Ka’iulani: Hawaii’s Island Rose

In a brief life filled with loss, Princess Ka’iulani established her legacy

Princess Ka'iulani was born in Honolulu in 1875. (Library of Congress)

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Shortly after Ka’iulani’s arrival in America, and a few days into his new administration, President Grover Cleveland ordered the Senate to remove the annexation treaty from consideration, and dispatched James H. Blount, former chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, to the Islands to investigate the situation. Over a period of months, Blount conducted a thorough inquiry: his report was unequivocally critical of the takeover, and recommended that the Queen be restored to her throne.

When Cleveland ordered the provisional government to return power to the Queen, they refused. Unwilling to order the use of force, Cleveland appealed to Congress to demand that the new government cease what he called “lawless occupation…under false pretenses.” But he was unable to stop the tide. He served only one term, and his successor, President McKinley, was an annexationist. In 1898, the same year the U.S. gained control of Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico, the annexation of Hawaii was enacted. Cleveland later wrote, “I am ashamed of the whole affair.”

Ka’iulani, who by then had returned to Hawaii from her long exile abroad, spent the day of annexation quietly, in the somber company of her aunt and other members and friends of the royal family. For most Hawaiians it was a day of mourning. The Hawaiian Gazette reported details of the ceremony held at Iolani Palace where the Hawaiian national anthem was being played “minus the 16 native [musicians] who were excused… all of them so overcome by events that they retired and would not play… before the lowering [of the Hawaiian flag].”

With battle for their people’s independence lost, Ka’iulani and Lili’uokalani turned their efforts toward voting rights for the Hawaiian people. When President McKinley sent a delegation of commissioners to the islands, Ka’iulani invited them to a lavish, grand luau at Ainahau. “She made sure that they were seated between obviously very well-educated Hawaiians who were nothing like what they had been led to believe Hawaiians were like,” Linnea explains. “And once they had actually met Hawaiian people they could no longer pretend that [Hawaiians] did not deserve to vote as much as anyone else.”

In January of 1899, she became ill after riding her horse in a storm, and never fully recovered. She died on March 6, 1899, at the age of 23.

“All of us can’t help but feel the poignancy of what could have been achieved but never was,” Brown says. And yet, what Ka’iulani was able to achieve was significant. “The fact that it took as long as it did for the U.S. to take over the country I think was very much due to Ka’iulani and her ability to sway not only politicians but the public,” says Linnea. “She had a gift for influencing public opinion and for using her personal experience to change the hearts of people who were in power and had the ability to make decisions.”


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