Liliuokalani: Hawaii's Last Queen (Teach It!)

A woman sitting on a throne
Queen Liliuokalani in 1900. Courtesy Hawaii State Archives (call no. PP-98-13-019).

Introduction

"Women's History to Teach Year-Round" provides manageable, interesting lessons that showcase women’s stories behind important historic sites. In this lesson, students explore the life of Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani and her tireless advocacy for Hawaiian sovereignty from Iolani Palace in Honolulu, Hawaii. This lesson is adapted from the Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan, “Iolani Palace: A Hawaiian Place of History, Power, and Prestige.

Background

Native Hawaiians are part of the Polynesian people who live throughout the South Pacific region. The first Hawaiians arrived more than one thousand years ago, travelling extremely long distances in canoes from either Tahiti or the Marquesas Islands. Traditionally, Hawaiians were governed by patchwork of localized governments. King Kamehameha I later united the smaller Hawaiian Islands under a single government, creating the Hawaiian monarchy.

The first Europeans on record arrived in 1778. As white Christian businessmen and missionaries established permanent residences on the islands, contact between Hawaiians and foreigners became more frequent. Colonizers introducted deadly diseases like smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis, resulting in devestatingly high death tolls among the Hawaiian people. As increasing numbers of Europeans and Americans reached Hawaii, their governments became interested in profiting on Hawaii’s natural resources.

Exterior of a large building
Hawaiian leaders in the 1800s attempted to balance Hawaiian culture with increasingly strong European and American influences. King Kalākaua rebuilt the royal Iolani Palace to contain both European and Hawaiian features. Courtesy Farragutful, WikiMedia Commons.

Reading

Liliuokalani was born in 1838, the daughter of a powerful Hawaiian family. In her youth, she socialized with the royal family and other influential Hawaiians. Since childhood, Liliuokalani was a talented musician and composer. “To compose was as natural to me as to breathe,” she later wrote.1

In Liluokalani’s early life, foreign businessmen from Europe and the United States were strengthening their hold on Hawaii. In the mid-1800s, the Monarchy established private land ownership and allowed foreign citizens to own land. These developments attracted foreign businessmen, who formed large sugar plantations, mills, and shipping companies. Chinese and Japanese migrant laborers worked on the plantations. By the late 1800s, foreign landowners, primarily from the United States, had acquired large portions of Hawaii.

Hawaiians began to follow more European customs and Christianity became established in the islands. Liliuokalani was baptized with an English first name, Lydia, and attended a Christian boarding school. “Our instructors were especially particular to teach us the proper use of the English language,” she later remembered.2 She married a white American, John Dominis, and later had three children through adoption.

When King Kamehameha V died in 1874 without a successor, the government elected a new king: David Kalākaua, Liliuokalani’s brother.3 As a princess, Liliuokalani met with foreign dignitaries and worked for charitable organizations. Her greatest passion appears to have been the Liliuokalani Educational Society, which provided schooling for impoverished Hawaiian girls.4

During King Kalākaua’s reign, a small but powerful group of European and American landowners began to plot against the Hawaiian monarchy. They believed that if they could get more political power for themselves, they could change Hawaiian laws to help their businesses. In 1887, a group of white foreigners known as the Hawaiian League attempted a coup (a violent overthrow of the government). Upon hearing the news, Liliuokalani was shocked by the Hawaiian League’s “ingratitude” toward the King.5 “This rebellion against constituted authority had been brought about by the very persons for whose prosperity His Majesty Kalakaua had made such exertions, and by those to whom he had shown the greatest favors,” she wrote.6 The Hawaiian League forced King Kalākaua to sign a new constitution that gave foreign landowners more power in Hawaii. This document was known as the “Bayonet Constitution.”

A woman standing next to a chair. She is wearing a sash.
Liliuokalani as Princess of Hawaii. Courtesy Hawaii State Archives (call no. PP-98-11-005).

King Kalākaua died in 1891 and Liliuokalani became Queen. Despite opposition from the powerful foreign landowners, Queen Liliuokalani was determined to restore power to the weakened Hawaiian monarchy.7 Indigenous Hawaiians overwhelmingly supported her. Many had voted in elections under the monarchy and wanted to protect those democratic processes from a small group of white foreigners.

