In historical terms, the Hawaiian Kingdom was a relatively short-lived nation. From the time King Kamehameha I united Hawaii’s islands and established its monarchical government in 1810, to the time its last sovereign ruler was overthrown in 1893, only 83 years passed. But that handful of decades encompasses a rich, fascinating history—Kamehameha I’s successors developed a constitutional system of government, negotiated treaties with countries all across the globe, established more than 90 legations and consulates in Europe and Asia, worked to resist annexation by the United States, and almost joined the Japanese Empire in the 1880s.
No Hawaiian leader was more intriguing than Queen Liliʻuokalani, the island nation’s last sovereign monarch. Though she died a private citizen in 1917, Liliʻuokalani devoted most of her adult life to defending Hawaii’s independence and supporting its people (while writing world-famous music in her spare time). From her unusual namesake to her indelible contributions to pop culture, here are nine things you might not know about Hawaii’s only sovereign queen.
Liliʻuokalani was born in Honolulu on September 2, 1838. In her 1982 book The Betrayal of Liliuokalani: Last Queen of Hawaii, Helena G. Allen wrote that the honor of naming the child went to Kīnaʻu, the highest-ranking chiefess and wife of Oahu’s governor. Kīnaʻu turned to the traditional practice of choosing a name that would commemorate a significant event in her life around the time of the child’s birth—which happened to be a painful eye infection that had plagued Kīnaʻu for days.
According to Allen, the name Kīnaʻu chose for the infant was “Liliu (smarting) Loloku (tearful) Walania (a burning pain) Kamakaeha (the sore eye).” Other sources say the future queen’s full birth name was Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamakeaʻeha. She didn’t come to be known as Liliʻuokalani until April 1877, when her brother, King David Kalākaua, named her his heir apparent and chose her new name.
Liliʻuokalani’s birth parents were Chief Caesar Kapaʻakea and Chiefess Analea Keaohokāhole, who had been an advisor to King Kamehameha III. When Liliʻuokalani was born, a practice called hānai was prevalent among Native Hawaiians: Children born into large families were often unofficially adopted by families with few or no children. Shortly after her birth, Liliʻuokalani, who had at least six biological siblings, was adopted by High Chief Abner Pākī and his wife, Laura Kōnia, the granddaughter of Kamehameha I. The couple had one biological daughter, Bernice.
“I knew no other father or mother than my foster-parents, no other sister than Bernice,” Liliʻuokalani wrote in her 1898 memoir Hawaii’s Story. “[W]hen I met my own parents, it was with perhaps more of interest, yet always with the demeanor I would have shown to any strangers who noticed me.”
Liliʻuokalani was a gifted musician and singer. She could read music by sight and played several instruments, including the guitar, autoharp, piano, and zither. But her most remarkable musical talent was as a composer and lyricist—throughout her life, she wrote more than 150 songs, many of which are now staples of Hawaiian culture. “To compose was as natural to me as to breathe,” Liliʻuokalani wrote in her memoir, “and this gift of nature, never having been suffered to fall into disuse, remains a source of the greatest consolation to this day.”
In 1866, at the behest of Kamehameha V, she wrote “He Mele Lāhui Hawaiʻi” (“Song of the Hawaiian Nation”), which became the country’s national anthem for a time. Her most famous contribution to the landscape of Hawaiian music, though, is her ballad “Aloha ʻOe,” or “Farewell to Thee,” a song inspired by a parting kiss.
While touring Oahu in 1878 as the kingdom’s heir apparent, Liliʻuokalani made a stop at the country home of James Aalapuna Harbottle Boyd, a military official of British and Hawaiian descent. Upon her party’s departure, Liliʻuokalani witnessed a poignant goodbye between the colonel and a young Hawaiian woman. Touched by what she saw, the future queen is said to have written the song in a single afternoon, as her party traveled by horseback to her home in Honolulu. The song has gone on to become an iconic and instantly recognizable piece of popular culture, making appearances in movies and TV shows such as Blue Hawaii, Train to Busan, The Simpsons, SpongeBob Squarepants, and The Karate Kid Part III.
By the time Liliʻuokalani ascended to Hawaii’s throne following the death of her brother, King David Kalākaua, in 1891, the monarchy’s powers had been greatly diminished. In 1887, her brother had been forced at gunpoint to sign the so-called “Bayonet Constitution,” which transferred much of the monarchy’s power to white plantation owners. As queen, Liliʻuokalani refused to honor the document, instead offering up a new constitution that would return power to the monarchy and extend voting rights to Native Hawaiian people. A group of sugar planters and other businessmen, calling themselves the “Committee of Safety,” then conspired with U.S. Minister to Hawaii John L. Stevens to remove Liliʻuokalani from power and seize control of Hawaii for themselves, with the ultimate goal of annexing the kingdom for the United States.
