When the King & Queen of the Sandwich Islands visited England

One of the things I try to bring out in Napoleon in America is how Europeans in the early 19th century tended to regard Native Americans and other indigenous people as exotic savages. Such views are illustrated by the tragic visit of the King and Queen of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to England in 1824. King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu travelled to London hoping to meet King George IV. The trip cost them their lives.

King Kamehameha II (Liholiho), Queen Kamamalu and their party from the Sandwich Islands attending a performance at the Drury Lane Theatre in London on June 4, 1824, by J.W. Gear

King Kamehameha II (Liholiho), Queen Kamamalu and their party from the Sandwich Islands attending a performance at the Drury Lane Theatre in London on June 4, 1824, by J.W. Gear

Kamehameha II

King Kamehameha II of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) attributed to John Hayter, 1824

King Kamehameha II of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) attributed to John Hayter, 1824

The Sandwich Islands was the name given to the Hawaiian Islands by Captain James Cook in 1778. King Kamehameha II, also known as Liholiho, inherited the throne of the Sandwich Islands in 1819, when he was 22 years old. Three years later, Britain’s King George IV sent a schooner called Prince Regent to Kamehameha II as a gift.

Kamehameha, who was looking for ways to modernize his kingdom, wrote a thank you letter in which he expressed his desire to place the Sandwich Islands under the protection of the British crown. He requested George IV’s counsel and advice. When a year passed with no reply, Kamehameha decided to sail to England to consult the British monarch in person. He commissioned a British whaling ship, L’Aigle, under Captain Valentine Starbuck, to make the voyage.

Accompanied by Queen Kamamalu (his half-sister and the favourite of his five wives) and a suite of eight persons, King Kamehameha left the Sandwich Islands on November 27, 1823. After a lengthy stop at Rio de Janeiro, the royal party landed at Portsmouth, England on May 17, 1824.

The Sandwich Islanders proceeded to London and took up residence at the fashionable Osborn’s Hotel in the Adelphi district, near the River Thames. The Times reported rather churlishly:

Their Majesties’ chief object in making this very long voyage, so unusual with crowned heads, is said to be that of putting the islands under the protection of Great Britain, in consequence of an attempt by the Russians to form a settlement there, to which the natives were extremely averse, but were not strong enough to resist openly. Another project of his Majesty is announced to be that of studying the English constitution, which he understands is peculiarly suited to islands, with a view of bestowing so excellent a form of government on his own subjects. Both purposes, it is probable, might have been equally well answered had ‘their Majesties’ remained in their own dominions. (1)

Turbans, whist and cigars

Queen Kamamalu, portrait based on an 1824 lithograph by John Hayter

Queen Kamamalu, portrait based on an 1824 lithograph by John Hayter

The British press and public were fascinated by the royal visitors’ appearance and habits.

A person who visited them yesterday found their Majesties amusing themselves with a game at whist, the Queen having for her partner her female attendant, who is a daughter of one of the chief men of the island, and his Majesty’s partner was the Governor of the island where the seat of government was held. The ladies were dressed in loose robes de chambre, of straw colour, tied with rose-coloured strings, and on their heads they wore turbans of feathers of scarlet, blue and yellow. The two males appeared in European costume, wearing plain black coats, silk stockings, and shoes. These islanders are of a very large size. The men appear to be above six feet, and exceedingly stout. The females are equally fat and coarse made, and proportionably taller than the men. The whole party are of the darkest copper colour, very nearly approaching to black. (2)

The King is a man of pleasing countenance and gentlemanly deportment; he is tall and well formed…. The Queen is a large woman, and appears fond of dress, which she changes three or four times a day. Her Majesty is somewhat indisposed, and frequently retires to rest during the day; she and her sister smoke their segars [cigars] with as much gout as some of our modern dandies, and constantly amuse themselves in playing cards. A gratifying treat was yesterday afforded them by the performances of the celebrated Mr. Punch and his family, whose merits they acknowledged by an ample reward; they were also highly delighted by an exhibition of the Fantoccini. (3)

