The Royal Hawaiian Navy was created solely as a result of King Kalākaua’s plan for a confederation of Polynesian nations. This was an era of kingdom-building, and alliances were in vogue.
King Kalākaua had been in office since 1874, overseeing his small independent country. Influenced by his recent trip around the world, he looked forward to developing alliances with other Polynesian countries, seeing Hawaii in the center position. By 1883, commissioners had visited the Gilbert Islands and the New Hebrides, without success. (Kauai Historical Society)
The High Commissioner was a special Hawaiian envoy tasked with traveling to the various island nations of the Pacific to enlist them into the confederation.
In anticipation of the High Commissioner’s transportation needs, the Hawaiian government purchased a three-masted steamship named the “Explorer.” The ship was refitted as a gunboat and armed with Gatling guns and cannons. The name “Explorer” was translated into Hawaiian and the ship was renamed the “Kaimiloa”. The ship’s captain was George E Gresley Jackson.
His Hawaiian Majesty’s Ship Kaimiloa was commissioned on March 28, 1887, for the naval service of the Kingdom and comprised the whole of the Hawaiian Navy. (ksbe)
HHMS Kaimiloa was the first and only ship of the Hawaiian Royal Navy. The ship was a 170-ton Explorer gunboat, made in Britain in 1871. King Kalākaua bought the ship for $20,000 and added the rigging.
It sailed from Hawaiʻi to Samoa and other Pacific islands in an effort by Kalākaua to form a confederation of Polynesian states to counteract European imperialism.
The mission was facing an uphill climb in its endeavors. Imperial Germany was already in discussion with Samoa, and both Britain and the United States were interested in the structure of power within the region.
This important region was of interest to most of the European powers – two years after this voyage, the warships of the United States, England, and Germany were all at anchor in Apia Bay, as Germany had asserted a right to possession. (Kauai Historical Society) Talks did not progress well.
Capt. Jackson was a former British naval officer, and more recently, the former head of a reform school. Members of the crew were former students. On board was John E Bush, as the King’s embassy; the crew was Hawaiian. (Kauai Historical Society)
With only one month of training, the youths were put to the test when the Kaimiloa was ordered to transport the Secretary of Foreign Affairs to Samoa. The ship departed Honolulu on May 18, 1887, and arrived in Samoa 29 days later. (ksbe)
Historical accounts indicate that from the beginning there were problems with the officers and the crew. Upon arrival in Samoa on June 15th, the festivities were problematic as well. (Kauai Historical Society)
Robert Louis Stevenson, then a resident of Samoa, is quoted regarding a reception at the Hawaii embassy: “Malietoa, always decent, withdrew at an early hour. By those that remained, all decency appears to have been forgotten.”
In the morning, he added, the revelers were aroused from a drunken stupor and sent home. King Malietoa is reported to have said: “If you came here to teach my people to drink, I wish you had stayed away”. (Kauai Historical Society)
Due to the music program which was in effect at the reform school, some of these crew members were also members of a military band. They were led by Charles Palikapu Kaleikoa.
While the Kaimiloa was in Samoa, the Cadet Band performed concerts in Apia, the capital city, and around Samoa. The Hawaiian Consul reported (August 23, 1887:) Her (Kaimiloa’s) cadet band also became popular and their concerts were an appreciated treat to the Samoans. (ksbe)
The Hawaiian Consul in Samoa, also impressed with their exemplary conduct, reported in a letter: “I must say a word in praise of the Reform School boys. It was a matter of surprise to me to observe how well they behaved on shore and aboard, and how well they performed their duties.” (ksbe)
Under the direction of Lorrin A Thurston, the Kaimiloa was recalled. She returned to Honolulu Harbor on September 23, 1887; this appears to be her only voyage for the state. (Kauai Historical Society)
The crew was disbanded and the ship was decommissioned. After this, Kaleikoa joined the Royal Hawaiian Band and continued to play in it until his retirement 40 years later and retired as assistant band leader. (ksbe)
After it was decommissioned, the Kaimiloa was still used as a quarantine ship, but in 1888 she was sold and used as a transportation vessel between the Hawaiian Islands.
For a while, she was used for interisland shipping, transporting coal and oil. After a period in dry dock, her engines were removed (and used to turn wheels in a sugar mill operation) and in 1910, the hull was burned. (Kauai Historical Society)