 1896

Kaiulani, ca 1896

As Ka’iulani grew the question of her education arose.  As the heir apparent, she needed to be fit to rule.  Mills College in Oakland, California was considered, as Susan and Cyrus Mills had strong links to the Hawaiian monarchy and had run Punahou School in Hawaii.  Hawaii was growing increasingly wary of the US, and Ka’iulani’s Scottish father favoured a UK education, so she was sent to England, to receive a private education there.

She set sail in 1889, for what was planned as a one-year trip.  She would not see her islands again for 9 long years, until 1897, and by that time, they would be lost to her.

In 1891 Kalākaua died, and Lili’u’okalani ascended to the throne.  Foreign powers saw a woman ruler as weak and easily controlled, and moved in.  The foreign press subjected the Queen to increasingly racist vitirol: cartoons depicted her as a monkey, or bare breasted in a grass skirt.  She attempted to create a government of Hawaiians, for Hawaiians, and the American sugar planters and businessmen made their move and overthrew the government by force.  Ka’iulani, exiled at the other end of the world, was desperate to be home.  She was told that what she could do most to help was to stay in Europe and appeal to foreign powers for help.

Portrait of Princess Victoria Kaiulani

She travelled: in England, in France, in other European countries, and finally to America, petitioning governments, meeting with dignitaries, appearing at functions.  The newspaper reports that preceded her talked of ‘half castes’ and ‘dusky maidens’.  Her grace and charm, her speeches in English, French, German, and very occasionally, Hawaiian, silenced them.

Kaiulani, photograph by Tynan Bros, ca. 1895

Kaiulani, photograph by Tynan Bros, ca. 1895

But the news got worse, not better, in every possible way.  Stevenson died in Samoa.  Ka’iulani’s beloved half sister, Annie Cleghorn, passed away.  President Cleveland, who had been sympathetic to Hawaii’s plight, and distrustful of the businessmen and their claims, lost the election to the imperialist McKinley, who coveted Hawaii as a stepping-stone in the Pacific.   And Kai’ulani’s health was failing.  She suffered from migraines and other complains (possibly a thyroid disorder), and found it harder and harder to continue.

Finally, in 1897, she came home.  She tried to rest.  She tried to re-build a life that had been built on the premise that she would be Queen.  She continued to work for independence for her country.  She got engaged to Prince Kawānanakoa, the highest ranked available Hawaiian Prince, in a move that was more about ensuring the monarchies future than romantic love.  And she got more and more ill.  In 1898 she caught a cold, and this turned into fever and pneumonia.  In a healthy 23 year old, the cold would have been nothing, but Ka’iulani had lost the will to live.  She declined all through the winter of 1898-99, and passed away in March 1899.  Her father said it was fitting that since Hawai’i was lost, Ka’iulani was lost as well.

Princess Kaiulani (third from left) in mourning on the day of the flag of Hawaii was lowered down for the last time after the Annexation of Hawaii to the United States. 12 August 1898

Princess Kaiulani (third from left) in mourning on the day of the flag of Hawaii was lowered down for the last time after the Annexation of Hawaii to the United States. 12 August 1898

Putting marmotte hair to shame

I’m still plugging away on the Marmotte Masquerade Stays, but have been held up by boring paperwork and car fixing and whatnot.  So I’ll keep you entertained with other things. Between my stays and the Fairies & Dinosaurs at Versailles party I’ve been fixated on mad 18th century hair. These fashion plates particularly delight me:

ZOMG!  Look at that hair!  Look at the fruit!  The entire bowl of lemons (or apricots?)!  The full pineapple perched in front!  That one random pear at front!    And her fabulously NOSE-y nose. Best of all, do you know what the pointy fruit going up the back of her hair is?  I do!  I’m relatively certain that it is a cacao fruit.

Cacao fruit, Molokai, Hawaii, thedreamstress.com

Cacao fruit, Molokai, Hawaii 

Yep.  That’s right.  Chocolate hair. I’m not sure what the large round fruit that alternates with it is though.  Out-of-scale quince?  Perhaps they were going really exotic and they were meant to be breadfruit.

