The Princess Who Was Never Queen: Princess Ka’iulani

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This month is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and I always like to talk about the women since minority women don’t get mentioned much, especially in history. An article from Atlas Obscura caught my eye about the history of women surfers. The idea of a princess bringing surfing to Hawaii intrigued me.

But Princess Ka’iulani was much more than a surfer. Her story is a tragic (though not surprising for the Gilded Age) one of a princess who never got to be queen.

To begin with, Princess Ka’iulani was the child of an interracial marriage, which was not as popular or accepted at the time as it is now (a subject I incorporate in Book 7 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries). Her mother was a Hawaiian princess and her father was a Scotland-born businessman who had emigrated to Hawaii as a child. So she was born into royalty with the expectation that she would take her place in the Hawaiian monarchy some day. 

From all accounts, Princess Ka’iulani was an intelligent, and even precocious child. Some described her as “willful” and Princess Ka’iulani referred to herself as a “naughty” girl. Today, we know these to be euphemisms for highly-spirited women who refused to be bound to the separate spheres and asserted themselves as more intelligent and independent than most people thought women ought at the time.

As a teenager, she embarked on a path that would have been typical of wealthier young ladies of the time (royalty or not). She traveled to Europe and received an education in the United Kingdom that would have been expected of an upper-class young lady and especially one from a royal family. In 1891, her uncle (who was King in Hawaii at that time) died, leaving her aunt to inherit the throne. Her aunt, Queen Liliu’okalani, named her as the heir to the throne. 

A very majestic pose for a 17-year-old indeed!

Photo Credit: Princess Ka’iulani, photograph by Elmer Chickering taken in Boston, Massachusetts, 1893, Hawaii State Archives. Picryl/Public Domain

However, in 1893, her entire life changed when she received a telegram that her aunt had been dethroned and a group of American businessmen with financial interests in Hawaii intended to lobby the President to annex Hawaii. With her “willfulness” and “naughtiness”, Princess Ka’iulani returned to the United States, intending to see the president (Grover Cleveland). She released to the press a moving statement regarding her return which proved to be an impressively self-possessing statement coming from a 17-year-old:

I am now told that Mr. Thurston [one of the businessmen who overtook the monarchy] will be in Washington asking you to take away my flag and my throne. No one tells me even this officially. Have I done anything wrong that this wrong should ‘be done to me and my people? I am coming to Washington to plead for my throne, my nation and my flag. Will not the great American people hear me?”

Princess Ka’iulani’s visit was successful, as the American people were indeed moved and President Cleveland listened to her pleas. She managed to stave off this political coup. 

I say “stave off” because, after the Spanish-American War of 1898, Hawaii was annexed and became a U.S. territory. While Hawaii did not become part of the United States until 1959, its status of being a territory did away with the monarchy structure of government which meant Princess Ka’iulani would never become queen. Even sadder, she died just a year later of a weak heart which, some say, was brought on by the shock and disappointment of having her throne and her country taken away from her. She was just twenty-four years old. 

Book 7 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries will be coming out later this year, but for now, if you haven’t delved into this series, I highly recommend you pick up the first book, The Carnation Murder, for free at any online bookstore. The details and links are here

Works Cited:

Fahrni, Jennifer. “Princess Kaiulani: Her Life and Times”. Princess Kai’ulani Project. The Kai’ulani Project. 2006. Web. 10 May 2024.

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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Author: tammayauthor

Writing has been Tam May’s voice since the age of fourteen. She writes stories set in the past that feature sassy and sensitive women characters. Tam is the author of the Adele Gossling Mysteries which take place in the early 20th century and features suffragist and epistolary expert Adele Gossling whose talent for solving crimes doesn’t sit well with the town’s more conventional ideas about women’s place. She has also written historical fiction about women breaking loose from the social and psychological expectations of their era. Although Tam left her heart in San Francisco, she lives in the Midwest because it’s cheaper. When she’s not writing, she’s devouring everything classic (books, films, art, music) and concocting yummy plant-based dishes.

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