Hawaii’s sovereign monarchy did not survive to see the 20th century. Barely 120 years after Captain Cook and his crew first set foot in the Hawaiian islands, the sovereign nation of Hawaii was swallowed up by one of the empires that coveted it–the American one. The last person to rule Hawaii as a monarch was Lili’uokalani, the one and only Queen of Hawaii, and hers is an interesting story.
She came to the throne in January 1891 upon the death of her older brother, King Kalakua. By this time, however, the Hawaiian monarchy was already shaky. In 1887 a group of white Hawaiian politicians, most of them descended from Americans or even American-born themselves, fermented a coup–well, sort of a coup–against the Hawaiian crown. This cabal favored the end of the monarchy and the ultimate annexation of Hawaii by the United States. Their champion was Sanford B. Dole, who founded the Dole Pineapple Company. The cabal drafted a constitution which purported to strengthen the representative functions of Hawaii’s constitutional monarchy, but which actually narrowed them, expanded the franchise for a wealthy elite and ended most of the powers of the monarchy. The cabal forced King Kalakua to accept this constitution by the threat of force, and thus it was known as the Bayonet Constitution. It was widely unpopular among the Hawaiian people and seen as merely a prelude to American absorption of the islands.
Lili’uokalani, then Crown Princess, was one of those upset with the Bayonet Constitution. When her brother died in San Francisco and she came to the throne in 1891, she decided to abrogate the fraudulent constitution. Lili’uokalani was outraged that the new constitution disenfranchised almost 75% of the Hawaiian people due to various voting qualifications, many of them tied to property ownership. She was right in viewing the constitution as protecting the economic interests of the Dole cabal, most of whom were plantation owners or holders of other large business interests that controlled a large portion of the islands’ land. Asians were also disenfranchised, but culturally and economically they were crucial to the development of Hawaii; by 1891 very large Chinese and Japanese communities existed in the islands and Lili’uokalani felt they deserved a say too.
The “Provisional Government of Hawaii,” which came to power in 1893, was essentially a junta of Sanford B. Dole and friends. Dole is the gentleman with the epic chin whiskers at center.
Queen Lili’uokalani’s stand for the people of Hawaii was unacceptable to Dole and the business interests, who formed a “Committee of Safety.” In January 1893 they mounted a revolution against her, and slyly involved the United States by telling local American military commanders that the property and lives of U.S. citizens were at risk in this revolution that they themselves fermented. Thus, U.S. Marines came ashore. This was essentially the reverse of the Russian Revolution: a revolutionary elite that overthrew the government to advance capitalism. Lili’uokalani hoped that the United States would side with her rather than the revolution, and on January 17, 1893, relinquished her power to the American government with the expectation that they would ultimately return sovereignty to her.
At first the Queen had good reason to believe the U.S. would help her. A government commission was created to study the Hawaiian coup and concluded that it was illegal, and the involvement of American military personnel was improper. President Grover Cleveland offered to return Lili’uokalani to her throne, but with a very big if: she had to promise amnesty to the plotters. She refused. Later she changed her mind and agreed to amnesty, but it was too late. In July 1894 Dole and his friends proclaimed the “Republic of Hawaii.” Lili’uokalani was arrested and the next year confined to a palace where she wrote her memoirs. She was pardoned in 1896 and eventually died in Honolulu in 1917.
Queen Lili’uokalani in her later years. Though she placed her trust in President Cleveland, it was President Clinton who finally validated her claims…a century late.
In her devotion to her duty Lili’uokalani resembled no one so much as Britain’s Queen Victoria, and her personal life was similarly unhappy. Both were widowed, but at least Victoria’s marriage was a happy one; Lili’uokalani’s husband John Dominis, an American whom she married in 1862, cheated on her and even had a son by his mistress. Lili’uokalani had no biological children of her own but eventually adopted three, including her late husband’s illegitimate son. In her final years she campaigned tirelessly for justice for Hawaii and the reversal of American usurpation of her country, which was made formal by the annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory in 1898.
Lili’uokalani’s sense of justice was eventually vindicated, but long after her death. In 1993 President Bill Clinton signed a law officially apologizing to the people of Hawaii for the U.S.-backed overthrow of Lili’uokalani’s government a century earlier. By then both the damage and the good resulting from that act were long irreversible. For better or for worse Lili’uokalani’s people were Americans now.