Yet as the United States raised import rates on sugar from Hawaii, politicians in the United States began to more seriously consider overthrowing the Hawaiian government.8 If they could make the islands part of the United States, then American companies could more easily import goods. In 1893, a group of foreign landowners conspired with the United States Marines to stage another coup against the Hawaiian monarchy. The Hawaiian League removed all of the queen’s powers and installed a government made up of white Americans. Liliuokalani continued to advocate for the Indigenous Hawaiian government, arguing that she was the legitimate leader of Hawaii. Her mental health suffered under the “terrible strain” of an unknown future.9

In 1895, a group of Liliuokalani’s supporters led an armed revolt in an attempt to restore the monarchy. Liliuokalani reported in her memoir that she was aware of the plan but not involved with it.10 Regardless, the colonial government blamed her and put her on trial for treason in Iolani Palace, where she once ruled.11 Liliuokalani was convicted and imprisoned in her bedroom.12 She later wrote, “that first night of my imprisonment was the longest night I have ever passed in my life."13 While in prison, Liliuokalani surrendered her claim to the throne in exchange for the colonial government’s pardoning the revolt leaders. She believed that the revolt leaders would have been executed.14 Liliuokalani was later transferred to house arrest in a different building.

The white landowners who now ruled Hawaii wanted to join the United States, but President Grover Cleveland denied their offer. When William McKinley became president in 1897, he supported annexing Hawaii. Liliuokalani, now out of prison, led Indigenous Hawaiians in opposing the annexation treaty. The former Queen wrote letters to American politicians and organized petitions. In September 1897, more than half of all Hawaiians signed petitions against the treaty. More than half of the signers were women. That same year, Liliuokalani led a group of activists to Washington, D.C., where they presented their petitions to the U.S. Senate.

Americans were divided on the issue of Hawaii. Some wanted an overseas empire, like that of England or France. Others argued that empires were unjust. Despite Liliuokalani’s eloquence and persistence, U.S. financial and military interests were more powerful. In 1898, the United States annexed Hawaii. The United States took control of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico all in that same year. Over time, Hawaiians became Americans. The United States made Hawaii a state in 1959. Many Indigenous Hawaiians today still protest the United States’ colonization of their islands.

Liliuokalani spent the rest of her life advocating for Hawaiian sovereignty, even suing the United States. When she died in 1917 at the age of 79, she was buried as Hawaiian royalty.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who were the foreign landowners in Hawaii? Where were they from? Why did many of them want to overthrow the Hawaiian government?
  2. How do you think the “Bayonet Constitution” got its name?
  3. Why did Liliuokalani agree to officially resign her claim to the throne? How do you think she felt in this moment?
  4. Why did Indigenous Hawaiians oppose the United States’ decision to annex Hawaii, since the Hawaiian monarchy had already been overthrown?
  5. Why do you think some Americans did not want to annex Hawaii?

Activity 1: Document Analysis

Distribute the following document and questions. Students should read the document and complete the following document analysis questions. As a follow-up activity, have students pick one of the reasons that Queen Liliuokalani uses in the letter to argue for withdrawing the treaty and create a political cartoon depicting this argument. An added challenge would be for students to diagram the entire argument that Queen Liliuokalani makes in the letter, working as a class or in small groups.

Document: A Letter from the Queen
The following document is a letter from Queen Liliuokalani to President William McKinley, June 17, 1897. Francis Hatch, Lorrin Thurston, and William Kinney were representatives of the Republic of Hawaii. The document is available online at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Library’s web page, “The Annexation Of Hawaii: A Collection of Documents.”

I, LILIUOKALANI OF HAWAII, by the Will of God named heir-apparent on the tenth day of April, A.D. 1877, and by the grace of God Queen of the Hawaiian Islands on the seventeenth day of January, A.D. 1893, do hereby protest against the ratification of a certain treaty, which, so I am informed, has been signed at Washington by Messrs., Hatch, Thurston, and Kinney, purporting to cede those Islands to the territory and dominion of the United States. I declare such a treaty to be an act of wrong toward the native and part-native people of Hawaii, an invasion of the rights of the ruling chiefs, in violation of international rights both toward my people and toward friendly nations with whom they have made treaties, the perpetuation of the fraud whereby the constitutional government was overthrown, and, finally, an act of gross injustice to me.

BECAUSE the official protests made by me on the seventeenth day of January, 1893, to the so-called Provisional Government was signed by me, and received by said government with the assurance that the case was referred to the United States of America for arbitration.

BECAUSE that protest and my communications to the United States Government immediately thereafter expressly declare that I yielded my authority to the forces of the United States in order to avoid bloodshed, and because I recognized the futility of a conflict with so formidable a power.

BECAUSE the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, and an envoy commissioned by them reported in official documents that my government was unlawfully coerced by the forces, diplomatic and naval, of the United States; that I was at the date of their investigations the constitutional ruler of my people.

BECAUSE neither the above-named commission nor the government which sends it has ever received any such authority from the registered voters of Hawaii, but derives its assumed powers from the so-called committee of public safety, organized on or about the seventeenth-day of January, 1893, said committee being composed largely of persons claiming American citizenship, and not one single Hawaiian was a member thereof, or in any way participated in the demonstration leading to its existence.

