Words of endurance: A Passionate Prodigality

Recruiting poster for Royal Fusiliers.

Recruiting poster for Royal Fusiliers.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers shown below refer to Guy Chapman,
A Passionate Prodigality: Fragments of Autobiography. Fawcett Crest Books: Greenwich, CT, 1966.

It’s an odd little book—the edition I have—a mass-market paperback of the kind sold everywhere in the 50s and 60s. I bought it secondhand. Cover price: 60 cents. Yellowing paper, brittle spine. This American edition was printed 1966, with what the publisher (not the author) called “a special preface for American readers.” It was first published in London, 1933.

In fact, Guy Chapman makes no references to much of anything near and dear to an American of 1966 or even to one of 1916. For me, an American of 2015, there’s much that’s inscrutable here, and yet, in my contrary way, I am drawn to the inscrutable and find this book fascinating. I can see right away that he really doesn’t give a hoot if he loses some of his readers along the way. What matters is his memory of the men who shared his experience, the ones who would have understood. He cared immensely about them.

Guy Chapman.

Guy Chapman.

The book isn’t bitter in its tone, only honest. It is by and large a story of the moral exhaustion that sets in over more than three years on the Western Front. The only real target of cynicism is England, which he describes on the final page as “a country fit only for profiteers to live in.” (223) Over the course of the war England has receded far into the distance, alien and unreal. He finds he has nothing to say in letters home. On leave in London, he has a strange feeling: “As the war trailed its body across France, sliming the landscape, so too it tainted civilian life. London seemed poorer and yet more raffish. Its dignity was melting under the strain. It had become corrupted.” (112) After the Armistice he joins the Army of Occupation rather than return home.

Here are some of the assorted things he throws into his account: references to events in the Napoleonic and Crimean wars, odd mentions of dusty places in colonial India, the sudden fleeting appearance of fictional characters from Alexander Dumas; names of miniscule villages in France; endless abbreviations from British military jargon. I had no problem with CO, ADC, GHQ, or TM, but could only guess at SAA, RTO, and FOO. Eventually I printed a list from the Internet.

The obscurity doesn’t come out of one-upmanship or the desire to impress with insider knowledge. The literary and historical references are the kind effortlessly internalized by an intelligent, well-educated man of the period. The French micro-geography and the torrents of abbreviations come out of the everyday things soldiers experienced. Chapman wants to report that daily experience without moving to a level of detached interpretation.

4th Bttn. Royal Fusiliers resting before Battle of Mons, August 1914. Chapman's 13th Bttn. did not arrive on the front until July 1915.

4th Bttn. Royal Fusiliers resting before Battle of Mons, August 1914. Chapman’s 13th Bttn. did not arrive on the front until July 1915.

He joins the Royal Fusiliers, known historically as the City of London Regiment, in December 1914 as a junior officer. He feels very much an amateur but discovers that his own ignorance blends in with the general blundering. His New Army battalion spends the months until July 1915 in an improvised training: “Except for our second-in-command, who had retired ten years earlier and was well over fifty, and our quartermaster, we had no regular officers. It was therefore a co-operative undertaking of amateurs in which we had to learn the hard way.” (i)

He commands a platoon and eventually a company, but for a time is transferred against his wishes to serve as an aide on the divisional staff, running errands, organizing lists of supplies and maps, making reports. Some humorous episodes result. He accompanies a senior officer to the combat line: “His specially padded and exceptionally clean tin hat, his glowing boots, his thick manly stick, made one think of dowagers slumming.” (115) The elegant officer cringes at the noise of every passing shell even as nearby soldiers calmly clean their rifles, cook, or write letters. Finally a 5.9 roars overhead, and “my companion… took to his heels and galloped with the grotesque gait of a terrified foal through the water covering the duckboards.”

Road to Pozieres at the Somme, August 1916. The 13th were in this area.

Road to Pozieres at the Somme, August 1916. The 13th were in this area…

Chapman loathes these staff responsibilities and flubs the performance of his chores. This leads self-important, high-ranking types to bully him, as certain people do when they sniff out uncertainty. One of the generals interrogates him, brandishing a set of aerial photos. “‘I want a definite answer. In which of those trenches did you see flares?’  ‘I think…’ I began feebly. The general’s tremendous forehead, furrowed as a bull’s, contracted furiously. For a moment I thought he would gore me. ‘You’re not to think,’ he bellowed. ‘You’ve got to be sure. I can think.’ ” (129) Chapman is at a distinct disadvantage here, having observed from the ground amidst a gas attack, denied access to the photos.

Finally, when he is requested to report to the general at nine o’clock in the morning, he finds himself running behind schedule, rushes in to the general’s hut, and salutes. “I caught a glimpse of a bulky figure in wide striped blue and white pyjamas and gumboots, gentling its hair at a mirror. With the roar of the wounded gorilla, the figure turned and swept down on me, shouting: ‘What the devil d’ye mean by coming to see your General in his pyjamas?” (139) Chapman is delighted when the general banishes him back to his battalion.

He sees the world in his own way and stays true to its contradictions and ambiguities. He links things no one else would consider related, so that his writing sends out little electrical flashes as new connections are wired together. He can see the wasteland of a battlefield as having “the austere beauty of a dying planet” and describe a burst of shrapnel in terms of antique illustrations: “It would suddenly appear in the atmosphere, a flash, a tight black cloud, which slowly unrolled like the engravings on the title-pages of eighteenth-century French books, supporting a lyre or a basket of pomegranates and ears of corn.” (63)

...and here at Mouquet Farm, Pozieres (painting by Fred Leist, 1917)...

…and here at Mouquet Farm, Pozieres (painting by Fred Leist, 1917)…

He ventures into the macabre at times. Newly arrived in the trenches, he is shown to a dugout where he can sleep. Hearing scamperings and rustlings, he realizes the place is infested with rats. Still, he dozes off. “I came back to the surface with a jerk… I turned my head and caught a glimpse of what looked like a small pink monkey, clambering up the wall. With a spasm of disgust, I threw myself off the bed.” (25) Small pink monkey! It made me think of someone suffering from the d.t.s. Later, Chapman tell us how one of his companions energetically bayonets any rats that come his way. The fat ones that had been feeding on corpses are easier to kill than the younger, more agile fry. This observation would seem gratuitously horrible except that accounts of the Western Front universally mention rats and corpses along with mud, duckboards, and shellholes as an unavoidable part of the scenery.

...and here on the Menin Road, 1917.

…and here on the Menin Road, 1917.

Chapman constantly finds himself in the ghostly company of the dead—“slung carelessly on top of each other, sprawled in obscene attitudes”—sees a body frozen stiff with rigor mortis, like “a statue knocked from its pedestal.” Strangely, for him the most gruesome sight is not a mutilated corpse. “My eye caught something white and shining. I stopped. It was the last five joints of a spine. There was nothing else, no body, no flesh. This apparition overcame me. I turned away and choked back a sudden nausea.” (152)

He survived the Somme, Arras, and Ypres, sustaining injuries to his eyes when he was gassed. He didn’t write about his experiences right away, but years later, after reading Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War, felt he might have something to say on the subject. He dedicated his book “to the memory of certain soldiers who have now become a small quantity of Christian dust.”

#   #   #

Royal Fusiliers memorial, High Holborn Street, London.

Royal Fusiliers memorial, High Holborn Street, London.

Posted in British History, History, Military History, World War I | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

Words of endurance: Russian Hussar

The Nicholas Cavalry School, which Littauer attended.

The Nicholas Cavalry School, which Vladimir Littauer attended.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers shown below refer to Vladimir Littauer’s
Russian Hussar, Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing, 1993.

