by Laura Klotz
Hawaii (to use the common modern spelling) was the 50th territory to be given statehood in the United States. There is no one now living who remembers it as an independent sovereign nation. But a little over a hundred years ago, that’s exactly what it was, and its first queen regnant was the last person to rule over the islands.
She was born Lydia Lili‘u Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamaka‘eha, in the city of Honolulu, on September 2, 1838. She was one of seven children of Ali‘i Analea Keohokālole and Caesar Kapa‘akea. Her mother was a royal advisor to King Kamehameha III; as such, Lydia and her siblings were entitled to attend a special boarding school for the children of the royal advisors, eventually known as the Royal School. Kamehameha III had no children of his own, but all of the students at the Royal School were members of the ali’i, the royal bloodline of Hawaii, and he declared them eligible to one day possibly take the throne. The Royal School closed in 1848 due to a measles epidemic which killed some ten thousand native Hawaiians, including Lydia’s younger sister Anna, but operates today as a public elementary school.
Lydia and her siblings were baptized as Christians, and taught both English and the Hawaiian language. As they grew up, Kamehameha III was succeeded by his nephews, who used the regnal names Kamehameha IV and Kamehameha V. During the reign of Kamehameha IV, Lydia married the American-born John Owen Dominis in 1862, a few weeks after her 24th birthday. The marriage was childless, though they had a number of hanai children – a Hawaiian tradition of informal adoption.
Kamehameha V was succeeded by his cousin, known as Lunalilo, who never married. It was his wish that the Hawaiian people would choose their next king when he died, and they did. They chose Lydia’s brother David, who took the regnal name of Kalākaua. He is sometimes known as the Merrie Monarch, because he enjoyed playing the ukelele and ended the ban on public performance of the hula. (In Disney’s Lilo and Stitch, at the end of the film, Lilo’s dance class performs the hula at the Merrie Monarch Festival.)
By the time of the new king’s accession in February 1874, three of his and Lydia’s siblings had died; the king, his brother William, and their sisters Lydia and Miriam were sometimes known as the “Royal Four.” As brother of the king, William was named heir apparent and titled as a Prince, while Lydia and Miriam were styled as Princesses. William died three years into his brother’s reign, at which time King Kalākaua named his sister Lydia his new heir apparent. She ceased to be known as Lydia from that time forward, instead taking the name of Lili‘uokalani.
After a visit to California for her health in 1878, Lili‘uokalani served as regent in Hawaii in 1881, when her brother the king departed on a world tour. Almost immediately she proved her capability in the role, as the smallpox epidemic of that year reached Hawaiian shores. Lili‘uokalani wisely shut down all ports, stopping any passenger ships from leaving, and also ordered that the affected be quarantined. The result was impressive, keeping the disease confined to only a limited portion of the islands and a total death count of less than a thousand.
In 1887, Lili‘uokalani’s sister Miriam died of an unknown illness, leaving behind an eleven-year-old daughter, Kaʻiulani – the only grandchild of Lili‘uokalani’s parents. Later that year, a delegation including Princess Lili‘uokalani, her husband, and her brother’s wife Queen Kapiʻolani was dispatched to England, to attend the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. They sailed to California, then traveled across the mainland United States to Washington, D.C., where they met with President Grover Cleveland before boarding a ship for England. The two royal women had a personal audience with Queen Victoria before the celebrations, at which she treated them with great respect and kindness, and during the ceremony at Westminster Abbey they were seated among other visiting royals. However, not long after the festivities concluded, the queen and princess received word that, in their absence, King Kalākaua had signed what became known as the Bayonet Constitution. The document stripped much of the power from the Hawaiian sovereign; the Hawaiian League, a faction which was strongly in favor of ending the monarchy and making Hawaii a territory of the United States, was largely behind the proceedings. For the rest of her life, Lili‘uokalani maintained that her brother’s life had been threatened in order to get him to sign away his authority. She and her sister-in-law canceled their plans to tour Europe and rushed home to support him.
In late 1890, Lili‘uokalani again served as her brother’s regent, this time while he traveled to California. His health was declining, and it was hoped that the change of air would do him some good. Sadly, while in Santa Barbara, the king suffered a stroke, and died a few days later.
