The Polynesians, who had already colonized Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands in the first century AD, settled in Hawai’i around 300 AD. They brought with them a distinctively tribal, yet a spiritually advanced culture with a sophisticated farming system. Each canoe that had successfully completed the 3,000 miles sea voyage brought around 100 passengers with them, men and women, plus crops from the Tahitian Islands and domesticated animals. 19th century recordings of Hawaiian oral tradition reports that Hawai’i must have appealed greatly to the new landowners due to the fertile soil; so much indeed that a two-way voyaging commenced after the original settlement of Hawai’i. There were other motives of course: marriages, burials in the homeland, family clan quarrels, or famine and floods. During the 12th and 13th century, a new wave of settlers apparently came from Tahiti and invaded the islands, establishing a new class system. Archaeological evidence suggests that by the 14th century, sea voyaging had ceased, but that the islands experienced an expansion in population and food production, indicating that they must have perfected their skills of farming and resource management.
The new class system that was established should manage the Hawaiian indigenous population until the arrival of Westerners. In this kapu system, originating from the Tahitian word tapu (today: taboo), ali’I (chiefs) oversaw the maka’ainana (commoners). These chiefs were supported by a number of priests, healers and astrologers; the division of territory was strict, and each territory had its own mo’i (king). A Tahitian priest named Pa’ao was the most influential leader surrounding the kings and created a line of high priests; to consolidate his power, he brought in other chiefs from Samoa, among them one called Pili. Commoners consisted of craftsmen, fishermen and artists, including the Hula dancers. The tribe also had its own slaves, also called kauwa maoli, who were marked by tattoos on their foreheads and regularly ended up being human sacrifice in temples by the priestly kahuna, in temples built by Hawaiian chiefs to initiate war.
Hawaiian kings were adorned with feather cloaks so rich and so exquisite that Captain Cook and his lieutenant described them as magnificent as a royal robe from a European nation. A chief’s feather cloak could easily consist of 450,000 feathers for which an estimated 80,000 birds would be stripped of their feathers by a specially selected group of royal feather-pluckers; luckily for the birds, most of them walked free once the desired feathers had been removed. In ancient Hawaiian society wars were frequent, as clans from the different islands battled each other or experienced internal turmoil. Periodic and courtly sham battles were held between friendly chiefs to keep young warriors prepped and alert.
Enter King Kamehameha (“the lonely one”) at the end of the 18th century, an ambitious chief from the Big Island, who traced his ancestry back to the powerful Pili. Formidably skilled as a warrior, and quite the shrewd opportunist, he began to systematically conquer the islands, never shying away from bloodshed. In 1790, he ended up sacrificing his Hawaiian rival on the altar of a war temple; in 1795, he stormed Maui and send shock waves through the local tribe with a cannon plundered from an American ship. When he couldn’t conquer Kauai, he invited their chief to Oahu and forced him to surrender his island through a mixture of rewards and threats. After centuries of battles, Hawaii became a unified kingdom in 1809. King Kamehameha is the most revered figure in the Hawaiian Kingdom, a larger than life kind of persona who appeared regularly in the logbooks and diaries of visiting ship captains and merchants at the time. He observed the old kapu system and simultaneously engaged in Western style trade and merchandise, which he had learned from European ships he supplied with provisions. He is solely responsible for sandalwood going extinct on the islands, which he exported in a lucrative deal to Asia until there was no sandalwood left on Hawaii.
Kamehameha died in 1819 after a long illness and because of his powerful spirit, which no one should ever lay hands on, his bones were hidden in a still secret location on the Kona Coast of the Big Island. His son and successor, King Kamehameha II, didn’t easily fill the void he left. He abolished the kapu system by a ritual act of sitting down to a meal with his mother and his wife, a violation of kapu that sent shock waves through the tribe as sharing a meal of men and women together had been strictly prohibited. The abolition of kapu left the Hawaiians in a strange void. This would soon be filled by the message of Christianity though that the missionaries brought from America. King Kamehameha II, who successfully bankrupted the monarchy within a very short span of time, travelled to England with his wife and shortly after died there of measles. Meanwhile his mother, Queen Ka’ahumanu, the favourite of Kamehameha’s wives and a powerful and intelligent woman, engineered the peaceful transition of the kingdom into Christianity, as Kamehameha II’s death had left his only 11-year-old brother to rule and thus practically without a King.
The American missionaries seemed to be more interested in conducting business than practicing religion. They began to experiment with agricultural businesses, particularly sugar. King Kamehameha III developed a constitution in 1840 and then made a big land reform in 1848, releasing millions of acres for sale to private owners – needless to say, clever Western planters were the first in line, and the plantation boom began. Native Hawaiians, too crippled by the sudden change and plagued by diseases, became a defeated minority, as soon foreign workers from South-east Asian began to arrive, the Chinese, Koreans, Filippinos, and Japanese. By 1900, over half of the population of Hawaii was of Japanese origin, as many had brought with them wives and children and began assimilating into the island life.
The influence of the monarchy dwindled rapidly in the second half of the 19th century, though a succession of short-lived successors of King Kamehameha III did what they could to protect the native population. King Kamehameha V issued a new constitution in 1864, protected the rights of laborers and introduced tariffs on sugar. He had refused to uphold the constitution of 1852, which he believed to have weakened the monarchy against the non-royalists and businessmen from the mainland. The last in line of the Kamehamehas, he left no heir and named no successor. His successor, William Lunalilo, was elected by the legislative assembly, but died just a year later of a drinking problem.