On July 24, 1915, somewhere in Latvia, German forces advanced against a Siberian infantry regiment. The Russian commander ordered in a cavalry division to support the exhausted Siberians. The division consisted of Dragoons, Cossacks, Uhlans, and Hussars.* Vladimir Littauer of the Sumsky Hussars recalled: “The Hussars’ squadrons were assembling at a gallop and opening formation, with my unit on the left flank. Some 1,600 horses drawn up in four rows with hundreds of lowered lances formed a beautiful and menacing sight. The scene was dramatically lighted by the setting sun. Our battery opened fire to soften the Germans while the regiments moved ahead. The Germans ran even before our charge started…. It seemed to us that the threat of a large cavalry attack had decided the outcome of the battle.” (192)

A body of cavalry moving in orderly formation in the heat of battle: that achievement of discipline must have been impressive to see. As also, for instance, the limbering of the guns in an earlier battle, East Prussia: “The horses galloped to their guns. With great skill and seemingly without halting their horses, the artillerymen hooked the guns to the limbers and pulled away. This was the result of endless drills.” (160)

Or, soon thereafter, when the Germans had nearly surrounded them: “I imagine they already considered us their prisoners…. Then Gourko galloped forward and, as if on parade, gave the command: ‘The division, from the right, by regiment, at regimental distances, forward, walk, march,’ and pointed east with his sword to indicate the direction. The thick column moved forward; almost immediately orders to trot, and then to canter, were given.” (161) The Germans were so surprised that they delayed opening fire, and the Russians escaped.

Littauer’s Hussars were part of the Russian 1st Army under General Rennenkampf. The 2nd Army under General Samsonov had just suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Hindenburg and Ludendorff in the Battle of Tannenberg, August 26-30, 1914. Samsonov committed suicide immediately afterward, shooting himself in the head rather than face the wrath of the Tsar.

Russian prisoners at Tannenberg.

Russian prisoners after the Tannenberg battle.

But Littauer’s book is not the place to learn about major events in the war, as he tells us himself: as an “unimportant officer,” he can offer only small details of the “great strategic operations.” (8) In his typical way, he gives the humorous example of a low-ranking officer in Napoleon’s army who for weeks told everyone of participating in an engagement near a certain village. Only after considerable time did he discover that it was the Battle of Austerlitz in which he’d fought.

Instead, the book offers the opportunity to sit down comfortably with a man of remarkable experience, a top-notch raconteur, and listen to his astonishing stories. Pretend that you are dining with him at an elegant establishment—let’s even pretend it resembles the best Moscow restaurant of the pre-Revolution era, the “Yar”—and that over much good food and fine wine, he is telling you tales of his life that span the years from cavalry school to regimental life in Moscow to the war, the Revolution, the Whites against the Reds, and finally his exile from his country. You are in a large Empire-style room with ornate green columns and a stage where a gypsy chorus will perform late in the evening. Through large panels of glass, you can see chefs in the spic-and-span kitchen preparing meals in gleaming copper pans.

To be an officer in the Sumsky Hussars, one needed wealth. When in Moscow, officers lunched at their club together, at a long table where the men sat strictly in order of rank. Before sitting down to eat one might stand at the bar and consume varieties of smoked fish while knocking back a few glasses of vodka. A bill was presented at the end of the month.

One always dined out. Those feeling especially flush might invite a female companion to a private room at the Yar and hire the gypsy chorus to perform for the two of them. Even the most junior officers seldom dined alone at the club. Sometimes several of the younger men would pool resources for a supper and hire singers and the regiment’s off-duty trumpeters for entertainment. The official regimental personnel included 16 trumpeters as well as the transport and communications units, the machine gun unit, and the clerks.

Wealth was also necessary for social cohesion. Littauer often speaks of the regiment as a “family.” Officers who did not share the others’ habits and values were driven out—a rare happening, since an intensive weeding-out process had already occurred in cavalry school. But a certain lieutenant from an aristocratic background who secretly married a beautiful gypsy girl was forced to leave. Any marriage required the permission of the commander and, just as importantly, the informal approval of one’s fellow officers. The regiment was so central to the men’s lives that few did take a wife. They satisfied themselves with what the regiment called “the ladies of our circle.” Littauer explains, “These were not prostitutes, but just ladies of easy virtue, and quite a few of them were amusing, besides being pretty and perhaps even chic.” (87)

Russian hussars, 1910.

Russian hussars, 1910.

In cavalry school, the boys were subjected to a regimen of demanding athletic accomplishments. Purely academic subjects such as Russian literature were scorned, and the professor of that subject was reduced to bargaining with his students about their grades. Naturally, everything revolved around horsemanship. The boys were drilled incessantly in a large ring until they could pull off such stunts as “Scythian riding” over low fences without either saddle or bridle.

I did a fair amount of riding when I was growing up, and I expected to find considerable detail about horsemanship in this book, especially since Littauer founded the famous “Boots and Saddles” riding school after he emigrated to the US. But perhaps because he’s written about the subject elsewhere, he doesn’t give it that much attention here. I learned that the Russian cavalry rode in the “manege” or dressage style, with long stirrups and upright posture, inducing the horse to make tight, controlled movements—arched neck, vertical head. In Littauer’s time, some of the younger officers advocated a newer style with shorter stirrups, the rider leaning forward out of the saddle at a gallop or a jump, the horse allowed extension in its movements. But the traditionalists would have none of that. In the field, the formal style often proved impractical. Littauer mentions that as the war went on, they replaced their curb bits with snaffles. The curb puts a lot of leverage on the horse’s mouth, while the snaffle is gentler and better suited to long cross-country rides.

Littauer’s experience of war

The picture presented in Russian Hussar could hardly be more different than the one described in the last book in this blog series, The Notebooks of Louis Barthas. For that matter, it bears no resemblance to any of the Western Front narratives. Of course, we’re on the Eastern Front here, and we’re dealing with cavalry rather than infantry. But it is the social world of the officers that makes the critical difference.

Badge of Sumsky Hussars commemorating its 250th anniversary.

Badge of Sumsky Hussars commemorating its 250th anniversary.

The Sumsky Hussars originated in 1651 as a Cossack regiment from the town of Sumy on the southern Russian plains. It was one of several bodies of Cossacks turned into regular cavalry, and one of four created the same year who all claimed to be the oldest Russian cavalry regiment.

Its officers either came from nobility or (as in Littauer’s case) from very wealthy families. As “younkers” in the Nicholas Cavalry School, they performed for the Tsar and not infrequently met with him personally. The officers’ club had on display such relics as a giant silver punch bowl presented by the town of Sumy on the regiment’s 250th anniversary, and a painting measuring six feet by ten feet depicting an attack by the regiment in the Napoleonic wars. Against this background, behavior was governed by intricate historical tradition.

Member of 2nd Sumsky regiment, 1812.

Member of 2nd Sumsky regiment, 1812.

Littauer’s stories nearly all concern other commissioned officers (he entered the regiment as a cornet, or 2nd lieutenant), or the occasional corporal, sergeant, or adjutant. The regular enlisted man doesn’t make much of an appearance. I don’t believe Littauer lacked human concern for his men. He did appreciate the courage of individuals, as when he describes seeing a dead soldier with a heap of spent cartridges by his side, indicating that he’d remained on the spot for a long time—far ahead of his company’s firing line—shooting until he was killed. “Since then I have seen and forgotten thousands of dead bodies, but this one I remember as though I saw it only yesterday.” (141)

But if Littauer ever felt any sense of horror or meaninglessness, he does not express it. This is in keeping with his personal code: “To make light of what was either boredom, danger, or tragedy, to speak freely of one’s failures, barely to mention one’s acts of bravery, and to joke about both.” (9)

Because he was an officer, he naturally avoided many of the discomforts experienced by his men. He and his fellows were billeted in the nicest houses in the villages they occupied, while the common soldiers slept on hay in the barns. He had better food and drink. Those things would make quite a difference in one’s experience of war.

As part of Russia’s 1st Army, he escaped the 2nd Army’s destruction at Tannenberg. The lack of coordination between the two armies is said to have derived from personal animosity between Rennenkampf and Samsonov that dated back to the Battle of Mukden in the Russo-Japanese War. The 1st Army should have gone to the support of the 2nd, but instead continued marching in a straight line under the willful Rennenkampf. And so, because of a trivial personality clash, Littauer’s regiment avoided going into the maelstrom.

German print of Battle of Tannenberg, showing cavalry of Russian 2nd Army.

German print of Battle of Tannenberg, showing cavalry of Russian 2nd Army.

The 1st Army was pursued by the Germans out of East Prussia, fighting fierce battles and experiencing heavy losses, especially in the period January to March 1915. This is probably the most severe combat Littauer experienced, and he describes seeing bodies stacked like cords of firewood and fields carpeted with the dead: those all-too-familiar images of battle. Thereafter the intensity abated, and eventually the regiment joined the army reserve in trenches along the bank of the Dvina (Daugavec) in east Latvia. But with the small numbers involved, these trenches bore little resemblance to the ones in Flanders and France.

It was while they occupied those trenches that they had word of the Revolution, March 1917. It took them completely by surprise. When Littauer heard that the Tsar was expected to abdicate, “This all sounded so preposterous that we could not believe it.” (229) Before long the men of the regiment requested to form a soldiers’ council, in keeping with the new democratic order. The Sumsky Hussars managed to hold together, with considerable internal tensions, but eventually Littauer quarreled with a platoon sergeant, and the soldiers’ council took Littauer’s squadron away from him. At that point he deserted and went home to St. Petersburg.

Tsar Nicholas in the uniform of the Grodnensky Guard Hussars.

Tsar Nicholas in the uniform of the Grodnensky Guard Hussars.

His odyssey thereafter is too long to detail here. He joined the White Army, eventually realized it was a lost cause, and after many harrowing adventures and narrow escapes managed to leave Russia with his father, his sister, and a family servant.

The other reason why Littauer’s book lacks deep introspection and reflections on the nature of war is that it is largely based on anecdotes, the sort, as mentioned earlier, that would be told among friends over good food and drink. But these anecdotes are exceedingly valuable. Not only do they entertain and provide notes of humor, they give a remarkable description of a world that has entirely disappeared.

Vladimir Littauer, 1892 - 1989. Photo taken 1953 at the riding school of Sweet Briar College.

Vladimir Littauer, 1892 – 1989. Photo taken 1953 at the riding school of Sweet Briar College.

* Dragoons = mounted infantry; Uhlans = lancers; Hussars = light cavalry; Cossacks are their own category.

Posted in History, Military History, Russian History, World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

Words of endurance: Notebooks of Louis Barthas

Grave of Louis Barthas. Detail of public-domain photo by Fredton.*

Grave of Louis Barthas. Detail of public-domain photo by Fredton.*

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. The full title of  this particular memoir is Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918. “Poilu” is a term for a French foot soldier, in use since the days of Napoleon.

As soon as I started reading Barthas’ notebooks, I understood what had been missing in my other recent WWI readings: sarcasm.

Not a harsh, meanspirited sarcasm, but an earthy, unblinking recognition of the absurdities of the situation. And no one could have expressed these absurdities better than the unique individual Louis Barthas, a working-class fellow who at the advanced age of 35 left his village of Peyriac-Minervois in southwest France, near Carcassone, to enter the war in early August, 1914. Incredibly, he survived until his discharge February 14, 1919. He served in battles of the Artois, Verdun, Champagne, the Somme, and the Argonne.

Lorette Cemetery as it appears today. Barthas always referred to it as the Lorette Charnel House.

In the Artois region—Lorette Cemetery as it appears today. Barthas invariably referred to the Lorette battlefield as the Charnel House.

The other personal accounts I have read about the war all came from officers, members of the better-educated, wealthier classes. With my current “Words of endurance” series on this blog, I am reading or re-reading these accounts. Some are well-known, such as Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel and the (almost too obvious) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Some don’t have such wide readership, such as Hans Carossa’s Roumanian Diary or Guy Chapman’s A Passionate Prodigality.  Or Vladimir Littauer’s Russian Hussar.** I haven’t by any means completed all of these books yet, but I will. Happily, I find them fascinating.

Among these authors, Junger is fierce, lyrical, and controversial. Remarque’s words are a watercolor of battle, lovely but blurred, Carossa and Chapman are introspective and meticulous. Littauer’s style comes across as urbane and anecdotal.

And then… I run smack up against Barthas, whose style is, to say the least, a bit grittier. He can say of an inept new commandant, “The poor guy read his map like a carp reading a prayer book.” In a newly made narrow trench, “An errant shell could come bouncing down the staircase and make a bloody grenadier omelet.” After a narrow miss from a shell, “Jalabert rushed off like a madman, but Sabatier, shaking himself off like a wet dog, declares in a cheerful voice, ‘What do you know? My pipe is busted!’ …Sabatier’s pipe was stuck in his mouth eleven hours out of twelve. The commission evaluating reparations for wartime damages will have to include Sabatier’s pipe.”

Trench on Cote 304 at Verdun---a place Barthas came to know well.

French regiment on Cote 304 at Verdun—a hill that Barthas came to know well.

Barthas was not afraid to describe the abominable conditions in the trenches, especially in the early stages of the war, when—compared with the German engineering efforts—the French dug trenches that seemed almost childlike, like what ten-years olds would dig to play in. Describing a dugout with a plank floor, Barthas admitted this was better than their usual accomodations on the damp earth. But… “For those who envy this well-being, it needs to be said that legions of lice and fleas had already chosen this floor as their domicile. Furthermore, these rough planks, simply laid next to each other by a clumsy carpenter on uneven ground, were like piano keys, so that… when a comrade came into the shelter, you wouldn’t be surprised to have your shoulder, your head, or your flank be bounced up while your other shoulder or flank sank down.”

Barthas was a socialist. In his home winemaking region, he had participated before the war in forming an agricultural worker’s union. He participated in stubborn refusals to go along with the insane plans of his officers—basically the “strategy” of throwing thousands of troops in suicidal rushes against enemy trenches. The thing that I like best is that his socialism was not at all abstract but came organically from his especially powerful sense of shared humanity.

Gifted with a sharp memory and keen perceptiveness, he had an instinct for intelligent action under fire. He was not afraid to go into the hellish combat on Cote 304 at Verdun, accepting a volunteer scouting assignment that left him highly exposed to enemy shellfire. His superiors made him a corporal, but when he annoyed too many of them with his antimilitaristic attitudes—extending even to fraternization with the odd German sentry or prisoner–he was demoted back to private. Then the higher-ups changed their minds, recognizing that he was the sort who really should have command of a squad. For him this was not such a privilege. He would rather have been a man of the ranks, not out of modesty but simply out of solidarity with the others.

Yet they gave him back his stripes, and from that point forward, he bluntly refused orders he considered would risk his men’s lives needlessly. Strangely enough, they generally retreated in silence: his will was stronger than theirs.

The men of his squad knew he was keeping a diary. Early in the war, one of them begged him, “You who are writing about the life we’re leading here, don’t hide anything. You’ve got to tell it all.” The others joined in. “Yes, yes, everything, everything. We’ll be there as your witnesses. Maybe we won’t all die here.” But another added cynically, “They won’t believe us, or maybe they won’t even give a damn.”

After the war he developed it, with much work, into a continuous narrative. In this sense he honored his comrades. He never thought of publication—the barrier between himself and a Parisian publishing house seemed insurmountable. Thus the notebook he’d toiled over languished twenty years after his death in a disused cupboard in his house. But when it saw the light of day, its discoverers understood they had come into possession of a unique document, a story of the Great War that could only have been told by Barthas himself. Some have said it is one of the greatest memoirs of that conflict, and I have a sense that assessment is correct.

French long gun battery run over at Verdun.

French long gun battery run over at Verdun.

* I used this photo because it is free of copyright. There is another photo of Barthas that shows him much more clearly, down to the points of his moustache. It is not in the public domain in the U.S. and I will not use it, but you can find it fairly easily with a little googling.

** The Littauer book was suggested to me by Pat Holscher, a reader of this blog. Thank you, Pat.

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Words of endurance: The Secret Battle

Stretcher bearers, Thiepval Ridge, Battle of the Somme

Stretcher bearers, Thiepval Ridge, Battle of the Somme.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War.

In January 1917, junior officer A.P. Herbert learned that a counterpart in another battalion of his division had been shot by firing squad for desertion. This disturbing news festered within him and, when he was soon thereafter wounded and sent home, he wrote a novel about a character who suffers the same fate. He titled it The Secret Battle.

A.P. Herbert.

A.P. Herbert.

Herbert and the man who was executed, Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Dyett, had both joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. But they were not destined to serve on battleships. Before the end of 1914 it became obvious that the navy had far more recruits than it needed, and most of the hapless volunteers were transferred to a unit called the Royal Navy Division. It was actually infantry, despite a pretense that many would serve in naval landing parties at Belgian ports.

Herbert went to Gallipoli in May 1915, was eventually invalided home—probably with severe dysentery, a rampant problem there—and served with the Admiralty intelligence before rejoining the RND. The British command had pulled the plug on the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, and the division now occupied trenches in France.

French 75 mm gun, 3rd Battle of Krithia, Gallipoli. This conflict figures in "The Secret Battle."

French 75 mm gun, 3rd Battle of Krithia, Gallipoli. This conflict figures in “The Secret Battle.”

In November 1916 they would participate in the final major battle of the Somme, taking Beaucourt sur l’Ancre with huge losses. Herbert was one of 20 to answer roll-call the next day out of his battalion’s 435 officers and men.

Edwin Dyett had a very different experience. From the sketchy details I have available, it appears he did have naval duties until the six-month-long Somme offensive got underway in July 1916. I can imagine Dyett’s sense of dread when he learned that he was to become one of the countless thousands fed into the Somme’s bloody trenches, where more than 400,000 British soldiers died. Unlike Herbert, he had no combat experience, and one account states, “Both he and his superior officers quickly learnt that he was ill-suited for land warfare, and he was held in reserve.”*

Apparently he begged to be returned to the naval sector—to no avail. In November he was ordered to join the front lines on the Ancre, but he returned to headquarters saying he hadn’t been able to find his unit. Ordered to try again, he wandered across the devastated terrain. When he was found, he claimed once again he’d lost his way. He was arrested for desertion, court-martialed, and executed. His final letter home said, “Dearest Mother mine… my only sorrow now is for the trouble I have caused you and Dad…. Please forgive my mistakes… I am sorry for the dishonour I have brought on you.”**

The central figure of The Secret Battle, Harry Penrose, sees quite a bit of action. He enters the war an enthusiastic, idealistic man who repeatedly demonstrates bravery. But the constant exposure to shellfire, the nightmare experience of seeing his comrades mutilated or killed, the discomfort of the trenches, eventually wear him down mentally and physically. Yet he remains determined to do his duty and, after recovering from a wound in autumn 1916, turns down an offer of a noncombat position with military intelligence. He returns to the front lines and is immediately ordered out with a supply party by his C.O., who dislikes him. Persisting through severe shellfire, Penrose leads the party forward, but they duck for cover again and again beneath the banks of a sunken road. Under a vicious bombardment, they run for cover to a dugout—where they are met by one of Penrose’s fellow officers, himself sheltering from the shelling.

This man, Burnett, is regarded as “bogus” by many in the battalion, and he, too, dislikes Penrose. Full of swagger, he’d been shown up as a fake on an occasion when he’d begged off on a mission that Penrose completed successfully. He reports to the C.O. that Penrose ran away from the combat area; Penrose is duly arrested, court-martialed, and executed by men of his own unit.

Herbert has taken the incident of execution for desertion and asked the question, “Isn’t it possible that even a brave man could find himself in circumstances where he faces this charge?” He has created two characters that illustrate aspects of his own self: Penrose and the nameless narrator, a good friend and associate of Penrose, who observes and records the fatal chain of events.

Herbert wrote the book very quickly in early 1917 when he was home recovering from a wound. It has the peculiarity that it lacks an objective framework. It does nothing to explain developments in terms of named historical events. For instance, it describes brutal fighting on the slopes of Achi Baba at Gallipoli, but I had to do some searching to figure out that Penrose’s unit (and probably Herbert’s) fought at what is now known as the Third Battle of Krithia, June 4, 1915.  When it comes to the battle on the Ancre at the Somme, Herbert has the narrator say: “I shall not tell you about it; it is in the histories.”

Interrogation of Turkish prisoners, 3rd Battle of Krithia.

Interrogation of Turkish prisoners, 3rd Battle of Krithia.

It is as if Herbert has become mortally weary of all the usual blather about battles “bravely fought” by such-and-such regiment, led by so-and-so, men falling for the glorious cause, etc., etc. For him it has been an experience shared with fellow human beings who have all the usual dreams and all the usual shortcomings, who do the best they can under extraordinary hardship, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing.

The Secret Battle contains a beautiful scene early on, when Penrose and the narrator have recently arrived at Gallipoli. Penrose is overjoyed to find himself in a region of historical significance that dates back to the ancient city of Troy. One sunny afternoon they climb the central ridge of the peninsula to get a view of the Dardanelles, that narrow strait connecting the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara and the gateway of Constantinople. (It is, of course, the strategic significance of this place that led the allied forces to wage war there against the Turks.) They walk over dry, scrubby terrain, finding the ground littered with spent cartridges left behind by Turkish riflemen. They pass groves of cool, shady cypresses and terraces of olives and vines. The landscape is etched out clearly. They see all the outlines of the peninsula neatly laid out, the inlets and the bays.

But what caught the immediate eye, what we had come to see and had sailed hither to fight for, was that strip of unbelievably blue water before us, deep, generous blue, like a Chinese bowl. On the farther shore… we could see a wide green plain, and beyond and to the left, peak after peak of the mountains of Asia; and far away in the middle distance there was a glint of snow from some regal summit of the Anatolian Mountains. That wide green plain was the Plain of Troy.

Oh, how things would change for the two of them as the terrible conflict dragged on.

Satellite image of the Dardanelles, with Gallipoli on its northwest side.

Satellite image of the Dardanelles, with Gallipoli on its northwest side.

* Neil Prior, “WW1: Edwin Dyett from Cardiff shot by his own side for desertion.” BBC News, September 8, 2014.

** Prior.

Posted in History, World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Words of endurance: WWI writings

Shell shock. The man at lower left has the "thousand-yard stare."

Shell shock at an Australian casualty station.. The man at lower left has the “thousand-yard stare.”

Introducing a new series.

Justifiably or not, the First World War has a bigger reputation for the literary output of its combatants than WWII. This is not to malign any writers of the latter conflict. I have seldom read a more searing memoir of combat than With the Old Breed: At Peleliu  by Eugene Sledge. There are some great WWII poets as well. Think of Howard Nemerov’s “The War in the Air” or Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” And Joseph Heller’s novel based on his own experience, Catch-22, is of course a classic—though I have to admit that when I re-read it this year, it seemed cartoonish to me.