Breadfruit (ulu), Molokai, Hawaii thedreamstress.com

Breadfruit (ulu), Molokai, Hawaii

It’s like pastoral France meets my parent’s farm!  I love it! And what about this one:

She’s a little more typically pretty, which makes her less interesting to me, and the veges are a little more prosaic than the exotic fruit.  I’m slightly confused by the three enormous carrots and then the three hydra-carrots.  What’s that about? Lettuce though, I understand.

Growing lettuce, Molokai, Hawaii, thedreamstress.com

Growing lettuce, Molokai, Hawaii

My parents grow lettuce.  It is the most delicious lettuce you have ever tasted.  You don’t even need to dress the salads its that good.

Growing lettuce, Molokai, Hawaii, thedreamstress.com

Planting radishes alongside a bed of lettuce,

Last time I was home I helped to plant a bunch of lettuce, with assistance from Josie the cat, because my parents have garden cats like I have a sewing cat.

Growing lettuce, Molokai, Hawaii, thedreamstress.com

Josie helps with the  planting

18th century hair and farms in Hawaii usually don’t go together so well though!

Hula Girl

Every once in a while, when I’m hanging out with friends and we do the thing where you get on youtube and show each other cool videos, we end up watching hula videos, and my friends are always amazed, and I realise that while practically everyone has heard of hula, few people actually know what it really looks like.  The best representation you get of it outside of Hawaii may be the dancing scenes in Lilo and Stitch, which is kinds weird and sad when you think about it.

Practicing hula with my sister thedreamstress.com

Practicing hula with my sister

Like Lilo, I was in a hula hālau (a hula troop/school) as a child.  It’s just what little girls in Hawaii did, like little girls everywhere else take ballet.  I was never particularly good, but I enjoyed the grace of it, and the history and story behind each dance.  My baby sister was an amazing dancer, but being a haole (white) hula dancer in Hawaii is problematic.  As a dark haired Filipina or Japanese girl, you can dance professionally, and be in the best hālau (troops), but if you are pale skinned and have white-blond hair, you’ll be tucked in the back row, and you’ll never compete in the biggest hula festival in Hawaii: the Merrie Monarch Festival.  Because of this (and simply not being very good) I gave it up as a teenager, and have rarely danced in the last decade.  I did a hula for Mr D at our wedding (a Hawaii tradition) and danced for Nana’s 90th birthday, at her request, but mostly I just listen to Hawaiian music and feel homesick.

Dancing hula at my wedding, thedreamstress.com

Dancing a hula for Mr D at my wedding

There are actually two main distinct styles of hula: hula kahiko, the ancient hula, based on the pre-contact style of dancing, and hula ‘auana, the modern hula, which incorporates modern instruments, and Western influences.

Hula kahiko is more rhythmic, and is danced in modern interpretations of ancient Hawaiian dress: usually with the dancers in full skirts gathered to the waist with rows and rows of elastic.  Hula kahiko are dedicated to a god or goddess, or to a member of the ali’i (royalty).  The costumes and flowers worn with the dance are all symbolic.  In this example, the colours of the dancers tops and the spots on their pa’u (skirts), as well as the feathers in the ‘uli’uli rattles they dance with, all allude to the peacock, beloved of Princess Ka’i’ulani, who the dance is dedicated to.  Their yellow lei are also associated with the tragic princess, and their white petticoats and bloomers reflect the late Victorian dress she would have worn.

Hula ‘Auana are on many themes: they tell the story of a place, or of the writer’s love for a person.   There are even hula ‘auana in praise of all the authors favourite foods – or in mocking despair over the difficulties of their weekly exercise class.  Hula ‘auana can be soft and slow, or fast and ‘rascally’.

Though it isn’t as common in modern times, men also dance hula, both kahiko and ‘auana.  These days, men’s kahiko is slightly more prevalent, perhaps because it is visually more obviously manly, and perhaps (to put it rather crassly) because fit men in loincloths are generally popular ;-)

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Leimomi Oakes is the Dreamstress, a textile historian, seamstress, designer, speaker and museum professional. Leimomi is available for educational and entertaining presentations, textile and fashion advice, special commissions and events. Click to learn more

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