ʻIolani Palace, the former royal palace of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The only former royal palace in the United States, it is built in very much a European/Western mode, with much of the interior furnishings being made in Germany, but out of koa wood, and with traditional Hawaiian symbols of legitimacy and kingship intertwined inside and out.
Back in September, at the East West Center conference in Okinawa, one of the talks was given by a representative from the League of Historical Cities, introducing us to the League and to the idea that perhaps Honolulu should join the League.
This League, which I had not heard of before, sounds like a rather interesting organization. It includes roughly one hundred cities worldwide; many are the classic examples of the stereotypical “great city,” including Paris and Vienna, and the organization definitely does seem to have an elite sort of air to it (though it may have just been the presenter’s British accent contributing to that impression), privileging cities with grand architecture, including palaces and temples/cathedrals, representing, to be sure, a particular set of values as to what makes a city great, what kind of history we should value, etc. But at the same time, being founded in Kyoto in 1987, it is also far more non-Western-oriented or anti-Eurocentric than one might imagine, at first impression, such an organization to be. Member cities include Accra, Huế, Yogyakarta, Chengdu, Chiang Mai, and numerous other cities in Asia, as well as Fez, Tashkent, and Tunis. Altogether, we are told, it is an Asia-dominant organization, with the Kyoto and Nara representatives holding top board positions, though the Vienna representative is vice-chair. Norwich, known for its extensive examples of still-extant medieval architecture, is the only member city in England.
Above: The Guildhall in Norwich, England’s only member city. Below: The Seiden (Main Hall) and Nanden (South Hall) of Shuri Castle, the former royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, in Naha, one of only four Japanese member cities.
Naha is also, incidentally, a member city, which is kind of cool to see. Despite the fact that the city, and indeed much of the island, was leveled in 1945, it does have a reconstructed palace, royal mausoleum, numerous shrines and temples, and a rather colorful, precious, unique historical royal and aristocratic culture. Let’s take a moment, actually, to note that while Kyoto, Nara, and Kamakura, some pretty obvious choices for Japanese cultural centers, are member cities, Naha is the only other member city in Japan, leaving out all of the samurai castle-towns. I’m not sure which ones might be the most intact today – those I have visited, Kagoshima, Fukuoka, Hikone, certainly aren’t exceptionally historical in feel. I can imagine an argument being made for Kanazawa, perhaps, but even then it’s really only certain districts. And Edo, while it was at one time one of the largest cities in the world (tied with Beijing at around one million people in the 18th century or so, far larger than Paris or London at that time), and the center of much cultural efflorescence, is now mostly replaced by a city which, while it has a lively vibrant fascinating cultural history of its own in the 20th century, certainly has a much more modern character than a Kyoto or Nara.
Aliʻiōlani Hale, the former chief governmental/administrative building of the Hawaiian Kingdom, whereas ʻIolani Palace, across the street, was the royal residence. The statue of King Kamehameha, created by an American (Bostonian) sculptor based in Florence, Italy, was created with intentional similarities to classical sculpture of Roman emperors, to convey to Western audiences the legitimacy and modernity of the Hawaiian monarchy and kingdom.
In any case, I do think it a very intriguing idea that Honolulu should be a part of this. On a practical and logistical level, it doesn’t sound like membership in the League actually does much, it’s really more of just a symbolic or nominal thing, but then it scarcely costs anything either. We are told the League isn’t really much of an action-oriented body, and is mostly focused on friendship ties and such, but also engages in discussions of historical preservation and related topics like that, which I personally find quite compelling.
I came to this conference only very shortly after spending several months reading a set of works on Pacific, and in particular Hawaiian, history, and so I was in a prime mindset to get right behind this proposal. The Hawaiian Kingdom was certainly not as large, as powerful, or as long-lived as some, but taken from a cultural relativism point of view, and an actively anti-Eurocentric point of view, why should we consider it worthy of exclusion from any sense of comparative monarchy across the world? Even from a perspective of privileging European notions of architectural greatness, of royal dress & presentation, Hawaiʻi had all of this too. ʻIolani Palace and Aliʻiōlani Hale which still stand today, not to mention Kawaiahaʻo Church, the Royal Mausoleum, and the many treasures in the collection of the Bishop Museum, are marvelous examples of a blending of European and distinctively Hawaiian motifs, forms, and materials, truly to my mind a fascinating and beautiful example of an alternative modernity, less successful perhaps than Japan’s (for example) in terms of the longevity of political autonomy, but no less successful, no lesser in rank or quality than Japan’s from a perspective of aesthetics and cultural development, if I might say so.
