Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i - Part1

Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i: Part 1

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Meet the players in the battle for the land – and the soul – of Hawai‘i.

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This is the story of Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i. It’s a story of hope and betrayal, of deception and revolution, of surfing and painting and dancing, and of incredible tenacity and bravery. Ka‘iulani spent her childhood in Hawai‘i, but almost all of her adolescence in Europe – where she left one royal mystery that has yet to be solved. Maybe one of you will have the answer! From the beaches of Waikiki to the sun-drenched French Riviera to the ballrooms of Wiesbaden, this story will take us from the heart of an independent kingdom to the capitals of European power. We’re going to watch history unfold through the eyes of a girl who was the hope of her nation – and witness to a stunning tragedy that too few of us know about today.

In terms of this story, I’m just another haole – an outsider, a foreigner. But as with all the women I research for this channel, what started out as curiosity became something more. I fell in love with Ka‘iulani’s dignity, strength, and sense of duty. As we’re about to find out, she has something to teach all of us about how to fight for what matters.

Rather watch a video than read a post? I’ve got you covered:

Meet the Parents

Archibald Scott Cleghorn – whom I’m going to call Archie – was a Scottish-born businessman who lived in Hawai‘i.

Archibald Scott Cleghorn, the father of Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i.

He’d sailed to O‘ahu at age 15 with his family, and stayed to run the family dry goods business after his father died. He fell in love with a Hawaiian woman named Elizabeth Pauahi Lapeka. Information on her is scarce, but it seems they spent years together, most likely in a common-law marriage. They had three daughters, all of whom he adopted when he and Elizabeth went their separate ways in 1868.

As a successful businessman, Archie met and mingled with Honolulu’s high society. At a prestigious men’s club, he met David Kalākaua, the future king of Hawai‘i.

David Kalākaua, the uncle of Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i. He's wearing a dark jacket, white shirt, and sash beneath his jacket. He has black hair, mutton-chop whiskers, and a mustache.
David Kalākaua photo by Menzies Dickson, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Kalākaua’s family was descended from a first cousin of King Kamehameha I – also known as Kamehameha the Great. Kalākaua and his siblings were all ali‘i, or Hawaiian nobles descended from a high ranking chiefly family. In his family, there were four siblings in total: David Kalākaua, William Pitt Leleohoku, Lydia Lili‘u Kamaka‘eha, and Miriam Likelike.

David Kalākaua introduced 33-year-old Archie to his youngest sister, the beautiful 17-year-old Likelike. Archie fell for her right away, and no wonder. Likelike was vivacious, flirtatious, charming…and engaged.

Princess Miriam Likelike, mother of Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i.

Her fiancé was another ali‘i of royal blood – an illegitimate son of King Kamehameha III. But Archie didn’t let that stop him. And sometime in mid-late 1869, Likelike and her fiancé broke off their engagement.

Two years after falling for her, Archie finally convinced Likelike to marry him. They said “I do” in 1870, but unfortunately, their married life wasn’t a walk in the park.

Likelike and Archie Cleghorn, parents of Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i. He's seated in a chair and she is standing beside him, hands on his shoulder.
Likelike and Archie by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike the European royal families I’ve covered on this channel, the Hawaiian royal family had no restrictions about marrying what their European counterparts would have called commoners. While the king had married a Hawaiian noblewoman, both of his sisters – Lili‘u and Likelike – married white men. That clash of cultures made life more difficult for both women.

In Archie and Likelike’s case, their relationship was probably a case of opposites attract. Archie was dependable, dignified, and steady.

Likelike, on the other hand, was a social butterfly and, I suspect, a girly girl. Her favorite color was light blue, and she loved ordering new dresses from Paris and San Francisco.

Miriam Likelike in a formal off-the-shoulder gown with sash across the bodice.
Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

At parties and balls, while wearing her new couture, she hid flowers in her hair so she left a hint of fragrance as she walked by. And speaking of parties, she was an excellent hostess who loved to entertain. When she discovered croquet, for example, she turned it into a trend by hosting frequent croquet parties for her friends.

But she also had a temper.

One of her daughter’s governesses would later describe her as having “an imperious and impulsive nature and is considered quite haughty by some, but she is very genial in her home and is always most thoughtful and considerate of those she likes.” (Linnéa, 31; Mrantz, 12) An example of that consideration? She adopted Archie’s three daughters from his previous relationship, so the girls would be considered her children, too.

Family posed portrait with Rose Cleghorn, Helen Cleghorn, Archie Cleghorn, Annie Cleghorn, and Miriam Likelike.
Rose, Helen, Archie, Annie, and Likelike. Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The problem was that both Archie and Likelike tried to wear the pants in their relationship. Likelike was an ali‘i and used to getting her own way. In Hawaiian society, she outranked Archie hands-down. But Archie was Scottish, the product of a white European family and upbringing – and this was not a time when women were allowed to make the rules, socially or politically.

It’s not surprising that Archie and Likelike clashed occasionally. But because of their temperaments, those clashes could turn into big drama. Sometimes, during a fight, Likelike would retreat to the Big Island of Hawai‘i, where she’d grown up and still liked to visit.

One time, Archie wrote to her there and ordered her to come home right away because people were gossiping about them. But Likelike could not be told what to do. She replied with this: “Don’t listen to rumors of my misbehaving…I cannot do a single thing but what the natives misconstrue my actions.” (Linnéa, 25)

Of course, this only made Archie more upset, ordering her once more to come home and to stop drinking wine. Apparently, what happened in Hawai‘i doesn’t stay in Hawai‘i.

