It was during these school days that Lydia’s love of music and composition began. “I scarcely remember the days when it would not have been possible for me to write either the words or the music for any occasion on which poetry or song was needed,” she recalled. “To compose was as natural to me as to breathe.”
In 1862, at age 24, Lydia married John O. Dominis, son of a seafaring, Croatian-born captain who immigrated with his family to the United States—and eventually, Hawaii. John attended a school for white students near the Royal School. Of their youth, Lydia wrote, “…their lot was separated from ours by a high fence of adobe, or sun-baked brick. The boys used to climb the fence on their side for the purpose of looking at the royal children, and amongst these curious urchins was John O. Dominis.”
Happiness for the couple, however much there had been, was fleeting. John’s mother lived with the newlyweds and “she felt that no one should step between her and her child,” Lydia said, “naturally I, as her son's wife, was considered an intruder.” When conflicts arose between the women, John favored his mother. He also had frequent extra-marital affairs, one of which resulted in a son. Throughout the years, Lydia would have no children of her own, but she took three hānai children into their home, against her husband’s wishes: Lydia Kaʻonohiponiponiokalani Aholo, Joseph Kaiponohea ʻAeʻa, and John ʻAimoku Dominis, the child of her husband’s affair with her servant.
Despite the discord in their home, the couple enjoyed comfortable lives as members of the royal court. Lydia supported King Kamehameha IV and his wife Queen Emma in raising funds for the Queen’s Hospital (so called because of Emma’s deep interest in it). She joined Princess Victoria Kamāmalu in founding the Kaʻahumanu Society, a civic organization that provided aide to the ailing and elderly of Honolulu.
In 1866, King Kamehameha V “brought to my notice the fact that the Hawaiian people had no national air,” Lydia recalled in her autobiography. “Each nation, he said, but ours had its statement of patriotism and love of country in its own music; but we were using for that purpose on state occasions the time-honored British anthem, ‘God save the Queen.’” Within a week Lydia had composed for her people the “Hawaiian National Anthem.”
Bless O Lord our country's chiefs
Grant them wisdom so to live
That our people may be saved
And to You the glory give
Watch over us day by day
When King Kamehameha V died in 1872 with no declared heir, the Hawaiian legislature looked to an 1864 constitution which called for an election. King Kamehameha V’s successor was Hawaii’s first elected king, but he died just two years later, leaving the government again in the election cycle for a leader. Lydia's brother David ran against the immensely popular Queen Emma, but the ultimate decision remained in the hands of the legislature.
“The legislature assembled in the old court-house, now the merchandise warerooms of Hackfeld & Co., the shipping merchants,” Lydia wrote. On Feb. 12, 1874, David was declared the winner.
“The Court House in the Hands of a Mob,” declared the headlines in The Pacific on Feb. 14. “[T]hey Demand a Reversion of the Vote of the Assembly, and that Emma be made Queen—Destruction of Property and Murderous Attack on Representatives.” Roughly 100 supporters of Queen Emma assaulted the legislative members as they tried to leave, driving many back into the building. “Whenever one of these [representatives] was seen at an upper window, fists and sticks would be shaken at him, and the shout went up, ‘Look out for yourself!’ while the eyes of upturned faces glared with demoniacal fury.” The paper also noted, in parentheses, “It is proper to state just here, that through the riot, the native police were of little or no use.”
Indeed, many of the native police officers deserted, or began to fight with or against the mob depending on their own political leanings. Without a standing military or a reliable militia force, those seeking to quell the mob had few resources. So, they looked to the harbor, where two United States sloops-of-war laid anchored.
“In a few minutes thereafter a squad of marines and sailors from the U.S.S. Tuscarora and Portsmouth, and shortly after their arrival, a similar squad from H.B.M.S. Tenedos, landed and marched up to the Court House and took possession of the buildings and grounds,” reported The Pacific. “Some of the rioters, who were actively engaged in the work of destruction in the building, no sooner caught sight of the armed force than they dropped their clubs and mingled with the crowd, which soon after gradually dispersed.”
Of that riot Lydia said, “Many men were sent to the hospital for treatment of their broken heads or bruised bodies. But this was not an expression of the Hawaiian people; it was merely the madness of a mob incited by disappointed partisans whom the representatives of the people had rebuked.” Regardless of the motive, however, a door had been opened that would be difficult to shut: the United States had determined an area of weakness within the Hawaiian ruling body.
