During the spring of 1887, mounting dissatisfaction with government policies and private acts of officials led to the formation of the Hawaiian League, a group of Honolulu businessmen (largely, but not exclusively, haole (Caucasian.)) One issue they were particularly incensed by was the opium franchise bribery case, in which the King was implicated. (Forbes)
Initially the king, through his minister of foreign affairs, disclaimed any involvement. However, “To cap the climax of the opium matter, the Attorney General proceeds to acknowledge that the money was paid over by the Chinese …”
“(H)e informed the gentlemen interested in getting the money back that he would never accomplish his object so long as he allowed the newspaper to speak of the affair.”
“The Attorney General then sees that there is no use in denying the receipt of the money but suggests that if a quiet tongue is kept in the matter the cash received for the bribe may be returned.”
“This is a pretty piece of morality for the Attorney General to put forth and shows the obliquity of vision of all who are connected with the government.” (Hawaiian Gazette, May 17, 1887)
The Aki scandal was one of the events that mobilized many of the haole residents to organize and establish an armed body. (Lim-Chong & Ball) The Hawaiian League came into control of the Honolulu Rifles (made of about 200 armed men.)
On the afternoon of June 30, 1887, the league held a mass meeting during which they presented a list of reforms they intended to submit to the king. Among them were demands that the king dismiss his cabinet, and that Walter Murry Gibson be dismissed of ‘each and every office held by him.’
After that was accomplished, in July 1887, King Kalākaua was induced to promulgate a new constitution, known as the “Bayonet Constitution of 1887.” (Forbes)
Let’s look back …
Celso Caesar Moreno, a professional lobbyist well known in Sacramento and Washington, DC, arrived in Honolulu on the China Merchant Steam Navigation Company’s ship ‘Ho-chung’ in November 1879.
One week later, he invited King Kalākaua, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Royal Chamberlain aboard the steamer to meet Fan Yau Ki, a wealthy Chinese industrialist. One of the things Moreno was looking for was the liberalization of Hawai‘i’s strict opium laws. He advocated making Honolulu the opium processing and distribution center for the whole Pacific.
An opium bill was passed providing for a license for four years, to be granted by the minister of the interior with the consent of the King. (Reports of Committee on Foreign Relations)
Early in November, 1886, Junius Kaae, (who has access to the King,) informed a Chinese rice planter named Tong Kee, alias Aki, that he could have the opium license granted to him if he would pay the sum of $60,000 to the King’s private purse …”
“… but that he must be in haste because other parties were bidding for the privilege. (Executive Documents US House of Representatives, 1895)
In a later affidavit, Tong Kee (Aki) described what happened …
“I met Junius Kaae in the street and he spoke to me in Hawaiian and said ‘Do you not want the opium license?’ I replied ‘Yes, perhaps so,’ and asked him how it could be obtained. He said he could help me. A few days after this I went to the Record Office with some documents for record.”
“While there, he took me outside of the door and spoke of the matter again saying ‘I can help you about it and will push it until you get it but it will take a great deal of money. Several people have been to me to help them but he who takes money to the king, and a great deal of it, will get the license.’”
First, “I was to get 20,000 … I went to look for the King (and) found him in the Palace. I then went in and handed him a letter … He read it laughed and said ‘Where is that money?’”
“I replied that it was outside in a carriage so we … walked outside upon one of the verandas – when he looked around and seeing a good many people about, said, ‘It won’t do now, come again at six this evening with your money.’”
“We … then went to the King’s office in the Bungalow and carried the basket (‘heavy with gold’) … Kaae … asked where the money was. It having been pointed out to him he took a key from his pocket unlocked and opened a drawer in the Kings table …”
“… into which he put all of the gold and certificates locked the drawer again and put the key into his pocket. I asked for a receipt but he refused saying that it would be all right that if I did not get the license all of the money would be returned”.
“The next day Kaae came to the house and said that he and the King had counted over the money the evening before and that it was short of $20,000 by $2.50 so I handed that to him in silver.”
“I then set about raising the last $40,000 … Upon the 7th of December … I went … to the Palace and handed the King in person a check for $10,000 …”
“The King took the check looked at it and put it in his pocket. … The same day Kaae came to me with the check and said as he handed it back, that I must draw the money as it would not do to have any checks – that the King said that by and by people would find out about it and it would be all exposed.”
