The Queen’s Colors

This October for the first time, the Hawaii State Archives displays flags and standards from the days of the Hawaiian monarchy
Story by Ron Williams Jr.. Photos by Matt Mallams.

I’m not allowed to stand too close—no one is, except for Adam Jansen. Hawai‘i’s state archivist is obsessively protective about the more than century-old Hawaiian flag spread across a worktable in front of us. With white-gloved hands he delicately nudges the twelve-by-four-foot historical treasure into place, an inch at a time. Queen Lili‘uokalani’s hae kalaunu (royal standard) had spent more than seventy years abroad before returning home to be stored next door to the palace atop which it once flew.

For millennia flags have been symbols meant to inspire devotion to countries, clans and individuals—an Islamic standard recently discovered in Iran dates from around 3000 BCE. Monarchies often designate two official flags—one to represent the nation and another for the sovereign. Wherever the sovereign is physically, the royal standard flies. While cloth flags are a European introduction to Hawai‘i, marking the presence of royalty had long been common practice among the kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) of old. Kāhili (feather standards), carried by pa‘a kāhili (standard bearers), signaled to all that ali‘i nui (high chiefs) were present. The first reported unfurling of a Hawaiian royal standard was by King Kamehameha III, son of Kamehameha I. On April 12, 1837, Kamehameha III set sail from Honolulu aboard a ship purchased to deliver the body of his recently deceased sister to Lahaina, Maui, to be interred beside their mother, Queen Keōpūolani. The bark HHMS Kai made the funerary journey bedecked with the royal standard of Kamehameha III.

The collection of nineteenth-century flags in the Hawai‘i State Archives has rarely been unfurled and never displayed–until now. Above, the last Hawaiian flag to fly over military headquarters in Hawai‘i, lowered after annexation ceremonies on August 12, 1898.

Dozens of royal standards, national flags and other banners from Hawai‘i’s past are today held in trust in the Hawai‘i State Archives (HSA) in the Kekāuluohi Building on the grounds of ‘Iolani Palace. I’m privileged to get a rare look at these extraordinary pieces because Jansen and his staff are preparing to undertake much-needed cataloging and preservation work on these items. Because some of the larger flags in the collection cannot properly be documented or displayed within the building’s limited spaces, Jansen began considering other sites around town. And because the public rarely has the opportunity to view these unwieldy yet delicate treasures, Jansen hatched an ambitious idea to bring the collection to the public.

In early October, in celebration of American Archives Month, about twenty of the HSA’s most significant flags will be transported to a yet-to-be determined space in Honolulu where they can be properly displayed and where archivists and preservationists will document and stabilize the collection. The public can view the process free of charge. Thousands of people, organizations and school groups are expected to take advantage of what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The HSA’s bland moniker for the flag I’m looking at is “accession 2946,” but its story is anything but plain. The documents partnered with this piece declare, with significant evidence, that this royal standard of Queen Lili‘uokalani was flying over ‘Iolani Palace on January 17, 1893—the day the palace was seized and the monarchy overthrown. This insignia of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s last reigning monarch is tied to an American military man named John Good Jr.

Hawai‘i’s state archivist Adam Jansen plans to bring the collection to light with an exhibit of the archives’ flags and standards.

Good was a New York farmer who joined the National Guard and immigrated to Hawai‘i in 1880, becoming a subject of the kingdom in 1888. A few years later, when a small but powerful group of businessmen and missionary descendants were engineering the overthrow, Good was asked to help organize military support. He ended up firing the only shot of the brief coup—wounding a native policeman named Kealoha, who had stopped a wagon loaded with rifles that Good was delivering to the coup’s planners. The following day a “squad of citizen soldiery” was placed in charge of the ‘Iolani Palace grounds by a provisional government, with Good appointed as commander. The queen was forced to leave the palace, heading to her private residence in Waikīkī, and the royal standard was lowered from the palace’s flagpole, never to be raised again and soon to disappear. Good raised the American flag in its place. He was later promoted to captain but eventually ran afoul of his new bosses. In 1895 he was charged with several crimes, including stealing a cannon sight from the grounds of ‘Iolani Palace as a memento of his time there. In 1896 Good was dishonorably discharged, and he died in San Francisco in 1903.

This former American was not the only one aware that the queen’s standard was missing. In an article published in Honolulu on August 16, 1918, Ka Nupepa Kuokoa asked its readers, “Ua Ike Anei Kekahi i ka Hae Kalaunu?” (Has Anyone Seen the Royal Standard?). An appeal from the curator of the museum at the Kamehameha School for Boys explained that someone had run away with the standard after the overthrow. He was now putting the matter “imua o ka lehulehu” (in front of the readers). “Eia paha he Hawaii e ike i kela hae, a i lohe paha i kahi i waiho ai” (Perhaps there is a Hawaiian who knows of this flag and has heard of where it is).

The first reported use of a flag depicting the Hawaiian royal standard was by King Kamehameha III, son of Kamehameha I. The flag was displayed aboard the HHMS Kai on a funerary journey to Lahaina. Above, a standard likely of the Kamehameha dynasty.

Seven years later, back in New York, the curator of the West Point Military Academy Museum received a letter from one of the school’s students. Cadet J.W. Bryan notified the institution that he possessed an artifact of tremendous historic value that he would be willing to donate to the museum. He had obtained the item from his grandfather John Good Jr., who had served in the forces that had overthrown the queen of Hawai‘i in 1893. Subsequent correspondence traced Lili‘uokalani’s standard from Good to his daughter Mamie Good, who later passed the piece to her son, West Point student John Widder Bryan. In a letter of June 11, 1925, a delighted curator of the West Point Museum accepted the gift, thanking Bryan for his donation, one that stood out as a “relic of intense interest and of unique historical value.” The flag remained at West Point for the next fifty-three years.

