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Liliʻuokalani, the first and last Queen of Hawaii

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 12/15/2022

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

King David Kalakaua was surrounded. He’d dismissed his cabinet and barricaded himself inside his palace, fearing assassination at every moment. On July 6, 1887, the Honolulu Rifles, a paramilitary group formed and named by King Kalakaua himself, sent him a new constitution to sign into law. This new document transferred power from the monarch to the settlers and hinged the right to vote on wealth and land ownership.


In secret, the Honolulu Rifles had allied with the monarch’s enemies to destabilize the Kingdom of Hawaii. Their numbers were almost entirely made of white settlers from the United States. Trapped and fearful, the king signed what would come to be known as “The Bayonet Constitution.” 

For decades, Hawaii had been a land in turmoil as its indigenous inhabitants fought to forge its future while foreign interests attempted to complicate, entangle, and control. When King Kalakaua died in California on July 9, 1890, the last monarch of Hawaii claimed the throne: His sister, Liliʻuokalani.


Liliʻuokalani was born Lydia Kamakaeha on Sept. 2, 1838, in Honolulu to Hawaiian chiefess Analea Keohokālole and chief Caesar Kapaʻakea. Her lineage was illustrious and storied, as Lydia wrote in her 1898 autobiography, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen. “My father's name was Kapaakea, and my mother was Keohokalole; the latter was one of the fifteen counsellors of the king, Kamehameha III, who in 1840 gave the first written constitution to the Hawaiian people. ... and my great-grandaunt was the celebrated Queen Kapiolani, one of the first converts to Christianity. She plucked the sacred berries from the borders of the volcano, descended to the boiling lava, and there, while singing Christian hymns, threw them into the lake of fire. This was the act which broke forever the power of Pele, the fire-goddess, over the hearts of her people.”


Lydia was not raised by her biological parents. Following common Hawaiian custom, “Immediately after my birth I was wrapped in the finest soft tapa cloth, and taken to the house of another chief, by whom I was adopted,” she wrote. “I knew no other father or mother than my foster-parents.”

“Adoption” is a Western term, and not fully accurate for the Hawaiian hānai, the tradition by which children are given to and raised by other families. These hānai children knew their biological origins and sometimes had close ties with their family of birth. The practice is less common now, but “in pre-contact Hawai‘i, paternal grandparents had an indisputable claim onthe first-born boy, maternal grandparents on the first-born girl,” Kazz Regelman wrote for Maui magazine. “This was a practical arrangement, since hānai was an efficient way for a preliterate society to pass knowledge and culture down the generations.” Lydia noted that it also “cemented the ties of friendship between the chiefs.”


Lydia, along with her siblings and cousins, was baptized into the Protestant faith. The current monarch, King Kamehameha III, proclaimed them eligible for the throne. Lydia received her education at the brand-new Royal School in Honolulu, which had been founded by King Kamehameha III himself to train and educate the children of Hawaiian royalty. The roster of this school is a who’s-who of notable Hawaiian figures.

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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:

“On January 16, 1893, United States troops invaded the Hawaiian Kingdom without just cause, which led to a conditional surrender by the Hawaiian Kingdom’s executive monarch, Her Majesty Queen Lili‘uokalani, the following day. Her conditional surrender read:

‘I, Liliuokalani, by the grace of God and under the constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen, do hereby solemnly protest against any and all acts done against myself and the constitutional Government of the Hawaiian Kingdom by certain persons claiming to have established a provisional government of and for this Kingdom.


‘That I yield to the superior force of the United States of America, whose minister plenipotentiary, His Excellency John L. Stevens, has caused United States troops to be landed at Honolulu and declared that he would support the said provisional government.


‘Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps the loss of life, I do, under this protest, and impelled by said force, 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 representatives and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.’”

In December of 1893, President Grover Cleveland examined the events and determined that the overthrow of the queen was an act of war. He conceded that “a candid and thorough examination of the facts will force the conviction that the provisional government [of Hawaii] owes its existence to an armed invasion by the United States. Fair-minded people with the evidence before them will hardly claim that the Hawaiian Government was overthrown by the people of the islands or that the provisional government had ever existed with their consent.” 


Lili’uokalani valued the president’s efforts. “The Hawaiian people almost worship the name of President Cleveland; for he has tried to do what was right,” she wrote in 1898, “it was only because he was not supported by Congress that his efforts were not successful.” 


In late 1894, an attempt to restore Hawaiian rule failed and Lili’uokalani was placed under arrest and put on trial where she was sentenced to five years hard labor. This was commuted to imprisonment and Lili’uokalani was escorted to Iolani Palace, which had been home to Hawaii’s sovereigns. For Lili’uokalani it would be a prison.


In January 1895, she was pressured to sign her abdication of the throne. “For myself, I would have chosen death rather than to have signed it; but it was represented to me that by my signing this paper all the persons who had been arrested, all my people now in trouble by reason of their love and loyalty towards me, would be immediately released. Think of my position, – sick, a lone woman in prison, scarcely knowing who was my friend, or who listened to my words only to betray me, without legal advice or friendly counsel, and the stream of blood ready to flow unless it was stayed by my pen.”