Most of the literature of WWI came out of the mire and the muck of the Western Front. As someone said—I think it was historian John Keegan—the Western Front featured big armies on small pieces of land, while the Eastern Front featured small armies on huge expanses of land. Perhaps the claustrophobic Western Front not only crammed men together but crammed each man tight against his own identity, so that he could not escape any hard truths.

Russian troops going to the Eastern Front.

Russian troops going to the Eastern Front.

When men lived week after week in squalid trenches that faced across no-man’s-land to the trenches of their enemy, their world grew not only nightmarish but downright peculiar. Nothing like it had ever been seen before, with the possible exception of the 1904 siege of Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War. This scene had its own unique objects and its own special vocabulary. Whizz-bangs, 5-9s, Lewis guns, Stokes mortars. Communication trenches and duckboards, firesteps, parapets, going “over the top.” Respirators. Shell shock.

Maybe it was the strangeness of this muddy, bloody moonscape that inspired so many to write.

This series will look at novels, literary memoirs, and poetry produced by actual combatants. For my first installment, I will explore The Secret Battle by A.P. Herbert, the story of a very brave man who was, paradoxically, judged to be a coward by his superiors. I have other works in mind, but I welcome suggestions—please feel free to comment. I would especially like to hear of any account about the Russian experience on the Eastern Front. I also have only one Austro-Hungarian memoir, and no Turkish one. It would be interesting, for instance, to see something from the Turkish side about Gallipoli.

So, we will spend a little time in the Great War.

German soldier, Western Front.

German soldier, Western Front.

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Could the Hawaiian monarchy have survived?

Cartoon of Lili'uokalani with the usual racial imagery. Contrast with the photograph at bottom of this post.

Cartoon of Lili’uokalani with the usual racial imagery. Contrast it with the photograph at bottom of this post.

This is an opinion piece I wrote as a postscript to my series about King David Kalakaua of Hawaii.

I described in my piece about Kalakaua’s trip around the world how his traveling companion William N. Armstrong milked events of the trip for satirical effect. Armstrong’s book, Around the World With a King, depicted Kalakaua as a colorful character, childlike in his enthusiasm and optimism, full of naive Polynesian superstitions. The book’s style of humor grew out of the incongruities between the Polynesian culture (as Armstrong saw it) and the other worlds they encountered as they circled the globe.

Armstrong’s satire was milder, but no different in essence, than the mean-spirited ridicule that appeared in the later years of Kalakaua’s reign and in the years when his sister Lili’uokalani was on the throne. The jokes, the pamphlets spoofing the monarch, the political cartoons with hateful racial imagery, all grew more vituperative as the years went by and leading white citizens closed in on their goal of annexation with the U.S. By placing Hawaii under the U.S. flag, the territory would be forced to adopt the multitude of Anglo-American institutions that would (so it was claimed) maintain order, impose Christian morality, and rescue Hawaii from corrupt and incompetent monarchical rule.

It strikes me that satire and ridicule are the most powerful weapons to negate the value and the history of an alien culture. Even if it starts with gentle humor, it grows to nasty scorn, and somewhere along the way, the last hint of real laughter disappears and the attacks become destructive in the literal sense of destroying the spirit of the opponent.

Cartoon of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani.

Cartoon of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani.

As I studied the last days of the Hawaiian monarchy, I wondered about the humor of the native Hawaiians of that time and the channels in which it might have been expressed. Surely the humor worked in both directions—they must have found their antagonists just as silly as those antagonists found them.  As far as printed material went, there was a whole string of Hawaiian-language newspapers, but in the years of the kingdom most were sponsored by white people for the dominant culture’s purposes. The rebellious Hawaiian-language paper Ka Hoku o Ka Pakipika (edited by Kalakaua for a time) had an independent spirit but focused on cultural heritage. I haven’t managed to find information about any satire or cartoons that might have appeared. But at any rate I can only suppose there must have been plenty of laughter about the leading white citizens between Hawaiian friends in informal settings.

In historical accounts, the most familiar narratives are told not only by the victors but by the ones who have the greatest number of words in print. For instance, I think of the Boer War fought 1899-1902 in South Africa. The English left countless memoirs and histories, the Boers very few, as many were uneducated farmers who read only the family Bible. And so their side of the story tends to disappear.

In a similar way, for many years the Hawaiian side of the story stayed nearly invisible. That has changed with new scholarship and access to Hawaiian-language materials. Yet there will always be an imbalance. The details of Hawaiian culture and cosmology, arts and sports, the interesting mountaintop-to-sea land use patterns, and the skills of navigation, will never be as well known as the familiar facts of our dominant Anglo-American culture. There is too much disparity between the power of those worlds.

"Canoes at Diamond Head." Painting by Edward Bailey, 1890,

“Canoes at Diamond Head.” Painting by Edward Bailey, 1890,

In my view, that’s what the story of the Hawaiian kingdom comes down to: a gross inequity of power. The little cluster of islands mid-North Pacific offered too much that was tempting for the world’s major nations. In a way it’s surprising Hawaii wasn’t colonized in the first half of the nineteenth century. It offered a strategic point for refueling and resupply on trans-Pacific voyages, and its climate ensured ideal growing conditions for crops like sugar cane that would become so important.

Britain and France did make incursions, with the Paulet Affair in 1843 (a rogue British captain who tried to take over the islands) and the brief French takeover of Honolulu Fort in 1849 (they claimed it was in the name of religious freedom). But the Anglo-Franco Proclamation recognized Hawaii as an independent state “with a government capable of providing for the regularity of its relations with foreign nations”—namely, the government of Kamehameha III, the longest-ruling king.

The U.S. was founded as an independent nation supposed to embrace new ideals of equality, different from the old European nations with their centuries of bloody warfare and oppressive monarchies. But national pride easily develops into imperialism, and by 1848 Americans were already fighting the Mexican war and winning huge chunks of new territory. Some Americans were embarrassed by that conflict. Ulysses S. Grant, for instance, wrote in his memoirs, “Generally, the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”*

As late as the 1890s some Americans still felt that grabs for territory were unseemly. President Grover Cleveland was one of those, and he opposed the annexation of Hawaii on moral grounds. But with the start of the Spanish-American War in Cuba and the Philippines, the tide turned in favor of U.S. expansionism, and Hawaii was annexed when William McKinley took office.

The American takeover didn’t happen overnight. First the missionary descendants had to justify themselves on the basis that they stood on high moral ground, forced to take charge, they said, because the Hawaiian monarchy was corrupt and incompetent—and ridiculous. It took some years over the course of the reigns of Kalakaua and Lili’uokalani to fully establish these assertions by the use of satire earlier described. And when native rule was fully delegitimized, William Armstrong could write with pride of the missionary descendants, “When annexation… took place in 1898, the American flag did not rise over a community of aliens, but over one of original Anglo-Saxon force, born under the Southern Cross, which had alone for half a century held itself intact against alien influences. At the tap of the Federal drum it wheeled into line and took up its march to the music of the Union without an awkward step, and is now the advanced picket line of American civilization in the Pacific.”**

The Hawaiian kingdom never had a chance.

Lili'uokalani, the last monarch of Hawaii.

Lili’uokalani, the last monarch of Hawaii.

* Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs and Collected Letters. New York: The Library of America, 1990, p. 41.

** William N. Armstrong, Around the World with a King.  Cambridge, MA: The University Press, 1904, p. 290.

Posted in Hawaiian History, History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Ridicule and rifles: The Bayonet Constitution

Cartoon about the Bayonet Constitution. King Kalakaua in foreground, Queen Kapiolani in background. The racial imaging is pretty outrageous.

Cartoon about the Bayonet Constitution. King Kalakaua in foreground, Queen Kapiolani in background. The racial imagery is especially nasty, in particular as it concerns the queen.

This is the seventh installment of a series about King David Kalakaua of Hawaii and the final one that concerns him in particular. After studying the subject for the past two months, I find myself haunted by the question, “Could the Hawaiian monarchy have survived?” In my next post, I will attempt to answer this in my own way.

