Honolulu in 1888: The City That Made the Magazine


(page 4 of 6)

In the 1880s, upper Kapalama seemed quite a distance from the city of Honolulu, making it suitable for tucking away the insane asylum.

Quarantine Island

In 1888, Honolulu is what biographer Craig Howes calls a “staging zone” for the shiploads of immigrants who arrive in Honolulu and fan out to plantations across the Islands. Quarantine Island (which will be swallowed up when Sand Island is dredged in the 1940s) is their first stop. This low, sedgy tidal island in Honolulu Harbor is Hawaii’s Ellis Island, a defense against the communicable diseases—cholera, typhoid, smallpox, bubonic plague and leprosy among them—that have been spreading around the world since the advent of long-distance trade.

Visitor Mabel Deering described the wooden bridge, “six feet wide, perhaps, and half a mile long,” that joined the deepwater harbor to Quarantine Island’s landing, and the quarantine equipment that awaited arrivals once they had walked the bridge: “ovens, where fifty pounds of sulphur are burned at once,” along with “vats for fumigating clothing and tanks for purifying bodies.”

At low tide, wrote Deering, Quarantine Island is surrounded by sandy flats, but, at high tide, which nearly swamps the island, the complex looks positively picturesque: “like a rose-pink fishing village floating on a looking-glass sea.”

Honolulu Harbor in 1888 was still a forest of masts, but steam power would soon replace the age of sailing vessels.

Pearl Harbor and the Original Second City

Visitors who have already beheld the Nuuanu Pali and done Waikiki can take a pleasant drive past poi factories and agricultural fields to Pearl River Harbor, an “enchanting” region of brackish waterways, freshwater springs, quiet beaches, coconut groves, and plantations of banana and sugar. The most prominent buildings in the region are the Puuloa salt works, with its distinctive windmill, and the fishery shacks on the sandbar that lies across the mouth of the bay.

That is all about to change. In 1887, Hawaii renegotiated the much-discussed Reciprocal Treaty with the United States, granting the Americans exclusive access to the Pearl River Harbor (later, the “river” will drop out of the name) for use as a naval supply station. Entrepreneur Benjamin Franklin Dillingham has also leased large tracts of land nearby and secured an exclusive railroad franchise from Kalakaua. Within two years, Dillingham will complete the Oahu Railway & Land Co. (OR&L) track from Iwilei to Pearl River Harbor—reducing travel times from several hours to 30 minutes—and lots for the still-imaginary “Pearl City” will go on sale.

Kalakaua stands on the steps of Iolani Palace with the members of his royal staff.

Our Founder, the King: David Kalakaua

They call him the Merrie Monarch for his free-spending ways and his fondness for dance, gambling, music and the bottle. While costly Iolani Palace was being built, in the sixth year of his reign, he toured the world for nine months, drawing criticism from the international press. Many (including the future Queen Liliuokalanai) took a dim view of his activities as king.

But Kalakaua faced a monumental task. His people were disappearing, his power had just been abruptly curtailed and Hawaiian lands were increasingly owned and controlled by foreign interests. In the absence of military strength, Hawaii was going to survive, if it survived at all, on diplomacy—and diplomacy depends on symbolism.

Under his leadership, hula, which a previous generation had routinely condemned as sinful, appeared regularly at his court. Kalakaua’s much-loved Royal Hawaiian Band interspersed waltzes with Hawaiian mele. While building up the appearance of a Western-style government and infrastructure, Kalakaua championed the preservation and evolution of Hawaiian language, myth, arts and culture—not only for national pride, but for a distinct national identity. Hawaii’s last king worked tirelessly (if expensively) to make Hawaii into a kingdom that had a chance of surviving in the modern world with its soul intact.

On the inside, the Merrie Monarch was anything but. When one French visitor asked him what he'd thought of a recent visit to the United States, he replied, “It’s a country that requires seven days to cross in an express train … It’s a nation that commands infinite wealth; it’s a giant whom great states as well as small must take into account.”

“You and I belong to the past,” he told the Frenchman, “the future belongs to the giant.”

His last words? “Tell my people I tried.”

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Honolulu Magazine December 2018
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