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Posted on: Sunday, July 2, 2006

Robert Wilcox and the Royalist rebellion

By Mike Gordon 
Advertiser Staff Writer

Advertiser library photo

Robert W. Wilcox, a part-Hawaiian revolutionary with dark-eyed good looks and an Italian military education, led two failed rebellions that turned him into a charismatic folk hero among Native Hawaiians.

He was born on Maui in 1855, the son of a New England sea captain and a descendant of Hawaiian royalty. Although elected to the kingdom's legislature as a Maui representative in 1880, he would leave a year later to study at the Royal Military Academy in Turin.

Wilcox returned to Hawai'i in 1887 with an understanding of artillery and engineering. With him was an Italian baroness, his wife.

But the Hawaiian monarchy had lost its power that same year when a group of business and plantation owners with missionary ties forced King Kalakaua to sign the "Bayonet Constitution."

Two years later, Wilcox moved into a Palama home and formed the Liberal Patriotic Association, which plotted to overthrow the reform government and restore power to the throne. His poorly armed but smartly dressed militia wore red Garibaldi shirts during their failed coup attempt. Wilcox was tried for treason and acquitted, despite overwhelming evidence against him.

The death of Kalakaua in 1891 and the overthrow in 1893 of his successor, Lili'uokalani, gave rise to another rebellion.

In 1894, Wilcox joined the so-called royalists, backed by Lili'uokalani and armed with a secret cache of weapons smuggled in from San Francisco. They wanted to strike at the government, now run by white businessmen.

Before the Royalists could strike, however, the rebellion was undermined by a chance encounter in January 1895. A group of volunteers and police looking for royalist weapons in Waikiki were fired upon.

Government troops then chased the royalists for the next 10 days as they fled from the slopes of Diamond Head to Palolo, Manoa, Pauoa and Nu'uanu valleys. Wilcox was one of the last of the 191 royalists captured. He and four other royalists were sentenced to death that same year by a military commission but instead received prison terms with hard labor. All but Wilcox were freed by Thanksgiving.

Wilcox remained in prison until 1898, when he was pardoned by Sanford B. Dole, president of the Republic of Hawai'i.