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Surfing Princess Kaiulani Fought Annexation

Surfing Princess Kaiulani was heir apparent to the throne of the Hawaiian kingdom. She was known to some as the Peacock Princess for the beloved pets that roamed her childhood estate in Waikiki. She was named the Island Rose in the poem Robert Louis Stevenson, a family friend, wrote in her diary. She was considered the People’s Princess because of her noble efforts to stop America’s annexation of Hawaii. For the same reason, some U.S. papers called her the Heathen or Barbarian Princess. Most consider her the Tragic Princess who was denied her throne and died at age 23. 

Volumes have been written about the surfing princess Kaiulani (October 16, 1875 – March 6, 1899). Her life was brief, but she will forever be remembered  for her strength of character and the Hawaiian ideals she represented.

Following are eight high lights from the intersection between her personal life and her efforts to stop America’s annexation of her homeland. 

#1 Kaiulani Embraced Hawaiian Heritage From Childhood

Born an only child to her Hawaiian mother Princess Miriam Likelike and Scottish businessman Archibald Cleghorn, Kaiulani had a charmed early childhood, surrounded by an adoring extended family in the natural beauty of  Hawaii. Christened Victoria Ka’iulani (royal sacred one), she was a talented artist, musician and natural athlete who loved horseback riding, hula dancing and water sports. 

According to the Princess Kaiulani Project, she particularly enjoyed canoeing, surfing and swimming. A fearless child, she often worried her governess by swimming far out into the breakers.


Much has been written about her grace and skill on a surfboard, although we have no photos to date. But we know that she loved the ocean from a wealth of letters  held at the Bishop Museum.

In an article published by New York’s Sun newspaper on October 24, 1897, the Surfing Princess Kaiulani said:

“I love riding, driving, swimming, dancing and cycling. Really, I’m sure I was a seal in another world because I am so fond of the water … My mother taught me to swim almost before I knew how to walk.”

The art and practice of surfing (He‘e nalu) was more than just a sport to Princess Kaiulani and the people of Hawaii. Throughout their history, surfing embodied the very essence of Hawaiian spirit. To this day, surfing remains significant to Hawaiian culture and history. 

According to Professor Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, author of books including Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth-Century Hawai‘i and Hui Nalu, Beachboys, and the Surfi ng Boarder-lands of Hawai‘i:

“He‘e nalu is significant to Hawaiians because it is one of few traditions to continuously survive the destructive power of colonialism. Although Hawaiians continued surfing in the early decades of the nineteenth century, by the mid-1800s, physical and cultural epidemics thinned surfing crowds at even the most popular breaks.” (Hui Nalu, Beachboys, and the Surfing Boarder-lands of Hawai‘i p. 94)

He‘e nalu was limited to select beaches—primarily on the islands of Maui and O‘ahu–because “missionaries frowned on ‘idle and sensuous’  practices such as the hula, Native sports, and surfing.” Despite that, men and women, including members of the royal family, surfed through the late nineteenth century.  

“Among those who frequented the waves during this time was Queen Lili‘uokalani’s niece and designated heir to the throne, Princess Victoria Ka‘iulani.: (p. 94)

#2 Bishop Museum Collection Includes Kaiulani’s Board

Historian DeSoto Brown is the author of many books including Surfing: Images From The Bishop Museum Archives. Brown also curated the museum’s exhibit, Mai Kinohi Mai: Surfing in Hawaii (Dec. 14, 2019, to May 3, 2020.) The exhibit included archival photos and manuscripts as well as some of the the oldest surfboards in existence. Among the museum’s holdings are boards that were owned by Hawaiian royalty.

One of these boards belonged to Princess Kaiulani. Donated by her father’s estate in 1922, it stands 7-feet-4-inches tall. Heavy by today’s standards, it demanded skill, power and courage. According to Brown, the surfing Princess Kaiulani was active in the water at Waikiki, both on her surfboard and in canoes.

 Her cousin, Prince Jonah Kühiö Kalaniana‘ole, was also known for regularly riding the Waikïkï surf at this time.

#3 Kaiulani Studied Abroad For Her Future Role As Monarch

Through original letters , author Marilyn Stassen-Mclaughlin follows Kaiulani’s years from the time she was sent to England in Unlucky Star: Princess Kaiulani. (The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 33, 1999-pp. 21-22)

Kaiulani shouldered many tragic losses early in life. Her mother died when Kaiulani was only eleven. Her doting father and extended family raised her with the expectation that one day she would rule Hawaii. She remained close to her aunt, Liliʻuokalani.

In 1889, at 13, she and half-sister Annie Cleghorn were sent to study at Great Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire, England. The goal was to provide a proper education for her future role as queen.

Based on her many letters sent home, combined with first-hand reports of visitors from the Islands, Kaiulani was happy during her time in England. But she missed her homeland.

“From the early days of her time abroad, Princess Ka’iulani’s actions hint at a light-hearted independence that would emerge later in her growing strength of character when she was forced to face the diffi- culties before her.” (Unlucky Star, p. 25)

It was an exciting time in Europe. In addition to their academic studies, the sisters explored galleries, attended concerts and developed their own artistic talents. 

 Kaiulani remained in Europe to further her education and training as a polished Victorian lady.

“Fraulein Kling comes every morning for an hour’s conversation in Ger- man or French I also read and translate with her. I shall have singing lessons from Madame Lancia, two painting lessons, two music lessons. Also lessons in Dancing Deportment and Riding. Of course, I practice for two hours each day and also spend two hours preparing for the dif- ferent lessons. I wanted to show you that I intend to work hard and not waste my time, tho it is very short.

Do you not think that to learn to walk and move gracefully is so very important[?] I do hope that by the time I come home you will think that I have improved.” (Letter from surfing princess Kaiulani to to Lili’uokalani, Oct. 9, 1892)

#4 Some Believe Kaiulani Introduced Surfing To England

Many people believe that Kailuani was the first female surfer in the British Isles. According to author and historian Sandra Kimberley Hall on the Museum of British Surfing in Braunton,  North Devon:

“She may have been the first female surfer in Britain, but the only tangible evidence – so far – is a letter in which she wrote that she enjoyed “being on the water again” at Brighton. She may have meant a walk on the West Pier, or a walk on the promenade.”

We know that Kaulani liked swimming and surfing. Hall continues:

“She was a high-spirited girl, who when she returned to Hawaii, liked to sneak out past midnight to go swimming in the moonlight with girlfriends.”

Whether or not Kaiulani surfed the waves in Britain, we know her cousins did surf the area. According to Peter Robinson, founder of the Museum of British Surfing, this day in Bridlington was believed to be the first instance of surfing in Britain.

The event was  revealed in a letter written on September 22, 1890 to Hawaiian consul Henry Armstrong from Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Piikoi, one of the three brothers who surfed in Santa Cruz five years earlier.

In the letter, Jonah said:
‘We enjoy the seaside very much and are out swimming every day.
‘The weather has been very windy these few days and we like it very much for we like the sea to be rough so that we are able to have surf riding.
We enjoy surf riding very much and surprise the people to see us riding on the surf.”

Her cousins Kawananakoa, Kuhio and Keliʻiahonui had pioneered surfing in California in 1885.

#5 Political Turmoil Threatened Princess Kaiulani’s Future 

Shortly after her fifteenth birthday, her sister returned to Hawaii. It was decided that Kaiulani should continue her education in Europe due to political turmoil in Hawaii.

In 1893, a small group of sugar and pineapple-growing businessmen, aided by the American minister to Hawaii and backed by heavily armed U.S. soldiers and marines, deposed Hawaii’s queen. According to Digital History “they imprisoned the queen and seized 1.75 million acres of crown land and conspired to annex the islands to the United States.”

On January 17, 1893, the conspirators announced the overthrow of the queen’s government. A friend of the family, Flora Jones, reported the conditions in Hawaii:

“Ka’iulani must keep centered on her primary duty—seeking an education for her future role. But now a new question emerged: Would she ever be Hawai’i’s queen?” (Unlucky Star, p. 32)

She was scheduled to have an audience with Queen Victoria as part of her European tour.  Princess (Victoria) Kaiulani was named after Queen Victoria who had been godmother to African Princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta. The visit was cancelled when her guardian in England, Mr. Theophilus Davies, received the following telegram :

‘Queen Deposed’, ‘Monarchy Abrogated’, ‘Break News to Princess’.

While annexationists were in Washington trying to convince the United States to take over Hawaii, Davies urged Kaiulani to travel to Washington to plead the cause of the monarchy “in the conviction that her presence would prove to the American people that all the truth had not been told to them.” (Unlucky Star, p. 32)

Kaiulani, then only 17, had little faith that she could sway the course of events in America. But her country needed her and she found the courage to plead for justice. On February 22, 1893, she boarded a ship for America with Mr. and Mrs. Theo Davies and their daughter.  When she arrived in New York harbor, she made a statement that was published in newspapers across America. 

“Seventy years ago Christian America sent over Christian men and women to give religion and civilization to Hawaii. They gave us the gospel, they made us a nation and we learned to love and trust America. Today three of the sons of those missionaries are at your capital asking you to undo their fathers’ work. Who sent them? Who gave them authority to break the constitution, which they swore they would uphold.
Today, I, a poor, weak girl, with not one of my people near me, and all these Hawaiian statesmen against me, have strength to stand up for the rights of my people. Even now I can hear their wail in my heart and it gives me strength and courage and I am strong, strong in the faith of God, strong in the knowledge that I am right, strong in the strength of 70,000,000 people who in this free land will hear my cry and will refuse to let their flag cover dishonor to mine.”

