Women’s History Month: Queen Liliuokalani

I came to the realization recently that all of my historical profiles have been of white women, so for the month of March, in honor of Women’s History Month, I’ll be profiling women of diverse backgrounds. Obviously, I can’t touch on every possible nationality or marginalization in the time I have, but I will be working in the future to add more profiles of Arab, disabled, Indian, African, and LGBTQIA+ women throughout history.

I feel like any any acknowledgement of women’s history wouldn’t be complete without a look at royalty. For me there’s no more iconic queen than Queen Liliuokalani, the first female ruler and last sovereign of the Hawaiian nation.

Born in to the ruling family of the islands in 1838, Liliuokalani was raised to be queen. She was well educated and began learning English at the age of four as well as reading, spelling, penmanship, arithmetic, geometry, algebra, physics, geography, history, bookkeeping, and music. The other children at the Royal School were all eligible to one day take the throne. By Hawaiian law, if the ruler died without naming a successor, the new ruler would be elected by the government, so Liliuokalani and all her classmates–cousins–could reasonably expect to take the throne, or work in the government at some point when they were older. She finished third in her class.

In 1855 the king married one of her classmates and good friends, Emma Rooke, and Liliuokalani served as one of her maids of honor and ladies in waiting. In 1861 she married an American royal aid named John Owen Dominis. They had an unhappy marriage, and he fathered a child with one of her servants. Meanwhile, Liliuokalani adopted three children of her own. She also continued her education, informally attending classes at O’ahu College. During this time she also focused on charitable works, raising funds to build a hospital and support the sick and elderly.

Between 1871-1875, Hawaii had several rulers and cases of contested succession, finally settling on Liliuokalani’s brother, King David Kalākaua. During Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, she represented her brother in an envoy to London for the celebration. Later, when he was traveling, she would serve as his regent. During this time a smallpox epidemic broke out. She swiftly initiated quarantine and managed to limit the number of cases. She also visited Molokai, where she was too overcome to speak. One of her companions had to address the crowd. Afterward, she petitioned the government to set aside land and resources for a leper hospital.

Unfortunately, Kalākaua’s reign was a victim of the American government, which struggled to control more and more of the islands it saw as a lucrative holding. Under pressure from American planters and settlers, Kalākaua was forced to sign a new constitution virtually stripping the monarchy of its power, which became known as the Bayonet Constitution. By the time he died of kidney failure in 1891, passing the crown to his sister, Hawaii was a nation in name only.

Desperate to restore her nation’s independence, Liliuokalani tried to force her brother’s former staff–pro-American settlers who wanted to undermine Hawaiian sovereignty. When they refused, she took the matter to the Hawaiian supreme court, which ruled in her favor. She reinstalled supporters of the monarchy, then set about re-writing the constitution.

These rapid, drastic changes threatened the American businessmen who had been enjoying their ill-gotten gains for over a decade. They organized a coup, which was supported by US Marines. She was placed under house arrest in the palace.

Supporters attempted to take back power, but their bid failed and in 1895 she was arrested and charged with treason and on January 24th was forced to abdicate. She spent the next three years petitioning American courts, following the red tape as far it would go, but rather than injustice the Americans only saw dollar signs. Hawaii was strategically placed between the continental US and Asia, making it an important trading post. It was also excellent for sought after, expensive crops like sugar cane. The US courts threw out their own laws and in 1898 Hawaii was officially annexed by the United States.

The same year she officially lost her crown, she published an autobiography, the only one we have from Hawaiian royalty. The book covers her rise to power and the political unrest that preceded it, her fight to restore the monarchy through her arrest and the annexation.

She spent the rest of her life fighting for Native Hawaiian rights and to restore Hawaiian independence. She passed away in 1917, her dreams unrealized.

As you can probably tell, I have strong opinions about Hawaii and what happened to Queen Liliuokalani. I’ve only scratched the surface of the events of her life and the wrongs committed against her and her people in this post, but I encourage you to do your own research to find out more about this amazing woman and her efforts to protect her people and her kingdom.

Like what you see? Check out Women’s History Month: Nanye-hi.