This is the sixth installment of a series about King David Kalakaua of Hawaii.
The coronation of King Kalakaua nine years after his ascension to the throne was one of a series of events that brought him under attack.
When the king steamed back into Honolulu harbor from his around-the-world trip, throngs of enthusiastic citizens greeted him. The Royal Hawaiian Band played “Home Sweet Home” as he reached the shore, and he was promptly draped in flowers from head to foot. The returning party passed through streets arched over with blossoms and scented vines. At the palace, a poet recited meles (odes or songs) composed especially for the occasion. Festivities continued for several days, with music, banqueting, and hula performances.
Not everyone shared in the spirit of exuberance. The following Sunday, the Reverend Sereno E. Bishop spoke from the pulpit of the greetings received by the king: “Even the decrepit paganism of the land lifted up its leprous visage to greet him with the elaborate bestialities of the hula-hula…”*
These words were widely denounced, and even our friend William N. Armstrong, who had plenty of the missionary spirit, later quoted Sereno as part of the “vicious opposition” in his book about the king’s trip.** The reference to leprosy was especially cruel considering how severely the disease had affected the native Hawaiian population. Many afflicted people were banished to the Kalaupapa leper colony on Molokai, described as a place of horror by Jack London in his Hawaiian stories.***
Bishop used words more poisonous than most, but the linking of leprosy to the supposed moral inferiority of Hawaiians became a theme for outspoken members of the white community—the ones who were to form what was called the Missionary Party. Time and again, harsh images were used to describe the supposedly backwards, inferior pagans and their heathenish practices—hula in particular.
Things eventually settled down, and Kalakaua resumed responsibility for the affairs of the kingdom. During his ten-month absence, his sister Lili’uokalani had acted as Princess Regent. She won praise across Hawaii’s communities for her competence in handling events. As it turned out, she had to deal with a smallpox epidemic and a prolonged eruption of Mauna Loa, which spewed molten lava for nine months and threatened the town of Hilo.
Controversial figure takes control of the legislature
In February 1882 the regular biennial elections were held. A close associate of the king, Walter Murray Gibson, made a strong showing at the polls across the islands, campaigning vigorously through the English- and Hawaiian-language newspapers he owned and holding well-attended meetings on topics such as public health.
When the legislature convened in April, Gibson led an attack on the lame-duck cabinet. The ministers resigned, and Kalakaua called upon Gibson to designate replacements. He named himself premier and minister of foreign affairs, two native Hawaiians to the interior and finance posts, and a competent but “indolent” white as attorney general.#
Gibson was quite a mysterious figure. Even his friends admitted he didn’t always tell the truth, but he had a certain magnetism. In his younger years he dabbled in gunrunning in the Caribbean and fomenting rebellion in Sumatra. He established a Mormon colony in Hawaii but was excommunicated for embezzling church funds. He stayed on the islands anyway and entered politics as a populist reformer, championing causes important to native Hawaiians. This earned him the enmity of the missionary descendants.
Under Gibson’s leadership, the legislature passed every measure supported by himself and the king. These included conveyance of a parcel of crown lands to Claus Spreckels, the “sugar king” (another associate of Kalakaua); a $2 million national loan for public improvements; repeal of the ban on sale of liquor to native residents; and a controversial appropriations bill.
The items that incensed the critics in the appropriations measure concerned the king himself and his favorite projects. These were support of the royal family; funds for the trip around the world; completion of a new royal palace and royal stables; funds for the king’s coronation; education of Hawaiian youths abroad; support of the military; and funds for a board of genealogy of Hawaiian chiefs.
The Iolani Palace
The original palace was built in 1844, a wooden structure that initially housed only ceremonial spaces: a throne room, a reception room, and a state dining room. The first king to make use of it, Kamehameha III, slept in a nearby grass hut. It served as the residence of Kamehameha IV, Kamehameha V, Lunalilo, and Kalakaua in the first part of his reign.
By the time Kalakaua occupied it, the palace was infested with termites. The king wangled funds to start construction of a much grander residence. The cornerstone was laid in December 1879; by November 1882, the completed brick-and-concrete edifice with Corinthian columns towered over its neighbors. It had cost $340,000, an enormous sum for the time. Amenities included electricity and telephones—not even the White House could boast as much. Readers may see something familiar when they look at the photo below: the palace was used for the fictional headquarters of “Hawaii Five-O” during the original CBS series, 1968-80.
The palace is entirely Western in style, apart from certain traditional Hawaiian objects on display. The chandeliers, the carpets, the imposing staircase all reflect European notions of decor. Historian Michael G. Vann comments: “One is hard pressed to identify what is Hawaiian about the palace. Actually, this is the point. The palace is an artifact of an international style of nineteenth-century royalty…. It argued for Kalakaua’s place in the family of nations, specifically of crowned heads.”##
He goes on to make the interesting observation that although Western-style edifices were commonly built by imperialist powers in colonial locations, the Iolani Palace made the opposite statement: We, the original inhabitants, are just as good as you—and we are here to stay.
