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The Duke and the Craft

The curious case of Hawaiian Freemasonry.

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In 1990, 22 years after his death, a bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku was unveiled at Waikiki Bay. On its base, small and discreet, sits a square and compass. The square represents honesty, fairness, and virtue. The compass stands for friendship, morality, and brotherly love. These attributes and the symbol that binds them, however, have little to do with riding waves, even as they sit at the feet of the father of modern surfing. That’s because the square and compass, of course, is the mark of the Freemasons. 

The origins of Freemasonry are disputed, but it is generally accepted that the fraternity owes its founding to the stonemason guilds of medieval Scotland, England, and France. During that period, Masons were renowned for their stonework, crafting stunning architectural pieces like the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Freemasonry operated as a sort of trade union, serving to protect highly sought-after trade secrets and further the craft. Entry was through apprenticeship. Young men would work under a Mason from age 12 to 19, at which point they would become a “Fellow of the Craft.” Through ceremonies, new members were taught the Master’s word, or password, and grip. After three years of apprenticeship, they were granted permission to have their own mark, a signature they could carve into their work. Eventually, as they continued to hone their craft, they’d become “Master Masons” themselves. 

By the seventeenth century, Masonic lodges had begun to admit members who were not affiliated with stone masonry. This pivot paved the way for men of great stature to enter Freemasonry. Statesmen like the Founding Fathers, famous artists like Mozart, and cultural icons like Mark Twain all became Freemasons. Freemasonry quickly became synonymous with the development of the Western world. The first American presidential oath of office was taken by George Washington on a Masonic bible, for example.

Given the opaque and prevalent nature of these symbols, and with its membership including such powerful figures, Freemasonry has long been plagued by conspiracy theories. Unfounded allegations of satanism, connections to the Illuminati, and notable assassinations have marred the fraternity in popular culture. In actuality, Freemasonry, affectionately known as “the Craft,” has been self-described as “a philosophy and system of morality and ethics,” “a fraternity of men, bound together by obligations and their words of honor, based on the medieval stonemason craft guilds.” Its teachings are grounded in symbolism: the square and compass, the anchor and ark, and the lambskin apron, among others.

Photo courtesy of Aloha Shriners.

It is unclear when Freemasonry first reached Hawaii. Captain James Cook, whose membership in the fraternity is disputed, first reached Kauai aboard the HMS Resolution in January 1778. But Freemasonry would not formally be established in Hawaii  for another six decades. In 1843, Captain Joseph M. Le Tellier, the founder of Hawaiian Freemasonry, sailed the French whaler Ajax into the Honolulu harbor along with a commission “to set up Lodges in the Pacific Ocean and elsewhere in his voyages; to issue warrants, to call upon the Supreme Council for charters; to make Masons at sight; to forever be given the grand honors upon his appearance in any Lodge of his creation.”

Honolulu, having seen an expansion in white settlers after the arrival of New England missionaries, was by then host to many individual Masons, but an official lodge had not yet been established. Aboard the Ajax, “in a room lighted only by the sputtering wicks of whale oil lamps,” under charter from the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of the Supreme Council of France, the men founded the first Masonic lodge of the Hawaiian Islands: Lodge Le Progres de l’Oceanie. A second lodge was founded on May 5, 1852, Hawaiian Lodge No. 21, of which Duke would become a member almost a century later.

Once Freemasonry was established in the Islands, the Hawaiian monarchy quickly sought to ingrain itself within the fraternity. On June 10, 1853, Prince Lot Kapuāiwa, who would later become King Kamehameha V, petitioned for membership. The following year, Kamehameha V was raised to a Master Mason, the first native Hawaiian to become a Mason. Three years later, Kamehameha V’s brother, King Kamehameha IV, petitioned for membership in the Lodge Le Progres de l’Oceanie. He was initiated in January 1857 and would later become Worshipful Master, essentially acting as president of his lodge. King Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last king, joined the Lodge Le Progres de l’Oceanie in 1859, also serving as Worshipful Master.

King Kalakaua, along with Queen Liliuokalani’s husband, John Dominis, further entrenched Freemasonry in the Islands. They established the Scottish Rite in Hawaii, an appendant body to Freemasonry, and were the first Hawaiians to receive the 33rd degree Grand Cross of the Court of Honor, the highest individual honor bestowed by the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite, awarded only to those with the “most exceptional and extraordinary services” to the fraternity. 

Freemasonry quickly began to play an immense role in the monarchy. Government officials were almost uniformly Masons, and in times of need the monarchy often reached out to Masons. For instance, after losing her crown, Queen Liliuokalani sought the assistance of Masons abroad to regain her rule. 

Unfortunately, while relied upon and trusted by the Hawaiian monarchy, Freemasonry was integral to its fall. On January 17, 1893, the Hawaiian monarchy ended in a bloodless coup as the American flag was hoisted over Iolani Palace. The so-called Committee of Safety, a 13-member pro annexation organization, facilitated the overthrow. Various members were Freemasons, including their chairman, Henry Ernest Cooper, a member of Duke’s future lodge. At the steps of Iolani Palace, he read the proclamation consummating the overthrow, stating, “The Hawaiian monarchical system of government is hereby abrogated.” The monarchy’s final death knell came at the hands of another Mason, when President McKinley signed the resolution annexing Hawaii in 1898. 