Of course, this only made Archie more upset, ordering her once more to come home and to stop drinking wine. Apparently, what happened in Hawai‘i doesn’t stay in Hawai‘i.

This isn’t the only hint of Likelike’s scandalous or flirtatious behavior. I probably shouldn’t even mention this story because I don’t think it’s true, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll tell you so have the full picture. According to one source – and only one source that I’ve found so far, with no citation for this story –Likelike’s flirtations might have gotten physical with Colonel James Boyd.

Portrait of a young James Harbottle Boyd. He has short, dark hair, handsome features, and is wearing a jacket and tie.
James Harbottle Boyd by Menzies Dickson, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Author Helena G. Allen claims that Likelike and Boyd shared a passionate embrace and kiss goodbye while she was on a trip to the Boyd ranch with her sister Lili‘u. When Lili‘u looked back at the killer view, she saw their private moment and couldn’t get the romantic scene out of her head. According to Allen, it became the inspiration for “Aloha ’Oe,” Lili‘u’s most famous song. Don’t take that as gospel, however. There seems to be more evidence that the embrace involved someone else entirely, and that when it happened, Likelike was pissed that Boyd was holding up their departure.

In 1874, four years after Likelike married Archie, her brother – Kalākaua – became the king of Hawai‘i. We’ll talk about how that happened later, but I don’t want to get into politics just yet – we’re still meeting all the characters in our story. So now Likelike was a princess, third in line for the throne after her two older siblings – both of whom had no heirs.

4 portraits of the 4 siblings: Kalākaua, Lili‘u, Leleiohoku, and Likelike, the mother of Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i.
L to R: Kalākaua, Lili‘u, Leleiohoku, and Likelike. All public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But in the following year, Likelike began to make fewer and fewer appearances. She’s barely mentioned in the newspapers in the spring of 1875.

That was because, after five years of marriage, Likelike was pregnant.

Meet Princess Ka’iulani of Hawai‘i

On October 16, 1875, Likelike gave birth to a baby girl. They named her “Victoria Kawekiu Ka‘iulani Lunalilo Kalaninuiahilapalapa.” You’ll see the order of those names appear differently in different sources – I’ve seen it at least six different ways. Interestingly, the order of her names isn’t even the same in her father’s diary and her father’s birthday book. And the last of those names – Kalaninuiahilapalapa – isn’t listed in her father’s diary entry for the day she was born.

Baby Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i wearing a white dress with lacy sleeves.
Baby Ka‘iulani by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Isn’t she totes adorbs?

Her parents chose the name “Victoria” to honor the granddaughter of King Kamehameha I and former Crown Princess of Hawai‘i, Victoria Kamāmalu, who had in turn been named after Queen Victoria.

Princess Victoria Kamāmalu wearing an off-the-shoulder dress with a shawl draped over her left shoulder. Her headdress is shaped like a kokoshnik, studded with diamond stars.
Victoria Kamāmalu wearing a headdress that looks a lot like a kokoshnik. Photo by Charles Leander Weed, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But within the family, she was called Ka‘iulani. And from the moment she arrived, she was special – it had been almost twenty years since a royal baby had been born in the direct line of succession.

Because King Kalākaua had no legitimate children, his younger brother was his heir – but he wasn’t married yet, let alone a father. Their sister Lili‘u was next in line for the throne. But because she and her husband also had no children, the next heirs were Likelike and – now – Ka‘iulani. Her aunt Lili‘u later wrote, “She was at once recognized as the hope of the Hawaiian people, as the only direct heir by birth to the throne.” (Ch. VIII)

She was at once recognized as the hope of the Hawaiian people, as the only direct heir by birth to the throne.


The hope of an entire people…no pressure, right?

Ka‘iulani was christened by the Anglican bishop of Honolulu on Christmas Day in St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Wrapped in a cashmere blanket, she didn’t cry at all, which surprised everyone – and boded well for the future. As godparents, Archie and Likelike had chosen the king and queen, as well as Princess Ruth Ke’elikōlani, one of the last senior members of the Kamehameha dynasty.

Princess Ruth Ke’elikōlani wearing a high-necked long-sleeved day dress. She is seated, flanked by two men holding feather standards above her head.
Ruth with kāhili bearers Samuel Parker and John Cummins. Image by Menzies Dickson, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Before she turned two, Ka‘iulani took another step closer to the throne. On April 10, 1877, her uncle, William Pitt Leleiohoku, died. Her aunt Lili‘u was now next in line for the throne, followed by her mother and then herself.

Home Sweet Home

When Ka‘iulani was three, her dad sold the house she’d been born in and moved the family out to Waikiki. In those days, Waikiki was a beach retreat, a 4-mile carriage ride from the city center. Her godmother Ruth had given her property there, and her dad bought an additional beachfront lot to create a 10-acre estate where he built their new house. Likelike named it ‘Āinahau, Hawaiian for “the cool place,” thanks to the refreshing breeze that swept down from the mountains.

Likelike named their estate ‘Āinahau, Hawaiian for “the cool place,” thanks to the refreshing mountain breeze.

Ka‘iulani grew up steps from the beach and the gorgeous blue waters of the tropical Pacific. Her dad gave her a white pony named Fairy, and by the time she was 7, she was often seen riding around Waikiki with a groom following her to keep her safe. She also learned how to surf, swim, and paddle an outrigger canoe.

Young Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i in a dark dress, holding a taxidermy rodent of some variety.
What kid doesn’t love posing with taxidermy? Image by A.A. Montano, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Archie created a spectacular garden that included the island’s first banyan tree, which his father had brought to Hawai‘i from India. There were also 300 coconut palms, mango trees, date palms, cinnamon trees, teak trees, Monterey cypress, hibiscus, lily ponds, and Ka‘iulani’s favorite flower – Chinese jasmine.

