The State of Aloha
More than 170 years ago, in the days of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the British Empire was in full swing. Our islands had the misfortune to have Richard Charlton, a British ambassador wholly lacking in the subtle arts and skills of diplomacy. A contemporary wrote that “he did not possess the qualifications necessary for a diplomatist — coolness, discretion, and an abstinence from party heats and personal animosities.”
Charlton’s own personal problems colored his duties as a diplomat. Charlton had a prime piece of land in what is today the heart of downtown Honolulu, just makai of Merchant Street between Fort Street and Nuuanu Avenue. He claimed a 299-year lease given to him by none other than Kalanimoku, a great chief who served under Kamehameha the Great and Kamehameha II.
The land claim included his own residence, of which there was no dispute, but also the neighboring property, which was occupied by Queen Ka’ahumanu’s descendants and retainers. Charlton litigated his claim all the way up to King Kamehameha III, and lost.
Angered by the loss, he left the islands and demanded that the king recognize his ally and fellow imperialist as the official British Consul. (The king ignored him.)
Charlton set sail to Mexico, where he met with Lord George Paulet, captain of a British ship fitted with serious firepower. Capt. Paulet was sympathetic to Charlton and was outraged by the treatment of his countryman in Hawaii.
He arrived one afternoon on Feb. 10, 1843, and sent a letter demanding a “personal interview” with Kamehameha III. He was rebuffed. The king, he was told, was in Wailuku. Written correspondence would have to suffice.
Capt. Paulet sent the king written demands. First — and foremost — he demanded the “restoration of the land” taken from Charlton. His other demands gutted any sovereignty or jurisdiction over British subjects. If accepted, the government’s legitimacy would be in peril.
Finally, he threatened to attack Honolulu with his cannons and guns if the demands were not met and offered a brig anchored offshore as asylum for British subjects. The town was thrown into chaos.
The king relented. “We shall comply with your demands as it has never been our intention to insult Her Majesty, the queen, or injure any of her estimable subjects,” wrote the king. “But we must do so under protest, and shall embrace the earliest opportunity of representing our case more fully to Her Britannic Majesty’s government of a great nation which we have been taught to respect and love — that we shall then be justified.”
And with that, Hawaii was now part of the British Empire.
The king remained defiant much to the annoyance of Lord Paulet. “I have given away the life of our land, hear ye! But my rule over you, my people, and your privileges, will continue, for I have hope that the life of the land will be restored when my conduct is justified.”
The king had a plan. He had two ministers on a diplomatic tour in Europe at the time. They were wholly ignorant of Paulet’s takeover. The king sent a secret message to an American merchant, who raced across the globe to find the diplomats.
Negotiations in London settled a few of Charlton’s grievances, but the Hawaiians were able to convince the crown that Paulet’s takeover was out of line and had to be corrected.
Rear Adm. Richard Darton Thomas anchored in Honolulu on July 26, 1843, with the authority to return power to the Hawaiian monarchy. The British controlled the island kingdom for five months and had already made drastic changes to the government. It was quickly undone.
Adm. Thomas and Kamehameha III adopted the negotiated agreement established by the diplomats in London. The monarchy was saved and formally restored on July 31. Ten days of festivities and rejoicing followed.
The ceremony for the restoration of the monarchy took place outside of town in a large grassy square bearing Adm. Thomas’ name. Its divergent paths crossing each other in the center resemble the Union Jack from above. It is enclosed by King Street on one side and Beretania Street (the Hawaiian word for Britain), Victoria Street (after the Queen, presumably), and Ward Avenue.
Adm. Thomas was celebrated as a hero for the Hawaiian people. A new consul was installed. And it was here where the king spoke to his people. The entire speech has been lost, but a phrase has become the motto of our government to this day: Ua ma uke ea o ka aina i ka pono. “The life of the land is preserved by righteousness.”
July 31 is still celebrated by the Hawaiian people despite the overthrow by the Americans later in the 19th century. Today, it gives hope to many in the modern Hawaiian sovereignty movement who use this holiday to advance the cause.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”