Issue 6.5: October/November 2003

The Island Rose

by John W. Perry
art courtesy John W. Perry Archival Images

Sweet Princess, early called to tread
     the starry path.
–from a 1902 poem written in memory of Kaiulani

There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
–Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Princess Victoria Kaiulani lived her brief life in two declining eras half a world away from each other. She was born in 1875 into the final years of Hawaii’s monarchy and grew to adulthood in the last decade of England’s Victorian Age. History remembers her as "the tragic princess" because she died young and disillusioned by the loss of her Island kingdom.

By blood, Kaiulani was half Hawaiian and half Scottish, a hapa haole (part Caucasian) born into a cultural mix of Victorian morality and Island tradition. She inherited her royal stature from her mother, Miriam Likelike, younger sister of Hawaii’s King David Kalakaua. Her foreign-born father, Scotsman Archibald Cleghorn, an Oahu businessman and government bureaucrat, was a devoted parent who worried about his daughter’s frail health. On Kalakaua’s death in 1891, Liliuokalani, the king’s oldest sister, ascended to the Hawaiian throne. She named Kaiulani her heir apparent, elevating the young lady at age sixteen to crown princess, or hooilina moi wahine.

The attractive Kaiulani liked surfing (a Hawaiian sport), gardening (a Victorian favorite), playing croquet (a game of English royalty satirized in the Victorian fantasy Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and painting flowers (also a Victorian pastime). Even the name of her Waikiki home, Ainahau, has a floral meaning: "hau tree land." The yellow-blossomed hau is a species of hibiscus brought to the Islands by the ancestors of Kaiulani’s mother, the bold Polynesian settlers who arrived centuries earlier in wooden-hulled voyaging canoes. Kaiulani’s bookshelf at Ainahau included a biography of Queen Victoria and, perhaps, a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an appropriate Victorian-age read for a young princess living in a garden estate in Waikiki.

Kaiulani also inherited the Hawaiian and Victorian passion for horseback riding, a pastime of English aristocrats such as Queen Victoria and Hawaiian royalty such as Queen Emma. "As a child, I remember Princess Ka‘iulani as a beautiful, slender, sad-eyed young woman who often rode horseback to our home," recalled a Honolulu resident in 1950. "She always wore a black riding habit with ‘ilima leis around her neck." Today, horseback riding is a long-time Hawaiian tradition, practiced by Hawaiian cowboys (paniolo) and picturesque female pa‘u riders dressed in long, colorful riding skirts. The delicate, yellow-petaled ‘ilima is Oahu’s official flower.

Kaiulani liked birds, too, especially peacocks, an imported bird native to India and highly admired in Victorian England. At ‘Ainahau, Kaiulani kept as pets several of these loud-screeching fowls, called pikake in Hawaiian. Because she adored Arabian jasmine, these fragrant flowers were also called pikake, after peacocks. Today, metal peacocks surround Kaiulani’s statue in Waikiki and jasmine is a favorite wedding lei of foreign honeymooners in Hawaii.

At Ainahau, Kaiulani met the famous Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and A Child’s Garden of Verses. Stevenson and Kaiulani used to sit together beneath the massive banyan tree that once grew at Ainahau, and before he left the Islands, Stevenson wrote a short poem for the princess that begins: "The island maid, the island rose/light of heart and bright of face."

In May 1889, at age thirteen, Kaiulani left Hawaii for England to be educated in a ladies’ finishing school outside of London. Did she know or care that the famous English writer Charles Dickens disliked such schools? He described them as boardinghouses where young ladies "acquired a smattering of everything and a knowledge of nothing, instruction in French and Italian, dancing lessons twice a week and other necessaries of life." Later, she moved into a private home in Brighton, on the south coast of England, where private instructors upgraded her education. Always stylish, she traveled to her new residence with luggage embossed V.K., her monogram.

Under the watchful eye of chaperones—and her father during his occasional visits from Honolulu—she enjoyed a pleasant life in Britain, making trips from England to Ireland and Scotland, her father’s homeland. She planted a tree at a Scottish castle and met the elite of Victorian society. At school, she studied literature, physics, music and dancing. For sport, she played tennis, a game she had learned at Ainahau on a court built by her father. Like horseback riding and croquet, tennis was a popular sport of Victorian aristocrats. Queen Victoria’s guests played tennis, but on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the religious-minded queen refused to let servants pick up guests’ wayward tennis balls.

Kaiulani never met Queen Victoria in person. Unlike Alice in Wonderland, who meets the neurotic Queen of Hearts ("Off with their heads!") on a croquet ground, Kaiulani saw London’s Buckingham Palace from a side street, not inside. According to Nancy and Jean Webb’s Kaiulani: Crown Princess of Hawaii, she expected to meet the queen during her stay in England, perhaps on her "debut in society," but she never did. The youthful princess may have lacked sufficient diplomatic prestige to interest the aging queen; maybe she was too young; or perhaps no determined diplomatic effort on Kaiulani’s behalf was made to arrange an audience. Earlier, in 1887, King Kalakaua’s wife, Queen Kapiolani, and the king’s sister, Liliuokalani, did meet Queen Victoria, who politely kissed Kapiolani on the cheek and Liliuokalani on the forehead.

In 1893 Kaiulani received heartbreaking news from Hawaii—her royal destiny had been destroyed by far-away political intrigue. In January of that year, powerful businessmen in Hawaii, who favored the United States’ annexation of the Islands, had overthrown the monarchy, declared it finished and taken control of the Islands’ government. This devastating event shattered Kaiulani’s fairy-tale life. She would never be a mo‘ý wahine, or queen of Hawaii.

After the loss of her future kingdom and failed political efforts to win United States support for the restoration of the monarchy, Kaiulani’s extended stay in Britain and continental Europe seemed less cheerful and less healthful. From Paris, she wrote: "My nerves are out of order. I suffer from headaches." She complained of attacks of "grip" (influenza), called palu in Hawaiian after the English word "flu." "I’m born," she remarked in 1897, "under an unlucky hoku (star)."

In November of that year, after an absence of eight and a half years, Kaiulani returned to the Islands. Though she was delighted to be back in Hawaii, her post-European life in her homeland was short- lived. In January 1899, after horseback riding in the Ki puupuu (a chilly wind and rain) at Waimea on Hawaii island, she took ill and died at Ainahau in Waikiki in March 1899. Her death came seven months after the United States annexed Hawaii. Though the official cause of death was cardiac rheumatism, many Hawaiians believed she died of a broken heart, caused by the monarchy’s overthrow.