King Kalakaua ruled the kingdom of Hawaii from 1874 to 1891. He was the next-to-last ruler, succeeded by his sister Lili’uokalani. She lasted just two years before she was overthrown by a group of local politicians and businessmen, most of them American. Backed by US Marines from the USS “Boston,” they forced her removal from the throne. Hawaii was annexed by the US in 1898.
Kalakaua was, in the end, a tragic figure, a man not easy to understand: well educated yet naive; eager to advance his kingdom’s interests yet prone to decisions that were disastrous for his people; an advocate of native Hawaiian culture yet an avid admirer of the trappings of European tradition. He was preyed upon by manipulative people in a manner that may remind followers of this blog of the way King Lobengula of Matabeleland was preyed upon by Cecil Rhodes and his associates.
Here are a few highlights of Kalakaua’s reign:
- Shortly after his election as the constitutional monarch of Hawaii, he visited President Grant in Washington DC and laid the groundwork for a reciprocity treaty that aided the Hawaiian economy, especially in respect to sugar exports.
- He developed a close relationship with Claus Spreckels, the “Sugar King,” and gave Spreckels valuable water rights and land concessions. He became deeply financially indebted to Spreckels.
- He appointed a shady opportunist named Celso Moreno as Minister of Foreign Affairs. The appointment was rescinded, but this led to a loss of confidence in his government.
- He circumnavigated the globe in 1881 and met with heads of state of Japan, Siam, Burma, India, Egypt, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Spain, Portugal, and Britain. He had many aims in mind, ranging from the important (encouraging Japanese immigration to Hawaii) to the trivial (receiving honorary medals from other countries and obtaining ideas about costumes and customs that he could imitate back home).
- In 1883 he staged a costly coronation of himself despite having already ruled for nearly a decade. The festivities and celebrations lasted several weeks, prompting severe criticism from American and European residents.
- In 1887 he was forced to sign a new constitution that reduced his powers and deprived most native Hawaiians of their voting rights.
- He was a champion of the art of hula, which missionaries had tried to suppress, and of other Hawaiian pastimes such as martial arts and surfing.
I find his story fascinating and I hope you will too.