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Honolulu in 1888: The City That Made the Magazine

King David Kalakaua founded this magazine under a royal charter as Paradise of the Pacific, publishing our first issue in January 1888. On these pages, we take you back in time to see what life in Honolulu was like then.


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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.”


Hale pili were still in active use, but were steadily being replaced by more Western structures.


The People: a Hawaii without Hawaiians?

Every road out of Honolulu passes the ruins of ancient terraces and townships, the dwelling places of the people who filled every arable valley before Western contact. In 1778, Captain Cook’s lieutenant, James King, had estimated 400,000 Native Hawaiians in the islands (present-day scholars often accept David Stannard’s estimate of 800,000 to 1,000,000). By 1888, there are about 40,000.


The vanishing Hawaiian race is one of the most talked-about issues of the time. In an 1888 lecture titled, “Why Are the Hawaiians Dying Out?” Sereno Edwards Bishop notes that “every large and populous town in the Islands has dwindled to a hamlet since my boyhood.”


One of them is Ewa, which Paradise of the Pacific describes as “in old missionary times a thriving native village with a large church.”  Now, it continues, Ewa is “almost deserted.”


To blame: successive waves of infectious disease that have left mass graves in Kakaako; an extremely low birth rate coupled with high infant mortality; a high rate of interracial marriage; and an exodus of Native Hawaiian men, who join ships’ crews as highly valued sailors, never to return to the Islands.


Alii are not spared. In less than a century, Hawaii has seen seven monarchs. The Royal School, reserved for the children of chiefs, closed in 1850, partly for lack of new pupils.


This—a kingdom in which at least nine-tenths of the original populace is gone—is the Hawaii of Kalakaua’s day. In 1888, the king publishes a book for a foreign readership, called Legends and Myths of Hawaii: The Fables and Folk-Lore of a Strange People. The foreword, not authored by Kalakaua but surely authorized by him, is an elegy for the Hawaiian people:


“Within a century they have dwindled from four hundred thousand happy and healthy children of nature, without care and without want, to a little more than a tenth of that number …They are slowly sinking under the restraints and burdens of their surroundings, and will in time succumb to social and political conditions foreign to their natures and poisonous to their blood. Year by year their footprints will grow more dim along the sands of their reef-sheltered shores, and fainter and fainter will come their simple songs from the shadows of the palms, until finally their voices will be heard no more for ever.”


But, although their numbers are perilously diminished in 1888, Native Hawaiians are by no means history. There may be only 40,000 of them left, but they still outnumber all foreign residents combined. The census of 1884 counts 17,937 Chinese; 9,377 Portuguese; 2,066 Americans and 1,282 Brits. Not only do Native Hawaiians still rule the nation in 1888, people with Native Hawaiian koko (blood) also make up a hefty percentage of Honolulu’s lawyers, preachers and community leaders.


Horses were the main form of transport on land.


The New Honoluluans

In 1888, the other big demographic story is immigration. The early waves of immigrant labor from Portugal, China and Japan are the direct result, not only of the plantations’ desire for laborers, but of the need for subjects of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Kalakaua had taken his 1881 world tour with the stated purpose of finding immigrants from a “cognate race” who would help replenish Hawaii’s depleted population.


Four years later, with diplomatic ties to Japan strengthened, the first large wave of Japanese immigration occurs. When their binding three-year contracts expire in 1888, many leave the plantations for the city. Within four decades, people of Japanese ethnicity make up 40 percent of Hawaii’s population.


Immigrants arrive by ship, which is still an uncertain undertaking at best. The 379 Portuguese immigrants (and 22 stowaways) who sailed from Madeira on the Thomas Bell took more than five months to make the journey around Cape Horn, arriving on April 14, 1888. During that journey, there were 14 births and 14 deaths.


An 1890s family relaxes in the front yard. 


The Creation of Bishop Estate

Bernice Pauahi Bishop was the last graduating pupil of the Royal School. Many deaths among the alii and few surviving children had concentrated land into fewer and fewer hands until Bishop inherited nearly all the vast acreage of the Kamehameha chiefs. She, too, was childless and, upon her death in 1884, she left the bulk of her 369,000-acre estate to a charitable trust. Bishop Estate was born. The land’s total estimated value at the time of its creation in 1884: $470,000 (more than $11 million in today’s dollars). One day it will be wealthier than Harvard and Yale combined.


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