Belle Part XIV: Hawaii
“It was a casual conversation at the Bohemian Club that sent us to Honolulu. Several members talking together, mentioned Joe Strong. They all agreed he was a brilliant painter doing remarkably clever work. But they feared the studio was getting too popular. With parties that lasted till long after midnight, friends dropping in at all hours interrupting his work and giving him an excuse to brew his famous punch, he was wasting his time and his talents.
“‘I wish we could get him away,’ one of them said. ‘He needs a new environment.'” John D. Spreckels, then at the head of the Oceanic Steamship Company and owner of large plantations in Hawaii, was one of the group. “‘I like Strong’s pictures,’ he said. ‘And I’ve often wanted some striking island scenes to hang in our office here. What if I gave him a commission and sent him to Honolulu?’
“‘The very thing!’ Joe’s friends agreed.”
That remains the best explanation available for the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Joe Strong in Hawaii during the 1880s. Mrs. Isobel “Belle” Strong wrote it many years later when she was Mrs. Isobel Field, writing her autobiography, “This Life I’ve Loved.”
“All I knew about the islands was that Joe’s parents had gone there and that his sister Ninola was born there…Our friends gave us a farewell dinner in the Red Room of the Bohemian Club … it was the last time I saw my father.”
And so it was that the Strongs with their two-year-old son, Austin, sailed off to a new life aboard the schooner Consuela, Captain Howard.
“I was the only passenger who wasn’t seasick … After the cold and fogs of San Francisco, it was lovely sailing down into the tropics where the seas were smooth, every day growing warmer, and the sunsets more and more glorious. We all gathered on deck after dinner, lying back on cushions smoking and talking idly. The great spread of canvas towered above us, stars glittered in the sky and the moon made a silver pathway across the sea.”
“It was early morning when we sailed into the harbor and saw the lovely city of Honolulu for the first time. Along the waterfront there were no big sheds then, only a wide esplanade, and no tall buildings marred the contour of the little town nestled among trees and palms … Joe looked at the scene with something like dismay. ‘I can’t paint that,’ he said. ‘It is too crude. It is all done in primary colors.'”
Charles Warren Stoddard, “Charley,” a fellow Bohemian Club member, was already in Hawaii and found the Strongs “a little furnished cottage on Nan Avenue … In all the years I lived in Honolulu, I never owned a house key or locked a door.” Charley was the perfect guide to teach the Strongs how things worked out there when, according to Belle, “the natives were better dressed than the whites, for the islands were prosperous then, sugar was up and Hawaii belonged to the Hawaiians.”
Apparently, being the first artists to settle in Honolulu, the arrival of the Strongs on the Consuela had made a sensation. Many strangers began dropping in at their new cottage to welcome them. All left visiting cards and Charley had to explain that in the Islands one is expected to return each call in person, and here is where the Strongs entered Island politics because you had no choice — you had to make a choice. Charley looked through the cards and arranged them in two stacks.
“Now you will have to decide,” he said, “whether you will join the Royal set or the Missionaries. They don’t mix. I see all the big wigs of both parties have called and that’s very unusual.” Charley explained that to attend any event, even “an ice cream social at the church” would turn the other set against you. It was a two-way street with no middle lane. Belle said: “I learned to my surprise that the word ‘missionary’ had a political significance like Democrat or Republican. The leaders were the sons and grandsons of the original missionaries who came to Hawaii to convert the heathen. They were rich, prosperous American business men with one aim: to wrest the islands from the natives and have it taken over by the United States.”
Joe and Belle succumbed to local custom and returned every call from both sides who had left cards, an experience Belle says, “gave me my first startled taste of island gossip.” Just like today for both sides, everybody on the other side was a sick, depraved low-life. In the end, “it was the King’s set that captured us. They liked parties and dancing, and talked of the preparations going on for the Coronation Ball, congratulating us that we had come to Honolulu in time for it.”
Now the stage was set for things to come. The question is seldom asked — which side would Robert Louis Stevenson have joined without the bias of the Strongs to sway him? But it would be six years before the Stevenson expedition even showed up on the scene. In the meantime, Belle kept in touch with her mother and not yet famous stepfather, who were then living in the French Riviera village of Hyres. That’s how they first heard of King Kalakaua of Hawaii, and in the same letter, that Joe and Belle “had been taking a glass of wine with the King on an English Man-of-War.”
Belle had a ball at the Coronation Ball, also the title of chapter 19 of her book and the longest chapter.
“Kalakaua had been on a trip round the world visiting the courts of great rulers, among them the Tzar of Russia, the Emperors of Japan and Germany, Queen Victoria of England and numerous Rajahs and native Princes of the Orient. He had learned the etiquette of royalty, the details of court procedure,” etc. In other words the King had learned how to throw a royal party.
“There were eight men-of-war in port, all of different nationalities, and each one bringing presents and royal orders to Kalakaua … I was to go to many balls at the palace and never missed a thrill of anticipation as our carriage joined the line and waited to draw up at the foot of the palace steps … Though nearly all of the Missionary party came to the ball, bowing like the others before the Royal family, they left early; so did the older and more serous of the guests. The rest of us stayed on, until nearly morning when we danced the ‘galop’ to a lively hula. Then came the strains of Home, Sweet Home and the ball was over … What a night to remember!”