With the recent release of the fictional biography Barbarian Princess, controversy surrounding the legacy of Princess Victoria Kaiulani has swirled in Hawaii. Many groups have taken issue with aspects of the film ranging historical inaccuracies about the time surrounding the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, its depiction of Hawaiian leadership as ineffectual, and even the title itself.
A beautiful and tragic figure, Kaiulani died at the tender age of 23. Educated in England and an accomplished speaker, Kaiulani fought for the rights of the Hawaiian monarchy to which she was heir. She spoke with US Presidents and influential lawmakers and businessmen in English, French and German about her desire to look after her people. And while much can be made about the social and political intrigues of her time, Kaiulani and her estate at Ainahau in Waikiki (now the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani Hotel) remain shining examples of the sophistication she embodied then and represents now.
The ten-acre estate of Ainahau was deeded to Kaiulani by Princess Ruth Keelikolani, a direct descendant of King Kamehaeha the Great. Kailuani’s father and former Royal Governor of Oahu, Archibald Cleghorn, built a two-story home on the estate and furnished it with elaborate ornaments and two grand pianos. Kaiulani’s family often entertained prestigious social circles and became friends with the author Robert Louis Stevenson, who stayed periodically at Ainahau during Kaiulani’s childhood.
Archibald Cleghorn was an avid horticulturalist, and brought plants and flowers from all over the world to Ainahau for study and for pure enjoyment. The first banyan tree to come to Hawaii was planted at Ainahau. Kaiulani was known to ride her pony frequently at Ainahau, presumably when she wasn’t tending to her many peacocks, a hobby that earned her the knickname of the Peacock Princess.
When Archibald Cleghorn died in 1910, the Territory of Hawaii refused his gift of Ainahau for use as a public park. Reasons for that refusal are still debated today, but eventually the estate was subpided and sold to real estate developers. Matson Navigation Company purchased some of the property, and in 1955 cleared the land to build the Princess Kaiulani Hotel (the famous banyan tree was cut down, but clippings were taken and transplanted to another site on Oahu). The Princess Kaiulani Hotel now sits on land that was once the entrance for the storied parcel of land at Ainahau.