Clip | Unladylike2020: Unsung Women Who Changed America - Queen Lili‘uokalani – The First and Last Queen of Hawai‘i

Queen Lili‘uokalani (1838-1917), born in Honolulu and the daughter of a high chief and chieftess, was the first sovereign queen, and the last monarch of Hawai‘i. She assumed the throne in 1891, following the sudden death of her brother King David Kalakaua, but her reign was short-lived. Lili‘uokalani dedicated much of her reign to restoring native Hawaiian rights, but a group of American plantation and business owners, backed by the U.S. military, staged a coup to overthrow her in 1893. After a failed insurrection by her supporters in 1895, she was charged with treason and put under house arrest in her palace. When Hawai‘i was annexed by the United States in 1898, Lili‘uokalani declined the offer to watch the annexation ceremonies, as she could not bear to see the Hawaiian flag lowered and the Stars and Stripes put in its place. For the rest of her life, she fought to preserve native Hawaiian rights and traditions. A talented songwriter and musician, she composed over 150 songs, including Aloha ‘Oe, a national anthem of Hawai‘i. She also helped raise funds for the Queen’s Hospital, and established a bank for women, a fund for the education of native Hawaiian girls, as well as The Queen Lili‘uokalani Trust to support Hawaiian orphans, which is still thriving today.

Interviewees: Julia Flynn Siler, author of Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s Imperial Adventure; and native Hawaiian artist, activist, and educator Meleanna Meyer.

Transcript Print

She was the first and the only woman to rule as the Queen of the Kingdom of Hawai.

This was the first time that America took over a sovereign nation.

1895, Honolulu, Hawai.

After her overthrow by American businessmen, Queen Liliokalani was arrested by the provisional U.S.- led government and placed under house arrest.

Liliokalani was marched from her private residence to Lolani Palace, where she was locked in a bedroom suite and kept captive for months.

To occupy herself, she stitched a quilt telling her life story, composed hymns.

'That first night of my imprisonment was the longest night I had ever passed in my life.

It seemed as though the dawn of day would never come.

I am imprisoned in this room for the attempt of the Hawaiian people to regain what had been wrested from them.'. The queen was born Lydia Lili Kamaka'eha in 1838, at the base of an extinct volcano near Honolulu, to a family of high chiefs and advisors to the king.

Following Hawaiian tradition, she was raised by parents of higher rank than her own.

'Immediately after my birth, I was taken to the house of another chief, by whom I was adopted.

It is not easy to explain to those alien to our national life, but it seems perfectly natural to us.'. Liliokalani became part of the Royal Court of King Kamehameha the Fourth, who ruled the eight-island kingdom of Hawai for a decade - a constitutional monarchy modeled after the British system.

It was a very, very strategically important point to the British, to the Americans, and to the Japanese.

And there was quite a bit of wrangling in the 19th century over what countries should have control over the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Baptized as a Christian from age four, Liliokalani was educated at an English language school for children of the Royal Court, run by American missionaries.

The first American missionaries arrived in Hawai in 1820.

And their sons and grandsons went into the sugarcane business, buying up land to establish plantations.

And there was active suppression of the speaking and teaching of the Hawaiian language.

Liliokalani showed musical talent early on.

She had perfect pitch and played numerous instruments.

In the late 1860s, she composed music that would be adopted as the national hymn of the sovereign Nation of Hawai.

Later on, she would write 'Aloha e,' which is still to this day probably the best known Hawaiian song.

'To compose was as natural to me as to breathe.

My ancestors were particularly gifted as lovers of poetry and music.

And yet there are few, if any, written compositions of the music of Hawaii, except those published by me.'. Music was her consolation, and it was her opportunity to speak directly to her people.

My name is Meleanna Aluli Meyer.

I'm an artist, educator, and student of all things Hawaiian.

My great grand aunt was a lady in waiting, a confidant of the queen.

I lead groups of youth and artists in examining not only history, but their creative, visual voice.

Native Hawaiians and others in the community respond to these murals in a very profound way because we're actually making visible aspects of pain and sorrow and loss, to help people understand our legacy.