Whatever his flaws, Kalakaua kept things lively. He repeatedly threw out and replaced his ministers. He kept the white community abuzz when he established a secret society called the Hale Naua. People gossiped that its members practiced nefarious rituals. (In fact, it was dedicated to studying and preserving ancient Hawaiian beliefs.*) He placed government finances on a precarious footing, first relying on “sugar king” Claus Spreckels for funds, then resorting to a questionable $2 million loan from a London syndicate. The loan entailed hidden costs that added another ten percent to the total obligation—not counting the interest—and the syndicate paid one of the men from Hawaii who negotiated it, G.W. Macfarlane, £2000 for entering into the deal.**

Then there was the disastrous expedition to Samoa to start a confederation of Polynesian nations. This brought Hawaii to the brink of war with Germany, which coveted Samoa for its own purposes. Kalakaua’s idea of an alliance between Polynesian peoples had echoes of his proposal to Emperor Meiji for Asian nations to unite in forming a counterweight against the dominant western powers. Germany, Britain, and the U.S. were negotiating among themselves about Samoa’s future, and when the tiny kingdom of Hawaii proposed to join their discussions, it was at first ridiculed and then ignored. Unfortunately, Hawaii’s envoy to Samoa went on a drinking binge during his January 1887 visit, and the vessel with six small brass cannons sent to represent the kingdom was plagued by mutiny and disorderly conduct.

Samoa coastline scenery.

Samoa coastline scenery.

From the standpoint of the white community, the last straw came when the Hawaiian Gazette reported in spring 1887 that Kalakaua had accepted a bribe from a Chinese businessman for the issuance of an opium license.

It’s easy to imagine the scornful laughter that greeted these events. When an ordinary public figure does something questionable like take a bribe, disapproval can be expected, but Kalakaua was such a colorful personality that the response quickly morphed into ridicule. He was such an easy target for satire. He’d already been spoofed after his coronation with the pseudo-epic “The Crowning of the Dread King.” Now, two new pamphlets circulated among the missionary descendants, “Vacuum: A Farce in Three Acts” and “The Grand Duke of Gynbergdrinkenstein.”

The Bayonet Constitution

Early in 1887, citizens opposed to the government of Kalakaua and his premier, Walter Murray Gibson, formed a secret organization called the Hawaiian League. Membership was strictly all-white except for a handful with part-Hawaiian ancestry. The league’s stated objective was “Constitutional, representative Government, in fact as well as form, in the Hawaiian Islands, by all necessary means.”*** The more radical members wanted abolishment of the monarchy and establishment of a republic—a few even called for assassinating the king—but ultimately the moderates prevailed. They would preserve the monarchy but drastically restrict its powers.

The Hawaiian League stealthily took control over an all-white militia called the Honolulu Rifles, established 1884. At the same time, merchants ordered crates of rifles to be shipped to Honolulu stores so that additional citizens could join in forcing a change in government.

Honolulu Rifles in full regalia.

Honolulu Rifles in full regalia.

By late June the king knew about the rifle shipments—the rumor mill took care of that. Up until now he’d maintained an air of bravado, and it was more than a pose. He truly believed he’d always be able to take charge of events, as he’d often assured the skeptical William Armstrong.# But now he became uneasy. On June 27 he requested American minister G.W. Merrill to come to the palace—he wanted advice. Merrill told him what the king already knew, that leading citizens were making “loud complaints” about expenditure of public funds, the Samoan expedition, and other matters. Merrill said “the public” demanded removal of the present cabinet headed by Gibson.## That very night, Kalakaua called for his ministers’ resignation. But this was not enough.

On June 30 the League held a mass meeting. The king called out the Honolulu Rifles to keep the peace, unaware that they now acted under the League’s instructions. Many fiery speeches were made and, eventually, the attendees voted to pass a set of resolutions that made specific requests to the king. These were taken to the palace, and Kalakaua promised a written response.

On July 1 a new shipment of firearms arrived, although enthusiastic citizens were disappointed to find that most of them were small guns for the use of Chinese farmers in driving off birds from their fields. As men with rifles roamed the streets, the king had the palace fortified and placed armed guards around it. Meanwhile, he prepared his response to the resolutions, asserting in writing that he’d already carried most of them out—they mainly demanded the resignation of key officials, including Gibson and his cabinet. To a resolution that he should return the sum given as a bribe for the opium license, he denied he’d accepted a bribe but said he would follow the advice of the new cabinet. He further pledged not to interfere with constitutional processes.

The response went to the committee that had authored it, and a new League-approved cabinet was installed. But that was not enough, either.

Between July 1 and July 6, a special committee of the League prepared a new constitution. Late on the afternoon of the 6th, the document was read to the king. He listened in a gloomy silence that seemed, even to those who opposed him, “somewhat appalling.”### This was no longer the man dubbed “The Merrie Monarch.” When the reading was done, he argued points but frequently stopped to gaze into space, as if stunned and perplexed. At last, he grasped a pen and signed it.

A subdued Kalakaua.

A subdued Kalakaua, 1890.

The consequences

The constitution, in essence, made the king a ceremonial figure. The real work of the government was to be done by elected officials. He retained two powers: he could veto legislation, but the assembly could override that by a two-thirds vote; and he could appoint cabinet ministers, although he couldn’t call for their resignations.

The constitution called for radical changes regarding eligibility to vote. It made nobles of the assembly elected officials for the first time, but substantial property qualifications ensured whites would control that vote. For the lower half of the assembly voters had no property requirement—instead, a new literacy requirement was imposed. As a result, only about a quarter of ethnic Hawaiians could vote.

And for the first time in the history of Hawaii, there was a racial restriction. Legal scholar Patrick Hanifin writes: “Broadening the electorate for representatives to include all male residents would have created a new electoral majority: recent immigrants from Japan and China, most of them field workers in the sugar plantations. However, because there was no reason to think that these immigrants would support the Reform Party… persons of Asian ancestry were denied the vote, even if they had been able to vote under the prior constitutions.”+

Between the exclusion of Asians and the property and literacy barriers, the haoles now owned the vote.

Later that year, an plot was contrived by Robert Wilcox (who’d been connected with Celso Moreno) to overthrow the new government and restore the monarchy. When his plans were discovered, he was exiled to California. Two years later he returned and led 150 armed men in an attack on government offices. With the assistance of Marines from the U.S.S. “Adams,” the insurgents were repelled and Wilcox taken into custody. A jury of native Hawaiians found him innocent of conspiracy, but he made no more attempts at revolt.

Photographs of the king in his late years show a changed man, a morose expression on his face. His health in decline, he took a trip to California for a “rest cure.” But he’d never been able to resist any kind of festivity. Without the greetings and toasts, the jokes and the backslapping, the late-night hours of camaraderie, life was hardly worth living. He attended a glittering succession of balls, banquets, and receptions. This all came to an abrupt end when he suffered a stroke. Eight days later, attended by his doctor, attendants, and friends at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, he died. At the age of 54, his body had entirely broken down. He had kidney disease—nephritis—compounded by heart problems and cirrhosis of the liver.

Robert Louis Stevenson and Kalakaua at the royal boathouse, February 1889.

Robert Louis Stevenson and Kalakaua at the royal boathouse, February 1889.

After Kalakaua: A timeline

January 1891: Kalakaua’s sister Lili’uokalani assumes throne. Hawaii is suffering economic decline because of the McKinley Tariff, which eliminated advantages of the Reciprocity Treaty.

December 1892: Lili’uokalani proposes and signs into law new licensing for opium sales and lotteries as a revenue source. This is vehemently opposed by the white community. She proposes a new constitution that would restore power to the monarchy.