By 1873, plantation farmers and planters had begun talking of an annexation to the US. In 1874, David Kalakaua took the throne and initiated a last attempt to revive the monarchy, promoting ancient spiritual practices, building a temple and planning a Polynesian Empire with Hawaii as the capital. His ancestors had been High Chiefs on Hawaii Island, and he ruled with a spirit and style that brought him the nickname “the Merrie Monarch”. He built the magnificent Iolani Palace, was the first monarch to circumnavigate the globe, presented grand balls and old Hawaiian feasts, always concerned about the disappearing Hawaiian traditions and spiritual practices. But the planter lobby should come in his way.
In 1887, a league of planters forced him to sign the Bayonet Constitution, which limited his own monarchy, and shifted power to land-owning and predominantly white minority. In 1891, he left Hawaii for California to seek help for his failing health and asked his sister Lili’uokalani to take the reigns in his absence. When his sister Lili’uokalani took the throne in 1891, it was only two years into her reign that she was run over by the “Committee of Safety” and illegal American troops. They evicted her and the royal family in Iolani Palace in 1893, directions set to an annexation by the US. President Cleveland first refused to annex the kingdom and demanded the Queen by restored, yet the self-proclaimed government refused. His successor William McKinley annexed Hawaii in 1898 and it officially became US territory in 1900. For a long time to follow, Hawaii would be run by an oligarchy of white republicans who ran all aspects of life on the islands through their positions as directors of agribusiness companies until after WWII.
Some say you can still hear the Queen Liliʻu Loloku pacing back-and-forth in the room where she was held captive.
The Iolani Palace in Honolulu was the royal residence of the rulers of the Kingdom of Hawaii and served as the official residence of the Hawaiian monarchy until the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The building itself is a formidable piece of Hawaiian renaissance architecture, a building style that was based on imported Western styles and combined with unique Hawaiian features reflecting the history of the islands from antiquity through to the kingdom era, from territorial years to statehood; a fusion-architecture so to speak that always remained pure in its Hawaiian spirit. It features architecture seen nowhere else in the world, a style also known as American Florentine; a grand hall in the entrance faces a majestic staircase of koa wood, ornamental plaster decorated the interior. Downstairs a throne room, a dining room, a blue room featuring a portrait of King Louis Philip of France and a koa piano; upstairs a private library and the bedrooms of the monarchs.
Located in downtown Honolulu, just minutes from iconic Waikiki Beach, the cornerstone of the royal palace was laid on 31 December 1879, with full Masonic Rites. Its predecessor building had been razed to the ground due to its poor condition – a new palace was needed to enhance the prestige of Hawaii overseas and mark her status as a modern nation. David Kalakaua, the Merrie Monarch, had travelled across Europe and seen the pomp and glory of European monarchy – his dreams of a palace befitting a sovereign Hawaiian state took wings. English architect Thomas J. Baker designed its structure; architects Isaac Moore and Charles Wall added the details. It cost a mere fortune to construct this two-storey building over a raised basement. In February 1883, a formal European style coronation ceremony was held, though Kalakaua had been reigning for 9 years by then already. Local builders and artisans hammered away until the building was complete enough by August 1882 for King David Kalakaua to hold a luncheon, before taking up residence in December of that year with his Queen Kapiolani. It became known as House of the Chief, Hale Alii.
The Hawaiian King took quickly to Western technology and comfort: indoor plumbing and gas chandeliers were installed when the Palace was first built and were quickly replaced with electric lighting five years later – only seven years after Edison had invented the fist practical incandescent bulb. A modern communication system in form of the recently invented telephone quickly followed, and Iolani Palace was way ahead of the White House in terms of modernisation. The land that Iolani Palace stands on had always been known as an ancient temple, heiau, in the oral tradition of the indigenous Hawaiian people. In 1844, Royal Governor of Oahu Mataio Kekuanaoa had built a large home here first as a gift to his daughter Princess Victoria, who was expected to rule at some stage in some capacity. In 1845, King Kamehameha III bought and used as his Royal Residence after moving the capitol of the kingdom to Honolulu. It was built as a traditional ali’i residence, which could only contain ceremonial spaces but without bedrooms. One throne room, a reception area and a state dining room constituted the residence that would later become the royal Iolani Palace. Sleeping areas were built adjacent to the actual palace. Only Kamehameha V changed the name to Iolani Palace in honor of his late brother and predecessor. Io is the Hawaiian hawk, a bird that flies higher than all the rest, and loni means royal or exalted, so it literally translates to Iolani = royal hawk.
King Kamehameha I had formed his official government at Lahaina, Maui, in 1802, where he had built his royal palace. The Lahaina Palace remained the seat of the government under the first three Kamehameha monarchs until 1845, when Honolulu became the royal court. Iolani Palace became the Seat of Government while a territory and it was called ‘The Capitol of the Territorial Government’. It would also serve as the first state capitol building. This architectural masterpiece bridged the ancient history of Hawaii with the new 19th century monarchy and serves today as a reminder of a Kingdom lost through shrewd Western business techniques and greed. It is the only official royal state residence on US soil.