Crowds gathered outside the hotel, where the King and Queen of the Sandwich Islands “gathered attention by exhibiting themselves at the windows.” (4) The owner of Osborn’s had to apply to the local magistrate’s office for protection against

the crowds of idlers who throng the front of his house from morning to night, for the sake of getting a peep at their Sandwichean Majesties. … [N]o coach could approach the door of the hotel but it was instantly surrounded on all sides by a rabble of the open-mouthed curious, all trampling and scrambling over each other, and poking their prying noses into its windows, in search of copper-coloured Royalty – to the very great annoyance of the customers of the house, the injury of its business, and the scandal of the whole neighborhood. (5)

The savages fell flat

While Kamehameha waited for an audience with George IV, British Foreign Minister George Canning put the Sandwich Islanders under the charge of Frederick “Poodle” Byng. Byng escorted them around London, ensuring that their social activities were appropriate for their status. Canning launched the process by throwing a grand party for the royal visitors at his residence of Gloucester Lodge on May 28. Over 200 guests “of the first rank and fashion” attended, including the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester (George IV’s sister), Prince Leopold (George IV’s son-in-law), the Duke of Wellington and most of the Cabinet, and the bulk of the diplomatic corps. The King and Queen of the Sandwich Islands and their suite arrived about eleven o’clock. The King “was dressed after the European fashion; the Queen’s attire was partly English and partly in native costume.” (6)

Upon their arrival they were received by Mr. Canning who eyed the graceful movements of her Majesty with the keenness of a master; and, it is said, whispered to the ‘Waterloo Hero’ that had she been a British queen, she would have been the life, grace and ornament of society. (7)

The band of the Life Guards were stationed in the garden and continued playing during the whole time. The company walked in the grounds attached to Gloucester Lodge, and their Majesties seemed much delighted with the music. When they returned into the refreshment room, they drank the health of the company. The rooms were all thrown open. At half past twelve they took their leave and the company then separated. (8)

Dorothea Lieven, the wife of the Russian ambassador, was less complimentary. In a letter to Austrian Chancellor Clemens von Metternich, she confided:

We have the King and Queen of the Sandwich Islands here. Mr. Canning tried to please Their Majesties; but it was not a success. He invited them to a reception. The King’s sisters were there. Everyone stared in the most unparalleled way; only the English can stare so. A few people, led by me, ventured to laugh; and the savages fell flat. I fancy there will be no more talk of them except at Covent Garden or Astley’s Circus. (9)

A Favorite Poodle Hatching Poultry!! – or A Present of Feather Breeches from the Sandwich Isles, caricature by Isaac Cruikshank, June 1824. Frederick (“Poodle”) Byng, wearing a feathered kilt, sits on a pile of eggs facing the King and Queen of the Sandwich Islands and another Sandwich Islander.

A Favorite Poodle Hatching Poultry!! – or A Present of Feather Breeches from the Sandwich Isles, caricature by Isaac Cruikshank, June 1824. Frederick (“Poodle”) Byng, wearing a feathered kilt, sits on a pile of eggs facing the King and Queen of the Sandwich Islands and another Sandwich Islander.

Quackery?

King Kamehameha and Queen Kamamalu went to the theatre, the opera, an assembly hosted by Countess Bathurst (wife of the Secretary of State for the Colonies), and the Royal Military Asylum. Still, there was no meeting with George IV. The papers suggested that Kamehameha did not yet have suitable clothing for an audience with the King, but Kamehameha dressed elegantly and adhered to British customs in his social interactions. Captain George Byron – cousin of the poet – wrote:

It was impossible for any persons to be more tractable or adapt themselves with more good temper to the usages of this country than the whole party. The decorum of their behaviour was admirable during their residence in the hotel. Not one instance occurred of their overstepping the bounds of decency or civility in their intercourse with the different persons appointed to wait on them; not a suspicion that any one of the chiefs had offered the slightest insult to any woman; nor was there any of that gluttony and drunkenness with which those Islanders, and especially the king, have been wantonly charged by some who ought to have known better. It is true that, unaccustomed to our habits, they little regarded regular hours for meals, and that they liked to eat frequently, though not to excess. Their greatest luxury was oysters, of which they were particularly fond; and one day, some of the chiefs having been out to a walk, and seeing a grey mullet, instantly seized it, and carried it home, to the great delight of the whole party, who, on recognizing the native fish of their own seas, could scarcely believe that it had not swam hither on purpose for them, or be persuaded to wait till it was cooked before they ate it. Once, and only once, they drank a considerable quantity of wine…. This event gave them all the highest satisfaction, and they sat carousing all night; but even then they only consumed twenty bottles of wine, and that was not much among so many.

