Resource

Life Story: Queen Lili'uokalani (1838–1917)

Monarch, Composer, and Advocate

The story of the last ruler of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, who fought for her people during the American takeover of her country.

Queen Lili’uokalani

Liliuokalani, the last sovereign of the Kamehameha dynasty that ruled the Hawaiian kingdom, ca. 1891. Library of Congress.

Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamakaʻeha was born on September 2, 1838, in Honolulu on the island of O’ahu. Her parents were Analea Keohokālole and Caesar Kapaʻakea. They gave her the Christian name Lydia at her baptism.

Lydia was born into a noble Hawaiian family. Growing up, she spent time with the royal family and other leaders. Lydia was raised by another noble family, her foster parents, Kania and Paki, and their daughter, Bernice. Her birth parents had ten children, most of whom were raised by other families of chiefs. This was a common custom in elite families in Hawaiian culture. The practice helped establish strong bonds between different high-ranking families. The children in these arrangements were referred to as hānai children.

At the age of four, Lydia started her formal education at the Royal School. This was a boarding school for children of the noble families of Hawai’i. Her native language was Hawaiian, but in school, she was taught in English. Lydia did not have good memories of boarding school. The teachers expected students to act and speak like white Americans. At times, they punished students by sending them to bed hungry, and the students would have to search for food in the kitchens or on the plantations near the school.

There was a major outbreak of measles in Hawai’i when Lydia was 10 years old. In 1848, merchants and missionaries first brought the disease to the islands. Around 10,000 people died, or a quarter of the population. Most of the victims were native Hawaiians. Because Hawai’i had been relatively isolated from the rest of the world, Hawaiians were more susceptible to the disease. The school closed after the epidemic. Lydia later attended a day school where she was much happier.

On September 16, 1862, Lydia married the American John Owen Dominis. John worked for the Hawaiian government. She moved in with him and his mother.

Lydia was a talented composer and wrote over 150 songs. Most of her songs celebrated Hawaiian history and culture. Her most famous composition was “Aloha ‘Oe.” She initially wrote it as a love song, but it eventually became a farewell song to Hawai’i.

In 1874, her brother Kalākaua became the new king of Hawai’i. He appointed their brother William Pitt Leleiohoku as the heir apparent. When Leleiohoku died three years later, Kalākaua appointed Lydia as the next heir to the throne. To mark her new role in the monarchy, she took on the name Lili’uokalani. Lili’u was her given Hawaiian name and okalani means “of the heavens.”

In her new role, Lili’uokalani represented the Kingdom of Hawai’i internationally. In 1887, Queen Victoria of Great Britain invited Hawaiian royals to attend the grand celebration of her fiftieth anniversary on the throne. This was known as the Queen’s Jubilee. Kalākaua sent his wife, Lili’uokalani, and Lili’uokalani’s husband, John, to London. During their journey, the group stopped in Washington, D.C. to meet with President Grover Cleveland at the White House.

The Kingdom of Hawai’i and the United States had strong trade relations. Treaties between the two nations allowed Hawai’i to export sugar to the United States without paying tariffs. In exchange, Hawai’i allowed the Americans to build a naval base at Pearl Harbor. Most sugar plantations in Hawai’i were owned by Americans. The people who worked on these plantations were mostly native Hawaiians and immigrants from China, Japan, and the Philippines.

“The cause of Hawaiian independence is larger and dearer than the life of any man connected with it.”

The power of American plantation owners and businessmen grew during the late 1800s. In 1887, they forced King Kalākaua to adopt a legal agreement that limited the powers of the king and his government. It also severely limited the voting rights of native Hawaiians. Lili’uokalani called it the Bayonet Constitution because her brother had been forced to sign it. She was still in London for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee when she heard about it and immediately returned to Hawai’i.

Kalākaua died in 1891, and Lili’uokalani became the first queen of Hawai’i on January 29 of that year. Tragically, John died seven months later.

Queen Lili’uokalani badly wanted to reverse the Bayonet Constitution. On January 14, 1893, she announced plans to change the constitution to give power back to the Hawaiian government and people. American plantation owners and businessmen requested help from the U.S. Marine Corps. Within days of the Queen’s announcement, the Americans led a coup to overthrow Queen Lili’uokalani and the Hawaiian government. They then established a new provisional government.

