Many moons ago a friend and retired Town Planner told me the story of how he had been approached by a woman wanting to secure a Blue Plaque for a house in Cambridge Road, Hove where, during the late Victorian period, a Hawaiian princess had lived. Nothing came of the application and the story might have disappeared into the annals of Brighton’s history had it not been for Jane Couldrey who, in 2014, made an installation artwork, including a short film, for exhibition in Hove Museum all about Princess Ka’iuluni’s life: a life full of thwarted expectations. I was intrigued and thought that there might still be some local people for whom the story would be new and interesting.
Victoria Kaʻiulani Kalaninuiahilapalapa Kawekiu i Lunalilo Cleghorn was born on the 16th October 1875, the only child of Princess Miriam Likelike and Scottish businessman Archibald Cleghorn. As niece to King Kalākaua and Queen Liliʻuokalani, she was heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Hawaii and held the title of Crown Princess.
Her early years were happy and secure, surrounded by the certainty of her family’s place in the world and their right to the throne. But, when Ka’iulani was just 11 years old, her mother became seriously ill and, suddenly, all that this young girl knew and expected changed. It is said that before Likelike died a large school of bright red fish - an omen of death in her family - massed close to shore and she predicted her daughter would never marry and never become queen!
Without the guidance of her mother, it was decided that the best way to prepare Ka’iulani for her future role was to send her to England to be ‘properly’ educated. So, at the age of 13, Ka’iulani was enrolled in Great Harrowden Hall, a private finishing school in Northamptonshire. Here Ka’iulani flourished, excelling in her lessons, and accepting of her exile, sure in the knowledge that it would only be for a year.
However, not long into her stay at the school, King Kalākaua died, and her aunt, Liliuokalani, took the Hawaiian throne. Now Ka’iulani was next in line to be queen and the pressure on her to stay in England longer and study harder was increased.
In February 1892, Theophilus Harris Davies, a respected Hawaiian businessman and the princess’s guardian in England, made the decision to move Ka’iulani to Hove to live and study with Mrs Phebe Rooke, a relative of Queen Emma (Queen of Hawaii from 1856 to 1863).
“I have left Great Harrowden Hall for good. Mr Davies has kindly found a lady who will look after me and be a sort of mother to me while I am in Brighton. I believe Mrs Rooke is a thorough lady… I shall take lessons in French, German, Music and English, especially grammar and composition.”
Despite missing Hawaii, she enjoyed her new surroundings, “Brighton is such a nice place, [and] although I have only been here a month, I can find my way about quite easily. I think that I will profit from my stay here…The air is very pure and bracing, and already my appetite shows me that it suits me.”
Demonstrating a maturity, perhaps beyond her years, Ka’uilani wrote to her aunt explaining that her workload kept her from charitable activities - the duty of all upper-class Victorian women – and how, when famous people arrived in Brighton, she resisted the temptation to break away from her lessons to go and see them. She noted, “The Duke of Connaught [Prince Arthur, Queen Victoria’s seventh child] and Princess Christina are coming down sometime next month to open some place, if I can I shall try to be present, though my studies interfere with a great many things, still they must come first”.
The strain Ka’iulani felt under to prepared for the day she would become a “worthy” queen was very real, but there was another side to her life beyond her studies. A tutor described her as exuberant, light-hearted, independent with a real strength of character. She described herself as athletic, loving dancing, riding, cycling, canoeing and swimming.
As for all Native Hawaiians, the sea played an important part in Ka’iulani’s life. Some accounts even suggest that she was the first female surfer in the British Isles. Disappointingly, the Museum of British Surfing does not verify this, they state, “the only tangible evidence – so far – is a letter in which she wrote that she enjoyed ‘being on the water again’ at Brighton”.
An exhibition of British surfing history on show in the Brighton Fishing Museum in 2004 speculated about Ka’iulani being on the water at Brighton, “Imagine the local fishermen’s surprise as they saw a long-haired foreign dignitary stood on a thin strip of wood, riding the waves.”
There is no doubt that the “resort by the sea” pleased the princess and sustained her enthusiasm for England and her studies, but this could not last forever. And, as the years went by, she became homesick until, eventually, word arrived that plans were being made for her return to Hawaii and “coming out” into society as the heir apparent. Heady news for the teenage princess, but unbeknown to her the political situation in Hawaii had changed. Dark clouds were gathering, and the queen’s enemies were beginning to challenge her right to the throne.
Then in January 1893, a telegram arrived in Cambridge Road telling Mrs Rooke that the island and its people were in political turmoil, it read: ‘Queen Deposed’, ‘Monarchy Abrogated’, ‘Break News to Princess’.
A month later, Ka’iulani left Hove in the company of her guardian to travel to America. Davies was convinced that Ka’iulani’s presence – as both a regal Hawaiian princess and educated Victorian young lady - would prove to the American people that the Hawaiian monarchy should be restored. She made speeches and public appearances denouncing the overthrow of her government and the injustice toward her people. While in Washington, D.C. she met President Grover Cleveland, but her efforts were in vain.
Overwhelmed by sadness, Ka’iulani drifted among the European aristocracy, relatives and family friends in England, Wales, Scotland and Paris, before finally returning to Hawaii in November 1897. During this time, she became distanced from the island’s politics and suffered recurring bouts of ill health.
On the 12th August 1898, the day Hawaii was annexed as a territory of the United States, citizen Ka’iulani and her aunt, the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii, wore funeral clothes as a protest against what they considered an illegal transaction.
Ka’iulani died a year later, on the 6th March 1899 of inflammatory rheumatism, she was 23 years old. And, just as her mother had foretold, she never married and never became queen.
Jane Couldrey’s work on the life of Princess Ka’iulani can be accessed via: Dance event : vimeo.com/manage/videos/104870097
Posted in History on Oct 01, 2021