Wednesday, January 1, 2014

King Kalākaua of Hawaii

 New Bedford & Honolulu,

For those of us who live on the Mainland, the words “king,” “palatial residence,” and “Hawaii” are likely to conjure up images of Elvis, Graceland, and the movie Blue Hawaii, before recalling that Hawaii once had a royal family. One of the kingdom’s last monarchs was David Kalākaua who ascended the throne in 1874. Kalākaua entered the history books again that year when he became the first foreign head of state to visit the United States. While the purpose of his trip was to sign a treaty of reciprocity, assuring Hawaii a duty-free market for its sugar and other goods, he used the opportunity to visit people and places in America that had had a long relationship with his country. Two menus dating from this period, one from a dinner with old contacts in the whaling industry, the other from a luncheon after he returned to Hawaii, reveal interesting details of his goodwill visit and daily life at home. 

On December 12, the new sovereign called on President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House, where he received a warm and cordial welcome, for Hawaii supported the Union during the Civil War, providing the North with sugar, cotton and rice that were then in short supply. With the state visit off to a good start, the king traveled to New York later that month, where he attended a performance of “The Gilded Age” by Mark Twain. (During a visit to the Hawaiian Islands eight years earlier, Twain met the future king who was then thirty, a year younger than the writer. Although he was favorably impressed by Kalākaua, Twain humorously described the islands as teeming with whalers, ship captains, and multitudes of cats, not to mention “cockroaches, and fleas, and lizards, and red ants, and scorpions, and spiders, and mosquitoes and missionaries.”1) Unable to join the king at the theater, Twain invited his old acquaintance to stop by Hartford, Connecticut for lunch the next day. However, the king’s heavy schedule precluded him from accepting this last-minute invitation, having already agreed to stop in New Haven on his way to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he would attend a dinner in his honor on New Years Day. 

New Bedford was the main port of the American whaling fleet. In the mid-1840s, when the industry was at its height, the vast majority of the 600 ships that arrived each year at Oahu and Maui came from the United States. Although whaling was now in decline, and San Francisco was becoming its primary base of operations, the royal visit caused a great stir of excitement in New Bedford. Many of the residents in this seafaring town retained fond memories of the Hawaiian Islands which they had visited for decades. Taking these feelings of nostalgia into account, the mayor held a reception at his office where “scores of hoary-headed veterans of the sea” were presented to the king who remembered some of them from years earlier. This reunion was followed by a dinner at 2:00 p.m. at the Parker House, a local hotel that bore no resemblance to the luxury establishment with that name in Boston. The menu below features standard dishes like boiled codfish, leg of mutton, and roast turkey with cranberry sauce. 

By 3:40 p.m., the honored guest was escorted to the train station and on his way to Boston, the port of embarkation since 1820 for many of the Protestant missionaries that went to Hawaii. Over time, these American proselytizers gained spiritual and political influence with the royal family who were educated in mission schools. 

‘Iolani Palace (ca. 1975)

After the trade treaty was signed in late January, King Kalākaua returned home to the ‘Iolani Palace, a one-story wooden building that was the grandest house in Honolulu.2 The luncheon menu below from December 1875 provides a fascinating glimpse of daily life at the official residence. Standing in marked contrast with the stark bill of fare in New Bedford, this fancy French menu is trimmed in paper lace and bedangled with a curious cotton ribbon, making it look more like it was made for a royal court in Europe than one in the subtropics, overlooking the white sand beaches of Waikiki. 

Nicknamed the “Merrie Monarch,” the king enjoyed the luxury and grandeur that went with his position, and why not, for as the comedian Mel Brooks once said, “It’s good to be king!” Still, Kalākaua believed he had a higher purpose, and today is remembered for creating a renewed sense of pride in the Hawaiian culture by reviving the hula, one of the ritual practices long suppressed by the missionaries. After his death in January 1891, he was succeeded by his sister, Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last monarch to reign over the Kingdom of Hawaii. 

1. Mark Twain, Scenes in Honolulu, No. 4, Sacramento Union, 19 April 1866.
2. In the early 1880s, the termite-infested palace was torn down and replaced by a Victorian dollhouse three times larger with an inner structure made of brick.


Jan Whitaker said...

Fascinating post. The New England-Hawaii connection is especially interesting.

Deana Sidney said...

How funny that neither menu gave a nod to Hawaiian foods or cuisine... I guess it wasn't done yet. The Hawaiian menu is really extraordinary looking... how do you find these things!! Also, very cool factoid about Twain and the King.... Twain really did know everything.