Hawaii: Fallen palace of the Pacific

By Jim Eagles

Iolani Palace in Honolulu, Hawaii, is now a monument to the overthrown monarchy. Photo / Jim Eagles
Iolani Palace in Honolulu, Hawaii, is now a monument to the overthrown monarchy. Photo / Jim Eagles

In the basement gallery of the Iolani Palace - the only official royal palace in the staunchly republican United States of America - pride of place is given to a beautiful butterfly hair clip, its wings sparkling with 160 diamonds, its eyes glowing with the fire of two rubies.

This was the signature piece of jewellery of Queen Liliuokalani, last in the proud line of Hawaiian monarchs. It's a poignant sight, sitting docilely in its dim display case, because it is actually designed to flutter its wings with the movement of its wearer. Lorene, our enthusiastic volunteer guide, thinks this is a waste. "I've always thought we should display it so it moves, maybe put it in front of a fan so its wings are blown about, not just have it sitting there doing nothing."

But for me it seemed appropriate the brooch should have its wings clipped, as you might say, in the same way its owner's royal wings were clipped and ultimately broken by an illegal rebellion by a group of foreign businessmen.

The brooch and the palace are very much a monument to the strange story of how the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown and a Polynesian island nation became the 50th state of the United States.

The Iolani Palace was built in 1882 for King David Kalakaua. The king, who was known as the Merrie Monarch because of his love of life, sounds an interesting man.

On the one hand he was a powerful advocate for Hawaiian tradition and is credited with reviving the hula, Hawaiian martial arts and surfing, as well as making the ukelele popular. He was also a skilled musician, writing many songs, including Hawaii Ponoi, which is the state song of Hawaii.

But on the other hand he seems to have been a great enthusiast for European fashions. The palace is built in American Florentine style and, apart from being rather small, would not be out of place as a country mansion for European nobility. The rooms, with their grandiose portraits and elegant furnishings, contain little that is Hawaiian. And it was one of the first buildings in the world to have indoor plumbing, electric lighting and telephones.

When he died in 1891 he was succeeded by his sister, Queen Liliuokalani, whose downfall is very much woven into the story of the palace.

For instance, guide Lorene tells us, the Blue Room, where the monarchs used to hold informal audiences, is the place where in 1893 the queen held a fateful meeting with her - largely foreign - cabinet to seek support for a new constitution restoring the vote to native Hawaiians and increasing the power of the monarchy. "When they refused to sign it," Lorene says, "the queen knew her reign was over."

Immediately afterwards a Committee of Safety, made up of foreign businessmen, with the support of the US representative to Hawaii, forced the queen to hand her powers to a provisional government.

Unfortunately for her, while a subsequent report to US President Grover Cleveland did declare the overthrow to have been illegitimate, she was never reinstated.

Instead, two years later, the glittering throne room was the scene of a show trial where the queen was convicted of being involved in a failed royalist plot, forced to abdicate, fined and sentenced to five years hard labour.

The sentence was commuted to imprisonment in her upstairs bedroom at the palace where, denied visitors or entertainment, she spent her time reading, quilting, crocheting and composing music. Later the queen was kept under house arrest at her private home, nearby in Washington Place, and the cabal of businessmen continued to run the country until 1898 when Hawaii was annexed by the US. In 1900 it became a territory and in 1959 was declared the 50th state.

A century later, in 1993, both Houses of the US Congress agreed on an apology for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, which was immediately signed by President Bill Clinton. The palace was initially taken over as a base for the provisional government and everything the new regime did not require was sold off at auction. The building continued to be used as government offices until 1969. Then a remarkable restoration campaign began, spearheaded by a descendant of the royal family, Lili'uokalani Kawananakoa Morris, who founded the Friends of Iolani, to which our guide Lorene belongs.

They raised funds to repair the building and began a worldwide search for the dispersed furnishings. Some of the royal glassware was found in Australia. A table was located in the governor's mansion in Iowa. A chair was discovered in a Honolulu secondhand shop. A piece of the unique carpet made for the throne room was identified in a local home and used as the basis for the original maker to reproduce it. Even the butterfly brooch was recovered, although Lorene did not tell us where, and I foolishly forgot to ask. My excuse is I was too busy thinking about the sad story the Iolani Palace had told us.


Getting there: Air NZ flies to Honolulu up to three times a week. Long-term airfares in Pacific Economy class are available from $1500 a person return plus airport and government costs.

Where to stay: The Royal Hawaiian Hotel is the second oldest hotel in Waikiki.

What to do: The Iolani Palace has an excellent website.

Further information: See discoverhawaii.co.nz

Jim Eagles visited Hawaii as guest of Air New Zealand and Hawaii Tourism Oceania.

- NZ Herald

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