Sacramento Daily Union/June 20, 1866
I have been reporting the Hawaiian Legislature all day. This is my first visit to the Capitol. I expected to be present on the 25th of April and see the King open his Parliament in state and hear his speech, but I was in Maui then and Legislatures had no charms for me.
The Government of the Hawaiian Kingdom is composed of three estates, viz.: The King, the Nobles and the Commons or Representatives. The Nobles are members of the Legislature by right of their nobility—by blood, if you please—and hold the position for life. They hold the right to sit, at any rate, though that right is not complete until they are formally commissioned as Legislators by the King. Prince William, who is thirty-one years of age, was only so commissioned two years ago, and is now occupying a seat in the Parliament for the first time. The King’s Ministers belong to the Legislature by virtue of their office. Formerly the Legislative Assembly consisted of a House of Nobles and a House of Representatives, and worked separately, but now both estates sit and vote together. The object of the change was to strengthen the hands of the Nobles by giving them a chance to overawe the Commons (the latter being able to outvote the former by about three to one), and it works well. The handful of Nobles and Ministers, being backed by the King and acting as his mouthpieces, outweigh the common multitude on the other side of the House, and carry things pretty much their own way. It is well enough, for even if the Representatives were to assert their strength and override the Nobles and pass a law which did not suit the King, his Majesty would veto the measure and that would be the end of it, for there is no passing a bill over his veto.
Once, when the legislative bodies were separate and the Representatives did not act to suit the late King (Kamehameha IV), he took Cromwell’s course—prorogued the Parliament instanter and sent the members about their business. When the present King called a Convention, a year or two ago, to frame a new Constitution, he wanted a property qualification to vote incorporated (universal suffrage was the rule before) and desired other amendments, which the Convention refused to sanction. He dismissed them at once, and fixed the Constitution up to suit himself, ratified it, and it is now the fundamental law of the land, although it has never been formally ratified and accepted by the people or the Legislature. He took back a good deal of power which his predecessors had surrendered to the people, abolished the universal suffrage clause and denied the privilege of voting to all save such as were possessed of a hundred dollars worth of real estate or had an income of seventy-five dollars a year. And, if my opinion were asked, I would say he did a wise thing in this last named matter.
The King is invested with very great power. But he is a man of good sense and excellent education, and has an extended knowledge of business, which he acquired through long and arduous training as Minister of the Interior under the late King, and therefore he uses his vast authority wisely and well.
The Capitol–An American Sovereign Snubbed
The Legislature meets in the Supreme Court-room, an apartment which is larger, lighter and better fitted and furnished than any Courtroom in San Francisco. A railing across the center separates the legislators from the visitors.
When I got to the main entrance of the building, and was about to march boldly in, I found myself confronted by a large placard, upon which was printed:
NO ADMITTANCE BY THIS ENTRANCE EXCEPT TO MEMBERS OF THE LEGISLATURE AND FOREIGN OFFICIALS.
It shocked my republican notions somewhat, but I pocketed the insinuation that I was not high-toned enough to go in at the front door, and went around and entered meekly at the back one. If ever I come to these islands again I will come as the Duke of San Jose, and put on as many frills as the best of them.
The King’s Father
I found the Legislature to consist of half a dozen white men and some thirty or forty natives. It was a dark assemblage. The nobles and Ministers (about a dozen of them altogether) occupied the extreme left of the hall, with David Kalakaua (the King’s Chamberlain) and Prince William at the head. The President of the Assembly, His Royal Highness M. Kekuanaoa, and the Vice President (Rhodes) sat in the pulpit, if I may so term it.
The President is the King’s father. He is an erect, strongly built, massive featured, white-haired, swarthy old gentleman of 80 years of age or thereabouts. He was simply but well dressed, in a blue cloth coat and white vest, and white pantaloons, without spot, dust or blemish upon them. He bears himself with a calm, stately dignity, and is a man of noble presence. He was a young man and a distinguished warrior under that terrific old fighter, Kamehameha I, more than half a century ago, and I could not help saying to myself, “This man, naked as the day he was born, and war-club and spear in hand, has charged at the head of a horde of savages against other hordes of savages far back in the past, and reveled in slaughter and carnage; has worshiped wooden images on his bended knees has seen hundreds of his race offered up in heathen temples as sacrifices to hideous idols, at a time when no missionary’s foot had ever pressed this soil, and he had never heard of the white man’s God; has believed his enemy could secretly pray him to death; has seen the day, in his childhood, when it was a crime punishable by death for a man to eat with his wife, or for a plebeian to let his shadow fall upon the King—and now look at him: an educated Christian: neatly and handsomely dressed; a high minded, elegant gentleman; a traveler, in some degree, and one who has been the honored guest of royalty in Europe; a man practiced in holding the reins of an enlightened government, and well versed in the politics of his country and in general, practical information. Look at him, sitting there presiding over the deliberations of a legislative body, among whom are white men—a grave, dignified, statesmanlike personage, and as seemingly natural and fitted to the place as if he had been born in it and had never been out of it in his lifetime. Lord! how the experiences of this old man’s strange, eventful life must shame the cheap inventions of romance!”
Kekuanaoa is not of the blood royal. He derives his princely rank from his wife, who was a daughter of Kamehameha the Great. Under other monarchies the male line takes precedence of the female in tracing genealogies, but here the opposite is the case—the female line takes precedence. Their reason for this is exceedingly sensible, and I recommend it to the aristocracy of Europe: They say it is easy to know who a man’s mother was, but, etc., etc.