BECAUSE my people, about forty thousand in number, have in no way been consulted by those, three thousand in number, who claim the right to destroy the independence of Hawaii. My people constitute four-fifths of the legally qualified voters of Hawaii, and excluding those imported for the demands of labor, about the same proportion of the inhabitants.

BECAUSE said treaty ignores, not only the civic rights of my people, but, further, the hereditary property of their chiefs. Of the 4,000,000 acres composing the territory said treaty offers to annex, 1,000,000 or 915,000 acres has in no way been heretofore recognized as other than the private property of the constitutional monarch, subject to a control in no way differing from other items of a private estate.

BECAUSE it is proposed by said treaty to confiscate said property, technically called the crown lands, those legally entitled thereto, either now or in succession, receiving no consideration whatever for estates, their title to which has been always undisputed, and which is legitimately in my name at this date.

BECAUSE said treaty ignores, not only all professions of perpetual amity and good faith made by the United States in former treaties with the sovereigns representing the Hawaiian people, but all treaties made by those sovereigns with other and friendly powers, and it is thereby in violation of international law.

BECAUSE, by treating with the parties claiming at this time the right to cede said territory of Hawaii, the Government of the United States receives such territory from the hands of those whom its own magistrates (legally elected by the people of the United States, and in office in 1893) pronounced fraudulently in power and unconstitutionally ruling Hawaii.

THEREFORE I, LILIUOKALANI OF HAWAII, do hereby call upon the President of that nation, to whom alone I yielded my property and my authority, to withdraw said treaty (ceding said Islands) from further consideration. I ask the honorable Senate of the United States to decline to ratify said treaty, and I implore the people of this great and good nation, from whom my ancestors learned the Christian religion, to sustain their representatives in such acts of justice and equity as may be in accord with the principles of their fathers, and to the Almighty Ruler of the universe, to him who judgeth righteously, I commit my cause.

DONE at Washington, District of Columbia, United States of America, this seventeenth day of June, in the year eighteen hundred and ninety-seven.

Questions for Document

  1. Who wrote this document? Who is the intended audience?
  2. What is the date this document was created? How would you describe the political situation in Hawaii at this time? You may want to refer back to your reading.
  3. Who are the 3,000 people who “claim the right to destroy the independence of Hawaii”?
  4. What is the treaty that Queen Liliuokalani is writing about? What did the treaty do? How did Queen Liliuokalani feel about the treaty?
  5. What does she say that the United States government should do about the treaty? Identify three reasons that Queen Liliuokalani uses to support this claim.
  6. How would you describe the tone of this document? (casual, inspirational, sad, etc.)
  7. Complete the following sentence: "The purpose of this document is to ___________________."

Activity 2: Liliuokalani’s Musical Legacy

Distribute the lyrics of the following three songs. Then, play recordings of each (all freely available online). After each song, students should answer the questions that follow, working either individually or in small groups. After students have completed the questions for all three songs, present them with the following prompts: What is Liliuokalani’s legacy? How does the song “Hawai’i ‘78” show Liliuokalani’s legacy? Students could respond to this question either in a discussion or a written response.

Aloha ‘Oe
Queen Liliuokalani wrote this song in 1878, years before the coups that removed her from power. It later became popular as a national song. “Aloha ‘Oe” lyrics and translation are available at the Huapala Hawaiian Music and Hula Archives.

Haʻaheo ka ua i nā pali
Ke nihi aʻela i ka nahele
E hahai (uhai) ana paha i ka liko
Pua ʻāhihi lehua o uka

Hui: 
Aloha ʻoe, aloha ʻoe
E ke onaona noho i ka lipo
One fond embrace,
A hoʻi aʻe au
Until we meet again

ʻO ka haliʻa aloha i hiki mai
Ke hone aʻe nei i kuʻu manawa
ʻO ʻoe nō kaʻu ipo aloha
A loko e hana nei

Maopopo kuʻu ʻike i ka nani
Nā pua rose o Maunawili
I laila hiaʻai nā manu
Mikiʻala i ka nani o ka lipo

Proudly swept the rain by the cliffs
As it glided through the trees
Still following ever the bud
The ʻahihi lehua of the vale

Chorus:
Farewell to you, farewell to you
The charming one who dwells in the shaded bowers
One fond embrace,
'Ere I depart
Until we meet again

Sweet memories come back to me
Bringing fresh remembrances of the past
Dearest one, yes, you are mine own
From you, true love shall never depart

I have seen and watched your loveliness
The sweet rose of Maunawili
And 'tis there the birds of love dwell
And sip the honey from your lips


Questions for “Aloha ‘Oe”

  1. What do you think this song was initially about?
  2. Why do you think this song became a popular national song?

He Mele Lāhui Hawaiʻi
Queen Liliuokalani wrote this song before she was queen, at the request of King Kamehameha V. It replaced the British national anthem “God save the Queen” as the Hawaiian national anthem. Hawaii’s national anthem later became “Hawai’i Pono’i,” which is still in use as Hawaii’s state song. “Mele Lāhui Hawaiʻi” lyrics and translation are available at the Huapala Hawaiian Music and Hula Archives.