#6 Newspapers Called Her The Barbarian Princess 

Americans who read Princess Kaiulani’s statement in advance of her trip were expecting a “heathen Princess.” Instead of describing the “savage barbarian” they had expected, the American press quickly began to correct their previous statements.

“The Princess is 18 years old. She is a tall, beautiful young woman, with a sweet face and slender figure: She has the soft brown eyes and dark complexion that mark the Hawaiian beauty.” (The Morning Call, March 2, 1893)

“…tall and slender with a more thoughtful and deliberate air than might be expected in a school girl. She is a brunette with eyes of hazel and features that suggest just a suspicion of Kanaka origin.” (The Record Union, February 23, 1893)

Still, many Americans pressed for the annexation of Hawaii. The Sacramento Record Union, March 3, 1893:

“When a people proves itself unable to maintain a stable government, it is the province of a higher civilization to step in and sup0ply the need. The Hawaiians are to be treated kindly, firmly, as children. The time has passed for seriously regarding them as competent to govern them selves or to tell others to how to govern them. President Harrison has more wisely taken his counsel from superior, trust worthy Anglo Saxons. Then, his duty clear, he ceased to talk and acted. The Anglo-Saxons are nation-builders of the world.”

While many reporters praised Princess Kaiulani for her poise, beauty  and education, some said that it was her Anglo-Saxon blood and European education that refined her.

“When Princess Kaiulani tells us of ‘her people’ and the necessity and justness of consulting the ‘pure Hawaiians’ in this matter, she touches the quick. She is not herself a pure Hawaiian, but a half-breed. The intellectual capacity and physical comeliness she has comes from her educational contact with and half-descent from Anglo-Saxons. Her ‘pure Hawaiians’ are confessedly incapable of self-government” the men who have become Hawaiians by adoption and years of devotion to Hawaiian interests are of Anglo-Saxon descent in the main. They represent advancement, progress and strength; pure Hawaiian represents decay, retrogression and weakness.” (The Sacramento Record Union, March 3, 1893)

Some newspapers published degrading political cartoons aimed at the Queen and Princess Kaiulani. They intended to influence the American public’s opposition to the Hawaiian government.

#7 Annexation Efforts Plagued Hawaii and Kaiulani

Princess Ka’iulani’s press tour in the United States and visit with President Cleveland seemed to influence those in Washington. On March 11, 1893, President Cleveland appointed A. C. Blount from Georgia to travel to Hawaii to report on whether the monarchy should be retained.

Meanwhile, unrest continued in Hawaii. According to Mcglaughlin:

“She (Kaiulani) realized her country would never be the same and she might never be queen. Disillusioned about her future in Hawaii, she began to build another life for herself.” (Unlucky Star, p. 36)

Ultimately, Kaiulani’s pleas for her country failed. 

Soon after Queen Lili’uokalani was overthrown by party of businessmen, President Benjamin Harrison submitted a treaty to annex the Hawaiian islands to the U.S. Senate . In 1897, the treaty effort was blocked when the newly-formed Hawaiian Patriotic League, composed of native Hawaiians, successfully petitioned the U.S. Congress. According to the National Archives, the League’s victory was short lived. World events once again forced the annexation issue.

“With the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in February of 1898 signaling the start of the Spanish American War, establishing a mid-Pacific fueling station and naval base became a strategic imperative for the United States. The Hawaiian islands were the clear choice.”

Congress moved quickly to annex the Hawaiian islands. On July 12, 1898, the Joint Resolution passed with a simple majority. The Hawaiian islands were officially annexed by the United States.

#8 The Tragic Princess Returned To Her Homeland

Surfing Princess Kaiulani remained in Europe after her American press tour. She returned to Hawaii in 1897 after nearly nine years abroad. She was 22.

Shortly after her return, Ka’iulani described to her aunt the many changes she had observed:

“I am fairly worn out. . . . Hawaiians came [to see me]… . [I] was so tired. … It made me sad to see so many Hawaiians looking so poor—in the old days I am sure there were not so many people almost destitute.” (Ka’iulani to Lili’uokalani, Nov. 17, 1897)

She and her aunt Liliʻuokalani boycotted the 1898 annexation ceremony. They continued to work to ensure the rights of the Hawaiian people under the U.S. government. Ka’iulani kept herself busy with “good works” as the second vice-president of the Red Cross.

She gave up any hope of being a princess or a queen. She no longer dreamed of living abroad with her father where she might have resumed a life that had become a tolerable substitute for all she had lost.” (Unlucky Star)

She was exhausted from her travels, emotional losses and political upheaval. One year later, she was caught in a storm while horseback riding. While He‘e nalu survived colonialism, the Surfing Princess Kaiulani died of complications from a rheumatic heart and an opthalmic goiter on March 6, 1899, at the age of 23.

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