Lili’uokalani would stay imprisoned until 1896, composing music while she was cut off from the outside world. In Kuʻu Pua I Paoakalani, she wrote of flowers, but this was a coded reference to friends who frequently brought her flowers wrapped in newspapers, so she could stay informed about the political turnings.


The Republic of Hawaii pardoned and released her on Oct. 13, 1896. Lili’uokalani went abroad to stay with sympathetic friends in the United States. All petitions and entreaties to the U.S. government to restore her to Hawaiian rule were defeated or ignored. In August 1898, Hawaii was officially annexed by the United States. Lili’uokalani and many others refused to attend the ceremony in protest.


In her autobiography written that same year, Lili’uokalani had sharp words for those U.S. Americans claiming to speak for and represent Hawaii.

“They are not and never were Hawaiians. Although some have had positions under the monarchy which they solemnly swore by oath of office to uphold and sustain, they retained their American birthrights. When they overthrew my government, and placed themselves under the protectorate established by John L. Stevens, – as he so states in writing, – they designated themselves as Americans; as such they called on him to raise their flag on the building of the Hawaiian Government. When it pleased the Provisional Government to give their control another name, they called it the Republic of Hawaii. To gain the sympathy of the American people, they made the national day of the Independence of the United States their own, and made speeches claiming to be American citizens. Such has been their custom at Honolulu, although in Washington they represent themselves as Hawaiians.”

For more than a decade, Lili’uokalani fought to restore Hawaiian power in Hawaii, including a 1909 lawsuit against the United States that would ultimately fail. “There was no threat by April 1910 that the constitutional monarchy would be restored or that the Queen sought restoration, except perhaps in her heart,” wrote Neil Thomas Proto in The Rights of My People: Lili’uokalani’s Enduring Battle with the United States.


In 1911 she was granted a monthly pension of $1,250 from the Territory of Hawaii. She lived out the rest of her days as a private citizen. “She often wore black when ... she was visible to the public,” Neil wrote. “To some people the dark hue in her clothing was a mournful reflection of the loss of her husband, John. To others, the unadorned black also reflected the loss of Hawaii, not in the inevitability of it but in the unprincipled taking.”


Lili’uokalani died on Nov. 11, 1917, at age 79. At her funeral, a children’s choir performed her most famous composition, Aloha ‘Oe.

Farewell to you, farewell to you
The charming one who dwells in the shaded bowers
One fond embrace,
‘Ere I depart
Until we meet again

In 1993, on the 100-year commemoration of the illegal overthrow of Hawaii and 76 years—nearly her full lifetime after her death—the United States government apologized in Public Law 103-150: Congress “apologizes to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii on January 17, 1893 with the participation of agents and citizens of the United States, and the deprivation of the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination.”


Lili’uokalani’s Kaʻahumanu Society was re-launched in 1905 and endures to this day, providing aide to Honolulu’s sick and elderly. Her music is still performed and cherished on the islands. Queen Lili’uokalani is certainly not forgotten in Hawaii, but she’s less remembered in the continental United States, where her fight for her people’s right to self-determination is perhaps even more crucial to know. 


In the early 2000s, Hawaiian Senator Daniel K. Akaka introduced what would be called the Akaka Bill which argued that Native Hawaiians should be recognized and protected as an indigenous American tribe. Many Native Hawaiians supported the bill; still others objected because the bill could block their ability to establish independence from the United States entirely.


Native Hawaiians increasingly celebrate Lā Kū‘oko‘a, or Hawaiian Independence Day, on Nov. 28. This is the date that France and Britain acknowledged Hawaii as its own nation in 1843. The website Kanaeokana: The Kula Hawai’i Network says, “Though the celebration fell out of much of the public consciousness after the overthrow and ‘annexation’ of Hawaiʻi, recent years have brought renewed attention to the kingdom holiday. Lā Kūʻokoʻa is being celebrated again throughout Hawaiʻi nei, at schools, universities, and in different communities. The next time November 28 rolls around, get out your Hawaiian flag and celebrate our kūʻokoʻa!”




Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen by Queen Lili’uokalani

National Geographic: The Bayonet Constitution

Maui magazine: All in the Family

Smithsonian Magazine: Five Things To Know About Liliʻuokalani, the Last Queen of Hawaiʻi

All Classical Portland, public radio: The Songs of Lili‘uokalani, Queen of Hawai‘i

Wikipedia: Lili’uokalaniKeohokāloleKapaʻakeaRoyal SchoolHonolulu Courthouse riot

The Pacific commercial advertiser: Feb. 14, 1874

Ka Wai Ola o OHA news: Liliʻuokalani Took Decisive Action to Stop the Spread of Smallpox

National Education Association: The Illegal Overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom Government

President Cleveland's message about Hawaii December 18, 1893

The Rights of My People: Liliuokalani's Enduring Battle with the United States By Neil Thomas Proto

Wikisource: Public Law 103-150 (Congress apology) “Akaka Bill”

Kanaeokana: Hawaiian Independence Day

‘Ahahui Ka‘ahumanu (Ka‘ahumanu Society)