Last year I was suddenly and briefly transfixed by the story of Princess Kaiulani and the short lived Hawaiian monarchy. At this point I am not prepared to give any meaningful account of the fall of the last Queen of the island kingdom, nor the life of her niece the crown princess, except to say it was a great shame that the kingdom did not continue and that it was not returned after Annexation. Perhaps the tale is the more poignant because unlike other peoples of the Americas and Pacific, the Hawaiians had successfully begun to meld a constitutional monarchy with a tribal society. Making the best of a bad, situation instead of resisting the inexorable advance of European and American interference the leaders of Hawaii from Kamehameha the Great actively sought to maintain their independence by integration of indigenous and foreign culture. Utilising concepts from both worlds. The Kingdom of Hawaii therefore was no kind of “inferior” race that the “civilised” world needed to take in hand. If this model had been allowed to flourish who knows what might have happened, but instead the greed of big business and America’s brief flirtation with imperial ambition swallowed it.
During the all too brief golden age of the Kingdom, presided over a court full of diversity and mixed traditions. They entertained heads of state and patronised artists, offering a sanctuary for the perpetually ailing Robert Louis Stevenson who befriended the father of the Crown Princess, Victoria Kaiulani (Cleghorn). In the spirit of the age, & in keeping with the role the Hawaiian monarchy wished to play in it, the princess was to be sent abroad, to Britain for a formal education. Before she left her friend Stevenson penned a small farewell poem in her autograph book.
“Written in April to Kaiulani in the April of her age; and at Waikiki, within easy walk of Kaiulani’s banyan! When she comes to my land and her father’s, and the rain beats upon the window (as I fear it will), let her look at this page; it will be like a weed gathered and pressed at home; and she will remember her own islands, and the shadow of the mighty tree; and she will hear the peacocks screaming in the dusk and the wind blowing in the palms; and she will think of her father sitting there alone. – R. L. S.”
Forth from her land to mine she goes,
The island maid, the island rose,
Light of heart and bright of face:
The daughter of a double race.
Her islands here, in Southern sun,
Shall mourn their Kaiulani gone,
And I, in her dear banyan shade,
Look vainly for my little maid.
But our Scots islands far away
Shall glitter with unwonted day,
And cast for once their tempests by
To smile in Kaiulani’s eye.”
In 1894, Stevenson died, but though saddened, Kaiulani’s world had already fallen apart. The year before a perfunctory telegram had announced flatly that the monarchy had been abrogated. The same year that Stevenson passed away the Republic of Hawaii was created, a step that lead to American annexation in 1898. The princess died in 1899 of inflammatory rheumatism, in Hawaii, brought on by a bout of pneumonia contracted the year before. Her legacy is one of romantic tragedy & idealism, she was the hope of her people, strong & couragous in many ways but indeed also as her old Scottish friend alluded in his touching little poem, as fragile & delicate as an Island Rose.