This is part of a series of posts on the historical figures that are the inspiration for Immortal Perfumes. For more historical figures, check out the rest of the series.
“It has been a strange life, really, and a very romantic one.”
Princess Ka’iulani was the last Crown Princess of the Kingdom of Hawaii before the monarchy was overthrown and the kingdom was annexed by the United States. She tried to save her kingdom’s independence but was thwarted in her efforts by a racist press and ill health. The shy, beautiful princess ultimately died at just 23 years old. Here is her story.
Ka’iulani was born Victoria Kawekiu Ka’iulani Lunalilo Kalaninuiahilapalapa Cleghorn (named for Queen Victoria and one of her aunts who had died young) on October 16, 1875 to Princess Miriam Likelike and Archibald Scott Cleghorn. Cleghorn was a Scottish businessman who had come to Hawaii as a teenager. Princess Miriam was sister to King Kalakaua and Queen Lili’uokalani and was third in line to the throne. Cleghorn was 35 years old to Miriam’s 19 and their marriage was stormy.
Ka’iulani lived with her mother in the idyllic palace setting of Ainahau on Waikiki where they were surrounded by beautiful gardens and music. They participated in luaus where they would sing and play ukulele and guitar. Behind the scenes, King Kalakaua tried to arrange for Ka’iulani to be betrothed to the Prince of Japan in hopes of gaining a powerful ally to keep the British and Americans at bay. This didn’t pan out and Ka’iulani would write to her aunt that she wanted to marry for love but would marry whomever necessary if it meant the independence of Hawaii.
At age 11, Ka’iulani’s mother died and the princess was grief-stricken. Her mother’s last words were rumored to be that Ka’iulani would be doomed never to fulfill her destiny as the island’s queen. The prediction filled her with fear but was waved off by her family.
Because her aunt was old and childless, the kingdom knew that Ka’iulani would one day become queen. The king and queen along with her father decided that she would be best served to be educated in England. Before she went she enjoyed time learning with the painter Joseph Dwight Strong and also got to meet Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) who was a friend of her father.
Stevenson wrote a poem to Ka’iulani and dubbed her the “Island rose.”
Forth from her land to mine she goes,
The island maid, the island rose,
Light of heart and bright of face:
The daughter of a double race.
Her islands here in southern sun
Shall mourn their Ka’iulani gone,
And I, in her dear banyan shade,
Look vainly for my little maid.
But our Scots islands far away
Shall glitter with unwanted day,
And cast for once their tempest by
To smile in Ka‘iulani's eye.
At age 13, Ka’iulani was sent to England for private education. She was told that she would only be gone for one year but instead ended up living in England for four years. Her uncle the King died and her aunt became Queen Lili’uokalani. It was planned that Ka’iulani would travel through Europe as well as meet Queen Victoria. But all of these plans were cancelled with Queen Lili’uokalani was overthrown in 1893.
A group of businessmen who were originally of British and American descent were backed by the US Marines and overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in hopes of annexation by the United States. Ka’iulani was just 17 at the time and made her way to New York to make impassioned pleas for the freedom of her people.
Here is one of her most quoted statements to the press: “Seventy years ago, Christian America sent over Christian men and women to give religion and civilization to Hawaii. Today three of the sons of those missionaries are at your capitol, asking you to undo their fathers’ work… I, a poor, weak girl, with not one of my people near me and all of these statesmen against me, have the 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.”
She secured an audience with then President Grover Cleveland who was sympathetic to her cause. He had an investigation opened and it was found that the takeover was unlawful and that the queen’s throne should be restored. Cleveland took this to Congress hoping for a resolution but Congress refused and Cleveland’s successor carried on with annexation.
Despite her fierce advocacy, Ka’iulani’s mother’s prophecy proved correct. The beautiful young princess’ health grew more precarious until she ultimately died on March 6, 1899 at the age of 23. She died on her beloved island.
The Ka’iulani perfume was inspired by Ka’iulani’s story and by the lush vegetation on the Hawaiian islands.
To learn more about Princess Ka’iulani, check out The Ka’iulani Project which is dedicated to keeping her story alive and has also put on a play about the Princess. For further viewing you can also watch the 2009 film, Princess Ka’iulani.