This book review is going to be as disjointed and ultimately unresolved as my entire trip back to the Big Island where I grew up. It’s a review of Princess Ka’iulani of Hawaii: The Monarchy’s Last Hope by Kristin Zambucka — a book that I picked up in my last hour in Hilo, at the locally owned and Hawaii-focused bookstore Basically Books.
We were in Hilo’s Basically Books because we’d checked out of the Naniloa Hilton and had some time before the evening flight to Honolulu. The shelves had a selection that centered around Hawaiian history and authors, and the rest of their shelves had a careful selection of authors across genres.
I eavesdropped while the booksellers chatted at the check-out counter about an order they were going to send to a new librarian. “He’s fresh off the boat,” one lady said, “We need to train him up.” She began listing a primer of books about Hawaii that he’d need to read to satisfy them of his worthiness for the position.
While listening to the booksellers, I held two books in my hand. I stood in the biography section, my favorite way to learn history because it’s usually one of the only ways to gain a perspective on women’s lives. Hawaii had the luck of Chieftesses and a Queen in its history, but biographies often provide details of daily life that are overlooked by the “great men and great wars” style of history books.
In one hand, I had a book about Kapoho (Kapoho: Memoir of a Modern Pompeii, by Frances Kakugawa). In the other hand, I held a tragically real fairy tale about a Hawaiian princess. The day before, my family went down to the vast lava plane that exists where the town of Kapoho used to stand. It was haunting in its own right, for being a huge blank slate of the earth’s bones — the town was nothing but a lighthouse surrounded by black-grey rock tumbling down to a stormy sea.
I skimmed the book on Kapoho, and saw that it was an interesting depiction of a tiny 1950s-era Hawaiian town. The part that got me was the author’s poem at the end — a poem dedicated to “the last people alive to grow up in Kapoho.”
Was it weird to stay in a hotel on Banyan Drive (“haole street”) in my own hometown? Yeah, it totally was. At one point in our rambles around the island we drove by my old apartment building and it looked exactly the same — not older or newer; in good repair, but no more modern than it was in the 80s. This was my experience in Hilo in general: it is a small town surrounded by isolating water, and for good or ill, it hasn’t changed much at all.
At the small indoor/outdoor airport on Maui waiting for our flight, I asked a woman what had changed in Hilo since the 80s. “Well. A TJ Maxx just opened,” she said thoughtfully. Then a bird flew into the terminal and perched on a gate sign, and rain washed in to cool our faces while we waited for the flight. Plus ça change.
Instead of purchasing this tale of a pre-apocalyptic Hawaiian fishing village, I chose the story of the young fin de siècle Hawaiian princess. During this trip to Hilo, we drove past places that were full of resonance for me — my elementary school, named after Chieftess Kapiolani, still in its place of dilapidated glory in the heart of the old downtown. My middle school, Hilo Intermediate, the place where I learned to sing Hawaii Ponoi and learned one version of the story of Hawaii’s annexation into the US in 1893. It was here that I first read of Princess Ka’iulani.
I forgive my middle school for taking a blandly America-positive stance on the events of 1893. The large-print text books with their mashed and scratched covers didn’t delve much into primary sources (this was the 1980s, after all), and what I learned was that a small group of right-minded revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy to bring democracy to a nation mired in outmoded traditions. This was, obviously, not the whole story.
Flying somewhere over the pacific, I read the letters of Ka’iulani to her aunt Lili’uokalani, Hawaii’s last queen. I was reminded that Western history is very often written by white people to exonerate their choices. Perhaps it’s not a surprise, but Hawaii’s history through Ka’iulani’s eyes tells the story of a group of white men who owned sugarcane plantations, and who decided to wrest power away from the new Queen because they wanted to further their own business interests. The photo of the men of the Provisional Government who took over after Lili’uokalani was ousted was a stark reminder of the lens of middle school history books:
The rest of Ka’iulani’s letters reveal a girl growing up with a silver spoon in her mouth. She inherited a Waikiki property at age 11 after the death of her mother, Princess Likelike. Ka’iulani played with her pet peacocks, rode her pony, and ate raw fish and poi given to her by the residents of Honolulu who loved her. She managed to win the heart of a visiting Brit, Robert Louis Stevenson, just before she went off to boarding school in England at age 13. Stevenson wrote this poem to her, which was also an ode to her Waikiki estate.
Forth from her land to mine she goes,
The island maid, the island rose,
Light of heart and bright of face:
The daughter of a double race.
