The Lioness Project: Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawaii

This lioness was a gifted musician and composer. She was also the last and only Queen of Hawaii, and relinquished her throne to save her people.

“Never cease to act because you fear you may fail.”
—Queen Lili’uokalani

Queen Liliuokalani

Lili’uokalani was born Lydia Kamaka’eha on September 2, 1838, to a high chief in a large grass hut in Honolulu, Oahu. As a close relative of King Kamehameha, she was fostered out to royal relatives, and educated at a boarding school run by western missionaries. She was a gifted musician, and composed numerous songs, including, in 1878, Aloha ‘Oe, her most famous song and a defining cultural symbol for Hawaii.

After her brother Kalākaua became king in 1874, she and her siblings were given the titles of Prince and Princess.  Kalākaua’s reign was troubled, though—the Reciprocity Treaty, signed just a year after his accession to the throne, allowed free trade with the US. But it gave the American businessmen who had settled on the islands in order to to take advantage of the sugar trade more wealth and power, and they became dissatisfied with answering to a king.  Along with a white militia group, they forced the king to sign the Bayonet Constitution, which required the king to have white businessmen in the royal cabinet, and allowed only wealthy, literate men to vote, which excluded the majority of the native Hawaiian population.

After her brother’s death in 1891, Princess Lydia became Queen Lili’uokalani, and she immediately began working to remove the Bayonet Constitution. She drafted a new constitution that would restore voting rights to the native Hawaiians and restore the power of the monarchy. This, along with the newly passed McKinley Tariff which ended free trade, incensed the sugar merchants, and they, along with U.S. Marines that had arrived to protect American interests, overthrew her in January 17, 1893. They created the Republic of Hawaii as a stepping stone to annexation by the US, since statehood would once again provide a preferential trade policy.

Newly elected US President Grover Cleveland discovered that the Marine commander who had supported the overthrow did not get permission from the State department, and offered to restore Queen Lili’uokalani to her throne if she agreed to pardon everyone involved in her overthrow. She refused, and continued to fight.  The US decided to recognize the Republic of Hawaii as a protectorate, but not as a state, and Lili’uokalani organized rallies for those opposed to US Annexation, and was gaining support.  In January of 1895, a counter-revolution was staged in Ohau, but failed, and Lili’uokalani was arrested and sentenced to five years hard labor.  She was told that if she abdicated, her supporters would be released (instead of executed), and her people spared a bloody coup. At long last, she agreed. Her sentence was commuted to house arrest in an upstairs bedroom of the Iolani Palace.

During her imprisonment, though she had no access to musical instruments, she composed music from memory and worked on her memoirs. In October of 1896, the Republic of Hawaii granted her a full pardon and restored her civil rights. The Republic continued to press for annexation by the US, and Lili’uokalani and her supporters continued to protest it, and their petitions were used to prove the strong Hawaiian dissent to the annexation, defeating the proposal in the US Senate. But the outbreak of the Spanish-American War shortly thereafter changed everything, and Hawaii was annexed as part of the Newlands Resolution in 1898. During the monarchy, all land in Hawaii belonged to the crown, and with annexation those lands were claimed by the US government. Lili’uokalani sued the United States, claiming that the lands were seized without due process or recompense.

Though her legal battles to protect her kingdom, Queen Lili’uokalani never stopped trying to help her people. In 1909 she established a trust to provide for Hawaii’s orphaned and destitute children, using the majority of her estate to fund it.

In 1993, Congress formally apologized for the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, admitting that the overthrow was illegal, and expressed “deep regret to the Native Hawaiian people” and support for reconciliation.