Today (July 14) in London History – the royal death no one knows about

The royal death no one knows about. Happened on this day – July 14th – in 1724. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Pleases me no end, this one. And others like it. They might well be my favourites. What I like about them is their “never saw that coming” quality. It may be childish of me but I like springing surprises on people. And this one, every last inch of it, is a catch-you-unawares number. You won’t have had a clue about it – about these personages – it’s all going to be brand spanking new to you. 

Ok, so our date is this day – July 14th – in 1824.

And let’s set the stage, provide some context. 

First strong impression, there’s colonial stuff going on. The Governor-General of India declared war against the Burmese because they violated East India Company territory. 

The Spanish are having a rough ride in Peru thanks to Simon Bolivar and his people. By the end of the year Madrid will leave South America.

Meanwhile, further north, the Russians and the Americans have signed a treaty defining their respective rights in the Pacific Ocean. 

The Greeks are fighting their Turkish masters and that struggle has cost Lord Byron his life. Needless to say, he’d sided with the Greeks.

Here at home the Combinations Act is repealed. It means British workers can combine. Combinations are the forerunners of unions. So, things not quite so cruel for British workers. Nor for animals. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has just been founded. 

In science and technology, the penny has dropped about sperm – scientists have proven that it’s essential to fertilisation. And thanks to Joseph Aspdin, we’ve now got Portland Cement. 

The Americans are getting their religious juggernaut on the road – the Sunday School movement has just been started. 

Here in London, the National Gallery’s just been created. 

And Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has pitched up. Given what’s going on in the world, I’d say that dramatic, deservedly famous symphony – in time it’ll become the official anthem of the European Union – was of the age. As well as being for all time.

Anything else? Yes, and this is germane, over the pond Sequoyah has invented the Cherokee alphabet.

Ok, that’s the white noise for 1824.

What happened – in London – on July 14th, 1824?

A royal death, that’s what happened. But it’s not a royal death you’ll have heard of.

Nor is it just the event. The rarity – the surprise factor – is by no means the whole story. By closing with this rare event we can we can learn a great deal about Londoners in 1824. How they saw the world – and other peoples. What they took to be their position in the 1824 world order.

Ok, lights up on the main event. The King of the Sandwich Islands dies of measles. He breathes his last in the Caledonian Hotel, at the end of Adelphi Terrace. They’d moved him there – just a few doors along – from the swish Osborne Hotel. The Osborne has connections with Dickens. At the end of Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers – which is still a dozen years in the future, Samuel Pickwick is staying in the Osborne Hotel and it’s there that he makes the momentous announcement of his intention of abandoning his nomadic life of travel and adventure and settling down in some quiet, pretty neighbourhood in the vicinity of London. So it’s at Osborne’s Hotel that the Pickwick Club ends its days. As the great man himself puts it, “The Pickwick Club no longer exists.”

Well, that’s 12 years in the future for Osborne’s Hotel. In 1824 we’ve got the King of the Sandwich Islands staying there and then, when he has just a few days left to live, being moved to the Caledonian Hotel. That move interests me. For several reasons. To start with, his room will have looked over the terrace where Dr Johnson walked 45 years previously, sorrowing, trying to come to terms with the death of his dear friend and townsman, the great actor David Garrick. And the thing about that spot on the Adelphi Terrace is it looks out over the Thames. The Thames which was the mighty highway home for the King of the Sandwich Islands. He and his Queen will be taken home as corpses in coffins rather than as a young couple – they were in their 20s. That hotel on the Adelphi Terrace was as close as the King could get – in London – to his native land. It also put me in mind – I hadn’t thought about this for years – of Al Alvarez’s book A Savage God. It’s a study of suicide. And one unforgettable vignette in it is the suicide of an American who went right to the end of Land’s End in Cornwall, tied himself to the rocks there, and killed himself. That spot was as close to his native land as he could get in this country. That was where he went to end his life. Speaks volumes, doesn’t it. Think of the homing instinct of the salmon – their going back where they came from to spawn and then die. Or eels swimming more than 3,000 miles to the Sargasso Sea to complete their life cycle. To spawn. And die. Where they started. 

Now, let’s close with the King and Queen of the Sandwich Islands. The Sandwich Islands are known today as Hawaii. It was Captain James Cook who discovered the islands and named them after John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty.

It’s of course howlingly Euro-centric to say that Captain Cook discovered the Sandwich Islands. There were people there when he got there. Come on, it’s time to grow up, it was their ancestors who discovered those islands. For the record, Captain Cook dropped in on the islands one too many times. On his third visit the islanders murdered him. There’s a famous print – it’s part of the British Museum collection and can be viewed online – that depicts the moment Captain Cook is about to join the silent majority.

Anyway, what brought King Kamehameha II and his Queen Kamamalu to London? I say his Queen – she was also his half-sister and one of five wives, five queens. His favourite. 

Captain Cook had discovered the Sandwich Islands in 1778. In 1822 King George IV sent King Kamehameha II a present – he sent him a ship, a schooner, called the Prince Regent. 

