Robert Louis Stevenson and the Pearl Harbor That Didn't Happen

Gene J. Parola

© Copyright 2022 by Gene J. Parola

Photo courtesy of Ebay.
Photo courtesy of Ebay.
The photo is grainy, as most Honolulu newspaper photos were in 1941. However, there is no mistaking the man and woman who stand in regal finery, hands raised in the half wave that royalty seems to favor.  

Unbelievable? Of course. It never happened.

But it might have. Only the strong will of a beautiful young Hawaiian princess may have prevented such a photo op. And perhaps the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson had stiffened her resolve.

The American government reconstructed the south after the Civil War and infected with the virus of ‘manifest destiny,’ began to flex the muscles of westward expansion. The Hawaiian monarchy, under pressure from its domestic Caucasian advisors and other over-friendly external attention, looked for an alliance with a foreign power that would protect the island republic from a predatory European or American take-over.
Amid that political turmoil, Robert L. Stevenson arrived in Honolulu from his first South Seas sojourn in January of 1889, ill and late in finishing the manuscript of The Master of Ballantrae.

His reputation having preceded him, many prominent people further delayed its finish as they made demands on his time and health. King Kalakaua, known as Hawai‘i’s ‘Merrie Monarch’, a writer of poetry and song lyrics himself, became an early friend and introduced Stevenson to a fellow Scotsman, Archibald Cleghorn.

Like several wealthy merchants of the time Cleghorn, had married into Hawaiian royalty and upon the birth of his first legitimate daughter, named her Victoria Kawekiu Lunalilo Kalaninuiahilapalapa Ka’iulani. To the world, simply Ka’iulani.
Ka’iulani was the last hope for the Hawaiian monarchy, as determined by the king and the Council of Chiefs who made such decisions. The only male heir to the throne had died as a child.

King, Kalakaua, running a republic long under duress, had looked earlier to the East--to the one nation that might be able to stand against the imperialism of the West--the growing imperialistic Japan. He had made diplomatic inquiry about the possibility of a marriage between the Japanese Crown Prince and the infant princess, Ka’iulani. The Japanese replied that their infant prince was already betrothed.

Archibald Cleghorn was an amateur botanist and in the huge Waikiki tract, Ainahau, that Ka’iulani’s royal godmother had given the family, he had expressed his talents to the fullest. It was a veritable Eden of trees, plants and flowers from around the world. Its centerpiece was a giant banyan tree under which the young princess often sat feeding her pet peacocks.

When Stevenson came to visit the Cleghorn home, it was from a retreat he had been given in a neighboring enclave where his wife guarded his health and privacy. His entourage at that time included his wife, Fanny, his mother (who always insisted on being referred to in the Victorian manner, as Mrs. Thomas Stevenson), her maid and Stevenson’s stepson, Lloyd. After six months in the crowded confines of the yacht Casco and the stress of ocean voyaging, the relative peace of the huge banyan tree in the Cleghorn yard became a regular refuge for the author. It was not far from his beachside digs where, try as she might, Fanny could not protect him from all of the unannounced visitors.

Between bouts with the unfinished Ballantrae manuscript, Stevenson sat on a stone bench under the huge Banyan tree enthralling the young princess with stories about the great world that was beyond her limited experience, but not her imagination. And knowing that she was to go to London soon for school, he took a lot of time to prepare her for that rainy place.

Stevenson by now had fallen hopelessly in love with Polynesia and was a hearty anti-colonialists. His recent experience in Samoa had made him aware of how much the people of Oceania needed education and leadership in order to attain and maintain their freedom. And it soon became obvious to Stevenson, the Royalist, that prominent domestic financial interests were a greater threat to the Hawaiian throne than foreign seizure. The Cleghorns were obviously Royalists too, so the young Princess heard many political discussions in the household.

Ka’iulani also had the experience of meeting two very independent women. Fanny, an art student escapee from the Indiana frontier was estranged from her husband when she met Stevenson in Paris in 1876. By 1880 she was divorced, and she married Stevenson in San Francisco. Then applying her frontier survival skills she made Stevenson’s travel goals a reality.

The author had been ill from the moment they had met and her efforts made possible his successful trip to Polynesia. And perhaps she and the equally strong willed Mrs. Stevenson were indirectly responsible for his growing literary success in that they provided the protective environment that allowed him to work. Between 1880 and 1887 his reputation blossomed with the publication of Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Kidnapped.

