Queen Liliuokalani (1838-1917) was the last sovereign of the Kamehameha dynasty, which had ruled a unified Hawaiian kingdom since 1810. Born Lydia Kamakaeha, she became crown princess in 1877, after the death of her youngest brother made her the heir apparent to her elder brother, King Kalakaua. By the time she took the throne herself in 1891, a new Hawaiian constitution had removed much of the monarchy’s powers in favor of an elite class of businessmen and wealthy landowners (many of them American). When Liliuokalani acted to restore these powers, a U.S. military-backed coup deposed her in 1893 and formed a provisional government; Hawaii was declared a republic in 1894. Liliuokalani signed a formal abdication in 1895 but continued to appeal to U.S. President Grover Cleveland for reinstatement, without success. The United States annexed Hawaii in 1898.
Early Life and Career of Liliuokalani
Born in 1838 in Honolulu, Lydia Kamakaeha was a member of a high-ranking Hawaiian family; her mother, Keohokalole, served as an adviser to King Kamehameha III. Young Lydia was educated by missionaries and toured the Western world, as was customary for young members of the Hawaiian nobility. She spent time in the court of Kamahameha IV and in 1862 married John Owen Dominus, the American-born son of a ship captain, who became an official in the Hawaiian government. Dominus would later serve as governor of Oahu and Maui; the couple would have no children. Lydia’s elder brother, David Kalakaua, was chosen king in 1874. Three years later, when her youngest brother, W.P. Leleiohoku (who had been Kalakaua’s heir apparent), died in 1877, Lydia was named presumptive heir to the throne. As crown princess, she was thereafter known by her royal name, Liliuokalani. In 1881, she acted as Kalakaua’s regent during the king’s world tour, and she also worked to organize schools for Hawaii’s youth.
Liliuokalani’s Ascension to the Throne
In 1887, Crown Princess Liliuokalani and Kalakaua’s wife, Kapiolani, served as Hawaii’s representatives at Queen Victoria’s Crown Jubilee in London, where they were received by the queen herself as well as U.S. President Grover Cleveland. Also in 1887, an elite class of business owners (mainly white) forced Kalakaua to sign the so-called “Bayonet Constitution,” which limited the power of the monarchy in Hawaii. Liliuokalani opposed this constitution, as well as the Reciprocity Treaty, by which Kalakaua had granted commercial privileges to the United States, along with control over Pearl Harbor. This stance lost the future queen the support of foreign businessmen (known as haole) before she even took the throne.
When Kalakaua died in early 1891, Liliuokalani succeeded him, becoming the first woman ever to rule Hawaii. As queen, she acted to implement a new constitution that would restore the powers lost to the monarchy through the Bayonet Constitution. In January 1893, a group of American and European businessmen, with the support of U.S. Minister John Stevens and a contingent of U.S. Marines, staged a coup to depose the queen. Liliuokalani surrendered, with hopes of appealing to President Cleveland to reinstate her.
Hawaii’s Last Sovereign: Liliuokalani
Cleveland offered Liliuokalani reinstatement in return for her granting amnesty to all those who had been involved in the coup. She initially refused, but then acquiesced; in vain, however, as the provisional government formed after the coup (led by Sanford Dole) denied her reinstatement. In July 1894, the government proclaimed the Republic of Hawaii, with Dole as its first president. Early in 1895, after loyalist Robert Wilcox led a failed insurrection aimed at restoring Liliuokalani to the throne, the queen was placed under house arrest and charged with treason. She agreed to sign a formal abdication in late January in exchange for the pardon of the supporters who had led the revolt. (Later, she tried to claim that the abdication was invalid as she had signed her married name, rather than her royal one.)
With no children of her own, Liliuokalani had designated her niece Kaiulani as heir, and in 1896 the two women traveled to Washington together to try and convince Cleveland to restore the Hawaiian monarchy, without success. As leader of the “Stand Firm” (Oni pa’a) movement, Liliuokalani fought steadfastly against U.S. annexation of Hawaii. Though Cleveland was sympathetic, his successor William McKinley was not, and his government annexed Hawaii in July 1898. Kaiulani, in poor health, died in 1899 at the age of 24. Liliuokalani withdrew from public life and lived until 1917, when she suffered a stroke and died at the age of 79.