A Brief History of Pirates in Hawaii

September 19, 2018

Unlike the Caribbean, there hasn't been a long history of pirate activity in Hawaii. But there is one incident, one that many believe was the last large-scale pirate attack in the territories of the United States, which is truly unbelievable. So unbelievable, in fact, that while the raid was documented by a California newspaper, we're not totally sure it's true, as we cannot find other supporting documents. Whether or not it's true, it's certainly an intriguing story. Here is the account of the Great Pirate Raid of Honolulu, as reported by the Daily Alta newspaper of San Francisco on December 15, 1884.

This tale begins with the sighting of an unnamed boat, most likely a whaling vessel, off of Diamond Head (Oahu) on December 1, 1884 at around 2:00 PM. The boat soon turned towards the horizon and disappeared from view. However, it returned to Oahu in the evening and moored off the coast of Honolulu, seemingly in distress.

At about 9:00 PM, Colonel Curtis Iaukea, the Collector of the Port, and four men hopped on a small boat to investigate the vessel. At roughly 9:30, when Iaukea’s boat suspiciously didn’t return, a second boat was sent out. It also seemed to have just vanished.

At 10:00 PM, the real action begins. Five boats, filled with armed men, pushed off from the moored vessel and approached land, docking on a wharf. A few fishermen saw the armed men and ran into town, alerting the authorities. A local newspaper reporter heard the fishermen's stories and walked down to the wharf. He was immediately captured and hogtied. At this point, it was reported there were 70-to-80 armed pirates marching in the streets. Three police officers were soon captured and taken to Nolte’s Coffee Saloon on Fort Street. The Pirates placed armed guards at the door and told the customers no harm would come to them.

At about this same time, a tall, red-bearded pirate captain entered the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and told the innkeepers that no one would get hurt and no one would be robbed, but he wanted the keys to the hotel. The innkeepers obliged and were soon locked up with the rest of the hotel’s inhabitants.

All the action thus far in the night was happening down on the waterfront, away from King Kalakaua and his palace. In the palace, the king was hosting a dinner reception for Attorney General Neumann. Among the guests were the king’s ministers and General A.B Hayley, Commander-in-Chief of the Hawaiian forces. King Kalakaua had a private army of about 40 people, called the “King’s Own”, who were resting in their barracks. There were also armed guards at every entrance of the palace, per the usual.

Once the Royal Hawaiian Hotel was secured, the pirates marched directly to the palace. There, the palace guards, unaware the city was under siege, opened the gates and were immediately overpowered by the pirates. It wasn’t long before the pirates stormed the palace and surrounded the dinner party. General Hayley was able to escape and quickly rallied the King’s Own in an attempt to protect the king. The King’s Own, however, was no match for the pirates and almost immediately laid down their weapons. The king and his dinner guests were rounded up and locked in the dining room.

Now the pirates were free to roam the palace. They stole everything they could walk out with, including a priceless, sacred feather cloak that belonged to the Kamehameha’s.

Very systematically, the pirates tracked down the city's most prominent businessmen. The first visit was to the home of Frank Pratt, the public registrar who kept the keys to the treasury. He was taken from his bed and forced to open the vaults of the treasury. Inside the vault were $700,000 in Hawaiian currency and $200,000 in American silver and gold.

Following Pratt, the pirates stole $500,000 from the safe of well-known banker C.R. Bishop and $300,000 from local business W.G. Irwin and Co. All told, in less than nine hours, the pirates were able to loot the town of over $2.5 million and large quantities of silver.

By sunrise, the pirates had released the king and all the captives and retreated back to their ship. Despite guns and chaos, not a single shot was fired during the raid. In fact, only two minor injuries were reported. Once the ship departed, it was never seen or heard from again.

Because the pirates knew precisely where to find homes of the city’s most prominent businessmen and the layout of the king’s palace, it’s believed the heist was an inside job by someone very familiar with the city.

In researching this story, we visited the Kahului and Wailuku libraries and searched document archives around the date of December 1, 1884. We found no further information supporting the Daily Alta report. Was "fake news" a thing way back in 1884? We think this story is fascinating and will continue to research it. If we come across any new information, we will update the story.

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