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Five Things To Know About Liliuokalani, the Last Queen of Hawaii

The queen, who was deposed by a coup led by American sugar planters, died 100 years ago, but is by no means forgotten

Queen Liliuokalani (Wikimedia Commons)
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November 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Liliuokalani, the last monarch of Hawaii. Her story is inextricably tangled with how the island chain went from a sovereign kingdom to a republic to a U.S. territory and, eventually, a state.

Liliuokalani was born in 1838 as Lydia Kamakaeha. Her family was a high-status Hawaiian clan, and her mother was an advisor to Kamehameha III, who ruled from 1825 to 1862. Before his death, he adopted his nephew, who ruled over Hawaii as Kamehameha V, until 1874 when he died without naming a successor. According to the Hawaiian constitution, the legislature was empowered to elect a new king and establish a new line of succession. Lydia’s brother David Kalākaua was selected and ruled until 1891. 

With his death, Liliuokalani was proclaimed queen, but her reign was short lived. In January 1893, a coup led by Sanford Dole took over the Hawaiian government and pressed the U.S. government to annex the islands. Two years later, after a failed insurrection by Liliuokalani's supporters to return power to Hawaiian royal rule, she was charged with treason and put under house arrest. In a statement, in exchange for a pardon for her and her supporters, she "yield[ed] to the superior force of the United States of America" under protest, pointing out that John L. Stevens, U.S. Minister to Hawaii, who supported the provisional government, had already "caused United States troops to be landed at Honolulu." She continued:

"Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps loss of life, I do, under this protest, and impelled by said forces, yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representative and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands."

In exile, Liliuokalani advocated for a free Hawaii until her death in 1917 at the age of 79.

That barely scratches the surface of her story. On the centennial of her death, here are five details about Liliuokalani's life and legacy you might not know:

She was a gifted songwriter

The queen composed more than 160 songs, or mele, during her life. While many of them are poignant, one in particular, “Aloha Oe (Farewell To Thee),” is a true global classic and synonymous with the Hawaiian Islands. The song was written in 1878, and Matthew DeKneef at Hawai’i Magazine reports it is likely based on a real incident. As the story goes, the queen was touring Oahu when she witnessed a royal officer being given a lei and a goodbye from a Hawaiian girl. A tune came into her head. Whether that was what inspired the song or not, by the time she was done riding for the day the farewell song was finished. Later, the song was reinterpreted as a lament for the loss of her country. Whatever the meaning, it’s a powerful tune and has been covered by everyone from Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwoʻole to Johnny Cash.

She Married an American

John Owen Dominis, the son of sea captain, was raised in Hawaii, and got his education at a school next door to the Royal School, set up for Hawaiian nobility. That's where Dominis met Liliuokalani. The two married in 1862, The marriage, according to Liliuokalani's memoir, was not a happy one. While the couple could not have children, Dominis did father a child with one of Liliuokalani’s servants in 1883. Liliuokalani eventually adopted that child, who became known as John ʻAimoku Dominis, in 1910. She also adopted two children through the Hawaiian custom of hanai, Lydia Kaonohiponiponiokalani Aholo in 1878 and Joseph Kaipo Aea in 1882.

Dominis died in 1891, several months into his wife’s reign.

Liliuokalani Was Deposed Through a U.S.-Backed Coup

As American sugar and pineapple business interests grew on the Hawaiian islands, American settlers and businessmen wanted more control over the kingdom. In 1887, when David Kalakaua still reigned, he was forced to sign a new constitution by an armed militia controlled by the Hawaiian League, a group of lawyers and businessmen. That constitution called the “Bayonet Constitution” transferred much of the monarchy’s power to the legislature, which was elected with voting restrictions favoring non-Hawaiians. When Liliuokalani ascended to the throne, she refused to honor the 1887 constitution and proposed a constitution giving more power back to the monarchy. That was too much for Dole and the Americans. In January 1893, a “Committee of Safety” gathered near the queen’s Iolani palace. Stevens ordered 300 marines from the U.S.S. Boston to protect the committee, giving the U.S. government’s unofficial stamp of approval to the coup. To avoid bloodshed, Liliuokalani surrendered to the militia.

The U.S. Staged a Faux Invasion of Hawaii

Soon after the coup, Grover Cleveland, an anti-imperialist, became president of the United States. He supported the restoration of the queen and was opposed to an annexation bill moving through Congress. He ordered a report on the overthrow, popularly called the Blount Report, and tried to start negotiations to put the queen back on the throne. Those negotiations fell through. To press the matter, the U.S. warships Corwin, Adams and Philadelphia steamed to Hawaii, aiming guns at Honolulu. Tensions rose as marines made preparations for a landing on the decks of the ships in public view, resulting in the so-called “The Black Week.” But the landing was just a bluff. Instead of continuing the push for annexation by the U.S., the coup leaders established the Republic of Hawaii with Dole as its president. They waited out the Cleveland administration, and in 1898, under William McKinley, the U.S. officially annexed Hawaii when the Spanish American War convinced Congress of the utility of having a Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Hawaii's Royal Descendants Continue to Make a Bid for the Hawaiian Throne

The descendants of Hawaii’s monarchy still claim sovereignty over the islands, and some groups, including the Hawaiian Kingdom Government, want the U.S. to return the islands to its native inhabitants. Since the death of Liliuokalani, several people have claimed the Hawaiian throne. One group claims the current rightful heir is Owana Ka'ohelelani La'anui Salazar, a musician and activist, who is a direct descendant to Keoua Nui, father of Kamehameha the Great. Mahealani Kahau, another royal descendant, has also made a claim. Whoever the rightful monarch is, some Native Hawaiians have increased the call for native sovereignty in recent years.

Just last week a group of interested Hawaiians began drafting a new constitution. And it might happen. In 2016, the Interior Department passed a rule allowing native Hawaiians to vote on establishing an indigenous government, similar to the way Native Americans on the mainland have established sovereign nations.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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