Honolulu in 1888: The City That Made the Magazine


(page 5 of 6)

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.

Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Subscribe to Honolulu

Honolulu Magazine January 2019
Edit ModuleShow Tags



9 Greatest Honolulu Homes

Great Homes

Stunning, historic, extraordinary.


Can the Mainland Do Poke Right? Do We Want Them To?​


Martha Cheng, author of The Poke Cookbook and former line, talks about how a New York City publisher decided Hawai‘i’s favorite pūpū was for everybody.


50 Essential Hawai‘i Books You Should Read in Your Lifetime


The most iconic, trenchant and irresistible island books, as voted by a panel of literary community luminaries.


Everything You Need to Know About Local Fruit in Hawai‘i


Fruits are part of our history and culture, a way for us to feel connected to our community.



A Local’s Guide to Buying Reef-Safe Sunscreen


Five Hawai‘i brands have created reef-safe sunscreens that are safe for your ʻohana and the ocean. 

Edit ModuleShow Tags