Tong Kee then delivered ‘a large package of certificates’ ($10,000 in cash.) Kaae “then urged me very strongly about getting the remaining $30,000.” Tong Hee then brought more money. “The King then invited us into the office. We entered and presented him with a letter … and said ‘Where is the money?’” They were invited into the King’s office.
“The King went into a door on the Ewa side of the room mauka end … (we) put the baskets on the floor near the door – but the King said, ‘No, not there,’ and going to a trunk unlocked and opened it and then taking out some quilts … (we were) told to put the money in there.”
They laid the bags in the trunk; “The King laid back the quilts closed and locked the trunk and put the key in his pocket. … We were then dismissed.”
“Very soon after this Kaae came to my house – others were there. He looked angy or disturbed. He said, ‘The King has shown me a letter from John S Walker, in which he said that Kwong Sam Kee had been to him and wanted him to assist them about an opium license. That they offered $75,000 for it’ … Now what do you think, Aki? If you don’t give more money, Kwong Sam Kee will get that license!’”
“We went to the Bungalow (with more money) and waited on the same veranda as formerly … The King came soon and we presented the pig which caused him a smile of pleasure. … He asked where the money was and on seeing it entered into conversation about the license.”
“Seeing people about I suggested that the money had better be put away. He then sent off a Lelewa woman who was sweeping and himself carried the basket into the same room where the $30,000 had been put. This $15,000 was mostly in US gold but it contained some certificates and the whole was in a basket.”
“(W)e went away but I first asked him when the license would be issued to me. He replied that it must be done in regular course through the Ministers as by law required that there would be a meeting very soon and he promised to help me about it.”
Tong Kee was later informed that Chun Lung was getting the opium license. The King informed him that he would have a share in the license. “The King finally said that he had arranged it that the license had fifteen shares in all – that Chung Lung was to have five, I was to have five and he was to keep five himself.”
“Fearing that I should lose all my money I agreed to this proposition on condition that part of my money was returned. I said that as $75,000 were paid to the King for the whole license and I was only to have a third that $50,000 should be returned and the King might keep $25,000.”
“But he gave no definite answer to this at that time but said it was to be arranged by and by after the whole matter was adjusted.” But resolution was uncertain “it appealing that he (Kalākaua) was constantly shifting his ground.”
“I asked the King to return me all of my money and drop the whole thing. He exclaimed that this could not be done that it was all understood and arranged about the division of the license and could not be changed.”
“I insisted on the return of my money. He finally seemed to assent to this and intimated that by and by he would pay me back when they paid in their money. I do not know who he meant but inferred from what had been said that he meant the opium licensee.” (Affidavit of T Aki (Tong Kee;) Hawaiian Gazette, May 31, 1887)
Just when it seemed that Aki himself was about to come forward and make a statement … he died under mysterious circumstances. It was widely believed that he was poisoned.” (Zambucka)
The King’s disastrous financial affairs were then placed in the hands of trustees. Aki’s estate petitioned for return of what he paid Kalākaua.
On September 21, 1888, Judge Preston decided, “the claim against the defendants for the sum of $71,000 is established as just and correct within the meaning of the deed of trust in the bill mentioned and that the complainants are entitled to be paid pro rata with other approved claims …”
“… and order defendants (Kalākaua’s trustees) to pay the same accordingly out of the moneys which may have come to their hands under the trust of the said deed …” (Zambucka)
The Aki scandal was one of the events that mobilized Kalākaua’s enemies to secretly plot his downfall and ultimately led to the 1887 Constitution, known as the ‘Bayonet Constitution,’ which took away much of the king’s power. (IslandExpat)
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Jp Mckenzie says
Great story, well researched and beautifully told, as usual. I did my master’s thesis on the opium scandal and have all of Tong Kee/Aki’s affidavits and the canceled checks he used to prove he’d been ripped off. The Gazette story was taken from the affidavits.
Incidentally, in the photo of the men standing behind the stack of opium pipes and scales to be burned, the officer at far right is legendary HPD detective Chang Apana, model for Earl Derr Biggers’ fictional Charlie Chan.