A Prussian in Hawaii: Heinrich Berger and the Royal Hawaiian Band

The story of Heinrich (later Henry or Henri) Berger has fascinated me ever since I first learned about the Prussian military musician. Berger traveled all the way from Berlin to Honolulu in 1872 – no simple journey in that day and age. Prussian Emperor (Kaiser) Wilhelm I had sent Berger to Hawaii at the request of King Kamehameha V on what was originally supposed to be a four-year assignment to lead and improve King Kamehameha’s Royal Hawaiian Band. Except for two visits to his homeland and several band tours on the mainland, Berger would remain in Hawaii until he died in 1929. He would head the king’s brass band from 1872 until 1915.

I first wrote about Berger here in our blog in 2010, following a visit to Honolulu that year. During a return trip in June 2012, I learned more about Berger and his band. He arrived in Honolulu Harbor on June 2, 1872, following an arduous journey involving ships and trains. And it is his journey – and his life – that I want to discuss here.

Heinrich Berger

Heinrich Berger (Hawaii State Archive)

Today travelers like me complain about a 10 or 11-hour jet flight to reach Germany from the US west coast. That’s why I find it amazing that Heinrich Berger twice made the long round trip between Germany and Hawaii. Unlike modern travelers, Berger had to book passage on two different ships – one to cross the Atlantic and one to cross the Pacific. On his two trips to Hawaii, Berger traveled by train not only from Berlin to Hamburg, but also across the entire length of the United States. (The first flights to Hawaii from California did not happen until the 1920s and they were daredevil adventures.)

Heinrich August Wilhelm Berger (1844-1929) was born in Berlin, but he grew up and attended school in Coswig (in what is today the state of Saxony-Anhalt). As a boy he had a general education, but when he was older he was encouraged to study music. When he turned 18, he joined the army and eventually became a military musician in the German army. He became prominent enough to be chosen for the assignment in Hawaii. In 1872 he set off by train from Berlin to Hamburg and then sailed across the Atlantic.

Once he reached New York, he had to cross the length of the United States by rail to San Francisco, where he continued his journey aboard a ship named the Mohongo. It was from the deck of that steamer that he first viewed the island of Oahu and the port of Honolulu with his own eyes in 1872. Honolulu at that time was a sleepy Royal capital city with fewer than 20,000 souls.

Honolulu night view

A modern view of Honolulu and Diamond Head from shipboard.
PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Almost from the very first day he arrived, Berger was busy building and conducting what later became known as the Royal Hawaiian Band. (The band has been known by many names in its long history: The King’s Band, His Majesty’s Hawaiian Band, Hawaii Government Band, Hawaiian Military Band, Royal Hawaiian Military Band, Provisional Government Band, The Hawaiian Band, the Territorial Band.) Berger had not been in Hawaii very long when he married his first wife, Sarah Anne Booth Pflueger of Honolulu, on January 26, 1874 in San Francisco.

In 1877, having served his four years of duty and a bit more, he took his wife back to Berlin – a simple thing to say, but a difficult thing to do. But return to Germany he did. Soon however, his love of Hawaii pulled him back to the islands. Some say it was also the fact that his wife’s health suffered from the raw Berlin climate. But in any case, he returned to Hawaii, once again making the long and difficult journey from Berlin to Honolulu, where he resumed his duties as the head of the Royal Hawaiian Band. He and Sarah eventually had four children. In 1879 he gave up his Prussian citizenship to become a citizen of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

In 1893 a bunch of American white men, led by Sanford Ballard Dole, managed to bring about the overthrow of the Hawaiian queen and establish the Republic of Hawaii in 1894. Somehow Berger and his band survived it all, but Berger’s marriage ended in 1895. In 1898 the Spanish-American War helped make Hawaii an American territory in which the US could keep its military bases. On February 1, 1899, Berger married his second wife, Rose Margaret Clarke of Christchurch, New Zealand. They would have two daughters.

In June 1912, Berger left for a trip to Germany that lasted six months (with pay). Kaiser Wilhelm awarded him a gold medal for his services overseas. Two years later, in Hawaii, for Heinrich Berger’s 70th birthday in 1914, the Territory of Hawaii honored him. In attendance was the deposed Hawaiian Queen Lili’uokalani, with whom Berger had a close friendship. By the time he died in 1929, Berger had lived through most of Hawaii’s history as a citizen of the Kingdom of Hawaii, the Republic of Hawaii and the US Territory of Hawaii. He is still known as the “Father of Hawaiian music” because of his efforts to preserve it. On June 30, 1915, the Prussian military musician conducted his last concert with his band in Honolulu Harbor to send off the SS Matsonia.

Henry Berger's grave

Heinrich Berger’s grave in Honolulu. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Berger is buried with his wife and an infant daughter next to the Honolulu church in which he served as organist. (See grave photo above.)


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