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Educated, Engaged, Connected: Kal?kaua’s Kingdom of Hawai‘i

Noe Tanigawa
Noe Tanigawa

Hawai‘i was a hotbed of change in the late 1800’s.  People were moving to the cities, as cholera, tuberculosis, and other diseases advanced, killing 70-90% of Native Hawaiians by the end of the century.  Foreign business interests were growing, and in 1874, Americans thought they had an ally when King Kal?kaua ascended the throne.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports on the Honolulu Museum of Art exhibition that focuses on his reign.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Zita Cup Choy, historian, docent educator, for 'Iolani Palace.
Ron Williams Jr., PhD. in Hawaiian History, taught at the UH Center for Hawaiian Studies and is now an archivist at the Hawai'i State Archives. He contributed an essay on Hawai'i nationalism and material culture to the exhibition catalog of "Ho'oulu Hawai'i: The King Kalakaua Era." Here, he discusses Kalakaua's possible motivations, challenges, and significance as documented in the Honolulu Museum of Art exhibition.

The exhibition, Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i, The King Kalakaua Era, continues at the Honolulu Museum of Art through January 27th.  

This exhibition irepresents a collaboration between the Honolulu Museum, the Bishop Musuem, and 'Iolani Palace, with pieces drawn from the Hawai'i State Archives and Hawai'i Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives. 

King Kal?kaua, who reigned from 1874 to 1891, loved modern technology, and a lot of people in Hawai‘i did too.  A telephone directory from the period includes names familiar today as city streets and thoroughfares:  Wilder, Dillingham, Atherton, Dowsett, Cleghorn, Atkinson.  

“One of the messages this exhibit gives to the world is that Hawai‘i was modern, educated, connected to the world.” 

Zita Cup Choy, historian, docent educator, at ‘Iolani Palace.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Medals, royal orders, and other signifiers of power and prestige are well represented in this exhibition. Intricate jewelry pieces and personal items are vivid reminders of the times.

“Sometimes I think Hawai‘i was more connected to the world then, than we are now, despite all our modern telecommunications.  Kal?kaua was connecting with people all over the place.”

Kal?kaua held audiences with important travelers from east and west, inquiring about medical, commercial, and other advances in their respective countries.  

How did foreigners see King Kal?kaua?

Cup Choy:  Well educated, well spoken, handsome, dressed really well, spoke English fluently.  One comment I absolutely love, “Kal?kaua is well versed in international law.”   He was admitted to the bar in 1869, so he was not just what a lot of people think of him as being a party animal.  A real intellectual as well.

Many of the pieces in the Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i show relate to Kalakaua’s ten month trip around the world in 1881.  He was the first head of a country to circumnavigate the globe, and he was careful to do so in a manner that would inspire respect for his kingdom.

“By the 1870’s and 1880’s, the Hawaiian Kingdom had over a hundred consulates and embassies in cities around the world.“

Ron Williams Jr. is a PhD in Hawaiian history, and an archivist at the State Archives.

Credit Noe Tanigawa

Williams:  Pretoria South Africa, Chile, Australia, San Diego, Seattle, they had consulates and embassies on six of the seven continents of the world.  They weren’t just show, they were doing things that protected Hawaiian kingdoms subjects in those cities.

Williams:  The easy narrative we were telling thirty or forty years ago was that the white man came to Hawai‘i and took over.  The problem is, we create this binary of foreign and native:  things were great or idyllic, they were Hawaiian.  All of a sudden these foreign things came in and changed Hawai‘i.  

Williams:  Yes, they changed Hawai‘i, but often they were foreign appropriations of Kal?kaua and others, used to defend or prop up the nation.  That’s what this exhibit’s about, is the fact that Kal?kaua was a master of taking quote foreign things and using them to represent the Kingdom.

The medals, the coins, these accoutrements of power, the flags, the outfits, they meant something to him, to the people?

Williams:  Yes, and to the world.  I know that he increased the visibility, the strength, the place, the respect, of Hawai‘i around the world enormously.  He also endangered it in certain ways.