He added a giant tortoise and peacocks, which Ka‘iulani fell in love with. She taught them to eat out of her hand, resulting in her nickname of “The Peacock Princess.” The enormous banyan tree provided shade and a place for Ka‘iulani and her friends to play. There, with her half-sister Annie, she learned to dance the hula, sing, and play ukulele.

A group of women and kids, all dressed in white, surround young Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i, who is dressed in black, in front of an enormous banyan tree.
Ka‘iulani and friends in front of her banyan tree. Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Hawaiian royal family was incredibly talented when it came to music, songs, and poetry. Ka‘iulani’s uncle, the king, wrote the lyrics for the national anthem, “Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī”. As we mentioned, her aunt Lili‘u composed “Aloha ‘Oe,” one of the most famous Hawaiian songs of all time. If you’ve seen the Disney movie Lilo and Stich or the Elvis movie Blue Hawaii, you’ve heard this song. And that was just one over 200 songs Lili‘u wrote in her lifetime.

Collage of an album cover of Aloha Oe and the song's sheet music.
Album cover and sheet music public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Ka‘iulani’s mom, Likelike, composed songs, too. In fact, along with their deceased brother, William Pitt Leleiohoku, these four siblings were referred to as “Na Lani Eha” (“The Heavenly Four”) for their musical abilities and efforts to support Hawaiian culture. The family’s musical spirit added to the magic of ‘Āinahau. On Sunday afternoons, friends and family gathered to relax, sing, and play music.

‘Āinahau's lanai, furnished in typical Victorian fashion: crowded with furniture and potted plants.
Image by Frank Davey, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to the king, frequent guests included the only other royal children near Ka‘iulani in age. These were the three sons of Queen Kapi‘olani’s sister: David Kawānanakoa, Edward Abel Keli‘iahonui, and Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole.

When the boys’ mother died, two of them – Kawānanakoa and Kalanianaʻole – became hanai sons to the queen.

Queen Kap‘iolani in a formal gown and tiara, seated, with David Kawānanakoa standing beside her in a dark suit and royal orders.
Queen Kap‘iolani with the oldest of the boys, David Kawānanakoa. Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

You may see the word hanai referred to as adoption or fostering. But those are English words that the early missionaries to Hawai‘i used to describe something they had no equivalent for and no understanding of when they first encountered it. At birth, it was the custom for ali‘i parents to give their child to a relative or friend. A child given in hanai was considered the new parent’s child as much as any of their natural children. Hanai had practical benefits, like strengthening relationships between family groups. In ali‘i families, it could also give that child a higher rank and station in life. It was part of the spirit of selfless love and togetherness represented by the word “aloha” – giving, sharing, supporting, and loving the people in your family and your community.

Hanai was part of the spirit of selfless love and togetherness represented by the word “aloha” – giving, sharing, supporting, and loving the people in your family and your community.

I’m telling you all this because one of those boys will play a major role in Ka‘iulani’s story, and he’s often referred to as her “cousin.” But the “cousin” label comes from the fact that he was a hanai son to her aunt by marriage. There is a distant relationship there, but it’s not nearly as close as the word “cousin” implies to us today.

If it sounds like her upbringing had everything to do with her mom’s side of the family and none of her dad’s, that’s not quite true. Archie’s three daughters were close members of the family, and the youngest – Annie – was Ka‘iulani’s best friend.

Archibald Cleghorn seated on a bench at home in front of the huge banyan tree. Ka‘iulani is on his right. On his left are his three other daughters and their families.
Archie and his three daughters, with Ka‘iulani on the right. Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Archie also took little steps to teach her about money and business. When the social club he belonged to incorporated in Honolulu, he bought his seven-year-old daughter two shares and explained what it meant to hold stock.

Money wasn’t a problem yet – but it would become one in the future.

“Naturally Naughty”

Ka‘iulani figured out she was different at a very young age. When a friend got in trouble for sitting on her bed, her nurse told her it was because she was a princess and her friend wasn’t. “Is it very nice to be a Princess?” Ka‘iulani asked. And the nurse told her it was – the nicest thing in the world…except for being a queen. And from that moment, as she later told a reporter, Ka‘iulani always wanted to be a queen. (Rix)

Young Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i standing at a window at ‘Āinahau.
Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Ka‘iulani later described herself at this age as “naturally naughty.” (Rix) Part of that naughtiness came from the knowledge that she was a princess. She was raised with the certainty that others would be punished if they touched her or took her things. Through the tales of old Hawai‘i, she learned that people used to be killed if they stepped into the shadow of royalty. Hawaiians believed the ali‘i were literal descendants of the gods. It’s no wonder there were a few tantrums when she couldn’t have her way.

Through the tales of old Hawai‘i, she learned that people used to be killed if they stepped into the shadow of royalty.

Luckily, her governess found the right question to get through to her: If you never obey any authority, how can you expect others to obey you someday? It was the exact right question to ask, because it tied together the concept of royalty and duty. As we’ll see, those two concepts became intertwined and ingrained in Ka‘iulani for the rest of her life.

Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i sitting on the lap of her beloved governess, Gertrude Gardinier.
Ka‘iulani with her beloved governess, Gertrude Gardinier. Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Because even as a little girl, she had social obligations as a member of the royal family. She went on trips, including one with her aunt Lili‘u on a tour of state around O‘ahu, where she saw friends and subjects pay their respects. When she had to attend a special event or go see an important visitor in Honolulu, she used her mother’s state carriage made of tortoise shell, with gilt harnesses for the horses.

Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i in profile, as a young girl. Her hair is long, dark, and curly.
Image by James J. Williams, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Every single aspect of her life reinforced the idea that she was special, and that she had a role to play in her family and in her country. Imagine how this shapes your goals, your image, and your sense of self-worth. Imagine growing up 110% secure in your purpose and your place in life. And then imagine what happens when all of that comes crumbling down around you.

But there’s one more influence I want to tell you about.

It was a side of her mother we haven’t seen yet – a dark, dramatic, fatalistic side.

Princess Likelike in a full-length portrait. She's wearing a black dress with a small bustle, many bracelets, and feathers in her upswept hair.
Princess Likelike by James J. Williams, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. She looks beautiful and tragic all at once, doesn’t she?

In 1883, Likelike and Archie had yet another fight and she went to the Big Island to get away. From there, Likelike wrote him a disturbing letter: “You always blame me in everything and I am getting tired of it. I will have to kill myself then you won’t have me to growl at all the time. I think we are better separated…as you don’t love me and I don’t love you…” (Linnéa, 27-8)

Yikes, right?

And as we’ll see later, Ka‘iulani also inherited some of this darkness, this fatalism.

A Sacrifice Demanded

1886 – the year Ka‘iulani was 11 – turned out to be a terrible year for their family.

That spring, Archie’s business failed. A recession in the United States had caused the price of sugar to fall. Low prices hurt the Hawaiian sugar planters, who were Archie’s main clientele. Wealthy businessman Theophilus Davies – a fellow Brit and good friend – helped Archie liquidate his assets and pay off his debts. And as we’ll see, Davies is going to play a huge role in Ka‘iulani’s life.

Theophilus Harris Davies, 1834-1898

Then, in late April, her mother had a miscarriage. And although she recovered physically, it seems that there was something broken inside her.

She made her regular appearances at court functions, including Ka‘iulani’s 11th birthday celebration in October. There, in front of 200 guests, the king proposed a toast to Ka‘iulani and Likelike. It should have been a perfect family moment, a harbinger of good things to come. Instead, it was the last birthday Ka‘iulani would ever share with both her parents.

That December, Princess Likelike began acting strangely. Instead of being her usual outgoing self, she could hardly get out of bed and refused to eat. Because the change was sudden and seemingly without a cause, superstitious gossip said that someone was using ancient magic to make her sick – to pray her to death.

Princess Likelike wearing a off-the-shoulder dress with a black ribbon choker and jeweled pendant.
Likelike photographed by Menzies Dickson, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Her doctors came and went, but nobody was able to identify let alone treat Likelike’s condition. They told Archie that, physically, there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with her. So Archie made plans to send both Likelike and Ka‘iulani to Monterey, California in the spring, hoping the change of scenery and climate would help.

On January 13, Likelike turned 36. In any other year, she would have had a big party – but not this one. Her sister, Lili‘u, wrote in her diary: “Sister is 36 years old today – and is not strong.” (Forbes, 131)

When the volcano of Mauna Loa erupted on the island of Hawai‘i on January 16, 1887, it wasn’t a good omen. To those who still believed in the old ways, it meant the volcano goddess Pele was angry. Likelike believed the eruption had something to do with her, even though her sister called this belief “a piece of superstition.” (Forbes, 133) The king’s prime minister wrote in his diary, “The Princess Likelike said to be in danger – refuses food – affected by her native superstition that her death is required by the spirit of Pele of the Volcano. The King is angry with his sister on account of her obstinacy in refusing food.” (Mrantz, 12)

The Princess Likelike said to be in danger – refuses food – affected by her native superstition that her death is required by the spirit of Pele of the Volcano. The King is angry with his sister on account of her obstinacy in refusing food.

walter murray gibson

Another bad omen was the report of a school of red aweoweo fish off the island of Hawai‘i, where Likelike had once served as governess. Their appearance was believed to be a sign that an ali‘i was about to die.

Her family called in two more doctors, but they couldn’t help.

Princess Likelike dressed in a high-necked black dress with a jeweled brooch. She looks worried and careworn.
Likelike by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

On the afternoon of February 2, 1887, Ka‘iulani was told it was time to say a last good-bye. Afterward, she tearfully told her governess about her mother’s last words to her. Likelike had said that Ka‘iulani would leave Hawai‘i for a long time, that she would never marry, and she would never be queen.

According to one source, Likelike’s last words to her sister were: “Ka‘iulani must not marry one she does not love.” (Allen, 194)

At about 4:45 pm that afternoon, Likelike died.

The newspapers, unsure what to say about her death, described it as a heart attack, exhaustion, or just the product of her delicate health. As Hawaiian protocol for the death of an ali‘i dictated, the body could only be moved after midnight.

Princess Likelike dressed in white, lying on a bier. An honor guard surrounds her and the room is full of flowers.
Likelike lying in state at the palace. Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Ka‘iulani accompanied her mother’s body to ‘Iolani Palace by a torchlight procession; they arrived at the palace shortly after 3 a.m. She would remain there, with her mother’s body, as it lay in state for three weeks until the funeral.

At the palace, when she saw her mother dressed and laid out on the bier, she said she screamed once and then couldn’t find a voice to cry or scream again.  Later, Ka‘iulani said, “I idolized my mother she was charming: very brilliant, very happy and sunny; we worshipped each other. And I have missed her every day from the first dreadful day she died.” (Rix)

The funeral of Princess Likelike, mother of Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i. Rows of mourners are lined up outside and in front of the church.
Likelike’s funeral. Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

After the initial shock of her mother’s death had passed, court gossip began to hint that the king – Likelike’s own brother – had been the one who prayed her to death. She had been a sacrifice required to retain his shaky hold on the throne.

This was probably the first time in her life that Hawai‘i’s deteriorating political situation hit home for eleven-year-old Ka‘iulani. It would control virtually everything about the rest of her life, beginning with defining her relationship to her remaining parent.

After Likelike’s death, the Minister of the Interior – a lawyer named Lorrin Thurston – forced Archie to go to court to become Ka‘iulani’s legal guardian. And if that sounds like a jerk move, I agree. Unfortunately, we need to remember that name because Lorrin Thurston is about to play a major role in our story. And from Ka‘iulani’s perspective, that role is the villain.

Lorrin Thurston in a black jacket and polka-dot tie. He has short, dark hair with a receding hairline, long sideburns, and a fluffy mustache and goatee.
Lorrin Thurston by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

To explain why, in a more comprehensive fashion than just calling him a jerk, we’re going to have to take a step backward in time. A step backward that will take us through a whirlwind of things that suddenly feel very modern.

Breaking Kapu

In 1795, the king of the island of Hawai‘i – Kamehameha – set out to conquer the other islands in the Hawaiian archipelago. He was a military genius who harnessed elements of western technology like guns and compasses and used them to his advantage. Within 15 years, he had full control over the newly established Kingdom of Hawai‘i.

Kamehameha I painted as an older man, wearing a yellow feather cloak. He has white hair and dark eyebrows.
Painting by James Gay Sawkins, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

When he died in 1819, he was succeeded by his son as Kamehameha II.

Up to this point, Hawaiian society had been governed by a strict system of rules called kapu, or taboo. If you violated kapu, you were punished – not only by man, but by the Hawaiian gods. Kapu had particularly restrictive rules for women. Men and women couldn’t eat together, for example, and certain foods were off-limits to women, including pork, bananas, and coconuts. Not all of the kapu were bad, however, like the rules that focused on responsible farming and water usage.

Early 19th century illustration of King Kamehameha's luakini on the island of Hawai‘i. A Hawaiian is showing large carved statues to two white men in Western dress.
Kamehameha I’s luakini in the Kona District, Hawai‘i Island, by Jacques Arago. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But sometimes, Hawaiians violated kapu…and nothing happened. And then when western visitors arrived and violated kapu without any cosmic punishment, it provided the opening that two very ambitious women had been waiting for.

Kamehameha I’s favorite wife, Ka‘ahumanu, had already decided the kapu system had to go. With the help of the new king’s mother, she prodded Kamehameha II to abolish the kapu system in November of 1819, just months after his father’s death. He followed this up with an order to burn all the idols and destroy all the temples.

There was no going back now.

In one of the greatest historical coincidences ever, just four months later, a group of Congregationalist missionaries from Boston, Massachusetts arrived with the goal of converting Hawaiians to Christianity.

Portrait of Hiram and Sybil Bingham. He has short, dark hair and is wearing a dark suit. She has dark, curly hair up in a bun, and is wearing a black dress with a large white ruffle at the neck.
Hiram and Sybil Bingham, two of the first missionaries in Hawai‘i. Painting by Samuel Finley Breese Morse, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So now we have a culture suddenly cut loose from the traditional rules that underpinned its entire social and behavioral code…and a group of people who, out of the blue, show up with a new one.

The missionaries brought with them Western names, clothes, technology, and medicine. Both of the powerful women who had helped break the kapu system accepted medical care from the missionaries, and eventually accepted their religion, too. Their conversion led the way for other Hawaiians of noble and royal blood, whose example trickled down and inspired many of their subjects to do the same.

Both of the powerful women who had helped break the kapu system accepted medical care from the missionaries, and eventually accepted their religion, too.

Unfortunately, the more Western visitors Hawai‘i received, the more Western diseases decimated the population. Hawaiians had no previous exposure – and thus no natural immunity or antibodies – to diseases like measles, whooping cough, influenza, smallpox, and venereal disease, which often resulted in infertility.

A young Hawaiian boy in profile, wearing a straw hat.
Hawaiian boy circa 1910. Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Before Europeans arrived, the islands had an estimated population of anywhere from 300,000 to a million. But by 1836, that number was down to about 107,000 native Hawaiians. (Schmitt & Nordyke, 11) Almost 20 years later, that number was down to about 73,000. (U. of Hawai‘i census data)

But the biggest – and most controversial – changes were yet to come.

King Kamehameha II’s brother – who ruled as Kamehameha III – decided to turn his absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, like the one Great Britain had under Queen Victoria. But to do that, Hawai‘i needed all the trappings of western government: a constitution, a legislature, a supreme court, and well-defined voting rights for native Hawaiian men.

So he made all of that happen.

King Kamehameha III dressed in a dark jacket, brocade vest, and large cravat. He has medium length dark hair, curling softly over his ears.
King Kamehameha III by Gabriel Bertram Bellinghausen, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Then, under pressure from white settlers, he instituted a sweeping land reform called the mahele, which converted Hawai‘i’s system of communal land use into one based on private property.

But up to this point, there was no word in the Hawaiian language for privately owned land because there was no such concept. For their entire history, the ali‘i had been in charge of seeing to their people’s needs and making sure no one went hungry. The concept of aloha meant that you gave what you had, and if you had nothing, you gave of yourself. Everyone helped everyone and neither money nor material possessions were part their value system.

The concept of aloha meant that you gave what you had, and if you had nothing, you gave of yourself.

How could a piece of paper change that?

