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How Greeks Tried to Save Hawai'i


At first glance, it would seem highly implausible that there would be much of a connection between Greece and Hawai'i. Both are beautiful and sun-drenched, yes, but they are literally on opposite ends of the earth. And yet, when you look at the tumultuous history of the Hawaiian Islands in the 19th century, you will find Greeks right there in the thick of it. 

A Little Backstory


King David Kalakaua

The Kingdom of Hawai'i was ruled by King David Kalakaua in the 1880s. Known as "The Merrie Monarch" for his love of music and having a good time, he was the last king of Hawai'i. When he died in 1891, his sister, Queen Lili'uokalani, ascended to the throne. She would be the last Hawaiian monarch.


Since the 1830s, Protestant missionaries and planters from America had come to the island to save souls and profit from the sugar cane fields. Even before then, whalers and traders had come to the islands. Greek sailors were among those crews, and some of the earliest Greeks in Hawai'i were crewmen aboard British Captain George Vancouver's expedition in the late 1700s. 


The Greeks who stayed on in the islands had formed a tight community by the 1880s, as Greeks do and have always done. They helped each other and gave jobs to their fellow Greeks as they arrived. They branched out into occupations such as farmers, hoteliers and exporters.


By that time, the conservative missionary presence, called the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, or ABCFM, had increased and become quite powerful. Initially the American missionaries tolerated the Greeks, as they were considered at least nominally Christian. They were, however, considered by the local Protestant populace as "idolators". Eventually xenophobia and loathing took over. One author in Hawai'i at the time described Greeks as “commercial, ingenious and eloquent, but deceitful, dirty and immoral.” 


It didn't help that the Greeks liked a good time and the missionaries, well...didn't. Wikipedia says that "In 1850 princes Alexander Liholiho and Lot Kapuāiwa met Greek Prime Minister Spyridon Trikoupis in Paris who encouraged them to join him in drinking and gambling, against [missionary] Gerrit Judd’s objections."


Yes, the Greeks were indulging themselves and their friends in alcohol and amusement.


If you can imagine such a thing.

For his part, the fun-loving King David Kalakaua seemed quite fond of the Greeks and Greek culture. In his book, "The Legends and Myths of Hawaii", he goes so far as to draw parallels between the Greek and Hawaiian myths:


"The story of the Iliad is a dramatic record of the love and hate, wrong and revenge, courage and custom, passion and superstition, of mythical Greece, and embraces in a single brilliant recital events which the historic bards of other lands, lacking the genius of Homer, have sent down the centuries in fragments. Human nature has been substantially the same in all ages, differing only in the ardor of its passions and appetites, as affected by the zone of its habitat and its peculiar physical surroundings. Hence almost every nation, barbarous and civilized, has had its Helen and its Troy, its Paris and its Agamemnon, its Hector and its demi-gods; and Hawaii is not an exception. The wrath of no dusky Achilles is made the thesis of the story of the Hawaiian abduction, but in other respects the Greek and Polynesian legends closely resemble each other in their general outlines."

The missionaries were very closely aligned with the other group who wanted to exploit Hawai'i - the planters. Both the missionaries and these businessmen caused huge changes in Hawaiian cultural, religious and economic life. But they would come to affect the political life of the island nation most of all. 


In 1887, the elite planters and business owners forced Kalakaua to sign the so-called "Bayonet Constitution", which limited the power of the monarchy in Hawai'i, as well as the Reciprocity Treaty, which granted certain commercial perks to the United States, including control of Pearl Harbor. They were sweet deals for the elites all around.


His sister Lili'uokalani opposed both. This put her squarely at odds with the American businessmen, and they weren't going to forget it.


When Kalakaua died and she became Queen, she tried to implement a new constitution that would restore the lost powers of the monarchy. In January 1893, in a move of breathtaking arrogance, the businessmen, led by Sanford B. Dole (of what would later become Dole Pineapple) - with the support of factions of the U.S. government and a contingent of U.S. Marines - staged a coup to take over the islands. Lili'uokalani surrendered, but hoped to appeal to President Grover Cleveland to reinstate her to her rightful place. In a stunning cap to the pillaging, Dole would go on to declare the islands the independent Republic of Hawaii. 


And here is where the Greeks start showing up in the story. 

The Greeks Are on the Right Side of History...Again


For one, the Greeks of Hawai'i generally avoided the missionaries and their allies, and instead became friendly with the royals. They gained further disapproval from the missionaries for their tendency to throw parties, many of which included the Merrie Monarch himself, Kalakaua. They were more comfortable with the concept of monarchy than the Americans, too.


The Greeks also began competing with the missionaries and planters in the lucrative pineapple industry. They were frequently - and unsurprisingly! - involved in the hospitality industry, which is always a good provider of music, drinking and partying. No wonder the pinch-faced missionaries took such a dim view.


The new government, in another attempt at soul-killing the Hawaiian people, banned both Hawaiian music and their sacred tradition of hula. Liquor licenses were harder to come by, and not surprisingly many of the Greeks that were in the hospitality industry felt the brunt.