Stacy Kamehiro, in her book The Arts of Kingship, which I have kind of fallen in love with, details the ways in which Kalakaua and his advisors deployed, or employed, architecture, costume, political ritual, and the like, to make very real, powerful, meaningful discursive impacts, speaking both to a Hawaiian audience to assert Kalakaua’s legitimacy as ruler (he was the first monarch of the united kingdom to not be of Kamehameha’s lineage), and to the great powers of the world in asserting Hawaiʻi’s modernity. Though I don’t believe Kamehiro speaks to it explicitly, and I am not sure if anyone else has written on the subject at any length, based on Kamehiro’s work, I really think that Kalakaua’s administration was doing very much the same things that the Meiji government was in Japan, in terms of the discursive impacts of adopting European clothing, architecture, aristocratic titles and practices, and so forth. It’s only because Hawaiʻi was so much smaller, and because the kingdom does not survive, that it tends to be so overlooked, but that speaks to reading later events backwards onto the past, and in that moment, neither kingdom was yet guaranteed to survive and succeed, or to fail and fall.
While I very much acknowledge the problematic nature of reifying Western value systems as to what is and is not “modern,” “civilized,” “aesthetic,” or whathaveyou, if those are the criteria that earn respect in people’s minds, there is really rather little to see as a failing or a lack in the Hawaiian monarchy. Members of the Hawaiian monarchy studied in England, spoke perfect English, even worshiped in the Anglican Church, and had close friendly, almost familial, relationships with Victoria and Albert, with Queen Kapiʻolani and Princess Liliʻuokalani sitting in places of honor at Victoria’s 50th Golden Jubilee (members of the Japanese Imperial family sat with the Indian princes towards the back, stayed in a hotel, and were otherwise provided a far lower-level of reception). Kalakaua established knightly orders, as so many European states had done at the time, bestowing the Orders of Kalakaua and Kamehameha upon various foreign royals and dignitaries and receiving similar honors in return. He was the first monarch in the world to circumnavigate the globe, meeting with many heads of state, speaking with them in English (or in other European languages? I’m not sure), wearing royal military uniform very much in the contemporary late 19th century European manner (as the Meiji Emperor did too), performing in accordance with European standards of court protocol, and so on and so forth. He made valiant attempts at establishing some sort of Pan-Pacific or even Asia-Pacific Union, which might have united monarchies and other independent states of the region in standing up against Western imperialist pressure/power and encroachment/conquest, and he proposed linking the Hawaiian and Japanese royal families through a political marriage. I suppose I have gone on too long. But the point is, when you think about it a certain way, think of the nobility of the Hawaiian monarchy, and despite its fate less than ten years after Kalakaua’s death, the great, lavish, inspiring visual and material culture of the Kingdom during Kalakaua’s time, before the fall, I think there is something really great in the idea of recovering the legacy, the reputation, of the Hawaiian, Okinawan, Tongan, and other monarch(ie)s, and in asserting their equivalence to those of other regions of the world.
So, again, I don’t know the actual practical impacts that being a member of this League of Historical Cities might have for Honolulu, and the actual cost/benefit analysis for the mayor’s office. Given that none of us in that room that day had heard of the League before, I’m sorry to say I’m not sure what impact this League membership in and of itself might have. But, in some broader sense, even just the notion that Honolulu could, and should, come to be seen as a world city with a “great” history right alongside so many others, that it should be considered and nominated at all, is just very inspiring and encouraging, I feel.
And in conjunction, that the Hawaiian Kingdom, along with those of Ryukyu, Tonga, and others, should be recognized as among the “great” kingdoms of world cultural history, not lesser in any way, but simply culturally different, within a spectrum of diversity, would really be something wonderful. At the very least, I am inspired by my readings this spring/summer to try to incorporate Hawaii, Tonga, and other non-Western cases into World History or other courses I may teach in the future. Even in contexts where efforts are explicitly made to include Latin American, African, Asian, Middle Eastern perspectives, e.g. in a World History textbook that’s trying to de-center The West, the Pacific is still all too often completely overlooked, so it’s very encouraging to see at least somebody – this League of Historical Cities – standing up and taking note.
All photos my own.