In early 1978 Frederick G. Bryan, brother of J.W., wrote to Hawai‘i state Governor George R. Ariyoshi informing him of the fact that West Point had the queen’s flag and offering to donate a related item, his grandfather’s sword, which he possessed, to the state. Ariyoshi responded with an even more significant proposal: the return of the queen’s flag to Hawai‘i. After months of delicate contacts, the director of the West Point Museum, Richard Kuehne, wrote to Ariyoshi that “the Good/Bryan Hawaiian flag was forwarded by registered mail.” The original accession card accompanying the flag reads, “This was the last official ‘Empire Flag’ flown in Hawaii. Lowered from the Royal Palace by Captain John Good, N.G.H. [National Guard of Hawai‘i], January 17, 1893, the day Liliuokalani was dethroned.” A formal announcement of the return of the flag followed, along with a photo op with the flag draped over the governor’s desk. Afterward the piece was boxed and placed on a shelf in the state archives, where it has been ever since. Ariyoshi commented at the time that he hoped, in the future, “we will be able to show it to the public in a more formal way.”

A banner created for King Kalākaua’s fiftieth birthday jubilee on November 16, 1886. The banner belonged to Ahahui Hoonaauao Liliuokalani (the Lili‘uokalani Educational Society), founded by then-princess Lili‘uokalani to help raise money for educating disadvantaged Native Hawaiian girls.

Another flag in the HSA collection boasts a travel log that would make any world traveler green with envy. A large royal standard of King David Kalākaua, Lili‘uokalani’s brother and immediate predecessor to the throne, traveled quite literally around the world. This flag heralded the presence of the king on his more than nine-month circumnavigation of the globe in 1881, during which he visited Yokohama, Nagasaki, Hong Kong; Singapore, Shanghai, Calcutta, Maulmain (Myanmar), Suez (Egypt), London, Boston, San Francisco and many other places. In Japan its likeness was painstakingly hand-painted onto more than a thousand globe-shaped lanterns that decorated the Imperial Theatre in Shintomiza to welcome the Hawaiian monarch.

Pageantry banners from the Kalākaua period, 1874–1891, are also in line for an archival touch-up and public viewing. The HSA holds two banners created for the Royal Jubilee of 1886—a more than weeklong celebration of Kalākaua’s fiftieth birthday which included dinners and dances, Royal Hawaiian Band performances, speeches, hula, boat races and more at ‘Iolani Palace and other sites around Honolulu. Schools, churches and societies crafted banners to be flown as members filed by the monarch and offered their congratulations. One of these banners in the collection is a beautiful, two-sided piece in gold, red and light green silk that declares on its front, “Hui Hoonaauao Liliuokalani, Mahele Elua, Nov. 16, 1886”(Lili‘uokalani Educational Society, Division 2, November 16, 1886). Princess Lili‘uokalani had founded the organization earlier that year to fund the education of young Hawaiian women whose parents were unable to give them the advantages that such schooling could bring. The back of the twenty-by-forty-five-inch banner reads simply, “ALOHA.” A second banner was carried past Kalākaua by “Queen Kapiolani’s hula company of girls.” The twenty-by-thirty-six-inch banner has gold silk letters on a scarlet silk backing that reads, “Hula o Honuakaha {Ka Moiwahine} NOV 16, 1886.” The rod that supported the banner is also part of the collection.

It’s not just old pieces that will be on public display in October. While it might be hard to believe any flag could snatch away the title of “most traveled” from the impressive Kalākaua globe-trotting standard, Jansen, always full of surprises, trots out a tiny, humble-looking flag from the 1960s that claims serious long-distance credentials. This plastic and nylon mini-flag has the Kalākaua piece beat by about a half-million miles—it’s been to the moon! The 1969 Apollo 11 crew—who, by the way, after splashing down in the Pacific and being delivered to Hawai‘i had to fill out immigration forms to “re-enter the United States” because they had traveled “out of country”—carried into outer space one flag representing each of the fifty states. HSA has Hawai‘i’s.

Because it contains the record not just of a state’s history but also that of a nation’s, HSA’s collection is unique. Sometimes the juxtapositions are both illuminating and troubling. For some, an opportunity to view the physical insignia of their ancestors’ monarchical history is cause for both gratitude and pain. “To know that the archives have protected these things for all these years and is committed to making sure that we can see them—that, I’m very grateful for,” says Ku‘umealoha Gomes, chair of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs Education Committee. After gently wiping her eyes, she continues, “Having the flags displayed is like having the spirits of our ali‘i come back to tell us their story. The fact that we can be reminded of how our ali‘i took care of the Hawaiian Kingdom and her people, our kūpuna [ancestors], it’s chicken-skin—so humbling.”

Nearly a century ago, in 1918, the curator of the museum at the Kamehameha School for Boys searched for a critical piece of his people’s past: the last flown royal standard of the Hawaiian Kingdom. He offered up a plea to the public: “ke kumu o keia makemake nui” (the source of this great desire) was a need to once again have the royal flag on view in Hawai‘i as “mea hoomanao no ka moolelo o Hawaii nei ame kona lahui kanaka” (a reminder of the story of Hawai‘i and her people). Now, nearly a century later, his plea will be answered. HH

See the Hawai‘i State Archives web site at for information about the dates and location of I Mālama ‘ia ke ‘Ike, Mai Ka ‘Ike.