The government did a terrible job explaining this new concept, so many native Hawaiians were either unable to claim land or claimed it and later sold it, not understanding what “selling” meant.

But of course the American and European settlers understood these systems. They swooped in and bought as much land as they could, through fair means and foul, with the intent of starting businesses and sugar plantations. By the 1890s, a handful of white planters controlled 4/5 of Hawai‘i’s arable land. (Siler, xxvii)

A large sugar mill with multiple smokestacks. Across a courtyard, there's a water tower and multi-story buildings.
Planter Claus Spreckels’s plantation and sugar mill on Maui, named Spreckelsville. Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As his next step, King Kamehameha III sent representatives to other countries, requesting recognition for Hawai‘i as a sovereign nation. Great Britain, France, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Russia, Portugal, Japan, and the U.S. – among others – recognized Hawai‘i as independent.

But from the get-go, some Americans were already thinking about how to make some – or all – of Hawai‘i theirs. Many white settlers in Hawai‘i were the kids and grandkids of American missionaries, some of whom became prominent members of the royal court and government.

A group photo of more about 30 men, all dress in suits and straw or top hats.
The Hawaiian legislature in 1886. Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There was also no denying the fact that many of the white settlers were incredibly successful, financially speaking. The U.S. Civil War had provided a huge boost to the Hawaiian economy. With the north cut off from its traditional sugar suppliers in the south, they turned to Hawai‘i – and the planters made a fortune.

So, to sum all this up, we have an increasingly prosperous white merchant class who control resources like land and water, as well as publicity vehicles like newspapers. We have a declining population of native Hawaiians due to infertility and disease. And we have the royal family, stuck in the middle of all of this.

And one of the men determined to preserve not only the Hawaiian culture but the entire Hawaiian race was Ka‘iulani’s uncle, King Kalākaua.

Game of Thrones

But the king didn’t inherit his throne the old-fashioned way. The previous king, William Lunalilo, had died in 1874 without naming an heir. He preferred the next ruler to be chosen by an election, as spelled out in the constitution.

King Lunalilo dressed in a dark suit jacket with a royal order pinned to his chest. He has dark, curly hair, thin mutton-chop whiskers, and a long mustache.
King Lunalilo by Menzies Dickson, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The two ali‘i who put their names forward were Kalākaua and Dowager Queen Emma, widow of King Kamehameha IV.

Kalākaua won, thanks largely to the support of rich white planters. They weren’t fans, but they thought he was a pushover, someone they could control. They needed him to resurrect the stalled reciprocity treaty with the U.S., which would let their Hawaiian sugar enter the U.S. without additional taxes.

King Kalākaua, uncle of Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i, in military uniform seated in the middle of his group of 4 advisors.
King Kalākaua and members of the Reciprocity Commission who went to Washington in 1875. Photo by Bradley & Rulofson, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

That treaty did get passed. However, the U.S. Senate added an amendment, a sort of diplomatic “first dibs” – it forced the king to guarantee that he wouldn’t lease or grant any Hawaiian land to any other nation. It made the white planters happy, but native Hawaiians could read between the lines: America had just put its foot through their door. How likely was it that a foot was all they wanted?

But the king had other problems to solve.

Ka‘iulani’s family didn’t have a lot of money. Kalākaua and his siblings were all land-rich but cash-poor. So in 1880, the legislature voted to pay them salaries for the first time. But the king spent money like water. And when he ran out, he borrowed money from one of the most powerful sugar barons, Claus Spreckels.

Claus Spreckels dressed in a dark suit and cravat. He hast short white hair and a fluffy white beard.
Spreckels by I. W. Taber, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

When word got around that the king owed Spreckels millions, everyone assumed it meant Spreckles was running the government.

This begs the question: what did the king do with all the money he borrowed?

In 1879, he almost bankrupted the treasury to rebuild ‘Iolani Palace. The legislature approved $50,000 for the renovation, but the final cost was roughly $350,000. (Siler, 103) Which, if you’ve ever seen an HGTV renovation show, seems par for the course.

Iolani Palace, a three-story mansion with a tall tower in front. Palm trees flank the approach.
‘Iolani Palace photo by Walter B. Townsend, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1881, he took a trip around the world, becoming the first monarch to personally circumnavigate the globe. In New Jersey, he met Thomas Edison and asked the inventor to help Hawai‘i modernize with electricity. From Vienna, he wrote home about how wonderful Johann Strauss’s band was, calling the music “the best I have ever heard.” (Kuykendall, 234) And when he met Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, he said, “…I was quite electrified and monopolized the whole of the conversation…” (Greer, 95)

When King Kalākaua met Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, he said, “…I was quite electrified and monopolized the whole of the conversation…”

Six-year-old Ka‘iulani had actually written to him and asked him to bring her a diamond ring. The king replied to Lili’u and said he would “bring her a much more valuable present then [sic] a diamond ring…” (Greer, 98)

I don’t know for sure what he had in mind, but I can take an educated guess. While in Japan, he had a meeting with the emperor, Mutsuhito.

Emperor Mutsuhito dressed in military uniform with numerous royal orders pinned to his chest. He has short, dark hair, a long goatee, and a long mustache.
Image by Maruki Riyō, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

He suggested an engagement between Ka‘iulani and the 15-year-old Prince Yamashina Sadamaro. The engagement would have created a much closer relationship between the two countries – and that’s probably exactly what the king was after. The emperor didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no, either. It took almost a year for the Japanese response. The prince wrote a very polite note to say thanks, but when he asked his dad, he found out he was already betrothed.

The prince wrote a very polite note to say thanks, but when he asked his dad, he found out he was already betrothed.

