Denby Fawcett: The Poor Condition Of Queen Liliuokalani's Flag Mars Historic Homecoming - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

The royal standard that flew over the Hawaiian queen’s home the day she was overthrown was shown to the public for the first time in 130 years.

A procession of Hawaiian dignitaries marched Monday from Iolani Palace to Washington Place to return Queen Liliuokalani’s royal standard that flew over her home in Honolulu on Jan. 17, 1893, the day she was overthrown.

It was the first time the queen’s personal flag has been back to Washington Place in 130 years. Unfortunately people will only get to view it for one day — for now — due to its deteriorating condition.

The return of the standard is emblematic of a dark period in Hawaii’s history.

Three days after Liliuokalani was dethroned, Col. John Harris Soper sent a letter to Washington Place to order the queen to take down her personal standard and never fly it again. Soper was commander of the military troops threatening violence if Liliuokalani refused to give up her throne peacefully.

The banner waved over Washington Place for the last time on Jan. 22, 1893.

Soper later took the flag as his personal property — a souvenir of his key part in the overthrow, a war trophy.

Kumu hula Kaleo Trinidad chanted Monday as the procession carrying the royal standard made its way to Washington Place where 150 invited guests including members of Hawaii’s Royal Societies and state government officials gathered on the lanai.

Hawaii’s first lady Jaime Kanani Green, who is of Native Hawaiian descent, was in tears as she spoke at the ceremony to honor the queen’s personal banner.

“Its return represents the perpetuation of her legacy,” said Green. “It symbolizes her personal sacrifice.”

It could also be said here, the banner is symbolic of the queen’s love for Hawaii.

What is disappointing, even shocking is the current state of the 4-by-12 foot banner, which is covered with holes and tears. Some of the fabric is held together by a single thread. It is dirty and in sections, looks like a liquid dripped on it.

“It Is in desperate, desperate need of repair,” State Archivist Adam Jansen said Friday in an interview.

Queen Liliuokalani lili royal standard personal flag washington place iolani palace
Queen Liliuokalani’s royal standard is officially returned during a ceremony in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Several private owners have kept the banner in their homes for more than a century. It has not received the museum level of care needed to preserve fabric.

The standard is too fragile and damaged to be put on permanent display anywhere, said Jansen. He said he would allow it to be shown in public only at Monday’s  ceremony and not again until it is repaired.

Jansen considers Nuuanu resident Linda Hee the only fabric conservator in Hawaii skilled enough to handle the restoration work required, but Hee has retired.

He said he will search outside of the islands for the right specialist and ask for donations to pay for the work since no state funding is available.

“This cannot be a low bid job. The royal standard deserves the best fabric conservator available,“ he said.

Many had hoped that Liliuokalani’s standard once returned would be on permanent display at Washington Place where it originally flew but conditions at the queen’s former residence are not optimal for its preservation.

Queen Liliuokalani
Queen Liliuokalani was ordered to remove her personal royal standard that flew over her home when she was overthrown. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Washingon Place was built as a home.  We are working to impove conditions here but they will never be 100% up to museum standards,” said Louise “Gussie” Schubert.

Schubert is president of Washington Place Foundation and the great-great-granddaughter of John and Mary Dominis who built the home and whose son was Liliuokalani’s husband.

In the meantime, the foundation has commissioned fashion designer Nakeu Awai to create a replica of the queen’s standard to be on display at Washington Place.

Washington Place curator Travis Hancock says once the queen’s original standard is repaired, he hopes the State Archives will allow Washington Place to display it on special occasions such as the queen’s birthday.

How Liliuokalani’s royal standard came to be in this deplorable condition is a tale of many twists and turns.

At the time of the overthrow in 1893, Queen Liliuokalani saw her situation as a temporary act to prevent bloodshed. She stepped down under protest, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the provisional government.

She held out hope that when U.S. President Grover Cleveland became fully aware of what happened, her position would be respected and she would be restored to the throne. That, of course, did not occur.