The U.S. government planned to take over control of Hawai’i. President Benjamin Harrison signed the annexation papers on February 14, 1893. He sent the treaty to the Senate for confirmation the next day. Harrison’s term as president ended a few weeks later. The next president, Grover Cleveland, investigated the coup further and decided to withdraw the proposed treaty. Despite the president’s and the federal government’s support of Lili’uokalani, the new provisional government ignored Cleveland and claimed that he did not have the power to decide to restore the Hawaiian monarchy.

The new government imprisoned Queen Lili’uokalani and six of her supporters in 1895 on charges of treason. They claimed she was involved in an attempt to take back power, but this was never proven. Queen Lili’uokalani agreed to formally step down on January 24, 1895. In exchange, the other prisoners who were charged in the conspiracy were pardoned. Queen Lili’uokalani remained in prison.

She spent eight months in prison at ‘Iolani Palace. While in prison, she translated the traditional Hawaiian chant “Kumulipo” into English. “Kumulipo” tells the story of the creation of Hawai’i. She wanted to make sure her culture would be preserved. In 1898, she published Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, a book about the history of her life and her country.

Lili’uokalani was released and given a full pardon. She traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Cleveland to discuss the sovereignty of her nation and people. However, the next president, William McKinley, annexed Hawai’i in 1898.

Shortly after the annexation, many loyal Hawaiians visited Lili’uokalani to honor her 60th birthday. The native Hawaiian population remained loyal to their queen, and she remained loyal to them. On her 73rd birthday, she donated a piece of property to the people of Hawai’i, which is now known as the Lili’uokalani Garden.

Lili’uokalani died on November 11, 1917, of a stroke. The people of Hawai’i gave her a royal funeral.

Hawai’i became the 50th state in the union in 1959. Exactly one hundred years after the coup, the American government adopted a resolution in 1993 that officially apologized for the overthrow of the Hawaiian government.

Vocabulary

  • annexation: When one country takes control of another country.
  • baptism: Christian ceremony during which someone, usually a child, becomes an official member of the Christian church.
  • bayonet: Weapon, with a long blade that can be attached to a rifle.
  • coup: Illegal takeover of a government.
  • hānai: A Hawaiian word that often translates to “adoption.” It also refers to a cultural tradition of parents allowing older family members to raise their children.
  • heir apparent: Person who is next in line to the throne.
  • measles: A highly contagious and deadly disease that causes fever and a skin rash.
  • provisional: Temporary.
  • susceptible: Likely to be harmed by something.
  • tariffs: Government tax on imported goods.

Discussion Questions

  • How do you think Lili’uokalani’s family and childhood shaped the rest of her life?
  • How did Lili’uokalani support the Hawaiian people before and during her reign?
  • What led to the end of the Kingdom of Hawai’i? How did the American government take control of the country?
  • What does the end of Lili’uokalani’s reign say about American imperialism?
  • How did Queen Lili’uokalani keep Hawaiian history and culture alive?

Suggested Activities

  • Listen to some of Lili’uokalani’s songs and analyze the lyrics. A sample lesson by the National Parks Service can be found here.
  • The United States took over the Kingdom of Hawai’i during the same year as the Spanish-American War. Combine this life story with resources about Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the life story of Emilia Casanova de Villaverde. What are the similarities between the takeover of Hawai’i and the Spanish-American War?
  • Pair this life story with the life story of María Ruiz de Burton. How did these two women use their talents as artists to criticize American imperialism?
  • Read the life story of Mary Kawena Pukui, another Hawaiian woman who fought to preserve her heritage. How did both women protect Hawaiian culture?
  • Lili’uokalani was an artist in addition to a ruler. Explore female artists by combining this life story with paintings by Mary Cassatt, and the life stories of Edith Wharton, María Ruiz de Burton, and Edmonia Lewis.
  • For a broader lesson on the effects of American expansion and imperialism on Indigenous communities, combine this life story with a speech against relocation, photographs of the Carlisle Indian School, a