An Italian scoundrel visits Hawaii

Celso Cesare Moreno.

Celso Cesare Moreno.

This is the fourth installment in a series about King David Kalakaua of Hawaii.

The rulers of the Kingdom of Hawaii improvised as they went along. After all, the kingdom only had its first constitution in 1840. That was substantially modified in 1852, and many constitutional amendments were proposed after that, for instance the 30 amendments introduced under Lunalilo and rejected the next year under Kalakaua. In other words, things were in flux. There wasn’t a long history of established precedent. King Kalakaua believed that the monarch should have the final say, and he was willing to dismiss a cabinet that didn’t agree with his decisions. That got him into trouble when he came under the influence of a shady adventurer named Celso Moreno.

It wasn’t just the lack of precedent that caused problems, it was the uncomfortable blending of two very different cultures. The constitution was cast in the Anglo-American mold. But Kalakaua, though educated in Anglo-American style schools, cherished the beliefs of his native Hawaiian ancestors. Throughout his life, he promoted knowledge of his own heritage. Back in the 1860s he’d edited a Hawaiian-language newspaper, Ka Hoku o ka Pakipika (“The Star of the Pacific”), which reported news from the Hawaiian viewpoint and printed texts of sacred chants. Other Hawaiian-language newspapers existed, but they were full of condescending moralizing that suited the purposes of their owners—missionaries and foreign businessmen.* Kalakaua straddled the two cultures, taking what he wanted from each one.

Celso Cesare Moreno liked to cook up grandiose schemes, and that was irresistably attractive to Kalakaua. The king had a weakness for ambitious types—people with big ideas. Two of his other close associates also fit that description: the sugar planter Claus Spreckels and the entrepreneur and politician Walter Murray Gibson. But of the three, Moreno was the least scrupulous.

Born in Italy, he studied civil engineering at the University of Genoa and fought in the Crimean War before embarking on trade between the Mediterranean and the Dutch East Indies. He lived in Sumatra for some time, marrying the sultan’s daughter and running afoul of the colonial government. Abandoning Dutch territory, he spent the next years in French Indochina and in China.

Taking up the notion of an undersea telegraph cable between China and the U.S., Moreno traveled to the States to obtain financial backing. He managed to capture the interest of investors. Armed with a list of 25 prominent men who supported the concept, he went to Washington to obtain official permission to start his trans-Pacific project. Congress passed an act granting him and the 25 others—some who said their names were used without permission—the nonexclusive right to lay cable, provided it was begun within three years. But Moreno failed to raise the necessary capital in the U.S. and China, and the deadline passed.

Not easily discouraged, he started promoting a new project, a steamship line to carry Chinese coolies to Hawaii and the U.S. He arrived in Honolulu November 14, 1879, and quickly befriended Kalakaua. Foreigners in the Hawaiian government watched nervously as Moreno worked his wiles upon the king. The U.S. minister,  General James Comly, wrote that Moreno was “a subtle, crafty and extremely clever Italian, of imposing and insinuating manners—a big, burly man, six feet high, with an air of some distinction.”**

U..S. Minister Gen.  James Comly, a Civil War veteran.

Gen. James Comly, a Civil War veteran who became U.S. Minister to Hawaii.

Moreno right away applied to the Minister of Foreign Affairs for a subsidy for his Chinese steamship company, following with an application to the whole cabinet. He was told the legislature would have to approve. In the meantime he spent much time with the king. Seeing great possibilities in commerce with China, Kalakaua gave Moreno’s project a ringing endorsement in a speech to the legislature. But the proposal went to a special committee, which rejected it on the grounds that Hawaii’s interests lay with the U.S., not with China. This conclusion was reached even though the majority of the committee were native Hawaiians, not Americans. The full legislature agreed.

Moreno had plenty of other ideas. He brought out his old trans-Pacific telegraph scheme, claiming he had the support of James Garfield, a well-known figure soon to be elected President. Minister Comly contacted Garfield directly to see if this was true; Garfield wrote back strongly denying it. Comly showed this letter to Kalakaua, thinking the king must now distance himself from Moreno, but he did not. Soon thereafter a telegraph bill was introduced that called, among other things, for a $1 million bonus to be paid to Moreno and associates upon completion of the section of cable to Hawaii. The bill was defeated.

Moreno now tried a different tack: opium. He had the idea for the Hawaiian kingdom to become a distribution center for opium, licensing its sale to Chinese residents. Two bills were introduced along these lines. When the second came up for a vote, an attempt was made to bring in the Chinese steamship subsidy. The minister of finance, Simon Kalou Kaai, mysteriously changed his vote against the subsidy to one in favor of it. It turned out he’d received a letter from the king commanding him to support the measure. Command of the king—vote of the legislature—a seeming contradiction. But it’s important to note that Kaai sincerely believed in the prerogatives of the king and was not simply bending under pressure. His later actions would bear that out.

By this time, the newspapers were railing against Moreno, accusing him of bribery and accepting covert support from Chinese businessmen in Honolulu. The king ended up vetoing the two opium bills, but he approved a third bill which liberalized existing opium laws.

Opium smokers in Dutch East Indies, c. 1870.

Opium smokers in Dutch East Indies, c. 1870.

The legislative activity on opium was followed by consideration of an omnibus bill for a $10 million bond issue to cover everything from purchase of warships and construction of hospitals to an increase in support for the royal family, including funds toward building a new palace. Following much debate, the bill was indefinitely postponed.

A revolving-door cabinet

Amidst all this controversy, there was much speculation as to whether the present cabinet could survive. On August 2 a no-confidence resolution was introduced on the grounds that the ministers were ineffective and opposed to the king. Two days later it was defeated, reportedly because it was opposed by the Hawaiian envoy to England and Germany, Henry A.P. Carter, a man whose skills were valued by the king. (He and Elisha Allen had negotiated the Reciprocity Treaty with the U.S.)  Carter persuaded the king that a no-confidence vote would seem to cast aspersions on the government’s foreign policy.

