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Native History: Queen Lili‘uokalani Becomes Last Monarch of Hawaiian Islands

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This Date in Native History: On January 29, 1891, Queen Lili‘uokalani became the last monarch of the Hawaiian Islands. She was overthrown less than two years later, ushering in a new era for the islands and forever changing life for Native Hawaiians.

Lili‘uokalani was in her mid-50s when she succeeded her older brother, King David Kal?kaua, who died during a journey to San Francisco. By Hawaiian law, a king or queen had to name a successor prior to death or the legislature would elect a new leader, said DeSoto Brown, a historian at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

“King Kal?kaua was indulged, wealthy,” Brown said. “He ate and drank a lot and lived a royal existence. As a result of that, he was in poor health by age 50.”

Hula Preservation Society

King David Kalakaua

Because there was no telegraph service from San Francisco in 1891, there was no way to send word to Hawaii that the king was dead, Brown said.

“When his ship returned on its regular day, it was discovered that he was dead and that his body was aboard the ship,” he said. “At that point, very abruptly and unexpectedly, his sister became queen.”

The monarchy was relatively new for Hawaii, where Polynesians first settled about 1,000 years ago, Brown said. Life on the archipelago was altered drastically when Europeans landed in 1778, bringing deadly diseases and a new way of government. Prior to European settlement, the islands that make up Hawaii were ruled by individual leaders, Brown said.

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“It was just a Native enclave, then regular foreigners were coming and going and Hawaii became important politically and economically,” he said. “In the early 1800s, a king became the first ruler of the Hawaiian Islands, then there was a series of monarchs who were rulers over the islands.”

Lili‘uokalani, born in 1838 in Honolulu, was raised by foster parents, she wrote in her autobiography.

“Immediately after my birth I was wrapped in the finest soft tapa cloth and taken to the house of another chief,” she wrote. “I knew no other father or mother than my foster parents.”

At age 4, Lili‘uokalani was sent to a boarding school known as Royal School “because its pupils were exclusively persons whose claims to the throne were acknowledged,” she wrote. She called herself a “studious girl” with a passion for knowledge.

Kaua’i Historical Society archive photo

Queen Lili‘uokalani was the last reigning monarch of Hawai‘i.

According to Brown, the queen’s early life was not uncommon for the time. Starting in the 1830s, royal children were educated in the ways of the foreigners. Both Kal?kaua and Lili‘uokalani learned to speak and read English and became adept in many other subjects.

Kal?kaua, elected to the office of king in 1874, served during a troubling time. Americans—specifically, wealthy white sugar growers—were becoming increasing dictatorial and pushed the king to modify the constitution, stripping him of much of his power, Brown said.

When Lili‘uokalani became queen, she refused to acknowledge the new constitution and replaced it with a document that restored the traditional Hawaiian model of government. Less than two years later, on January 17, 1893, a revolutionary group with support from the United States overthrew Lili‘uokalani, marking the end of monarchy in Hawaii.

Four boatloads of United States Marines armed with rapid-fire guns arrived in Honolulu that day, and 162 troops marched through the streets to the palace. Lili‘uokalani surrendered at gunpoint.

“When it happened the Hawaiian population was angry and depressed,” Brown said. “Until 1898 there were attempts to get her back on the throne.”

Those attempts ended when the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898. Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959.

Although her reign was short, Lili‘uokalani became a symbol to Native Hawaiians, Brown said. Her legacy continues to spark discussions about Hawaiian identity and the role history plays in contemporary affairs.

“She became more of a living symbol of the last of sovereignty,” Brown said. “She remains a symbol of the overthrow, of the loss of sovereignty, of the injustice of what happened.”

Lili‘uokalani also is known for composing many Hawaiian songs, including the popular song “Aloha O’e,” which means “Farewell to Thee.” She spent much of her later life in the United States, but died in Honolulu in 1917.