King Kamehameha sent the British King a thank you letter in which he said he’d like to place the Sandwich Islands under the protection of the British crown. 

There was no reply from George IV. For a year. So King Kamehameha decided to come to London to consult the British monarch in person. The Sandwich Islanders arrived on May 17th. Less than 60 days later they were both dead.

It wasn’t just fun and games, the royal visitors’ desire to enlist the support of the all powerful British throne. The Russians had attempted to establish a settlement in the Sandwich Islands and the islanders didn’t want that. They thought that getting into bed with the mighty British would be a way of fending off unwelcome attention from the Bear. 

In the event, once again George IV kept the Sandwich Islanders waiting. Londoners were certainly interested though. Large crowds gathered outside the hotel. The King and Queen satisfied some of the curiosity by exhibiting themselves at the windows.

They and their doings were the talk of the town. Where they went – to the theatre, for example – what they did – was reported. Unlike George IV, the guests were gracious hosts. Here’s a contemporary account:

“A person who visited them yesterday found their Majesties amusing themselves with a game at whist, the Queen having for her partner her female attendant, who is a daughter of one of the chief men of the island, and his Majesty’s partner was the Governor of the island where the seat of government was held. The ladies were dressed in loose robes de chambre, of straw colour, tied with rose-coloured strings, and on their heads they wore turbans of feathers of scarlet, blue and yellow. The two males appeared in European costume, wearing black coats, silk stockings and shoes. These islanders are of a very large size. The men appear to be above six feet, and exceedingly stout. The females are equally fat and coarse made, and proportionably taller than the men. The whole party are of the darkest copper colour, very nearly approaching to black. The King is a man of pleasing countenance and gentlemanly deportment; he is tall and well-formed…The Queen is a large woman, and appears fond of dress, which she changes three or four times a day. Her Majesty is somewhat indisposed and frequently retires to rest during the day; she and her sister smoke their cigars with as much vigour as some of our modern dandies, and constantly amuse themselves in playing cards. A gratifying treat was yesterday afforded them by the performances of the celebrated Mr Punch and his family, whose merits they acknowledged by an ample reward.”

It’s wonderfully condescending. 

And indeed, parts of the British press got into full-on sneering mode. This piece for example. It appeared in the newspaper called John Bull. The contents of the paper lived up to its title. Here’s the piece.

The Courier last week published a paragraph explaining that the King of the Sandwich Islands has got five brigs in his navy, instead of five canoes; and told us, moreover, that his territories exceed in size all our West Indian colonies. That they are civilised, accomplished, etc. etc. What the object of all this puffing may be, we really are at a loss to understand; but the effect produced by the quackery of treating these people as European monarchs are treated may be perceived by an extract from some evening paper, which is copied into Saturday’s Chronicle. With respect to the man being a King at all, we deny the fact – there is no King of the Sandwich Islands – it is a matter of history and matter of fact that ‘the islands are not united under one sovereign’ – this person is therefore a chief, to whom we should afford the rights of hospitality, but to whom we should not show a respect and deference which are not due to him, and which applied to such a person become absurd and ridiculous.”

Oh my god. Anyway, the King and Queen never got their audience with George IV. They both got measles. The Queen died on July 8th. She was 22. 

Someone who was there wrote, “All the talent of the English doctors was of no avail with a constitution that belonged to another hemisphere. The King is prostrate with grief, because his four other wives are not with him, and in the whole of Europe he cannot find a substitute for a Sandwich woman. This one, the smallest of the five, was taller and stronger than the most enormous man. In that country, they choose them by weight and size.”

Six days later – today, July 14th – King Kamehameha was dead. His last words were “Farewell to you all, I am dead, I am happy.”

His remains were embalmed and coffined. He lay in state in a room in the hotel. Then prior to their final journey – their journey home – they sojourned for a few days in the crypt at St Martin in the Fields.

As for George IV, he graciously agreed to meet the surviving members of the party before they sailed for home. Needless to say the palace spun the story. It put out the line, “as there had been no opportunity of granting the King and Queen the personal interview, which was the chief object of their visit to Britain; and which he desired as a proof of courtesy to stranger sovereigns who, entered so lately within the pale of civilisation, had come so far to throw themselves at his feet, and to acknowledge his superiority. Besides, the commercial interests of England in the Pacific are likely to be greatly injured in case the Sandwich Islands should fall into the hands of the Russians or Americans, and it was of some importance to grant the protection the king had come to seek, for our own sake as well as for his.”

I’m speechless. That was not all that long ago. Eight generations back. Attitudes like that, that’s an important part of the legacy, of the historical baggage a lot of Britons are hauling around. It’s a ball and chain. A ball and chain they’re going to have to find the key to and get free of. It hasn’t been easy thus far. It’s not going to be easy. 

July 14th in London history – it packs a punch. 

As for a Today in London recommendation. Again, this one’s a no-brainer. Well, sort of a no-brainer. Get thee to the British Museum’s online resources. Three years ago the BM laid on a special exhibition called Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific Perspective. A lot of the objects in that exhibition can still be viewed online. Have a browse – you won’t go wrong. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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