When she received Soper’s written order on Jan. 20, 1893 to surrender her personal flag forever, she was stunned by its finality.

In her diary, the queen wrote that she had understood she would be allowed to continue to fly the royal standard at her home.

According to her diary, the day after she was dethroned, she visited the Royal Mausoleum at Mauna Ala to seek guidance from the spirits of her ancestors.  Then she traveled in her horse-drawn carriage to her cottage at Waikiki Beach where she went for a swim hoping to calm herself.

The directive from Soper — presented to her when she returned from Waikiki — had to have been received in sadness as another of the many betrayals she was experiencing.

Queen Liliuokalani lili royal standard personal flag washington place iolani palace Pua Ali’i ‘Ilima Hula Pahu
Pua Ali’i ‘Ilima performs a hula pahu during the Queen Liliuokalani’s royal standard official return ceremony to Washington Place on Monday, July 24, 2023, in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Soper enjoyed a long life as a respected figure in Hawaii’s government. After he died in his beachfront home on Kahala Ave in 1946 at age 97, the royal standard was passed on to his relatives.   

Eight years ago, a couple of Sopers’ descendants now owning the property met with Oahu antiques dealer and Japanese sword specialist Robert Benson in San Francisco to encourage him to buy Soper’s sword, his personal letters and documents, and the queen’s royal standard.    

Benson said in an interview that he knew the historic importance of the items and tried for many years to persuade either the state archives or Kamehameha Schools to buy them from him, but there were no takers. He also offered the Soper collection including the standard for sale to private collectors.

Queen Liliuokalani lili royal standard personal flag washington place iolani palace
The royal standard was returned to Washington Place after a 130 year absence. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Honolulu art dealer Mark Blackburn said in an interview that Benson approached him two years ago to buy Soper’s personal materials and the Queenʻs royal standard.

“When I saw the royal standard, I was greatly shocked by the poor condition it was in. It was torn and showed foxing (spots). It should have been stored in a climate-controlled facility. Textiles don’t have a long shelf-life in Hawaii,” he said.

After unsuccessful attempts to sell the items to institutions or dealers, Benson put the materials including the royal standard up for bid in an on-line auction scheduled  Oct. 25, 2022, by Bonhams, a  London-based auction house.

Queen Liliuokalani royal standard flag returned Washington Place
Queen Liliuokalaniʻs royal standard was returned in poor condition and will need extensive repairs. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2023)

But that was brought to a halt before the bidding opened when Hawaii Deputy Attorney General Michael Vincent sent Bonhams a certified letter stating the items belonged to Hawaii and must be returned to the State Archives.

The historic materials remained the property of Benson until they were purchased from him by the estate of Abigail Kinoki Kekaulike Kawananakoa and Damon Estate heiress and philanthropist Brendan Damon Ethington, each donating $30,000 for a total of $60,000 to prevent the banner and Soper’s  documents from being sold to private collectors.

Both parties then donated Soper’s personal materials and Liliuokalani’s standard to the State Archives.

In his speech at the ceremony Monday, the state archivist called the occasion “such an important day.”

We will continue to fight to bring these irreplaceable historic items home to Hawaii.  We must bring them home,” Jansen said.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Why did neither the state archives nor Kamehameha Schools purchase the standard when Benson offered to sell?

Chick · 1 month ago

I was so disappointed to learn that it was only to be on display on Monday afternoon. And now I know why. I could not help seeing all of the stains (foxing - a new term I did not know) and it broke my heart. If Ms Hee's health is still good, I would hope that she might be persuaded to come out of retirement for this one last restoration project. Frankly I would hate for this precious flag to leave the state. Thank you, Denby, for letting us know why it was on display only on Monday.

Mememalia · 1 month ago

Good that this has been returned to where it belongs, but how shameful that it took so long.

Malia · 1 month ago

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