Our murals depict who we are.

In her twenties, Liliokalani went door to door to raise money to build Hawai's first hospital.

Queen's Hospital opened in 1860 to combat diseases brought by foreigners, such as smallpox and influenza, which had decimated almost 85% of the native Hawaiian population in 50 years.

In 1862, Liliokalani married John Dominis, a white American raised in Honolulu and a commander in the Royal Court.

She later turned her attention to philanthropy, founding a bank for women and setting up a fund to support the education of Hawaiian girls.

After her younger brother, David Kalakaua, became Hawai's king, he made her heir apparent in 1877.

But the white business-class ended up gaining much of the economic power in the islands, not only the plantations, but also the churches, the schools, and many other cultural institutions.

More unsettlingly, Liliokalani started to realize that her brother's cabinet was filled with very corrupt businessmen.

In 1887, white businessmen forced her brother, the king, to sign a new constitution that weakened the monarchy and removed the right of native Hawaiians to vote, unless they were landowners.

It became known as the 'Bayonet Constitution.'. 'Having matured their plans in secret, the men of foreign birth rose one day en masse, and forced the king to sign a constitution, which practically took away the franchise from the Hawaiian race.'. When her brother died suddenly in 1891, Liliokalani assumed the throne, becoming the first and only sovereign queen of Hawai.

With support from the majority of native Hawaiians, she attempted to overturn the Bayonet Constitution.

The constitution she was putting forward was one that would have restored voting rights to native Hawaiians and would have increased her powers as a constitutional monarch.

But the white businessmen and politicians were already plotting her overthrow.

Queen Liliokalani became the target of what can only be described as a vicious smear campaign against her in the U.S.

press.

The San Francisco Examiner described her as a 'black pagan queen who wanted nothing short of absolute monarchy.'. 'A trap was sprung upon me by those who stood waiting, as a wild beast watches for his prey.'. January of 1893, a battalion of U.S. Marines marched through downtown Honolulu.

They had a cannon and machine guns.

Within 48 hours, the Kingdom of Hawai'i had been overthrown and a provisional government led by U.S. businessman was in charge.

It was essentially a bloodless coup.

Queen Liliokalani traveled to the U.S. to appeal to the president and Congress to restore her to the throne.

It would be very, very unusual for a woman of color to demand a meeting with not only the president, but many other people in Washington at the time.

And so while she might have presented as a demure woman in Victorian-era modest clothing, she also contained within her the fierceness of the native Hawaiian goddess.

'I would undertake anything for the benefit of my people.

It is for them that I would give my last drop of blood.'. President Grover Cleveland agreed the queen should be reinstated, but Congress rejected that recommendation.

And on July 4th, 1894, American businessman Sanford Dole, whose family soon found Dole Food Company, declared himself Hawai's Ppresident and placed the queen under house arrest for eight months.

The overthrow caused trauma, not only of a political sort, but a spiritual and an ethical sort, because we sought to bring our queen back and reinstate her through laws and policies that we counted on.

We even had a petition of over 37,000 signatures.

So it's like being left with nothing except a shell of who we were.

So it's taken a long time to rebuild.

Liliokalani is the reason we all do the work we do.

And there are many of us everywhere - in education, in health, in advocacy for land.

We are doing the work of the queen today, bringing the culture back, so that Hawaiians can thrive.

Liliokalani was released in 1895.

She spent the rest of her life advocating for native Hawaiian rights and culture.

In 1909, she sued the U.S. government to return the 1.75 million acres of Hawaiian royal lands it had seized, but it was unsuccessful.

She passed in 1917, giving all of her monies to the children of Hawai.

You've got Gandhi, Mandela, King, all of these leaders, but before all of them, you had a woman in the far-flung Pacific, who is a leader for all, in terms of peace, social justice, and righteous action for her people.

Hawai'i became the 50th state in 1959.

In 1993, the U.S. Congress issued an apology acknowledging that the overthrow of Queen Liliokalani had been illegal.

'Never cease to act because you fear you may fail.

The true secret is to know your own worth.

It will carry you through many dangers.'