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.
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.
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.
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.
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.