Ka’iulani probably had a crush on this strange pale man who spoke like no one had ever spoken to her—even if she did think his hair needed cutting. She had learned to read early and had had more than competent tutors--so poetry in that Romantic era was not new to her. To have a personal poet was not lost on her either.
Ka’iulani was scheduled to depart for England in May 1889. She had not fully recovered from the early death of her mother, Princess Likelike in 1887, and the prospect of being away from family and friends in a strange country weighed heavily on her spirits. Stevenson’s famous poem was intended to brighten them.

*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 Kaiulani gone,
And I, in her dear banyan shade,
Look vainly for my little maid.
But our Scots islands far away
Shall glitter with unwonted day,
And cast for once their tempests by
To smile in Kaiulani’s eye.

Shortly after her departure Stevenson left for Samoa where he later died.

In 1891 King Kalakaua died and the threat to the crown grew. So, in 1892 Queen Liliuokalani wrote Ka’iulani describing the looming danger and urged her to make contact with the Japanese Crown Prince, because he too was at school in London. The queen hoped that a personal relationship might work where diplomacy had failed, because Ka’iulani, had blossomed into a strikingly beautiful young girl.

But the princess was an independent woman before her time. She was a very modern, well educated, and by now, well traveled young lady of almost 18. She replied that she could never marry a man she did not love. And no amount of royal pressure changed her mind.

And the Kingdom hung in the balance.

Is it a stretch to think that Stevenson’s early influence might have begun to shape that independence? Or how about that of Fanny, who in defiance of tradition had divorced, cut her hair short thirty-five years before the first flapper did, and smoked prodigiously. Or how about Stevenson’s gutsy mother, who had bisected the Pacific Ocean in a sailing yacht? Hardly the behavior of a Victorian matron.

The United States government, needing a coaling station to refuel its fleet—which now had aggressive obligations in American’s new Philippine colony--had acquired access to Pearl Harbor even before it took possession of the entire Hawaiian Islands in 1898. And with the U. S. holding the Island Republic, Queen Liliokulani was placed under house arrest and the Hawaiian Monarchy was at an end.

Ka’iulani returned soon to Hawai’i, and made impassioned pleas to the American Congress for the return of the Hawaiian nation to its people--to no avail. She then retreated to the Islands, became ill, and died in 1899.
The rest—as the unfortunate saying goes—is history. But, what might have been a ‘Pearl Harbor’ of San Diego, had Ka’iulani married into the Japanese royal family, had been prevented.

*The poem was written in Kaiulani’s little red plush album and Stevenson appended the following:

Written in April to Kaiulani in the April of her age; and at Waikiki, within easy walk of Kaiulani’s banyan! When she comes to my land and her father’s, and the rain beats upon the window (as I fear it will), let her look at this page; it will be like a weed gathered and pressed at home; and she will remember her own islands, and the shadow of the mighty tree; and she will hear the peacocks screaming in the dusk and the wind blowing in the palms; and she will think of her father sitting there alone---R.L.S.


Upon Archibald Cleghorn’s death in 1916 Ainahau began its long subdivision as Waikiki real estate spiraled up in value. The actual plot containing the banyan tree was in and out of public hands as a small park. A bronze plaque showing a low relief banyan tree with a peacock in the lower corner, was affixed to the tree in 1930. The inscription read:


The diseased tree was finally cut down in 1949 and the plaque was placed on a nearby stone called by Hawaiian tradition, the ‘Chief’s Rock’. When the Princess Ka’iulani Hotel was built on the Ainahau site, the plaque was moved to Princess Ka’iulani School. The school was founded in 1899, the year of the princess's death. Its first principal, L.D. Fraser, asked Archibald Cleghorn, for a cutting from the famous banyan tree. The cutting was planted on the school grounds on King St, and has flourished over the last 123 years.

This tree now bears the plaque. The stone tete-a-tete bench is at the koi pond near the Ka’iulani St. entrance to the Princess hotel in Waikiki.

I retired from Koç University in Istanbul to Hawai'i to delve into my mixed family history.  Ten years of research resulted in the self published "Lehua, Kao a ka Wahine." It received good reviews from a small group, but never enjoyed a marketing budget. Three of my short stories have been published--each in a different genre-- over the past five years: one to a children's zine, one to a retirement monthly, one to a romance collection.

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