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 Islands Information

Place: Hawaii

Hawaii's Iolani Palace   by Christopher Neal Fannin


American's have a thing about royalty, an antipathy that has become part of the collective national mythos. Throwing off the shackles of the tyrant and upholding the principles of democracy is an idea that is held right in the center of who Americans like to believe they are as a people. The story of Iolani Palace in Hawaii, the one and only royal palace in the United States, holds a mirror up to that impulse and begs certain uncomfortable questions, including the most important and disturbing one: cui bono?

Construction on the new residence of Hawaii's Merry Monarch King David Kalakaua began in December of 1879. Its name, which translates roughly into Home of the Devine Hawk, originally belonged to another palace, that of King Kamehameha V, which was demolished in 1874. The new royal palace had every amenity that the modern world of the late 19th century could offer: indoor plumbing, electric lighting, telephones. Iolani Palace quickly became a kind of island Chateau de Versailles, in effect the political and social center of the sovereign nation of Hawaii.

King Kalakaua was certainly a monarch worth of such a home. Kalakaua was the 1st king to visit the United States, and the 1st monarch to circumvent the globe. He was known as a great patron of the arts, and a famously good host. He was also a cagey politician; though the King was deeply committed to the preservation of indigenous Hawaiian culture, and promoted the transcription of Hawaiian oral history and the performance of the Hula, Ioloni was richly decorated in the European style, the better to impress visiting dignitaries. When he died in San Francisco in 1891, the Hawaiians lost their last great ruler.

King David's sister became Queen Lili'uokalani on January 29, 1891. Though her time spent ruling Hawaii as the Princess Regent while the King journeyed around the world had made her a competent sovereign, forces were aligning against her and the Hawaiian monarchy that would change the islands forever.

Hawaii was and is a place of great agricultural value. Even then Hawaiian citizens of American descent, naturalized citizens and foreign nationals with a business interest in the islands comprised a powerful sector of the population. When Queen Lili'uokalani attempted to institute a new constitution limited the suffrage of Hawaiian subjects and strengthen the power of the monarchy, the opposition, with the aid of the American Minister to Hawaii's, organized a coup, overthrew the monarchy and established a provisional government.

While in many places in the world today democracy is considered the best and most morally responsible form of government, one must wonder about the motives behind this "revolution". Was it really in the best interests of native Hawaiians? Many certainly didn't think so, and in 1895 royalists loyal to the Queen attempted to restore her to power. The plan failed, and the Queen was arrested, tried, convicted, forced to abdicate all future claim to the throne and finally sentenced to imprisonment in the very place from which she once ruled her Kingdom, Iolani Palace.

While the Queen spend part her many years of imprisonment in an upstairs bedroom of Iolani Palace, denied any visitors apart from one of her ladies in waiting, below her the palace was virtually looted by her captors, who auctioned off its accumulated treasures. The palace eventually became the seat of government for the Provisional Government, which in time evolved into the State of Hawaii in 1959.

In 1978, nearly 100 years after the corner stone of Iolani Palace had been laid, restoration on the building began. After years of neglect and abuse, the Friends of Iolani Palace, founded by Lili'uokalani Morris, herself descended from Hawaiian royalty, dedicated themselves to returning the palace to its former glory. Today Ioloni Palace is a popular tourist attraction and point of pride for indigenous Hawaiian.

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