The king formally opened the palace with a banquet for the Masonic fraternity on December 27, 1882. Two months later, it served as the setting for most of the coronation festivities.
Kalakaua’s coronation, held February 12, 1883, was widely ridiculed by the leading white citizenry. Why, he’d already been on the throne nine years! Such a costly, pointless event! And the ceremony itself blended western and Hawaiian elements in a bizarre way, a sort of playacting…
The Planter’s Monthly took the stance of the irritated taxpayer: “The so-called coronation of the King, with the attendant follies and extravagances, has been directly damaging to the property interests and welfare of the country. It has been demoralizing in its influence and productive only of harm… public measures of pressing importance have been neglected.”###
When Kalakaua was voted king on the same date in 1874—in a hotly contested election—supporters of his opponent, Queen Emma, rioted in the streets. Naturally, he had to be quickly installed with a minimum of fuss. His predecessor, Lunalilo, at least had the pleasure of parading to a major downtown church, making a speech, and having a choir sing “God Save the King.”
As usual with Kalakaua, there was a mix of the worthy and the trivial in his motives. No doubt the pomp of a ceremony in the style of European royalty had its superficial appeal. But his sister Lili’uokalani explained in her memoir that as the Kamehameha line had died out with Lunalilo, it was necessary to confirm the ascendency of Kalakaua’s Keawe-a-Heulu family line, “by a celebration of unusual impressiveness…. It was wise and patriotic to spend money to awaken in the people a national pride.”+ Gibson argued that the idea “was a measure long contemplated by Hawaiian Sovereigns…. The native ceremony of the Poni, or an annointment, had in foreign times been practised by the chiefs; but it was deemed desirable that the more modern and Christian rite should be celebrated.”++
Perhaps the coronation can be simply understood as asserting the significance of the Hawaiian monarchy in the face of constant efforts by members of the white community to push it to the sidelines.
Picture a dazzling procession of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani in European-style finery but led by attendants bearing kahili feather standards. They are accompanied by ladies-in-waiting attired in black velvet and white satin. A choir sings the hymn “Almighty Father, Hear! The Isles do Wait on Thee” as the royal party crosses the palace grounds to a pavilion. The king receives traditional emblems from the queen’s sister, Princess Poomaikelani—kahili; puloulou (stout poles topped with balls of kapa cloth); and palaoa (ornaments symbolizing power).
He takes an oath and receives ceremonial sword and sceptre, and finally is handed the English-made crown, which he places on his own head. He receives a second crown and places it on the queen’s head. After a prayer offered by a prominent pastor of Honolulu, salvos of guns burst out from warships in the harbor, and the royal party returns to the palace as the Royal Hawaiian Band plays the “Coronation March.”
Special events continued over the next two weeks, with hula performances on the palace grounds each night. Premier Gibson presided at the unveiling of a statue of Kamehameha, giving a rousing speech. Fireworks—coronation ball—regatta—horse races—it all culminated in an enormous luau, February 24, at which 5,000 people feasted and enjoyed a program of Hawaiian songs, hula, and assorted other music and dance.
Later that year, a 32-page poem was published in Honolulu, titled “The Crowning of the Dread King.” The author, by the name of George W. Stewart, had taken up his pen to create an elaborate spoof of the coronation. Alternating between references to the noble days of Rome and satirical descriptions of the event, his work made out the coronation to be a bizarre amalgamation of outwardly Christian forms and heathenish practices. The pseudo-epic constantly returned to images of “Bacchanalian riot” and frenzied nights of hula dancers with their “snake-like motions.”+++ Little mention was made of the Western elements, such as the 21-gun salutes, the hymns, the prayer, the playing of the “Coronation March.”
The ridicules, the spoofs, and the thunderous condemnations of “pagan practices” would intensify over the next four years. In the end, the king would be forced to relinquish all but nominal powers. That will be the subject of the next and final piece of this series.
* Hawaiian Gazette, November 9, 1881. The Gazette was at that time the leading opposition newspaper.
** William N. Armstrong, Around the World with a King. Cambridge, MA: The University Press, 1904, p. 281.
*** Jack London, The House of Pride, Start Publishing eBook edition, October 2012. See especially “Koolau the Leper,” “Good-bye, Jack,” and “The Sheriff of Kona.”
# Major Wodehouse, British Minister to Hawaii, used the word “indolent” in making the point that Gibson had not chosen anyone who would quarrel with him. Quoted in Ralph S. Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom. Vol. III. 1874-1893: The Kalakaua Dynasty. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1967, p. 255.
## Michael G. Vann, “Contesting Cultures and Defying Dependency: Migration, Nationalism, and Identity in Late-Nineteenth-Century Hawaii.” Stanford Electronic Humanities Review, Vol. 5:2, 1997.
### Quoted in Kuykendall, p. 264.
+ Quoted in Kuykendall, p. 262.
++ Quoted in Kuykendall, p. 262.
+++ Phrases quoted in Vann.