Henry A.P. Carter.

Henry A.P. Carter.

But ten days later Kalakaua acted anyway, bypassing the legislative process and demanding the resignations of all of his ministers. That same day, new ministers were appointed, including Moreno as foreign minister—he’d been naturalized as a Hawaiian just that morning—along with the pastor of Kaumakapili Church as finance minister and a little-known lawyer as attorney general.

This caused an immediate uproar. A mass meeting was held, a resolution was introduced by Sanford Dole—a prominent figure in the white community—and a committee appointed by the meeting went to see Kalakaua. He refused to receive  it, but a day later he called for U.S. Minister Comly to come see him. Comly argued once again that Moreno was not to be trusted. He wrote, “I entreated him, earnestly, to give his people more honorable and capable Ministers and himself more able and trustworthy advisers, and to win the love of his subjects by calling about him the wisest and best men of the Kingdom.”*** This appeal touched the heart of the king, and he told Comly to expect agreeable news within a day.

Kaumakapili Church as it existed 1838-1881. Both of the mass meetings described were held here.

Kaumakapili Church as it existed 1838-1881. Both of the mass meetings described were held here.

Comly was attending a luncheon party the next day when Moreno turned up, asking that Comly give him a chance to prove himself. When Comly refused, Moreno angrily threatened him and hurried back to the palace. Yet the king had made up his mind. He soon announced that he’d accepted Moreno’s resignation.

The troubles had not yet ended. The white business community applauded Moreno’s ouster but, not content with that, called for the resignation of the other ministers as unqualified for their posts, save for John E. Bush, appointed minister of the interior.

Now the native Hawaiians of the populace plunged into the fray, holding their own mass meeting to object to interference by the foreigners. Moreno, pretending to be the Hawaiians’ friend, encouraged this. He had a placard posted that read, “WAY UP—CELSO CAESAR MORENO!” It went on to say, among other things, “The great desire of Moreno is to cast down foreigners from official positions and to put true Hawaiians in their places.”#  Former finance minister Kaai spoke at the meeting of the king’s absolute right to make or unmake cabinets—a statement consistent with his earlier decision to obey the king’s command. What Kaai objected to was the lack of deference for the king on the part of Sanford Dole and his likes, not the dismissal of Moreno. The meeting ended with a resolution thanking the king for dismissing the Italian. The Hawaiians had not been bamboozled by Moreno’s posturing.

Moreno departed August 30 on a steamer, bound for the U.S. and Europe. But he was not retreating in defeat. Kalakaua had given him a secret commission, appointing him ambassador to Italy and giving him powers as “envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary” to negotiate with other nations and to sign and ratify treaties.

This secret commission was discovered within a month by W.L. Green, the man appointed to replace Moreno. New storms of protest erupted. The sugar planter Claus Spreckels, who had considerable influence with Kalakaua, told him his actions had become a “laughing stock.” The king buckled under the pressure, dismissed his whole cabinet, and cancelled Moreno’s commission. A new cabinet was appointed, reinstating Green and naming three other foreigners to the other ministerial posts.

This generated yet more controversy, as people objected to the lack of any native Hawaiians in the cabinet. Yet former minister Kaai spoke up in favor of the king’s appointments, arguing that all-haole cabinets in the past had served the nation satisfactorily. The cabinet was left unchanged, but the newspapers continued to debate the issue. In the end, a feeling of fatigue settled in. There’d been so many upheavals that it was best to leave the cabinet alone.

Two worlds

When the king appointed Moreno and others to a new cabinet, Sanford Dole’s resolution had criticized him for having “arbitrarily and without cause dissolved the late Ministerial Cabinet when they had the confidence of the legislative Assembly and of the country at large.”#

Sanford Dole.

Sanford Dole.

Anyone dedicated to the principles of democracy might sympathize with that statement, on the face of it. But then, we only have to look to the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom by foreign interests to question how far Dole really would have gone in the interests of “the country at large.” In 1894 he would become president of the “Republic of Hawaii,” an interim stage on the road to U.S. annexation.

Caught between two worlds, Kalakaua had shown poor judgment, it is true.

Americans in Hawaii had the heritage of the Revolution, the Founding Fathers, and the U.S. Constitution. Kalakaua had a very different heritage, an ancient tradition in which “those considered for high position had to have genealogies that went back to the origin of the world. ” This cosmology was articulated in the Kumulipo, “a cosmological chant/prayer that describes the genesis of living things on the earth, including humankind, and links them to the genealogy of Lonoikamakahiki, which then leads directly to Kalakaua.”##

The author mentions Kalakaua in particular because it was he who initiated a legislative act in 1880 that created a board of Hawaiian genealogy. This board transcribed the Kumulipo into the written Hawaiian language. Kalakaua’s sister and successor on the throne, Lili’uokalani, would translate it into English after she was removed from the throne. And so the Hawaiians would cling to their nearly obliterated past.

#  #  #

"Hawaiian Canoe." Woodblock print by Arman Manookian.

“Hawaiian Canoe.” Woodblock print by Arman Manookian.

*  For a discussion of Hawaiian-language newspapers, see Noenoe K. Silva, Aloha Betrayed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

**  Ralph S. Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom. Vol. III. 1874-1893: The Kalakaua Dynasty. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1967, p.  209.

*** Kuykendall, p. 212.

# Kuykendall, p. 217.

## Silva.


About Jenny

I am an off-trail hiker, a student of history, and author of "Transvaal Citizen," "Murder at the Jumpoff," and "The Twelve Streams of LeConte."
This entry was posted in Hawaiian History, History and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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