But the specter of a Japanese engagement lingered – we’ll see this come up again later, at a time when Ka‘iulani least wanted it to.

When the king got home, he had a good idea of how royalty in other countries lived – so he set out to make sure the Hawaiian monarchy was on the same page. He had never had a coronation, so he scheduled one for February 12, 1883, to be held at ‘Iolani Palace – incidentally, the world’s first royal palace with electricity, thanks to the king’s visit to Thomas Edison.

Photo of the special coronation pavilion erected near Iolani Palace. The area surrounding the pavilion is full of spectators.
The king’s coronation. PPWD-8-4-007, Box 8, Folder 4, Image 007 via the Digital Archives of Hawaii.

Seven-year-old Ka‘iulani was there when King Kalākaua crowned himself. This wasn’t a flex, like it had been when Napoleon did it. It was more like a compromise– he had told his sister Lili‘u that it was the only way to keep the peace between all the people who thought they should get to do the honors.

But when it came time for the king to crown his wife, Kapi‘olani, there was a problem. Her hairdo was too big, and the crown – which you can see in the picture below – wouldn’t fit.

After his first try failed, her ladies-in-waiting had to come unhook her veil, diamond tiara, hairpins, and a comb from her hair. He tried again, and still the crown wouldn’t fit. This time, he shoved it down until it stayed put. Those nearby said they saw Kapi‘olani wince.

Kapi‘olani dressed in a short-sleeved velvet dress trimmed with ermine, with a richly embroidered underskirt. She has her hair in an updo, with a diamond tiara. Her coronation crown   is on the side table.
Kapi‘olani’s coronation portrait by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This was the only royal coronation held on what would become American soil. And although it was a glamorous event, it didn’t achieve the unity the king had hoped for.

The legislature had approved $10,000, but the coronation cost more than $30,000. (Vowell, 187, citing Thurston) To the Americans, any money spent on a monarchy was wasted. After all, America had fought a revolution to get out from under a monarchy. In their opinion, the only good government was a republic. Plus, they preferred the money be spent on roads, railroads, and transportation to help them get their sugar to market faster.

In addition to his spending, the king was involved in some sketchy financial transactions.

These included hush-hush land leases, the sale of political offices, and a case of double-dipping when he sold an opium license twice and refused to return the second buyer’s money. This is not the kind of honest and upright stuff you want from your king, no matter how good a musician he is or how good his intentions are or how much fun he is at parties.

This is not the kind of honest and upright stuff you want from your king, no matter how good a musician he is or how good his intentions are or how much fun he is at parties.

And eventually, it all started catching up with him.

Two of the king’s most vocal opponents were Lorrin Thurston, whom we briefly met, and Sanford Dole, both whites born in Hawai‘i to American missionaries.

Sanford Dole in a black suit with white vest, He has a long white beard, long and fluffy white mustache, and short white hair.
Sanford B. Dole has a strong beard game, no? Photo by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Dole and Thurston created a new political party called the Independents, targeting the king and Spreckels. They were for anything that made them more money, and against anything that made them less. They were especially against any money spent on the monarchy, which they saw as pointless.

In 1887, the reciprocity treaty came up for renewal. The U.S. asked to include a provision that allowed them to lease Pearl Harbor as a repair and refueling station for the navy. The white planters were all for it. Needless to say, native Hawaiians and the royal family were not.

Pearl Harbor's shoreline, dotted with palm trees.
Pearl Harbor in the 1880s. Image by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But Hawai‘i’s entire economy was bound up in the sugar trade, and that sugar trade depended on preferential treatment from U.S. importers. So for the time being, the king felt he had no choice. He gave the U.S. what they wanted to keep the economy humming.

When the court painter’s wife asked him why the Independents were hassling him so much, he told her, “It is not me, personally, at all. What they want is my country.” (Strong, 214)

And that’s where we’re going to leave Ka‘iulani and her family – in the midst of a struggle for the land, the resources, and the very soul of Hawai‘i.

The End…of Part 1

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Jenni Wiltz

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Hi, I’m Jenni Wiltz, an award-winning writer obsessed with little-known royal women. With three degrees, including a master’s in English, I’m using my love of research and storytelling to bring you the stories of fascinating royal women and their jewels. I have two decades of experience in marketing and writing, with awards for my short fiction, romantic suspense, and creative non-fiction.

Sources for Princess Ka‘iulani of Hawai‘i: Part 1

Books & Articles

In alphabetical order by author’s last name

Adler, Jacob, and Robert M. Kamins. The Fantastic Life of Walter Murray Gibson: Hawaii’s Minister of
. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1986. (Amazon affiliate link)

Allen, Helena G. The Betrayal of Liliuokalani, Last Queen of Hawaii, 1838-1917. Honolulu: Mutual
Publishing, 1982. (Amazon affiliate link)

Anonymous. Coronation of Their Majesties the King and Queen of the Hawaiian Islands, at Honolulu, Feb 12th 1883. Honolulu: Advertiser Steam Printing House, 1883. (read for free via Google Books)

Armstrong, William N. Around the World with a King. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1904. (read for free via Google Books)

Cachola, Jean Iwata, and Robin Yoko Racoma. Kamehameha III: Kauikeaouli. Honolulu: Kamehameha
Schools Press, 1995. (read for free via ULUKAU: THE HAWAIIAN ELECTRONIC LIBRARY)

Fergusson, Erna. Our Hawaii. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942. (Amazon affiliate link)

Field, Isobel. This Life I’ve Loved. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1938. (read for free via

Forbes, David W., ed. The Diaries of Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii, 1885-1900. Honolulu: Hui Hanai, 2019. (Amazon affiliate link)

Grant, M. Forsyth. Scenes in Hawaii or Life in the Sandwich Islands. Toronto: Hart & Company, 1888. (read for free via Google Books)

Greer, Richard A., ed. “The Royal Tourist – Kalakaua’s Letters Home from Tokio to London.” The Hawaiian Journal of History 5 (1971): 75–109.