Freemasonry was also a constant in the physical development of Hawaii. Many buildings were raised with symbolic cornerstones, a Masonic ritual that often carried an air of public celebration. Masons laid the cornerstone for Iolani Palace, where Queen Liliuokalani was later imprisoned, at the request of King Kalakaua. Cornerstones would also be laid by Freemasons at Aliiolani Hale, the former capital and current house of the Hawaii Supreme Court and the Library of Hawaii. 

In many ways, Duke’s eventual affiliation with Freemasonry seemed preordained. In fact, Duke was even named after a Mason. In 1869, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred, visited the Hawaiian Islands. At the urging of Princess Bernice, a member of the Hawaiian royal family, Duke’s father was given the name Duke Halapu Kahanamoku in celebration of the royal visit. When Duke was born in 1890, he inherited the name from his father. 

In many ways, Duke’s eventual affiliation with Freemasonry seemed preordained.

Throughout his life, Duke was nudged and affected by notable Masons. During his early years on the beach at Waikiki, Masonry, already a cornerstone in the governance of the Islands, began to integrate itself within Hawaiian culture. In 1908, the Outrigger Canoe Club was founded by Alexander Hume Ford, and various Masons signed as charter members. The Club strictly barred Native Hawaiians, leading Duke, along with Kenneth Winter and William Cottrell, to found its counterpart: the Hui Nalu.

The members of Hui Nalu met every day underneath a hau tree at the beach to go surfing and swimming together. It was through these meetings that Duke encountered perhaps the most important Mason in his life, William Rawlins. After watching the members of Hui Nalu swim, Rawlins, a Yale Law School–educated attorney, past Master of Hawaiian Lodge No. 21, and a leader of the Hawaiian Chapter of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), became convinced of the group’s talent. He encouraged the members to compete, and Hui Nalu joined the AAU with Rawlins serving as coach. 

In their first event, Duke broke the American records in both the 100-yard and 50-yard freestyle. His performance inspired invitations to swim on the mainland. Spearheading the effort, Rawlins and Hui Nalu raised the money to secure Duke’s passage, ultimately leading to his joining the 1912 US Olympic swim team. Duke won a gold medal and earned a silver medal in Stockholm, and had his first medal placed on his neck by King Gustav V of Sweden, Grandmaster of the Swedish Order of Freemasons.

The newfound fame Duke experienced after the 1912 Olympics thrust him into the role of Hawaiian host, which allowed him to meet myriad notable figures, including important Masons. In April 1920, the Prince of Wales, who would later become King Edward VIII before his infamous abdication, sailed into Honolulu on the Royal Navy battlecruiser Renown. Duke hosted the prince, taking him out in outrigger canoes and teaching him to surf. According to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the “Prince of Wales rode the wild waves at Waikiki beach.…High on top of a screeching, curling comber, the long, narrow board swaying and skipping along at a speed of 40 miles an hour and the spray blowing back with a sting, crouched the prince.…Behind him on the surfboard like a tower of strength stood Duke P. Kahanamoku, calm and sure, supporting Britain’s royal heir.” The newspaper dubbed it “The Prince and the Duke Go Surfing.” 

In 1934, Duke headed the welcoming party for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s trip to Hawaii. Duke escorted Roosevelt, a Grand Master and the first US president to visit Hawaii, from the USS Houston by outrigger canoe, wearing traditional clothing evoking King Kamehameha I. On that trip, Duke would teach FDR’s sons, Freemasons in their own right, to surf. 

In 1950, Duke met President Harry S. Truman, another Grand Master, at the Pearl Harbor Officers’ Club. After learning that the president was fond of aloha shirts, Duke sent the White House a shipment, creating the famous Life magazine photo of President Truman wearing one. 

On October 30, 1946, a century after the first Hawaiian monarch joined the Craft, Duke was raised to Master Mason at Hawaiian Lodge No. 21. While a Mason, Duke became a member of the Honolulu Scottish Rite, an appendant body of Freemasonry. As a Scottish Rite Mason, Duke received the honor of Knight Commander of the Court of Honor, awarded only to those deserving recognition for service to the Rite or mankind.

Duke also joined the Aloha Shriners, a body of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Shriners are an appendant body of Freemasonry, notable for their bright-red fezzes, with a focus on philanthropy, including operating children’s hospitals throughout North America. Membership was limited during Duke’s time, with only 32nd degree Masons, the second-highest degree conferred in the Scottish Rite, able to become Shriners.

Duke remained a Mason, Shriner, and member of the Scottish Rite until his death on January 22, 1968. His signature still remains on the Hawaiian Lodge No. 21 bylaws, along with the Hawaiian royalty who came before him.