Their moderation in every thing was quite remarkable, when we consider the nature and habits of half-civilized men. (10)

This last phrase is telling. There was disagreement over the propriety of receiving the King of the Sandwich Islands at Court. The newspaper John Bull expressed the negative side of the argument.

The COURIER last week published a paragraph explaining that the King of the Sandwich Islands has got five brigs in his navy, instead of five canoes; and told us, moreover, that his territories exceed in size all our West Indian Colonies; that they are civilized, accomplished, &c. &c. &c.

What the object of all this puffing may be, we really are at a loss to understand; but the effect produced by the quackery of treating these people as European monarchs are treated may be perceived by an extract from some evening paper, which is copied into Saturday’s CHRONICLE. With respect to the man being a King at all, we deny the fact – there is no King of the Sandwich Islands – it is a matter of history and matter of fact that ‘the islands are not united under one sovereign’ – this person is therefore a chief, to whom we should afford the rights of hospitality, but to whom we should not show a respect and deference which are not due to him, and which applied to such a person become absurd and ridiculous.

Her Majesty, it is said, committed an extraordinary solecism at a party some few evenings since – and ‘it was well it was no worse’ was the general observation upon it – but at present their Majesties have gotten the measles, which will detain them within doors. (11)

A tragic termination

Measles did more than detain their Majesties; the disease – which was then non-existent in the Sandwich Islands – killed them. The Queen died first, on July 8, 1824, at the age of 22. She was, to the last,

quite sensible and composed. The King took his last farewell about 10 o’clock in the morning, previously to which she informed him that she was sensible she was dying, and was quite resigned. Their separation was truly affecting. (12)

Dorothea Lieven wrote to Metternich:

All the talent of the English doctors was of no avail with a constitution that belonged to another hemisphere. The King is prostrate with grief, because his four other wives are not with him, and in the whole of Europe he cannot find a substitute for a Sandwich woman. This one, the smallest of the five, was taller and stronger than the most enormous man. In that country, they choose them by weight and size. (13)

John Bull opined as follows:

We certainly did not anticipate so tragical a termination to the absurd farce which has been acted, in which these poor creatures have been the principal performers – and yet the smallest consideration would have prepared us for the event. A group of savages are suddenly transported from their huts in their native climate, to a pent-up hotel in the dense smoke of London – their limbs, for decency’s sake, straitened and confined in European clothing, their hours of rising and sleeping wholly changed, their food suddenly altered from yams and plantains to rich soups and fricandeaux, and all the melancholy attempts at cookery of which the kitchen of the hotel in which they have been confined is susceptible – the pure limpid stream, their wonted beverage, supplanted by the mixture of Buxton, or Whithbead, or Calvert, or some other such Whig-washery, in which, together with wines and spirits, the poor creatures have been of course allowed to revel with unlimited and savage profusion – the consequence is, the poor female dies first, and in all probability will shortly be followed by the male. (14)

The paper was right. King Kamehameha II of the Sandwich Islands died on Wednesday, July 14, 1824, at the age of 27. To give him more privacy and a view of the river, he had been moved from Osborn’s Hotel to the more secluded Caledonian Hotel, at the end of Aldelphi Terrace, a few days before his death.

