What is a princess? You’re probably thinking something along the lines of this:
Fancy gowns and circlets notwithstanding, princesses usually get married off for political purposes to princes, and every major event in their lives is generally determined by other people’s decisions. Queens regnant – those who rule in their own right – are not what you’re thinking about, and not what people mean by princesses. That’s not how it generally works in Europe. We could go on yet another deep introspective pop cultural analysis of what it means that princesses are role models for young children, OR we could unpack that massive string of qualifiers I just dropped, and you probably didn’t notice, because we’re so used to thinking of European history as just plain history. Nevermind that one cannibalistic intrigue riot/coup that the Netherlands had that we already treated, or the fact that rage-throwing people out windows as a political statement was common enough in Prague (then Bohemia, now Czech Republic) that there’s a word for it: defenestration. Or the practice of castrating boys so their voices don’t change during puberty so they can sing soprano for the opera, or church choirs, or … I could go on forever about how weird European history is. No, really. I could. It does a disservice to the richness of history to just let your mind gloss over it like it’s normal. All history is weird and wonderful, and all you have to do is take a closer look. Everything deserves to be weird; everything deserves attention.
Hawai‘i: Structure of Power
Let’s put the ‘ back in Hawai’i, first. What is a ‘ anyway? It’s a glottal stop. The little pause added to make space between d’s in “good dog” – “good’dog.” Watch this video, and listen to some Hawai’ian language, to get a feel for how it all goes together. Back with me? Good. We’re going to be using that glottal stop something fierce. The first time I use a term, it will be in bold, but I’m not going to put all non-English terms in italics, because this would be almost impossible to read.
Welcome to Hawai’i before the takeover by the United States. The Hawai’ian ruling class are the ali’i (not to be confused with the ‘a’ali’i which is a plant – that’s why spelling is important). This class derives its power from their ancestors, reaching back to the gods. High ali’i, or ali’i nui, ruled entire islands in the archipelago, and bestowed land use rights on ali’i below them, who in turn had the right to give land use rights to the people who would work the land. This authority and power ultimately passed on from the gods themselves is called mana. Depending on family ties, ritual correctness (observing kapu – ritual restrictions), political power, and social prestige, different people had more or less mana.
(I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I like history because it’s like looking under the hood of a car, and seeing how it works. Sure, it’s all functioning automobiles, but what’s going on inside could be wildly different. Some civilizations are like four-stroke engines, some the rotary engine, and some are like electric induction motors – common in household appliaces, but also in electric cars. Completely different mechanics might be happening, and that’s exciting and cool!)
Anyway, Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani lived in a time when the Kingdom of Hawai’i was in crisis. Just years from being overthrown by (mostly) fruit magnates and a pro-US navy cabal and handed over to the United States, the court and ruling Kamehameha family were under tremendous pressure to conform to European norms as to what a monarchy looked like, and how royals acted. The Hawai’ian royal house pursued a policy of assimilation – to try to win respect of the great world powers by looking and acting as much like European royalty as possible, in the hope that despite being not as strong militarily, they would still be respected as kings and queens that they were.
World History Spoiler Alert: ultimately, this effort was doomed because of racism, pineapples, and Pearl Harbor. Racism, pineapples, and Pearl Harbor are all connected, because of imperialism as an economic and social structure. What do the great powers want? Sw33t pineapple fr00t. How will they secure it? Navy depot at Pearl Harbor. Justification for overthrowing the Kingdom of Hawai’i to get it and cash in? Racism.Behold! Pineapple, toppler of nations. The Kingdom of Hawai’i wasn’t the first, or the last, government to be taken out on account of the fruit cartel lobby, and their insatiable bloodlust for sw33t l33t fr00t l00t. There’s a reason vicious dictatorships that have the window dressing of democracy with none of the actual government mechanics of it are known as repúblicas bananeras. Why, on this glorious blue Earth, there’s a clothing brand named after this phenomenon, I have no idea.
Anyway anyway, concerning political authority and mana, being a princess as an ali’i isn’t just a matter of being a daughter of a king or something. (Being a princess if you’re a member of European royalty generally is a matter of being a daughter of a king. Unless you’re legitimized or something later, which is another thing I want to treat on this blog, because it’s delightfully complicated. And, after all that, you won’t be a princess, technically. Looking at you, Marie Anne de Bourbon.) Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani’s mother was High Chieftess Keoua-wahine, and two other powerful ali’i claimed her as their daughter, which means that she had two well-connected fathers, as well. As such a po’olua ali’i, she was set up for a position of great status and power in the Kingdom. Then, as part of the Kamehameha family’s attempts to remake the government along a European model, the Constitution of 1840 effectively barred her path from the pinnacle of power by making her birth a liability rather than an asset. This in no way stopped her from being Governor of Hawai’i, though. While the rest of the royals tried their hardest to erase their culture and become as European as possible, Princess Ruth Ke’elikolai Wasn’t Having It. At All.
She built several huge palaces on her lands (which were most of the Big Island, after all) in the latest architectural fashions. Check out her last, and fanciest palace, Keoua Hale, finished right before her death, in 1883.
BUT, she also had a traditional grass palace built, too, as a statement of her support and patronage of Hawai’ian culture.
She also supported traditional culture and arts, like the Hawai’ian language, poetry and verse, chanting, lei making, religion, and hula dancing. The art of hula – under pressure from missionaries and having lost wealthy noble patrons to their tactic of assimilation – nearly died out. Let me say that again: 150 years ago, the world almost lost hula dancing. Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani commissioned performances, and supported traditional dance, and effectively saved hula for a revival under King David Kalakaua. No Princess Ke’elikolani, ultimately no Merrie Monarch Festival.
Not Generally How it Works in Europe…
While the United States of America was coveting the heck out of Pearl Harbor, and fruit merchants were plotting to overthrow the Hawai’ian government, women (especially married ones) in the United States, and much of the European-derived cultures worldwide were under coverture. This legal status for women meant that they couldn’t bring suit, they couldn’t own property independently of a man, except in some very specific corner cases, and they didn’t even have rights to their own children. In short, women were not legal entities on their own at all, much less Governors of Hawai’i. Oh, and don’t dare think of just not marrying, because women couldn’t inherit property either, and were barred from most jobs – at least most jobs that made actual money. That’s why the stakes are so high for the Bennett girls in Pride and Prejudice – if they don’t marry, they lose everything.
One way to think of it is this: Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani was a (massive) property owner in her own right, and a political force to be reckoned with. She was also married. When did married women in Kentucky gain the right to own and control their property – you know, actually have property? Go on. Guess.
Yowch. No, really. Kentucky finally passed a Married Women’s Property Act in 1894. Eleven years after Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani – Governor of Hawai’i, wealthy landowner, patron of traditional culture – died. That’s just one way that this long, twisted tale of social power structures, greedy fr00t magnates, hula, and the power of force of personality casts its shadow on your life, right now. Everything is interesting, everything is connected.