Hawaii’s first and only queen regnant took her oath of office on January 29, 1891, the same day she was informed of her brother’s death. After a few weeks of formal mourning, she began the work of queenship – establishing her cabinet, naming her niece Kaʻiulani as heir apparent, and appointing her husband as Governor of Oahu as well as naming him Prince Consort. She embarked on a tour of the major islands, including a visit to the leper settlement at Kalaupapa, and in the words of historian Ralph Simpson Kuykendall, “Everywhere she was accorded the homage traditionally paid by the Hawaiian people to their ali’i.”
Seven months into her rule, tragedy struck the queen yet again. Her husband John died, and although reports about the happiness of their union vary widely, she grieved deeply. In her autobiography, she later wrote, “His death occurred at a time when his long experience in public life, his amiable qualities, and his universal popularity, would have made him an adviser to me for whom no substitute could possibly be found. I have often said that it pleased the Almighty Ruler of nations to take him away from me at precisely the time when I felt that I most needed his counsel and companionship.” At the request of Princess Kaʻiulani, Lili‘uokalani appointed Archibald Cleghorn, the princess’s father, to replace Dominis as Governor of Oahu.
Lili‘uokalani, from the start of her reign, had been urged to rewrite the Bayonet Constitution, and she dearly wanted to reclaim much of the independence which had been taken from Hawaii and from herself by the document. With the help of two legislators, she wrote a new constitution for Hawaii, which would restore power to the monarchy and voting rights to many who had lost them. The constitution was never ratified or moved beyond the draft stage, but it paved the way for the revolution which soon followed.
Following a series of anti-monarchical rallies and speeches in Honolulu, the queen was formally deposed on January 17, 1893. She agreed to temporarily relinquish her authority to the United States, believing that the USA would eventually restore it to her as the rightful sovereign. While a delegation was sent to Washington, D.C. to propose the annexation of Hawaii, Lili‘uokalani sent her own representative to personally deliver a letter of protest to President Cleveland. He undertook an investigation into the matter, and declared that she had been illegally overthrown; he offered to return her throne if she would grant amnesty to those responsible. Lili‘uokalani replied that she could not do that – Hawaiian law called for the death penalty in such a matter, and only her ministers could declare amnesty. This position cost her Cleveland’s goodwill.
Over the next several months, Hawaii was declared a protectorate of the United States. Cleveland’s representative, Albert Willis, did try to insist that Lili‘uokalani be restored to her throne, but the provisional government established in Hawaii refused. A Congressional investigation ending in a document known as the Morgan Report found everyone involved with the overthrow to be not guilty, and the Kingdom of Hawaii became the Republic of Hawaii, which it remained until given statehood in the mid-20th century.
In January 1895, a rebellion was launched with the intent of restoring Lili‘uokalani and the monarchy. It failed, with many of its supporters arrested, and Lili‘uokalani was also arrested later in the month when firearms were discovered in her rooms. With six of the rebels scheduled to hang for their crimes, Lili‘uokalani signed the document abdicating her throne in exchange for their lives and release. “For myself, I would have chosen death rather than sign it,” she wrote later, but she could not live with the deaths of those who had tried to champion her. She was originally sentenced to five years of labor for her (unproven) part in the rebellion, but this was commuted to imprisonment. Lili‘uokalani was taken to ‘Iolani Palace, where she was held for several months.
During her time as a prisoner, Lili‘uokalani was denied newspapers and almost any means of interacting with the outside world – including her niece, who was living abroad to keep her out of the turbulent atmosphere. To console herself and soothe her fears, she turned to music, playing and composing numerous songs. Like her brother had been, she was proficient with several instruments and had been writing songs for years; the ‘Iolani Palace still has a collection of music composed by both siblings. She also transcribed the Kumulipo, the oral tradition of her family’s history, which had been handed down from her great-grandmother. As her parents’ only surviving child, she feared that she might not survive imprisonment and the history would be lost.
