Ka’iulani, the last Princess of Hawaii

Posted 7th November 2023

Words by Laura Malpas…

There’s an unexpected connection between Northamptonshire and Ka’iulani, the last heir to the Hawaiian monarchy. Her amazing life story naturally enough began in Hawaii in 1875.

She was born in Honolulu, 4th in line to the Hawaiian throne, the only child of Princess Miriam Likelike and Scottish businessman Archibald Scott Cleghorn. Ka’iulani’s father was an Edinburgh Scot who had spent much of his youth in New Zealand where his father was Superintendent of the Auckland Government Domain. Aged 16, Archibald travelled to Honolulu with his father to set up a dry goods business.

Despite his father dying, Archibald’s business thrived and expanded through the Hawaiian Islands, making him prominent and influential. In 1870, he became a Hawaiian citizen, and married a high-ranking member of the Hawaiian Royal Family, Princess Likelike. Five years later their only child Princess Ka’iulani was born to great celebration, as she was the only direct heir by birth to the throne.

Young Ka’iulani had an idyllic childhood. She had been given a country estate, named Ãinahau, or ‘cool land’. Archibald built a home and cultivated a wonderful garden filled with plants from all over the world, with turtles and a family of peacocks roaming freely. Ka’iulani enjoyed playing there, and riding her favourite pony, Fairy.

Her parents entertained many international visitors, several of whom became friends with the young princess, including the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. She was an athletic child, dancing hula and practicing the Hawaiian martial art of Lua. She especially enjoyed swimming and surfing, often worrying her governesses with her risk taking, confessing that she was ‘naturally naughty’.

This blissful childhood ended abruptly with the early death of Ka’iulani’s mother Likelike. The two had been close, and suddenly she was alone. As his heir, the King decided that Ka’iulani needed to be educated properly to prepare for her future as Queen. This meant travelling to England to boarding school for a suitable education, initially for a single year.

The school chosen was at Great Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire (now a wedding venue and golf club). In 1889 after a wonderful party at her home in Ãinahau, Ka’iulani left for Britain, accompanied by her older half-sister Annie from her father’s previous relationship. They were in the care of Ka’iulani’s guardian a British sugarcane plantation owner, Mr Davies. Ka’iulani was not to return home for four years.

It was quite a culture shock, but very exciting for the two girls, attending concerts, visiting art galleries and local landmarks and exploring the countryside. The thirteen-year-old princess met many celebrities and was inspired to make the most of her time, growing closer to her half-sister. Her only complaint was that English food was too bland for her tastes.

Once the school term started, Ka‘iulani was in a class with other students for the first time. She and Annie studied French, German, maths, history, and English literature. The girls spent their mornings in class, and the afternoons doing homework and playing sports such as tennis and cricket.

Her first Christmas must have been exciting as she was able to see her cousin, Kawãnanakoa, nicknamed Koa, who was also studying in England. Ka‘iulani and Koa had been close in Hawaii, and wrote to each other regularly. Koa was homesick, and the weather was a trial. Ka’iulani wrote about her first

Northamptonshire winter ‘I rather like it when you can roast yourself by the fire but it is no joke out in the open air. I think I would like it moderately cold, not quite as cold as it is now’.

The princess thrived at school, receiving glowing reports from Mrs Sharpe the headmistress. It was decided that she should continue her studies, but there was no more money for her half-sister to stay on. Annie left for home and was very distressed. However, Mrs Sharpe noted that Ka’iulani behaved correctly as a princess should, with self-control.

That autumn, Ka’iulani received a puzzling letter from her uncle the King. He warned her to ‘watch out for enemies whose names he dare not write’. She had no idea to whom he was referring, so she wrote to ask. No answer came back, and a few months later the King died whilst visiting the USA. Ka’iulani’s Aunt became Queen Lili’uokalani, and the fifteen-year-old princess became the heir apparent, continuing her education at Harrowden Hall. It must have been hard for her to remain in Northamptonshire, but she was determined to be the best Queen she could be when the time came.

However, in Hawaii, the situation was chaotic. Tensions were growing between political factions, notably from the Hawaiian League, foreign politicians representing the plantation owners, the sugar industry, and Christian missionaries who were undermining the Hawaiian indigenous customs and practices. The Queen was managing very difficult circumstances.

Life at school in Northamptonshire became more difficult for Ka’iulani now she was Crown Princess. Her letters show she was under stress, uncertain about what her future might hold. When the school year ended, her father Archibald came to visit, and together they visited London, and Archibald’s home, Scotland. Afterwards, Archibald sailed home alone, frustrating the princess. She wrote to her Queen about what was happening asking how she could help Hawaii, but the queen was not forthcoming, and told her to stay in England to continue her education.

After completing her schooling, Ka’iulani remained based in England. She stayed good friends with her former headmistress Mrs Sharpe, visiting her in Burton Latimer. Ka’iulani then moved to Brighton, where she rekindled her passion for surfing on the south coast beaches. She loved being on the water again, and the bracing sea air gave her renewed energy. Today Ka’iulani is credited with becoming the ‘mother of modern surfing’.

Early in 1893, she received a telegram, ‘Queen deposed. Monarchy Abrogated. Break news to Princess’. A pro-American group had pulled off a coup and overthrown the Hawaiian monarchy, hoping to create a republic. Shocked, Ka’iulani set sail for the USA to appeal to the President for help. Congress refused to listen to the plea as it was greatly in the interests of the USA to control Hawaii. This plan succeeded in 1894 when Hawaii was declared a Republic and became a U.S. Territory in 1898.

Ka’iulani made headlines wherever she went, such a romantic story of a ‘beautiful dusky princess’ fighting for her country predictably engendered much interest and racist comments, but she never stopped campaigning for her nation.

She eventually returned to her beloved home, Ãinahau in 1897. Whilst out riding in the mountains she was caught in a storm and contracted pneumonia. Sadly, she never recovered, and died in 1899, aged only 24.

Princess Ka’iulani never returned again to her Northamptonshire friends, but she is still remembered as a charming visitor. Today I am sure the ‘mother of modern surfing’ would have loved paddling down the river Nene, or wakeboarding at Grendon Lakes, and perhaps even swinging a golf club at her old school, Harrowden Hall, now Wellingborough Golf Club.

For more information about Ka’iulani in Northamptonshire, please visit www.burtonlatimer.info/people/kaiulani