Her islands here, in Southern sun,
Shall mourn their Kaiulani gone,
And I, in her dear banyan shade,
Look vainly for my little maid.
But our Scots islands far away
Shall glitter with unwonted day,
And cast for once their tempests by
To smile in Kaiulani’s eye.
Ka’iulani was happa, half Scottish from her father and half Hawaiian from her mother, and yes — everyone made much of her “exotic” appearance.
In England, Ka’iulani grew up and was presented to society, and did all of the things that well-born women did: danced at balls, learned languages and music and painting, wrote copious letters, discussed issues of arranged marriages and succession (she was the Crown Princess, but her aunt the Queen was increasingly insecure about her place as the voices of the American annexationists grew), learned science and mathematics, and attended many theatrical productions.
And of course, when the people of Hawaii were threatened by an American battleship in Honolulu harbor and Queen Lili’uokalani forced to step down, Ka’iulani went to Washington to meet President Grover Cleveland and beg for her country’s sovereignty. She was 18 years old when she wrote these words to the people of America:
Four years ago, at the request of Mr. Thurston, then a Hawaiian Cabinet Minister, I was sent away to England to be educated privately and fitted to the position which by the constitution of Hawaii I was to inherit. For all these years, I have patiently and in exile striven to fit myself for my return this year to my native country. I am now told that Mr. Thurston will be in Washington asking you to take away my flag and my throne. No one tells me even this officially. Have I done anything wrong that this wrong should be done to me and my people? I am coming to Washington to plead for my throne, my nation and my flag. Will not the great American people hear me?
Seventy years ago, Christian America sent over Christian men and women to give religion and civilization to Hawaii. Today, three of the sons of those missionaries are at your capitol asking you to undo their father’s work. Who sent them? Who gave them the authority to break the Constitution which they swore they would uphold? Today, I, a poor weak girl with not one of my people with me and all these ‘Hawaiian’ statesmen against me, have strength to stand up for the rights of my people. Even now I can hear their wail in my heart and it gives me strength and courage and I am strong – strong in the faith of God, strong in the knowledge that I am right, strong in the strength of seventy million people who in this free land will hear my cry and will refuse to let their flag cover dishonor to mine!
The Thurston named by Ka’iulani above gave his name to a lava tube that we walked through on our exploration of Volcano National Park. But now I know its real name: Nāhuku. And I won’t forget.
Although she found President Cleveland sympathetic, US Congress refused to recognize the monarchy, and the country became the Territory of Hawaii in 1898. The ceremony of annexation was treated like a Hawaiian funeral, with Ka’iulani wearing a black frock as Hawaii Ponoi was played for the last time as the national anthem, and the Hawaiian flag was lowered from the palace heights. This photo of Hawaiian royalty was taken on annexation day, with no-longer-Queen Lili’uokalani sitting, and Princess Ka’iulani to her right.
Later that year, Hawaii’s former crown princess Ka’iulani died at the age of 23, after contracting pneumonia that exacerbated her rheumatism — after riding in the rain in the mountains of Waimea on the Big Island.
Hawaii is still pushing forward in a determined way to reclaim its land from developers, its culture from imperialists, its future from the West. Along the way it picked up a host of immigrants who are now considered “locals,” part of the melange of people who make up the newly native population. Much like me, everyone is mixed race — Japanese, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Philippino, Chinese, Samoan, white.
Hilo, in its own stubborn way, clings to its traditions. Next week the Merrie Monarch festival will be in town, and perhaps one of the hula halau will sing the Patriot’s Song, written in protest of annexation.
I took my family down the Hamakua coast, and then cut up the small road into Waimea to see the pastures of paniolo (cowboy) country. The pastures looked ancient of days, as old as the farms of England — as if people had been using the land for their settlements for centuries. The weather was misty and cool, the old volcano Pu’u O Umi slumbering above the pasturelands. It is one of my favorite places on the Big Island, and looking back, it feels fitting that this beauty went hand in hand with tragedy. Ka’iulani died after engaging in one of her favorite activities, riding her horse, in this misty and mystic countryside. With her went Hawaii’s deposed Crown Princess, to mark the ending of an era of Hawaiian rule of their own land.
I am glad I bought a book that contextualized my trip to Hawaii and added primary source depth to my understanding of Hawaiian culture. I wouldn’t go again without reading more histories — stuff I should’ve learned in school, stuff they probably teach now.