One George Lycurgus - known at the time as the "Duke of Sparta" among the haoles (Anglos) and "Barba Yiorgi" (Uncle George) by the local Greeks - was a staunch supporter of the monarchy, as were all Greeks in Hawai'i. He owned and managed a series of resort cabins on the Big Island which exists to this day, and is known as Volcano House. He also had a guest house on Waikiki called the Sans Souci.



Above - George Lycurgus

Below - Interior of the Sans Souci at Waikiki


He was ostensibly arrested for distributing alcohol without a license and smuggling opium, but it was just as likely he was arrested for his support of the queen. He freely admitted to illegal alcohol sales and even gun smuggling, but vehemently denied that he ever dealt opium. He remained manager of Volcano House until 1960, and died at the age of 101.


The Greeks took part in counter-revolutionary actions. A local social club was taken over by Greeks, Germans, Austrians and British royalists and became a front organization to train insurgents.


Unfortunately for the monarchy and it's supporters, this uprising was quickly put down. The loyalists - trying to do right in the face of more powerful adversaries - were arrested or exiled. 

"I will give half that I am worth to see the damned Missionary sons of bitches hung!"


Another pro-Hawaiian Greek was Peter Camarinos. He was a major sponsor and planner of the counter-revolution, and despised the new overlords. He famously said "I will give half that I am worth to see the damned Missionary sons of bitches hung!". 


He later allegedly became mentally ill, and his supportive family admitted him to an asylum in California. A witness in the asylum stated Camarinos had a physical altercation with an attendant named John Lynn, and Lynn and a couple of other attendants threw Camarinos to the ground. The other attendants held him down while Lynn repeatedly jumped on Camarinos' stomach until Camarinos lost unconscious.


He died in 1897, and the asylum physician listed paresis as the cause of death. However, Camarinos' body was given to his family in a state of advanced decomposition only a couple of days after he died. 


His family accused the asylum of deliberately using the decomposition to hide bruises. They believed he had been kicked and beaten to death. It has been suggested that the murder was ordered by Sanford Dole and others in the oligarchical government to get rid of an enemy, as well as to make an example of him. 

The Queen Tries to Save her Country


Lili'uokalani, Hawai'i's last queen

(I should state right now that I am a bit of a Queen Lili'uokalani fangirl. To me she is one of the most interesting and truly noble leaders in recent history. Read up on her if you get the chance.)


In what is, I think, a stunning and unique situation in American (and maybe world) history, the brazen takeover of the Kingdom of Hawai'i was accomplished not by the will of a governing body or head of state, but essentially by a cartel of businessmen and their allies in the clergy. The then-president, Grover Cleveland, was sympathetic to Queen Lili'uokalani's plight but was somehow powerless to stop the illegal snatching of a sovereign country by a small group of his own citizens. I can't think of any comparable situation in history. 


Cleveland offered Lili'uokalani reinstatement to her throne in return for her granting amnesty to those who had been involved in the coup. Initially she refused the terms, but eventually agreed. Not that any good came of it. 


The provisional government, led by Sanford Dole, denied her reinstatement. (How did this man have more power than the U.S. president?


Another unsuccessful burst of insurrection followed, and as a result the queen was charged with treason and placed under house arrest at Iolani Palace. She signed a formal abdication in exchange for the pardon of her loyalist supporters who had led the uprising.


Iolani Palace, 1855

She exchanged her own freedom so that her supporters could go free. Their individual names aren't recorded (that I've been able to find), but given the diversity of her loyalists it's not out of the question that there was a Greek or two among them. 

Hawai'i was too lucrative and strategic a prize to ever hand back. Between the election of the less-sympathetic Benjamin Harrison as president and the nationalistic fervor caused by the Spanish-American War (as well as Pearl Harbor's strategic location for the American Navy's access to the Phillipines), Hawai'i was formally annexed by the United States in 1898. In 1900 it became a territory, and then was added as a state in 1959.


Greeks in Hawai'i Today


Today, there is a small but thriving Greek population in Hawai'i. Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Honolulu is now the center of Orthodoxy in Hawaii, and there is Greek Orthodox Mission on the island of Maui. There is a Greek festival in Honolulu, complete with all the usual trappings; Greek food, dancing and marketplace. 


To no one's surprise, there are Greek restaurants not only in Honolulu, but also Maui and Kaua'i. If you ever need a break from the (admittedly delicious!) kalua pig or poke, you can grab a spanakopita!


While I have been fortunate enough to travel to Hawai'i a few times now, I didn't know about the Greek involvement in it's history until after my last trip. If I'm ever lucky enough to go again, I will be able to see Volcano House or Iolani Palace and other such places with fresh eyes, knowing what went on there, and how Greeks were woven into the multicultural tapestry of those magnificent islands. 

Are you interested in Greek history and culture? Take a look at some more articles you may enjoy here!

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