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News > Tales from the Archive > The King & Queen of the Sandwich Islands fateful visit to the Royal Military Asylum

The King & Queen of the Sandwich Islands fateful visit to the Royal Military Asylum

The King and Queen of the Sandwich Islands visited to the Royal Military Asylum in Chelsea in 1824 with fatal consequences.
The Hawaiian Royal party at the theatre the night before their visit to the Royal Military Asylum
The Hawaiian Royal party at the theatre the night before their visit to the Royal Military Asylum

One of the strangest anecdotes in our school's history is what happened to the ruler of the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) and one of his wives when they visited London in the summer of 1824. King Kamehameha II (who preferred the name Liholiho) and Queen Kamāmalu had undertaken the trip to England hoping to meet King George IV to discuss matters of state. The young Hawaiian monarch was a moderniser and someone who recognised the value of seeking the protection of the British at a time when various European powers were seeking to control recently discovered overseas territories, in particular an expansionist Russia.

The Hawaiian king and queen never met King George IV in person, but they were entertained with receptions, military reviews, trips to the theatre and a visit to the Royal Military Asylum (RMA) in Chelsea (an antecedent of our school). It is believed that it was the visit to the RMA on 5 June 1824 that was to be the cause of their death. The RMA was known to be a reservoir of a range of diseases that would have affected those held in communal conditions such as orphanages and workhouses. The mortality rates for the RMA make for grim reading; between 1803 and 1831 302 pupils died at the establishment.

Members of the Hawaiian court (including the king and queen) caught measles, to which they had no immunity. Most historical sources agree they probably contracted the disease during their visit to the RMA. Queen Kamāmalu died on 8 July 1824 (aged 22) and the grief-stricken King Liholiho died six days later in the morning on 14 July 1824 at the Caledonian Hotel (aged 27). It could be argued that the royal party had had plenty of contact with several English hosts up until they visited Chelsea, including attending a performance at the Drury Lane Theatre on 4 June 1824. So, the school may not have been the viral transmission site, but given the proximity of so many RMA children to the royal party, the odds are it probably was.

The royal couple were temporarily held in the crypt of St Martin's in the Fields until their embalmed remains could be transported home. On 29 September 1824, the frigate HMS Blonde, commanded by Captain George Byron (a cousin of the famous poet), left Portsmouth conveying the Sandwich Islanders and the remains of their late King and Queen back to Oahu. This tragic affair was not a diplomatic success for Britannia and there was plenty of press reporting and cartooning which we would find racist and highly offensive, such was the nature of British society at the time. There is also another sad postscript to this visit, for when measles finally hit the Hawaiian islands in 1848 it began a long sequence of epidemics, which caused such societal upheaval that the kingdom was torn apart.

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