Williams:  Well, through not being careful with the budget.  Debt means you’ve got to borrow money, means you’re beholden, means you’ve got influence here.  But I think, I know, that he was constantly looking for ways to defend the kingdom. 

Williams:  The Kingdom had sovereignty since 1843, but he was reminding the world, through his Declarations, through Royal Orders, through all kinds of stuff, Hey, if something happens here, you got our back because we’ve got a treaty with you.  He was reminding the world of Hawai‘i’s place.

Credit Noe Tanigawa
Ron Williams, Jr. Archivist, Hawai'i State Archives, historian specializing in Hawaiian history.

Williams:  Even myself, when I talk about debt, there’s a truth to that, but there’s even another side to that story.  The sugar plantations, in the 1880’s, over a three year period, the Hawaiian Kingdom government spent a million dollars in 1883 money importing labor for the sugar plantations.  That’s the Kingdom, public funds going to help a private corporation.  So when we talk about debt and the King spending money, put that against a million dollars helping out the sugar planters.  So it was complicated.

Williams points out that Kal?kaua allied himself with American interests to secure the throne, but how do you think he changed in his role?

Williams:  Well, he did change, I like to call it his Saul moment, because, to be frank, I’ll say, some of the newer work on Kal?kaua is almost hagiographic.  “The haole papers say he was evil, he was really a saint.”  Neither is true, of course. 

He came to power kind of trying to have to prove himself, and he did that by aligning himself with those who were on the rise in power, which was the Americans in Hawai‘i.  He was pushing for the Treaty of Reciprocity, he had the support of local American-linked businessmen, and so forth, and he was a landowner himself, so he was making money on sugar and so forth.

Williams:  There comes a moment, this is my interpretation, when I think he started to understand, these guys are getting so powerful, they don’t necessarily need me anymore.  That’s when you see this shift, you see this intense nationalism and this intense patriotism and so forth coming out of that point. 

All of a sudden, it’s ho‘oulu la hui and it’s him travelling the world and claiming Hawai‘i for Hawaiians and so forth.  He was a very pragmatic man, and I think he saw the writing on the wall and became intensely nationalistic.

Cup Choy:  Kal?kaua’s idea of Ho‘oulu la hui was not just preserve and perpetuate the race, but preserve and perpetuate cultural knowledge about traditional cultural practices.  So he collected Hawaiian artifacts, he promoted hula which had gone underground.  He also wrote a book, the publisher insisted that it be called the Legends and Myths of Hawai‘i but it’s actually the oral history, the writing down of the chants so you can read stories in there about his ancestors or k?puna, Umi and Liloa, and all the people who preceded the Kamehameha and Kal?kaua line. 

By 1890, Kal?kaua’s health was failing, and his physician advised treatment in San Francisco.  The King was also said to be interested in direct steamer service from the West Coast to Hawai‘I, so he boarded the steamer Charleston for a 4-5 week tour that began in southern California where he visited San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico.  American newspapers at the time printed rumors that the King was on a mission to sell the Hawaiian Islands to the U.S., but nothing came of that.

By the third week of the trip, newspapers reported the King was looking healthier and might return to Hawai‘i sooner than expected.  Instead, the King declined, and died on January 20, 1891, in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. 

Cup Choy:  Can you imagine?  He’s coming home! There was stuff all over the place.  The regent, Lili‘uokalani had sent out invitations, “Her Royal Highness, Princess Liliuokalani Regent, invites you to a ball to be held on the evening of Kal?kaua;s return.”  The community was really excited about having him home.

Then, one day, seeing a ship on the horizon, Lighthouse Charlie called the phone company to say the Charleston’s flags were at half mast, the yards were draped in black. 

Cup Choy:  There’s a quote from Curtis P. I’aukea talking about Kapi‘olani, just bereft, on the lanai on the Palace second floor, watching her husband’s casket conveyed from Honolulu harbor’s pier, up to the Palace.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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