On Tuesday morning he was considered somewhat better, and he passed a tranquil night, but in the afternoon he became worse, and at night it was found necessary to send for Dr. Ley from his house in Mount Street. On the arrival of that gentleman, he found that the King was in a very low state and death appeared to be approaching fast. The King, on seeing Dr. Ley, caught him by the hand and said in his own language, ‘I am dying, I know I am dying.’ He continued very sensible and knew all around him. Madame Poki [Boki], the [Sandwich Islands] Governor’s Lady, was particularly attentive to him; she supported his head from one o’clock till the time the vital spark had fled; Poki the Governor and the rest of the suite were supporting their royal master’s legs at the foot of the bed. At two o’clock he became alarmingly worse, and he seemed then not to know any person: the Admiral was brought into the room and was affected to tears. The King took no notice of him, nor any other person about him. From that time till four o’clock he kept continually saying, ‘I shall lose my tongue, I shall lose my tongue;’ and just before he breathed his last, he faintly said, ‘Farewell to you all, I am dead, I am happy.’ After uttering these words, he expired in the arms of Madame Poki. (15)

The King’s remains were embalmed and laid in state in an apartment on the ground floor of the hotel. Members of his suite decorated the room and the coffin, as they had done with the Queen’s. Both coffins were temporarily placed in the crypt at the Church of St. Martin’s in the Fields.

There was sadness in Britain at this turn of events. The Morning Post commented:

Indeed the circumstances are particularly painful. The King and Queen of a people which little more than half a century ago were unknown to Europeans and who lived in a state of barbarism, had visited the country which first made them known to the world, and proved in their own persons the blessings of civilization. Mild and amiable in their dispositions, they adopted our costume, and were anxious to copy our manners as much as possible, and had they lived to return home, would no doubt have introduced many of our customs; their own knowledge and example would have enabled them to facilitate the march of civilization; while the hospitable receptions they met with would have filled the inhabitants of the islands with joy and gratitude. (16)

King George IV expressed his wish to meet the remaining Sandwich Islanders before they departed from England,

as there had been no opportunity of granting [the King and Queen] the personal interview, which was the chief object of their visit to Britain; and which he desired as a proof of courtesy to stranger sovereigns who, entered so lately within the pale of civilization, had come so far to throw themselves at his feet, and to acknowledge his superiority. Besides, the commercial interests of England in the Pacific are likely to be greatly injured in case the Sandwich Islands should fall into the hands of the Russians or Americans, and it was of some importance to grant the protection the king had come to seek, for our own sake as well as for his. (17)

On September 11, the Sandwich Islanders, led by Governor Boki, were presented to the King at Windsor Castle. George IV received them courteously, expressed his sorrow at their monarchs’ passing, and promised the Sandwich Islands protection against foreign encroachment. On September 29, the frigate HMS Blonde, commanded by Captain Byron, left Portsmouth to convey the Sandwich Islanders and the remains of their late King and Queen back to Oahu.

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  1. The Times (London), May 19, 1824, p. 3.
  2. The Times, May 20, 1824, p. 2.
  3. The Morning Chronicle (London), May 21, 1824, p. 3. “Mr. Punch” refers to the puppet show “Punch and Judy.” The Fantoccini was another type of puppet show.
  4. The Morning Chronicle, May 22, 1824, p. 3.
  5. The English Chronicle and Whitehall Evening Post (London), May 25-27, 1824, p. 2.
  6. The Morning Post (London), May 31, 1824.
  7. The Sunday Times (London), May 30, 1824, p. 4.
  8. The Morning Post, May 31, 1824.
  9. Peter Quennell, ed., The Private Letters of Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich, 1820-1826 (New York, 1938), p. 319.
  10. George Anson Byron, Voyage of H.M.S. Blonde to the Sandwich Islands in the Years 1824-1825 (London, 1826), pp. 59-60.
  11. John Bull (London), June 28, 1824, p. 212.
  12. The Times, July 10, 1824, p. 3.
  13. The Private Letters of Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich, 1820-1826, p. 321.
  14. John Bull, July 12, 1824, p. 228.
  15. The Times, July 15, 1824, p. 2.
  16. The Morning Post, July 15, 1824, p. 3.
  17. Byron, Voyage of H.M.S. Blonde to the Sandwich Islands in the Years 1824-1825, p. 72.

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Everyone stared in the most unparalleled way; only the English can stare so. A few people, led by me, ventured to laugh; and the savages fell flat.

Dorothea Lieven