Ka Makua mana loa
Maliu mai iā mākou
E hāliu aku nei
Me ka naʻau haʻahaʻa
E mau ka maluhia
O nei pae ʻāina
Mai Hawaiʻi a Niʻihau
Ma lalo o kou malu

Hui:
E mau ke ea o ka ʻāina
Ma kou pono mau
A ma kou mana nui
E ola e ola ka mōʻī

E ka haku mālama mai
I ko mākou nei mōʻī
E mau kona noho ʻana
Maluna o ka noho aliʻi
Hāʻawi mai i ke aloha
Maloko a kona naʻau
A ma kou ahonui
E ola e ola ka mōʻī
Hoʻoho e mau ke

Ma lalo o kou aloha nui
Na Liʻi o ke Aupuni
Me nā makaʻāinana
Ka lehulehu nō a pau
Kiaʻi mai iā lākou
Me ke aloha ahonui
E ola nō mākou
I kou mana mau
E mau ke ea

Almighty Father bend thine ear
And listen to a nation's prayer
That lowly bows before thy throne
And seeks thy fostering care
Grant your peace throughout the land
Over these sunny sea girt isles
Keep the nation's life, oh Lord,
And on our sovereign smile

Chorus:
Grant your peace throughout the land
Over these sunny isles
Keep the nations life, oh Lord
And upon our sovereign smile

Guard him with your tender care
Give him length of years to reign
On the throne his fathers won
Bless the nation once again
Give the king your loving grace
And with wisdom from on high
Prosperous lead his people on
As beneath your watchful eye
Grant your peace throughout the land

Bless O Lord our country’s chiefs
Grant them wisdom so to live
That our people may be saved
And to You the glory give
Watch over us day by day
King and people with your love
For our hope is all in You
Bless us, You who reign above
Grant your peace throughout the land


Questions for “He Mele Lāhui Hawaiʻi”

  1. How does this song show the influence of Christianity in Hawaii in the late 1800s?
  2. According to the lyrics, what is the responsibility of the Hawaiian monarch?

Hawaiʻi ‘78
This more recent song is by Israel Kamawawiwo’ole, a native Hawaiian musician who is most famous for his ukulele cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” “Hawaiʻi ‘78” lyrics and translation are available at Genius and elsewhere on the Internet.

Ua mau, ke ea o ka aina, i ka pono, o Hawaiʻi (The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness)
Ua mau, ke ea o ka aina, i ka pono, o Hawaiʻi

If just for a day our king and queen
Would visit all these islands and saw everything
How would they feel about the changes of our land

Could you just imagine if they were around
And saw highways on their sacred grounds
How would they feel about this modern city life

Tears would come from each others’ eyes
As they would stop to realize
That our people are in great great danger now
How, would they feel, could their smiles be content, then cry

Cry for the gods, cry for the people
Cry for the land that was taken away
And then yet you'll find, Hawaiʻi

Could you just imagine they came back
And saw traffic lights and railroad tracks
How would they feel about this modern city life

Tears would come from each others’ eyes
As they would stop to realize
That our land is in great great danger now

All the fighting that the king had done
To conquer all these islands now these condominiums
How would he feel if he saw Hawaiʻi nei
How, would he feel, would his smile be content, then cry

Ua mau, ke ea o ka aina, i ka pono, o Hawaiʻi
Ua mau, ke ea o ka aina, i ka pono, o Hawaiʻi

Questions for “Hawaiʻi ‘78”

  1. According to the lyrics, what is Kamawawiwo’ole protesting?
  2. What does Kamawawiwo’ole say about the king and queen?
  3. Who do you think the king and queen represent in this song?

1 Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1898), http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/liliuokalani/hawaii/hawaii.html.
2 Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen.
3 “Five Things To Know About Liliʻuokalani, the Last Queen of Hawai'i," Smithsonian Magazine, 10 November 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/five-things-know-about-liliuokalani-last-queen-hawaii-180967155/.
4 Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen.
5 Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen.
6 Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen.
7 “Queen’s Imprisonment,” Iolani Palace, https://www.iolanipalace.org/history/queens-imprisonment/.
8 "Did You Know: Queen Liliuokalani," National Park Serivce, https://www.nps.gov/articles/did-you-know-queen-liliuokalani.htm
9 Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen.
10 Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen.
11 “Queen’s Imprisonment,” Iolani Palace, https://www.iolanipalace.org/history/queens-imprisonment/.
12 “Queen’s Imprisonment.”
13 Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen.
14 Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen.

Last updated: July 1, 2020