Loss of Influence: Claus Spreckels’ Break with the Hawaiian King Kalakaua

May 2, 1887

For several years, Claus Spreckels was the dominant economic and political force in Hawaii, more influential than King Kalakaua. While many contemporaries denounced the California sugar king as a usurper, the document gives evidence of the different economic logics of the post-autocratic Hawaiian kingdom and the German-American entrepreneur. Spreckels used the weaknesses of the king for the benefit of his business, but he also defined the borders between modern rationality and accountability and the values of a pseudo-absolutistic monarch.

From: “The Two Sandwich Kings,” Chicago Tribune, May 2, 1887, 9.

The relationship between Claus Spreckels and the Royal house was perceived as a “voluminous novel. Some six years ago Claus Spreckels was uncrowned King of the Hawaiian Islands…. He built palaces for the crowned King, planned European excursions for his dusky Majesty, and formed the Cabinet and swayed the Government to suit his own purposes. He was jocosely referred to in the public prints as King Claus, and sometimes satirically alluded as King Sugar-Barrel, but he kept on raking in the ducats all the time and getting more plantations and sugar mills within his grasp. Kalakaua gave him no trouble whatever. The alleged descendant of Kamehameha was an easy man to handle. His greatest necessities were an ever-convenient twenty-dollar piece, an artistic barkeeper, a showy suit of clothes, and a first-class band of hula-hula dancers. All these were provided to his Majesty, and in addition palaces on a plan never dreamed of by his progenitors. But the ideas of a King of the Cannibal Islands expand like those of other mortals, and when Kalakaua returned from a tour of Europe, he was a changed person. His taste for linen dusters, plug hats, and ornamented top boots had gone and a latent passion to shine as a genuine blood of the semi-English pattern had been dangerously aroused. The Court of Victoria had filed the Hawaiian monarch with new ideas of what belonged to royalty, and when he again touched the volcanic soil of Hawaii he was a changed man. He exacted a close observance of the outward forms of deference to established rank, and resented the advances of plebeians with kingly hauteur.… A poet laureate was specially imported for his Majesty by Spreckels as an experiment, the choice falling on Charles Warren Stoddart of the San Francisco Bohemian Club, who had attended some distinction as a contributor to Eastern and Western magazines and journals.… The importation of a poet laureate worked so well that wily King Spreckels concluded to introduce a court historian, and after looking around found the right man for the place in editor Creighton of the San Francisco Post…. The gifted historian was promptly promoted to the post of Secretary of Foreign Affairs and the poet-laureate became a star of the second magnitude in comparison. The scheme worked so well that Claus Spreckels concluded to import some celebrities.” These were Joe Tilden and Paul Newman/Neumann, a German lawyer. “In the wake of Messrs. Tilden and Newman followed several struggling and half-starved artists, and the Bohemian colony in Hawaii became a large and flourishing institution.” Then a court journalist, named Dan O’Connell, was added — and the result was an increasing debt. “Meanwhile the thrifty Spreckels had gone on absorbing sugar plantations and sugar mills, but not altogether without opposition. His monopoly of the sugar trade on the Pacific coast has roused strong feelings against him and a rival sugar opposition was formed. At first King Claus laughed at the opposition. Then he became serious, and next lost his temper at finding that the newcomers meant to fight to the finish. He lowered his rates and the opposition went him half a cent better. He tried to bluff on another startling reduction, but again the opposition saw him and went half a cent lower. Then Claus made a splurg [sic] that meant the loss of half a million and was expected to wipe the new sugar company off the face of Hawaii and California, but the late arrivals only set their teeth and hung. They are hanging on yet, but now it is King Claus who seems to be having the liveliest part of the battle.” Herman Bendel became a leading force at the Royal court. The overthrow with Kalakaua was forced by the new camarilla, culminating in the fight over a $4,000,000 loan in England, an idea forced by King Kalakaua to finance the rising debt of the Hawaiian kingdom. “When King Spreckels was informed of the project he extracted portions of his venerable beard in the first paroxysm of his rage. Then he rushed on board his fastest steamer, plowed down under a full head of steam to Honolulu, and demanded a reconstruction of the Cabinet, the dismissal of several of the chief conspirators, and an immediate abandonment of the four million loan project.” This was rejected by King Kalakaua. “Then Spreckels, it is said, called for the liquidation of his claims against the royal exchequer. This also was vetoed, and in a towering passion the autocrat of all the Cannibal Islands rushed back to the Hawaiian Hotel and got together all his knightly decorations, presented in days past by the graceful and submissive deputy monarch, Kalakaua. The scene which took place when the now hostile monarchs again came face to face in the royal audience-chamber is said to have been very dramatic. History has unfortunately not preserved the exact language used by King Spreckels on the memorable occasion, but it is on record and indisputable that he concluded the interview by hauling the knightly stars, medals, and garters out of his small-clothes and hurling them on the tessellated floor of the palace.”