TBT Icon: Rebellious Royals Edition

December 19, 2013 • Culture


Let’s face it: as Lorde so astutely pointed out in her breakout single earlier this year, most of us will never be royals. Whether your point of reference is Paris Hilton or Princess Kate, it’s unlikely that any of us will reach such soaring heights of wealth or societal influence—hell, I have a feeling the closest I’ll ever get to that level of prestige would involve evaluating the sheer quantity of Prestige-brand vodka I consumed throughout my freshman year of college. For the most part, this honestly doesn’t feel like much of a loss; most of the people who travel in those spheres, after all, don’t really seem to have done all that much with their lives worth coveting anyway… unless you count the purchase of bearskin rugs (which are scratchy and uncomfortable) or the copious consumption of designer drugs (which, come on, didn’t we learn anything from the Florida bath salts zombie?!).

And yet it seems there’s always someone suitably tragic waiting to pull you right back into the orbit of those high-society daydreams. For Madonna it was Wallis Simpson, the prince-seducing divorcée who avidly supported Hitler but, hey, looked swell doing it; for legions of girls on LiveJournal, the object of fascination was Little Edie Beale, the S-T-A-U-N-C-H cousin of Jackie O. who made living in decrepit squalor look fabulous. If you want a real model along the “royals” tradition, however, look no further than Crown Princess Ka’iulani of Hawaii.

Saddled with a name that essentially translates to “royal sacred one,” Ka’iulani had pretty high expectations to live up to from the day of her birth in 1875. It was taken for granted that, as second in line to the throne after her elderly and childless aunt, Ka’iulani would have to receive the best education possible, and as such she was sent to England to receive a private education; she so excelled in her studies that her time in England was extended by several years, and her Hawaiian guardians had even arranged an audience for her with Queen Victoria. All these privileges and plans, however, came crashing down in 1893 upon the arrival of an eight-word telegram: “Queen Deposed, Monarchy Abrogated, Break News to Princess.” In Ka’iulani’s absence, local businessmen had overthrown her Queenly aunt and begun campaigning for Hawaii’s annexation by the United States.

Though painfully shy, Ka’iulani drew on her sense of duty to her throne and her country and marched into the spotlight—all this without the veritable fleet of royal advisors and speechwriters she and the other Hawaiian monarchs had previously relied upon to guide them through the gauntlet of royal duty. First she issued a statement to the English press denouncing Lorrin A. Thurston, the erstwhile Hawaiian Cabinet Minister who was at that time touring the United States to promote the annexation of Hawaii—and the very man who had strongly requested that Ka’iulani travel to England for her studies in the first place. Then, taking matters into her own hands, she traveled Stateside herself to launch a counter-campaign. She consistently impressed every politician and journalist she encountered with her modernity and her sophistication, embarrassing the myriad influential Americans who had expected her to more closely resemble the image of the “heathen princess” painted by the virulently racist pro-annexation press of the era. At long last, after months of campaigning across the United States, Ka’iulani secured a meeting with President Grover Cleveland and his wife at the White House—where she so moved them with her account of Hawaii’s plight that Cleveland agreed to bring her case to Congress.

After hearing her out, the U.S. Senate agreed not to annex Hawaii—but they also refused to restore the Hawaiian monarchy. As conditions in Hawaii continued to deteriorate, so did Ka’iulani’s health. Heartbroken by the news of the establishment of a new Republic of Hawaii in 1894, Ka’iulani stayed in Europe until 1897, at which time the death of her half-sister Annie Cleghorn and her extremely poor health compelled her to return to her country. When Hawaii was annexed as a U.S. territory in 1898, Ka’iulani and the other royals and politics of Hawaiian donned mourning clothes and shuttered themselves in Washington Place to protest what they saw as nothing more than an illegal transaction. Ka’iulani’s health continued to worsen, and she ultimately passed away in early 1899, not long after the annexation. Ka’iulani’s father said after her death that, since Hawaii was gone, it made perfect sense for her to go as well; in any event, she went out fighting for her country until the very end—in a manner, that is, befitting a true royal.


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