Hooper, Paul F. Elusive Destiny: The Internationalist Movement in Modern Hawaii. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1980. (Amazon affiliate link)

Kalakaua, David. The Legends and Myths of Hawaii: The Fables and Folk-Lore of a Strange People. Edited by Hon. R.M. Daggett. New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1888. (read for free on

Kuykendall, Ralph Simpson. The Hawaiian Kingdom 1874–1893, The Kalakaua Dynasty. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1967. (read for free via ULUKAU: THE HAWAIIAN ELECTRONIC LIBRARY)

Letters of Condolence and Resolutions [on the Death of Princess Likelike, Wife of A.S. Cleghorn.], 1887. (read for free via Google Books)

Liliuokalani. Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen. Boston: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., 1898. (Amazon affiliate link)

Linnéa, Sharon. Princess Ka’iulani: Hope of a Nation, Heart of a People. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 1999. (Amazon affiliate link)

Lowe, Ruby Hasegawa, and Robin Yoko Racoma. David Kalākaua. Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools Press, 1999. (read for free via ULUKAU: THE HAWAIIAN ELECTRONIC LIBRARY)

Mrantz, Maxine. Hawaii’s Tragic Princess: Kaiulani, The Girl Who Never Got to Rule. Honolulu: Aloha Publishing, 1980. (read for free via

Noonan, Peter W. Kaiulani of Hawaii And the Fall of Her Kingdom. Ottawa, Canada: Magistralis, 2021. (Amazon affiliate link)

Osorio, Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoʻole. Dismembering Lãhui: A History of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002. (Amazon affiliate link)

Requilmán, Arnold Hōkūlani. “A Hundred Years after the Pikake Princess.” Edited by D. Mahealani Dudoit. ʻŌiwi: A Native Hawaiian Journal 2 (2002): 198–218. (read for free online)

Saiki, Patsy Sumie. Japanese Women in Hawaii: The First 100 Years. Honolulu: Kisaku, 1985.

Schmitt, Robert C., and Eleanor C. Nordyke. “Death in Hawai‘i: The Epidemics of 1848-1849.” The Hawaiian Journal of History 35 (2001): 1–13.

Siler, Julia Flynn. Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Venture. New York: Grove Press, 2013. (Amazon affiliate link)

Stassen-McLaughlin, Marilyn. “Unlucky Star – Princess Ka’iulani.” Hawaiian Journal of History 33 (1999): 21–54. (read for free online)

Tate, Merze. The United States and the Hawaiian Kingdom : A Political History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965. (read for free via

Taylor, Albert Pierce. Under Hawaiian Skies: A Narrative of the Romance, Adventure and History of the Hawaiian Islands. Honolulu: Advertiser Publishing Co., Ltd., 1922. (read for free via Google Books)

Teves, Stephanie Nohelani. “The Afterlife of Princess Kaʿiulani.” In Defiant Indigeneity: The Politics of Hawaiian Performance, 113–44. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

Thurston, Lorrin A. Memoirs of the Hawaiian Revolution. Edited by Andrew Farrell. Honolulu: Advertiser Publishing Co., Ltd., 1936. (read for free via Hathi Trust)

Van Dyke, Jon M. Who Owns the Crown Lands of Hawai’i? Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008. (Amazon affiliate link)

Vowell, Sarah. Unfamiliar Fishes. New York: Riverhead Books, 2011. (read for free via

Warinner, Emily V. A Royal Journey to London. Honolulu: Topgallant Publishing Co., LTD., 1975.

Webb, Nancy, and Webb, Jean Francis. Kaiulani: Crown Princess of Hawaii. Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 1998. (Amazon affiliate link)

Williams, Julie Stewart, Suelyn Ching Tune, and Robin Yoko Racoma. Kamehameha II: Liholiho and the Impact of Change. Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools Press, 2001. (read for free via ULUKAU: THE HAWAIIAN ELECTRONIC LIBRARY)

Zambucka, Kristin. Princess Ka’iulani of Hawai’i: The Monarchy’s Last Hope. Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 1988. (read for free via

Online Sources

Cleghorn, Archibald Scott. Diaries for 1866, 1868-1869, 1877, 1879-1882, 1874. Hawai’i State Archives Manuscript Collection.

Fahrni, Jennifer. “Princess Kaiulani: Her Life and Times.” The Kaiulani Project (blog). The blog is no longer live, but you can view it through Google’s cached version.

Laimana Jr., John Kalei. “The Phenomenal Rise to Literacy in Hawai’i: Hawaiian Society in the Early Nineteenth Century.” Master of Arts in Hawaiian Studies, University of Hawai’i, 2011.

Minatodani, Dore. “Research Guides: Hawaiʻi – Censuses: Historical Censuses.”

Sale 68: The June 30th Manuscript and Collectibles Auction, Hawaiiana” via Goldberg Coins and Collectibles.

Sigall, Bob. “Hawaii’s Royal Legacies.” Honolulu Magazine (blog), April 14, 2013.


Daily Honolulu Press

The Hawaiian Gazette

The Hawaiian Star

The Pacific Commercial Advertiser

Honolulu Star Bulletin

San Francisco Call (specifically – Rix, Alice, “The Princess Who Wanted to Be Queen,” August 7, 1898)

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