Hawaii's Last Queen
On January 16, 1893, four boatloads of United States Marines armed with Gatling guns and hundreds of
rounds of ammunition came ashore in Honolulu, capital of the independent Kingdom of Hawaii. As the
Royal Hawaiian band played a concert at the Hawaiian Hotel, 162 troops marched through the streets of
Honolulu, heading for the palace. The Queen of Hawaii, Lili'uokalani, looked down from her balcony as
the troops took up their positions.
The following day, she surrendered at gunpoint, yielding her throne to the government of the United
States. A provisional government led by wealthy white sugar growers assumed control of Hawaii and
petitioned the US for annexation.
Born in 1838, Lili'uokalani was trained by missionaries in Western academic
disciplines and the ways of polite American society. She was well-travelled and
even attended Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887. Yet she never forgot her
native language, was fiercely proud of Hawaiian traditions and was always loyal
to her people. A talented composer, Lili'uokalani wrote more than 165 songs,
including "Aloha Oe," probably the most widely recognized Hawaiian song.
In 1881 her brother, King Kalakaua, went on an extended journey around the world, leaving the
43-year-old Princess in charge. Although she had no experience governing, she soon had the chance to
display her mettle when an epidemic of smallpox erupted, killing many Hawaiians. The source of the
disease was Chinese laborers, brought by ship to work in Hawaii's sugar cane fields, the island's
economic mainstay. To protect the Hawaiians, Lili'uokalani immediately closed the port, an act that
infuriated the wealthy sugar growers.
"The outpouring of protest by the business community was tremendous," says historical researcher Glen
Grant. "But she stood her ground. I think she clearly demonstrated that the welfare of her people was
far more important than the profits for the business community."
Following her succession to the throne after her brother's death in 1891,
Lili'uokalani would work secretly to frame a new constitution that would restore
power to native Hawaiians. But two months into her reign, the US government
effectively revoked Hawaii's favored position on the American sugar market and
Lili'uokalani's kingdom was on the brink of economic collapse. The sugar growers
were convinced there was only one way to survive-annexation to the United Sates.
The clash of interests that ensued drew plantation owners, native Hawaiians, the US government, and
the Queen's cabinet into the fray. Eventually, Lili'uokalani would lose her throne and the Hawaiian
people would lose their kingdom. Hawaii was recognized as part of the United States in 1898 by
President William McKinley.
Hawaii's Last Queen was written and produced by Vivian Ducat.
Editor: Susan Fanshel
Narrrator: Anna Deavere Smith
Cinematography: Robert Hanna
Original Music: Brian Keane
For THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
Executive producer: Margaret Drain. Series host: David McCullough.