January 1893: A “Committee of Safety,” backed by U.S. Marines, forces the queen to give up her powers. She says she yields authority temporarily “to avoid any collision of armed forces.”

July 1893: Sanford Dole and his associates proclaim themselves the “Provisional Government of Hawaii” to rule until annexation by the U.S. They have to wait because  President Grover Cleveland opposes annexation on moral grounds.

July 1894: “Republic of Hawaii” proclaimed.

January 1895: A pro-monarchy force of 600 attempts a counter-rebellion but is repelled. When a cache of weapons is found on the palace grounds, Lili’uokalani is arrested. She is tried and convicted of treason and placed under house arrest. She formally abdicates the throne.

July 1898: With William McKinley now in office as President, Congress passes a joint resolution to annex Hawaii, and it becomes U.S. territory.

August 1959: Hawaii becomes 50th state.

Lili'uokalani in 1891.

Queen Lili’uokalani in 1891.

* For a detailed and original account of Kalakaua’s contributions to Hawaiian culture, 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. 299.

*** Kuykendall, p. 348.

# William Armstrong was the king’s companion on his around-the-world trip and often advised him caution and moderation in dealing with the leading white citizens. Kalakaua always said he could keep control of things. After all, these were his subjects.

## Kuykendall, p. 357.

### Kuykendall, p. 367.

+ Patrick Hanifin, “To Dwell on the Earth in Unity: Rice, Arakaki, and the Growth of Citizenship and Voting Rights in Hawai’i.” Hawaii Bar Journal V:13, pp. 25-26.


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The coronation and its critics

The crown of Kalakaua.

The crown of Kalakaua.

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.***

Boys with leprosy, c. 1900.

Boys with leprosy, c. 1900.

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.#

Walter Murray Gibson.

Walter Murray Gibson.

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 Iolani Palace.

The original 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.

Iolani Palace in 1885.

Iolani Palace in 1885.

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.

The coronation

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.”

Queen Kapiolani.

Queen Kapiolani.

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.

Kalakaua standing with sabre.

Kalakaua standing with sabre.

* 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.


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Hawaiian king meets Japanese emperor

Emperor Meiji. Portrait by Eduardo Chiossone.

Emperor Meiji. Portrait by Eduardo Chiossone.

This is the fifth installment in a series about King David Kalakaua of Hawaii. It focuses on a particular episode of his 1881 trip around the world.

By October 1880, the brouhaha over Celso Moreno had subsided. The Italian adventurer’s secret commission was canceled and the latest set of cabinet ministers installed. Newspaper editors in Honolulu moved on to fresh topics. King Kalakaua began talking of journeying around the world. On January 11, 1881, the king and his cabinet discussed the details. He would be accompanied by Charles H. Judd as chamberlain and William N. Armstrong in the dual capacity of minister of state and commissioner of immigration. One of the purposes of the trip was said to be encouragement of population movements to Hawaii.

In truth, the trip had several purposes, some never clearly articulated. Kalakaua told his native subjects that his goal was to recuperate his health and “recuperate his people” by the introduction of foreign immigrants. Regarding his health, the past year had no doubt been stressful. As for the health of his people, their numbers had been reduced from close to 300,000 at the time of Captain Cook’s “discovery” of the islands to around 30,000 by 1878.* Foreign diseases such as measles, smallpox, and leprosy had ravaged the kingdom. Kalakaua believed the population needed replenishment.

But there were other goals. The king told a group of foreign residents he was going to study methods of government in other nations which might help settle “questions arising out of our peculiar situation.”  The king’s motives were derided by some as idle curiosity, a pretext for enjoying himself. It was no secret that he thrived on celebrations and banquets, receptions and ceremonies. He loved the glitter and gold braid of royal pomp. But throughout his life he displayed a genuine interest in other cultures, from Buddhist temples to Viennese ballrooms. William Armstrong, in his book about the journey, threw in one more motive. The king, he said, wanted the glory of being the first sovereign ever to “put a girdle around the earth.”

Armstrong’s work, Around the World with a King, is the only firsthand account of the trip. He’d known Kalakaua since boyhood, when they attended the royal school that educated members of the native nobility and children of white members of the cabinet. He was fond of the king but had no respect for native Hawaiian culture, seeing it as barbaric. In other words, Armstrong was a man of his times. Like other whites on the islands, he believed the natives were backward and ignorant.

William Armstrong, after a dinner given by Kalakaua.

William Armstrong, after a dinner given by Kalakaua.

Armstrong wrote, “[Kalakaua’s] kingdom was recognized as civilized by all nations, and he was a monarch in good and regular standing among his royal brethren. This was due to the unselfish labor of the American missionaries and their allies, who had created the framework of an institutional government…. But the King being Polynesian, neither he nor his native subjects fully understood the nature of Anglo-Saxon government, and if they had been allowed to have their own way, political conditions would have quickly fallen into those which are found in the South American republics or among even less-civilized people…. The King’s mind was naturally filled with the crude ideas, the superstitions, the absolutism of a Polynesian chief, though his experience had modified their exaggerated forms; and, where experience was lacking, a vague fear of the white men’s superior intelligence took its place.”**

To be fair to Armstrong, once having baldly stated his prejudices, he did not spend his whole book dwelling on the supposed inferiority of native Hawaiians. He had a couple of ongoing humorous themes. One was the incongruity of the ruler of a tiny island kingdom meeting on equal footing with emperors and monarchs of much larger territories. This played out in such details as the emperor of Japan politely inquiring, “And how large is your majesty’s army?” Another theme was the perpetual drunkenness of a member of the royal party—not a native Hawaiian, but the king’s personal valet, a German baron who had come down in the world due to his sprees. And another was the attempt to include traditional Hawaiian garb in the king’s ceremonial wardrobe—should the multicolored feather cloak be worn atop the European-style military uniform?

The tour begins

The king’s global circumnavigation was to proceed in a westward direction, but he started off with a quick jaunt to San Francisco before heading across the Pacific to Japan. It was just as well he did, because the Japanese consul there alerted officials in Tokyo to the impending visit. Kalakaua’s idea had been to travel incognito, to spare himself embarrassment in case any nation didn’t care to recognize the miniscule Hawaiian kingdom. But officials in Japan decided to receive the king with full honors.

Yokohama street scene, c. 1880. No attribution given.

Yokohama street scene, c. 1880.

Much to the Hawaiians’ surprise, as their steamer entered Yokohama harbor, Japanese and foreign warships fired 21-gun salutes. A contingent of naval officers and imperial commissioners in full uniform boarded the ship to greet them, politely ignoring the travelers’ casual dress, and the visitors were taken ashore. As they approached the landing, they saw crowds thronging the docks and lines of troops in formation, and the emperor’s military band burst out with the Hawaiian anthem, “Hawaii Pono’i.” This moved the visitors to tears. They proceeded to one of the emperor’s several palaces, noting that the houses along the way were decorated with crossed Hawaiian and Japanese flags.

The emperor was to receive them the next day in Tokyo. During his reign he was called Emperor Mutsuhito, but he is better known as Emperor Meiji, the man on the throne during a period of intensive progress, when Japan transformed itself from an isolated society with feudal customs into a modern, industrialized nation. Armstrong described his own nervousness about meeting the emperor, as he was “an untutored American… denied the priceless blessings of royal associations [he is being humorous]…. The King directed me to stand at his right, and closely watch the conduct of the Prime Minister of Japan [for proper protocol]…. As I was about to wear a sword for the first time, he warned me against allowing it to get between my legs.”***

As they journeyed to Tokyo the next day, they found once again that buildings everywhere had been decorated with the two nations’ flags. In keeping with royal etiquette, the emperor greeted them at the threshold of his palace. He was tall for a Japanese of the time, but Kalakaua towered over him. Meiji shook hands with Kalakaua in western style, which the Hawaiians considered a special honor. They walked to an inner chamber, where the empress greeted Kalakaua with a slight nod, and the monarchs chatted for twenty minutes. The visitors were offered refreshments but declined because they’d heard they shouldn’t eat in the emperor’s presence.

Throne hall of Meiji-era palace.

Throne hall of Meiji-era palace.

They were escorted to a building reserved to accommodate foreign dignitaries, where they found Robert, the valet, lying drunk and asleep in the king’s bedchamber, wearing the ceremonial feather cloak and a top hat. They removed their heavy uniforms and prepared to join Robert in having a rest, but received sudden warning that the emperor would return their visit within an hour, in accordance with court etiquette. They hastily dressed just in time to meet the emperor again. He was followed by a string of imperial princes, twenty high-ranking officials, and John Bingham, the American minister.

The next days were filled with state banquets, special theatrical entertainments, and visits to surrounding sights. The king had planned to stay just three days, but his hosts had scheduled ten days of festivities, to culminate with a grand ball. This was the first visit to Japan by a foreign monarch—former President Grant had visited two years earlier, but he was not a head of state at that time, and not royalty—so the imperial court felt it important to give the visitors full honors. For them, it was a symbol of opening Japan to foreign influences.

Early in the visit Kalakaua took a notable step, advising the Japanese foreign minister, Inoue Kaaru, that he intended to abrogate the extraterritoriality clause in the treaty between Japan and Hawaii. Such clauses were customary in Japan’s treaties with western nations, denying Japanese sovereignty over a number of its own seaports. These “treaty ports” were placed under the jurisdiction of foreign consuls who could rule over matters concerning Japanese citizens. The Meiji government naturally applauded the Hawaiian king’s decision.

Noting that the European powers would be horrified by Kalakaua’s action, Armstrong wrote, “I rather enjoyed the fun of throwing fire into the dried grass of the international prairie—a fire which would soon force the uneasy diplomats who represented the Great Powers to scurry about to extinguish it.”# As it turned out, intense opposition by European governments later forced Hawaii to reverse this step, and extraterritoriality remained a feature of Japan’s treaties for seventeen more years.

Nevertheless, Kalakaua’s gesture made him the toast of the town, and his hosts lavished even more attention on their Hawaiian guests. The festivities continued with a performance of classic Japanese drama. The visitors found it inscrutable but observed with interest the nobility in the audience, who varied in their dress between kimonos and the latest Paris fashions. They also attended a review of the troops. The emperor and the king rode side by side on horses that had trappings of gold cloth. Armstrong noted, “The King was a superb horseman, for he was trained in his early days to the use of the lariat in the capture of wild cattle.”##

One morning, the king mysteriously departed the guest quarters in the company of the emperor’s chamberlain, leaving Armstrong and Judd behind. This annoyed Armstrong, as he saw himself and Judd as babysitters for a wayward monarch. Kalakaua kept tight-lipped about his meeting with the emperor, so his advisors did not learn of what transpired until they returned to Hawaii.  A Japanese account records that Kalakaua introduced three topics.###

1. He proposed a league of Asian nations as a counterweight to the European powers. He spoke of Asian countries as oppressed by Europe, and suggested that Meiji head the league. Kalakaua further suggested that Meiji attend the exposition planned for 1883 in New York (it was never held) and meet there with Asian and European rulers.

Meiji responded with interest and appreciation, but pointed out that the Asian nations were by no means unified in their aims, and that China in particular would be unlikely to join such a league. (In fact, Japan was to crush China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, and to defeat Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, a tremendous humiliation for Czar Nicholas.)

Princess Ka'iulani as a girl.

Princess Ka’iulani as a girl.

2 . Kalakaua proposed that his neice Ka’iulani, then five years old, become the bride of Prince Sadamaro, a 16-year-old student at the naval academy whom he had met and liked. As he intended to name Ka’iulani his successor, the next ruler of Hawaii would consequently have a Japanese husband. His thinking can only be guessed at, but he may have felt this would help ward off U.S. annexation.

Meiji made no immediate answer, but he might have feared that a Hawaiian-Japanese royal marriage would antagonize the U.S. and the Europeans. And the new Japanese embrace of foreign cultures fell short of approving intermarriage between nobles: a prince who married a high-placed German lady was forced to divorce.

Prince Yorohito Higoshifushimi (his later formal name). He fought in the wars against China and Russia.

Prince Yorohito Higoshifushimi (his later formal name). He fought in the wars against China and Russia.

3.  Kalakaua expressed an interest in an undersea cable linking Hawaii and Japan.

In the end, none of the king’s wishes were realized. Meiji conferred with his cabinet but rejected the notion of a league of Asian states. As for the royal marriage, Prince Sadamaro himself wrote to the king in a letter received in Hawaii in 1882, saying he could not marry Princess Ka’iulani, as he had been engaged to a Japanese girl of nobility as a small child. Finally, the cable proposal was turned down for lack of funds and because the American Cyrus Field had made a prior request.

None of the polite refusals of Kalakaua’s brave ideas were received before the royal party’s return to Hawaii. They continued to enjoy the hospitality of the imperial court. Toward the end of the visit, the king expressed a wish to attend a dinner at which only Japanese dishes would be served. His hosts took him at his word and arranged that the visitors should be provided with silk kimonos and sit Japanese-style around the table, cross-legged on the floor. Armstrong found it excruciating to sit in this position for three hours of elaborate courses of food punctuated by performances of traditional dance, but the king was accustomed to sitting cross-legged at native Hawaiian events, and he thoroughly enjoyed the occasion.

On the eve of the proposed grand ball, the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs received a telegram informing him that Czar Alexander II had been assassinated. A state banquet had just begun, and announcement of the czar’s death was postponed for two hours so that official mourning for fellow royalty need not interrupt the dinner. But the grand ball was canceled, and the visit came to an end. Many costly gifts were exchanged; the king invested the emperor with the Grand Cross of the Order of Kamehameha, and the emperor reciprocated with the Grand Order of the Chrysanthemum.

The Hawaiians toured other cities over the next days, visiting Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagasaki. Kalakaua especially admired the Buddhist temples. As Armstrong described it, “Their bizarre architecture and gaudy ornaments were more attractive to him than the severe, cold church buildings which the Puritanism of New England had erected in his kingdom. He said such temples would adorn the beautiful valleys of his islands, and suggested to me correspondence with my colleagues in the government on the subject of introducing Buddhism to his people.”+

Pagoda of Buddhist temple in Japan.

Pagoda of Buddhist temple in Japan.

Armstrong joked that Buddhist ideas of reincarnation would make it necessary to introduce tigers, snakes, hippopotami, and other creatures “into which the souls of the believers could enter and be reincarnated.” Yet perhaps Kalakaua felt that Buddhist ideas harmonized in a certain way with the native Hawaiian cosmology—better than the stern teachings of the missionaries.


The king’s voyage lasted ten months. He did not succeed in seeing the rulers of all nations he visited—most notably in xenophobic China—but he set foot in 19 nations. He was well received in Great Britain, which still had a strategic interest in Hawaii. On his return across the U.S., he met with Chester A. Arthur, who had just assumed the presidency following the assassination of Garfield.

#  #  #

King Kalakaua.

King Kalakaua.

* Estimates are given in Michael Dougherty, To Steal a Kingdom:  Probing Hawaiian History. Waimanalo, HI: Island Style Press, 1992, p. 190.

** William N. Armstrong, Around the World with a King.  Cambridge, MA: The University Press, 1904, p. 11.

*** Armstrong, p. 33.

# Armstrong, p. 50.

## Armstrong, p. 56.

### The Meiji tennoki, as reported in Donald Keene, Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, pp. 347-49.

+ Armstrong, p. 84.


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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.


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