#123 in the Moʻolelo series
Walter Murray Gibson was a storyteller. He met Nathaniel Hawthorne in England and spun a tale about being born aboard a ship off Gibraltar, and, finding out that there were two simultaneous births aboard that ship, that he had been assigned the wrong mother (who didnʻt seem to love him!). He was thus in England searching for his “true family.” Hawthorne, the author of The Scarlet Letter (who lived in my wife’s hometown of Lenox, Massachusetts at Tanglewood, which is now a famous music center, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), was a close friend of Herman Melville, who also came to Hawaiʻi. He chalked it up to “another instance of the incurable American fancy for connections with aristocratic British lineage and great estates” (Daws, 1980, 131).
Gibson was actually born in 1822 in Northumberland, England and moved to Canada and then New York while still a child. He left home at 14 and had dreams of the Far East and particularly of islands. After “adventures” in Central America, Indonesia and Malaysia, replete with scandals that lead Daws to state he was:
a man a great immediate charm and persuasiveness who ultimately rang hollow, a man who dreamed of fortune and renown but whose life – to be blunt about it – was that of a confidence man.Daws, 1980, 138
Gibson went to Utah and met, and impressed Brigham Young, who ended up giving Gibson free rein to do missionary work in the Pacific after he converted to Mormonism. This is how Gibson ended up in Hawaiʻi. He arrived with a letter from Brigham Young that put him in charge of the Mormon mission on Lānaʻi, at the “City of of Joseph” at the site called Palawai. Gibson wrote that there was no vice here as in the cities and was enchanted by the small, albeit run down, settlement of about 200 Hawaiian members of the LDS faith. Gibson began to buy lands, in his own name, and eventually a delegation from Utah interrogated him quite publicly causing the settlement to be deserted by all but Gibson himself.
Gibson had been somewhat implicated, perhaps by rumor only, in a plot to overthrow King Lunalilo. When Kalākaua was elected a year later, however, he found that he and Gibson had much in common; a sincere desire to constrain Western influence and an interest in empire-building. As a newspaper editor, he wrote of Hawaiʻi “sit[ing] royally as the Queen of the great ocean, and shin[ing] forth as a proud and redeemed state before an admiring world!” (Daws, 1980, 150).
It was Gibson who orchestrated Kalākaua’s much-criticized (by Western residents at least, for its expense) coronation ten years after taking the throne. After eyeing a cabinet position for a decade, Gibson was allegedly given multiple positions, leading to his nickname “the Minister of everything.” Gibson was at the center of the alleged scandals surrounding the Bayonet Constitution: selling public offices, giving exemptions to Hansen’s disease (leprosy) patients, selling extra opium licenses (opium was regulated at the time). But it is becoming increasingly clear that these scandals were fabricated, and it may be that Daws is too harsh in his assessment of Gibson.
At her talk given through UH Mānoa Native Hawaiian Student Services, I asked Tiffany Lani Ing, author of Reclaiming Kalākaua, whether she thought that Hawaiians had believed the accusations surrounding Gibson (given that they were mainly made in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, owned by Lorrin Thurston). She replied that some Hawaiians did, some didn’t – there was diversity in Hawaiian views on all these matters. In his journal on the day his cabinet was dissolved, Gibson wrote only “Cabinet resigned today,” giving us no indication of his own innocence, guilt or even feelings on the incident. He died in San Francisco soon after the Bayonet Constitution.
Gavan Daws, A Dream of Islands, Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 1980.
Tiffany Lani Ing, Reclaiming Kalākaua: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives on a Hawaiian Sovereign, Honolulu; University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2019.