A Comprehensive Slur
The mental caliber of the Legislative Assembly is up to the average of such bodies the world over—and I wish it were a compliment to say it, but it is hardly so. I have seen a number of Legislatures, and there was a comfortable majority in each of them that knew just about enough to come in when it rained, and that was all. Few men of first class ability can afford to let their affairs go to ruin while they fool away their time in Legislatures for months on a stretch. Few such men care a straw for the small-beer distinction one is able to achieve in such a place. But your chattering, one-horse village lawyer likes it, and your solemn ass from the cow counties, who don’t know the Constitution from the Lord’s Prayer, enjoys it, and these you will always find in the Assembly—the one gabble, gabble, gabbling threadbare platitudes and “give-me-liberty-or-give me-death” buncombe from morning till night, and the other asleep, with his slab-soled brogans set up like a couple of grave-stones on the top of his desk.
Among the Commons in this Legislature are a number of Kanakas with shrewd, intelligent faces, and a “gift of gab” that is appalling. The Nobles are able, educated, fine-looking men, who do not talk often, but when they do they generally say something—a remark which will not apply to all their white associates in the same house. If I were not ashamed to digress so often I would like to expatiate a little upon the noticeable fact that the nobility of this land, as a general thing, are distinguishable from the common herd by their large stature and commanding presence, and also set forth the theories in vogue for accounting for it, but for the present I will pass the subject by.
In Session—Bill Ragsdale
At 11 A.M. His Royal Highness the President called the House to order. The roll-call was dispensed with for some reason or other, and the Chaplain, a venerable looking white man, offered up a prayer in the native tongue; and I must say that this curious language, with its numerous vowels and its entire absence of hissing sounds, fell very softly and musically from his lips. A white Chief Clerk read the Journal of the preceding day’s proceedings in English, and then handed the document to Bill Ragsdale, a “half white” (half white and half Kanaka), who translated and clattered it off in Kanaka with a volubility that was calculated to make a slow-spoken man like me distressingly nervous.
Bill Ragsdale stands up in front of the Speaker’s pulpit, with his back against it, and fastens his quick black eye upon any member who rises, lets him say half a dozen sentences and then interrupts him, and repeats his speech in a loud, rapid voice, turning every Kanaka speech into English and every English speech into Kanaka, with a readiness and felicity of language that are remarkable—waits for another installment of talk from the member’s lips and goes on with his translation as before. His tongue is in constant motion from 11 in the forenoon till four in the afternoon, and why it does not wear out is the affair of Providence, not mine. There is a spice of deviltry in the fellow’s nature and it crops out every now and then when he is translating the speeches of slow old Kanakas who do not understand English. Without departing from the spirit of a member’s remarks, he will, with apparent unconsciousness, drop in a little voluntary contribution occasionally in the way of a word or two that will make the gravest speech utterly ridiculous. He is careful not to venture upon such experiments, though, with the remarks of persons able to detect him. I noticed when he translated for His Excellency David Kalakaua, who is an accomplished English scholar, he asked, “Did I translate you correctly, your Excellency?” or something to that effect. The rascal.
This Legislature is like all other Legislatures. A wooden-head gets up and proposes an utterly absurd some thing or other, and he and half a dozen other wooden-heads discuss it with windy vehemence for an hour, the remainder of the house sitting in silent patience the while, and then a sensible man—a man of weight—a big gun—gets up and shows the foolishness of the matter in five sentences; a vote is taken and the thing is tabled. Now, on one occasion, a Kanaka member, who paddled over here from some barren rock or other out yonder in the ocean—some scalawag who wears nothing but a pair of socks and a plug hat when he is at home, or possibly is even more scantily arrayed in the popular malo got up and gravely gave notice of a bill to authorize the construction of a suspension bridge from Oahu to Hawaii a matter of a hundred and fifty miles! He said that natives would prefer it to the interisland schooners, and they wouldn’t suffer from sea-sickness on it. Up came Honorables Ku and Kulaui, and Kowkow and Kiwawhoo and a lot of other clacking geese, and harried and worried this notable internal improvement until some sensible person rose and choked them off by moving the previous question. Do not do an unjust thing now, and imagine Kanaka Legislatures do stupider things than other similar bodies. Rather blush to remember that once, when a Wisconsin Legislature had the affixing of a penalty for the crime of arson under consideration, a member got up and seriously suggested that when a man committed the damning crime of arson they ought either to hang him or make him marry the girl! To my mind the suspension bridge man was a Solomon compared to this idiot.
[I shall have to stop at this point and finish this subject to-morrow. There is a villain over the way, yonder, who has been playing “Get out of the Wilderness” on a flute ever since I sat down here to-night—sometimes fast, sometimes slow, and always skipping the first note in the second bar—skipping it so uniformly that I have got to waiting and painfully looking out for it latterly. Human nature cannot stand this sort of torture. I wish his funeral was to come off at half-past eleven o’clock tomorrow and I had nothing to do. I would attend it.]
It has been six weeks since I touched a pen. In explanation and excuse I offer the fact that I spent that time (with the exception of one week) on the island of Maui. I only got back yesterday. I never spent so pleasant a month before, or bade any place good-bye so regretfully. I doubt if there is a mean person there, from the homeliest man on the island (Lewers) down to the oldest (Tallant). I went to Maui to stay a week and remained five. I had a jolly time. I would not have fooled away any of it writing letters under any consideration whatever. It will be five or six weeks before I write again. I sail for the island of Hawaii tomorrow, and my Maui notes will not be written up until I come back.
(Source: Project Gutenberg Australia, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks09/0900821h.html#TOC3_463)
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