Finally, in October 1896, Lili‘uokalani was fully pardoned and released, with her civil rights restored. She almost immediately left Hawaii, traveling to Massachusetts to stay with her late husband’s cousins for several months; William Lee and Sara White Lee were part of the publishing company Lee & Shephard, and they helped her to write and publish her memoirs and the Kumulipo. Many of her songs were published in this time period as well.
Kaʻiulani returned from Europe and reunited with her aunt, and together they continued to try to restore Hawaii’s independence, attending the inauguration of President William McKinley and appealing to members of Congress. A petition circulated in Hawaii showed that thousands of native Hawaiians opposed the annexation by the United States; it happened anyway, with a ceremony held at ‘Iolani Palace on August 12, 1898. Lili‘uokalani and those loyal to her boycotted the ceremony, as did many citizens, but the annexation was done. There was, for a time, some hope cherished of reclaiming the monarchy and putting Princess Kaʻiulani on the throne, but this ended with her death in 1899 at the age of just 24.
Lili‘uokalani returned home and retired from public life, though she would always take an interest in the welfare of the Hawaiian people. Many of these persisted in revering her as their rightful queen in spite of everything. She lived in quiet solitude in her private Honolulu home, Washington Place, where she had resided with her husband. She continued to write, composing more than 150 songs in her lifetime, and on the occasion of her 73rd birthday, she gave a gift to Hawaii: a tract of protected land near Waikahalulu Stream in Nu‘uanu, which is known today as Lili‘uokalani Garden. She was a mentor and tutor to many young Hawaiian musicians, including Charles E. King, composer of “Ke Kali Ne Au.”
At the age of 79, Lili‘uokalani knew her health was failing. In royal Hawaiian tradition, she received farewell visits from friends and loved ones, and as she lay in bed, attendants fanned her with branches of kāhili, the plant used by the royal family as an emblem. On November 11, 1917, the last sovereign of Hawaii suffered a stroke and died. She lay in state at Kawaiahaʻo Church, where the public could see her for the last time, before receiving a state funeral in ‘Iolani Palace and interment in the Royal Mausoleum of Mauna ‘Ala. As the funeral cortege moved through the streets, the attending crowd sang “Aloha Oe.”
As she had no children, and her only niece had predeceased her, Lili‘uokalani bequeathed the bulk of her estate to create the Queen Lili‘uokalani Trust, intended to provide for orphaned Hawaiian children. Hawaii observes a number of annual festivals and events in her honor, including the annual Queen Liliʻuokalani Outrigger Canoe Race, the Queen Liliʻuokalani Keiki Hula Competition, and the He Hali‘a Aloha no Lili‘uokalani Festival, which celebrates her birthday every year.
But perhaps her most enduring legacy is “Aloha Oe,” the song sung by the crowd at her funeral. She wrote it in 1878; it was intended as a love song, having been inspired by a parting embrace which the princess witnessed, but today is regarded as a goodbye song. A survey has determined that “Aloha Oe” is considered the greatest Hawaiian song ever written.In English, the title translates as Farewell to Thee.
- Queen Lili‘uokalani. Hawai’i’s Story by Hawai’i’s Queen. Lee & Shephard, Boston, Massachusetts, 1898.
- Site editors. “Liliuokalani.” History.com, originally published December 2009, last updated April 2019.
- Kuykendall, Ralph Simpson. The Hawaiian Kingdom 1874–1893, The Kalakaua Dynasty. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1967.
- Official website of the Lili‘uokalani Trust. https://onipaa.org
About the Author:
Laura Klotz is an amateur historian whose primary focus is local apocrypha in Pennsylvania, where her family has lived for more than 200 years. Through her blog, MarkerQuest, she explores and shares the state’s history as presented on markers erected by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, with their permission. In her spare time she makes great soup, plays a lot of video games, and travels as much as her health will allow. A published author and dilettante photographer, she delights in answering questions nobody actually asked her. She lives in Pennsylvania’s beautiful Lehigh Valley with her husband, sister, and three spoiled cats. (She extends special thanks to her dear friend Rachel, who suggested this topic.)
Visit MarkerQuest at https://pamarkers.blogspot.com