A military coup in 1893 spelled the end of the Hawaiian monarchy. When the island’s new rulers surveyed the royal bounty, they discovered that the former king’s crown was missing.
The people of Hawaii were not happy. King Kalakaua had reigned for eight years, but all it took was one trip around the world for him to decide that he needed a European-style coronation complete with all the pomp and circumstance—otherwise known as “no expense spared”—that the celebration would entail.
This ceremony, naturally, would also require new crowns for both the king and queen, ones that would be made in London and liberally encrusted with all the fine gems and diamonds that befit their station.
“At the time, the taxpayers of this country strenuously objected to the expenses of the coronation exercises, but their objections carried no weight and the expensive festivities went on,” the Daily Pacific Commercial Advertiser reported a decade later in 1893.
The coronation might have been an excessive vanity play for a king who was already king, but Kalakaua was looking to the future in the purchase of the sparkling new his-and-her headpieces; the crowns were intended to live well beyond the ceremony and serve as something of a royal investment that could be passed down through generations of rulers.
Little did he know that they would only be worn once. The Hawaiian monarchy would soon fall and, as the dust of the coup settled, a plot against his gold crown would be uncovered.
But those were concerns for another day. Feb. 12, 1883 dawned with downpours that soon cleared up as the citizens of the country of Hawaii gathered to officially coronate King Kalakaua on the ninth anniversary of his reign.
The events of the day followed the standard coronation template. King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani processed onto the dais and took their thrones. After swearing his oath, donning the traditional feathered cloak of Hawaii’s kings, and taking up his new scepter, the king was finally ready to be crowned.
The crown that had arrived from London was a beauty cast in solid gold . A velvet cloth cap underlaid the gold structure, whose peak was garnished with a Maltese cross embedded with a large diamond in the center which was “the size of a ten cent piece.”
Other precious stones and diamonds were inset throughout the crown (one account lists the bounty at 521 diamonds, 54 pearls, 20 rubies, 20 opals, eight emeralds, and more) and solid gold kalo (also known as taro) leaves were mounted on either side to represent the sacred plant of Hawaii.
A similarly impressive coronet was ordered for his queen, bringing the grand total of their new accessories to $10,000 ($225,000 in today’s currency).
The crowning of Kalakaua went off without a hitch. With the chancellor’s somber pronouncement, “Receive this Crown of pure gold to adorn the high station wherein thou hast been placed,” he was officially—well, officially still—the reigning monarch of Hawaii.
But the crowning of the queen didn’t go quite so well.
According to Julia Flynn Siler in Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure, all parties involved forgot to take into account the elaborate hairstyle the queen was sporting on that important day. When the king turned to ceremonially crown his consort, the crown wouldn’t fit.
“The audience watched with intense interest, while hairpins, comb, and veil were being removed. In vain! The crown would not fit, and in desperation, and apparently in no very good temper, the King made a final effort, and literally crammed the insignia of royalty down on Her Majesty’s temples,” one Westerner wrote of the festivities, according to Siler.
The coronation day would be the only time that King Kalakaua would wear his sparkling new crown.
In 1891, the king was on a visit to San Francisco when he died. His sister assumed the throne, but her reign only lasted two years.
After trying to expand the powers of the monarchy and the rights of native Hawaiians, Queen Lili’uokalani was deposed in an 1893 military coup backed by businessmen and sugar impresarios, many of whom were American. With that, the Hawaiian monarchy had come to an end.
It was in the aftermath of this regime change that a shocking secret was discovered. As the new rulers started to survey their bounty, they requested that all the royal property in the care of the previous custodian be turned over.
The king’s crown had been stored for safekeeping in a locked leather box in the custodian’s office at the basement of Iolani Palace. When the box was retrieved, the onlookers discovered a shocking case of foul play.