The City Past and Present

The Honolulu of 150 years ago—strange, yet familiar.


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I’m having a great time reading Gavan Daws’ new book, Honolulu: The First Century. All my life, names such as Wyllie, Judd and Kina‘u belonged to streets. But in this book, chronicling the city up to 1876, these names belong to the original Robert C. Wyllie, foreign minister for two kings; Dr. Gerrit Judd, missionary doctor and fervent royalist-turned-annexationist; and high cheifess Kina‘u, daughter of Kamehameha I. Nobody drove over these people back then, not even metaphorically. In their time, they were power brokers and, in this book, they walk, talk, plan, scheme and struggle.

Would they recognize anything in the Honolulu of 2007? Certainly not the physical city—Honolulu in the early 1800s was a small clutch of grass hale, wooden buildings and dirt roads pressed up against the waterfront, more like today’s Lahaina in scale. When The Queen’s Hospital opened in 1860 in its present location, for example, it was described as being situated in “dusty, dry surroundings to the east of the town proper.” That would have been Punchbowl Street.

I think they’d be surprised, too, at the cosmopolitan makeup of the city. Throughout its first century, as capital of the kingdom, Honolulu was made up mainly of Hawaiians and haoles. The latter group was sharply divided, with British, French and American citizens trading with one another, but at arm’s length. The American community was split between missionaries and merchants, who could hardly stand each other.

But, as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Then, as now, Honolulu and its leaders were seized by one moral panic after another. I lost count of how many times in the 1800s alcohol was banned, legalized, then banned again, each ban announced with great fanfare as the last nail in the coffin of vice.

I couldn’t read about this without thinking of today’s sweeping bans on smoking, or our registration system for cold medicine to crack down on the production of crystal meth (for more on that moral panic, see managing editor Kathryn Drury Wagner’s Afterthoughts). Efforts to control the “furious riding” of horses through the streets of the 1800s have their parallel in the recent Honolulu Police Department crackdown on speeding (“3,700 Tickets Issued in Three Weeks,” a recent headline boasted).

Still, I think these people would find our Honolulu boring. Back then, outrageous public behavior—from long, nasty feuds to outright riots—was much more common. In one wild example, King Liholiho, in a drunken fit, shot a friend in the chest, intending to kill him over a perceived advance on his wife, the queen. The friend miraculously survived (though as an invalid), Liholiho sobered up and regretted the incident intensely, especially since his friend, it turned out, had never hit on the queen. And that was pretty much the end of it!

It would have been great fun to write our annual Sour Poi Awards in such times. Associate editor Michael Keany has rounded up some moments from 2006 that truly deserve mockery (see the Sour Poi Awards), but I’m sad to say that none of them involve murderous monarchs.

Honolulu: The First Century does mention the occasional grog shop or tavern, but no famous chefs. In that regard, we’re lucky to live in 2007: This issue includes our Hale ‘Aina Awards for the best dining spots in Hawai‘i, from world-famous Alan Wong’s to neighborhood restaurants such as Green Door Café. Judd was probably too much the Puritan to enjoy the delights of modern Honolulu (though this teetotaler did smoke). But Wyllie seemed to enjoy good times. And Liholiho, if he were alive, would surely be planning his next big dinner party with this issue.

With any luck, he’d leave his pistol at the palace.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2020
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