Stevens ordered a group of U.S. Marines from the U.S.S. Boston to shore, ostensibly to protect American lives and interests. (Though one Hawaiian official noted, “[If] the troops were landed solely for the protection of American property, the placing of them so far away from the center of the property of Americans and so very close to the property of the Hawaiian Government was remarkable and very suggestive.”)
Fearing the coup would turn violent, Liliʻuokalani surrendered to the committee, which then established the Provisional Government of Hawaii and named lawyer and politician Sanford B. Dole—who had helped draft the Bayonet Constitution years earlier—its president. Stevens formally recognized the new government without permission from the U.S. State Department, and claimed Hawaii was under the protection of the American government. President Benjamin Harrison even signed an annexation treaty with the Provisional Government before sending it off to the Senate to be ratified.
Soon after her monarchy was overthrown, Liliʻuokalani found an ally in newly elected U.S. president Grover Cleveland, who took office from Benjamin Harrison in March 1893. Cleveland was an anti-imperialist, and one of his first official acts was to withdraw the annexation treaty from the Senate and send former congressman James Henderson Blount to Hawaii to get a sense of what was really going on. Cleveland soon determined that Liliʻuokalani’s monarchy had been illegally overthrown, and the American military once again found itself embroiled in the struggle over Hawaii’s fate—but this time, troops traveled there in an effort to restore the deposed queen to her throne.
By December 1893, Albert Willis had become the United States’s Minister to Hawaii. Willis attempted to negotiate Liliʻuokalani’s return to power, on the condition that she would offer full amnesty to everyone who had participated in the coup. According to Alexander Stevenson Twombly’s 1899 book Hawaii and Its People, Liliʻuokalani wasn’t in a forgiving mood and made Willis a counteroffer: Rather than receiving pardons, the revolutionists would be beheaded, and all their property would be confiscated by her government. In her memoir, Liliʻuokalani insisted that, while she did decline to offer clemency to her enemies, she explicitly told Willis she did not want them put to death.
Whatever the case, Willis’s negotiations were unsuccessful. He and Cleveland proceeded with what was apparently the next logical step: threatening a pretend invasion to trick Dole and his Provisional Government into ceding power. Several U.S. warships positioned themselves off the shores of Hawaii, and Marines made a show of preparing for an invasion, thinking Dole would acquiesce. But Dole still refused to relinquish power, knowing that Cleveland couldn’t be serious about embarking upon military action without the support of Congress.
Other nations with interests in Hawaii were on high alert; according to Stephen Dando-Collins’s 2014 book Taking Hawaii, Japan and Great Britain each sent a ship to Honolulu to protect their respective nation’s interests if war broke out between the United States and the Provisional Government. But the invasion was eventually revealed to be a hoax, and Dole and his government remained in power until Hawaii was annexed under the McKinley administration in 1898.
Congress finally passed a resolution [PDF] in 1993, formally apologizing “to native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii on January 17, 1893.”
In January 1895, Hawaiian-born royalist Robert Wilcox led a brief, ill-fated attempt to overthrow Dole’s government and restore Liliʻuokalani to power. Wilcox was quickly arrested and sentenced to death, but he was pardoned three years later. The year after that, he was elected to Congress as Territorial Delegate of the newly established Territory of Hawaii.
Liliʻuokalani was fined $5000 and sentenced to five years of hard labor for allegedly having advance knowledge of Wilcox’s plot. The latter punishment was commuted to house arrest in ʻIolani Palace, where Liliʻuokalani was imprisoned until September 6, 1895. Upon her release, she returned to her former home at Honolulu’s Washington Place, where she remained under house arrest for another five months.
While under house arrest, Liliʻuokalani wrote songs—including “Mai Wakinekona a Iolani Hale,” or “From Washington Palace to ‘Iolani Palace”—that communicated secret messages to her people, including the details of her imprisonment. She wrote these lyrics anonymously and had them published in a Hawaiian-language newspaper. Though the lyrics were unsigned, the Hawaiian people recognized them as missives from their imprisoned queen and used the newspaper to send Liliʻuokalani their own messages of love and support in return.
After her arrest in January 1895 and before her trial, Liliʻuokalani was forced to sign a document relinquishing all claims to Hawaii’s throne, in exchange for the release of her imprisoned supporters. If she refused to abdicate, she was told her followers would be executed by firing squad.
“For myself, I would have chosen death rather than to have signed it,” Liliʻuokalani wrote of the abdication document, “but it was represented to me that by my signing this paper all the persons who had been arrested, all my people now in trouble by reason of their love and loyalty towards me, would be immediately released.”
With her forced abdication, Hawaii’s monarchy officially ended.
More than 100 years after her death in 1917, Liliʻuokalani is, in a sense, still supporting Native Hawaiians. In 1909, the deposed queen established the Liliʻuokalani Trust, which devoted the bulk of her estate to helping Native Hawaiian orphans. Two years later, she amended the trust to include “destitute children in the Hawaiian Islands, the preference given to Hawaiian children of pure or part-aboriginal blood.” According to its annual report [PDF], the trust provided more than $40 million in funding for child services in 2020.