On this day in 1891, in Honolulu, bells tolled and cannon fired as Lili’uokalani ascended the throne, succeeding her brother who had died days before. She became the first queen to hold the Hawaiian throne by her own right, not as a “queen consort.” But getting to the throne—and staying there—was not easy.
She was born on 2 September 1838 and raised as a princess in a royal family. She was well-educated, fluent in English, and familiar with the ways of British court life (since the Hawaiian monarchy was closely modeled on the English version). In 1877, her brother, King David Kalakaua, named her Crown Princess, indicating she was his heir to the throne. As such, she was sent by the King to London in 1887, part of a delegation celebrating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. She was to tour Europe after the celebration.
While in London she received disturbing news: her brother had been forced to sign a new constitution transferring power to American, European, and Hawaiian business interests. The Hawaiian monarchy was to become a constitutional monarchy, like the British crown, its power stripped and transferred to a legislature (certain to benefit influential businessmen). The King was forced to accept this new arrangement or face overthrow. The princess cancelled her European tour and returned to the islands right away.
Once on the throne, the Queen tried to abrogate the so-called “Bayonet Constitution,” to no avail. Two years later, when a royalist uprising was suspected, the Queen was tried by a U.S. military tribunal, convicted, and sentenced to five years hard labor. The sentence was commuted to house imprisonment in an upstairs bedroom at ‘Iolani Palace. Here she worked on her memoirs and composed music, including the popular “Aloha Oe” (or “Farewell to Thee”), originally intended as a lovers’ good bye but soon regarded as a lamentation for a country lost.
While the Queen was imprisoned, businessmen (especially sugar plantation interests) pushed for Hawaii’s annexation to the United States. Were Hawaii to become a part of the U.S., its sugar would no longer be subject to import duties when shipped to the Mainland.
On 17 January 1893, the Queen abdicated her throne—in return for the release of a handful of her supporters (who had been convicted and sentenced to death). In a moving account, she describes how she will abdicate the throne in order “to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps loss of life.” She continues: “I do, under this protest, and impelled by said forces, yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representative and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.” She lived another 24 years, mounting unsuccessful legal campaigns to stop (or reverse) Hawaii’s march toward annexation. Interestingly, U.S. President Grover Cleveland commissioned the Blount Report which found that the overthrow of Lili’uokalani had been illegal and that the U.S. minister—as well as the American military troops—had acted inappropriately in their support of those who wished to depose the Queen.
She died on the 11 November 1917 after suffering a stroke. She is buried at the Royal Mausoleum with other members of Hawaii’s former monarchy.
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