Unlike the regents before him, David established an heir. On April 10, 1877, soon after the death of his first established heir, David named his sister Lydia his successor. It was at this time that Lydia officially took the name Liliʻuokalani. When her brother traveled, she ruled in his stead. In 1881, while David was abroad on a world tour, the first cases of smallpox emerged among the residents of Honolulu. As acting regent, Princess Lili’uokalani had an epidemic at her doorstep.
“A strict quarantine of all persons infected or under suspicion was maintained,” she wrote, “and so scrupulously and energetically were these regulations enforced, that when they were relaxed and quarantine raised, it was found that no case had been reported outside the place of its first appearance. But it was a serious thing to confine its ravages to the city of Honolulu, in which there were some eight hundred cases and about three hundred deaths.”
Her actions were re-examined and praised during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Make no mistake – Liliʻuokalani would have had to endure the critics. Her shutdown of communication and travel between islands would have surely angered the business community,” wrote Puanani Fernandez-Akamine for Ka Wai Ola news in 2021. But “[h]er quick and decisive action kept the smallpox epidemic from spreading beyond Honolulu and, with the vantage point of history, it is clear that her decision spared many lives and much sorrow. “
As princess, Liliʻuokalani demonstrated a philanthropic spirit. She used her influence to create better systems of support and treatment for leprosy patients, founded organizations to help women accumulate and manage their own wealth, and took special interest in the proper education of girls. In April 1887, King David sent his sister to London to represent Hawaii at the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, celebrating the monarch’s 50 years of rule.
In June 1887, Liliʻuokalani appeared amid the fanfare of London. She shared many fond details of her months in Europe in her autobiography. As princess of Hawaii, she was treated with the dignities and honors bestowed upon all the royal guests. “Entertainment after entertainment followed in an endless variety, and on too grand a scale to think of enumerating them all, or even of mentioning the many ways in which the royal family of England showed its hospitality towards us.”
As a gift for the queen, Liliʻuokalani composed a song titled “The Queen’s Jubilee.” Emma Riggle for All Classical Portlandnoted, “Its lyrics, saluting Victoria as a fellow monarch, ring poignantly in hindsight.”
In this your year of Jubilee
Now kings, queens and princes great
Have all assembled here today
To pay due homage and reverent love
Hawaii joins with loyal fervor
But their luxurious tour was soon cut short. “Returning to our hotel, we received news which changed at once the current of our thoughts. This was of the revolutionary movement, inaugurated by those of foreign blood, or American birth, in the Hawaiian Islands during our absence.”
The Honolulu Rifles had surrounded King David Kalakaua in his palace, demanding he sign a new constitution.
Liliʻuokalani and her party returned home at once. “We arrived in Honolulu on the twenty-sixth day of July, 1887. A conspiracy against the peace of the Hawaiian Kingdom had been taking shape since early spring. By the 15th of June, prior to our return, it had assumed a no less definite shape than the overthrow of the monarchy.” Back in Hawaii, she was approached by members of the challenging party, whom she calls the “missionary party.” They wanted her to take the throne in David’s place and to become, essentially, their puppet monarch. She refused.
David never regained full power and died within three years’ time. According to his sister, “it has well been said by those conversant with the history of these days, that His Majesty Kalakaua died in reality of a broken heart—broken by the base ingratitude of the very persons whose fortunes he had made.”
On Jan. 29, 1891, Liliʻuokalani took the oath of office and became the first queen of Hawaii. The funeral rites for her brother took precedence over any celebration. Her first order of business was to ask the existing cabinet members—those who had usurped her brother so violently—to step down. They refused.
In August, her husband John died after a long period of declining health, leaving his position as Governor of O’ahu unfilled and the new regent swaddled twice with grief. “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,” she wrote. “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.”
The queen received petitions from all over the country, demanding a replacement for “The Bayonet Constitution.” Liliʻuokalani’s intent to restore power to the Hawaiian monarchy and Native Hawaiians was immediately met with resistance from U.S. American businessmen who owned sugar plantations on the islands. These businessmen called themselves the “Committee of Safety” and surrounded the royal residence, threatening Liliʻuokalani as they had threatened her brother. The United States minister to Hawaii, John L. Stevens, supported the committee—with marines.
As the National Education Association reports: