Celebrate Hawai'i's Last Queen

The last sovereign monarch of Hawaii was Lili’uokalani (born September 2, 1838). She was a composer, an author, and the only Queen Regnant (woman ruling as a “king” and not just a spouse). She also staged a valiant though ultimately unsuccessful effort to prevent American annexation of her lands.

During the reign of her brother David Kalākaua, their other brother Leleiohoku II died, and she was proclaimed rightful heir to the throne. Lili’uokalani served as temporary Regent when King David was on a world tour in 1881. In this role, she deftly managed public health crises including a smallpox epidemic, and set the stage for a lifetime of philanthropic advocacy on behalf of her people’s health, education, and welfare. Lili’uokalani represented the Hawaiian monarchy in London for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887.

After King David died, Lili’uokalani ascended to the throne in 1892. As Queen, she tried to restore the monarchy, which had been weakened due to American coercion, but Washington wanted Hawaii for its geopolitical position as well as its sugar plantations, and the post Spanish American War climate added another degree of expansionist, nationalist fervor. In 1893, under landowner Sanford Ballard Dole (yes, Dole), a group of American sugar planters staged a coup—in cahoots with the U.S. Marines, who swooped in, first establishing a bogus “Republic of Hawai’i.”

Lili’uokalani preferred to relinquish Hawaii to the United States rather than the Dole-led government, but for all intents and purposes, the two parties were one and the same. The U.S. annexed Hawaii as a protectorate in February 1893. A Polynesian cultural tradition that had been established with eighth-century voyagers had come to an end. Two years later, Lili’uokalani was put under house arrest. She officially abdicated her throne in 1898—in exchange for the release of several of her supporters who had been sentenced to hanging. The Republic of Hawaii fully pardoned her in 1896, and she stayed in Massachusetts for a while, writing her memoir: Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen.

Hawaii was formally annexed by the United States on August 12, 1898. Lili’uokalani died on November 11, 1917 at age seventy-nine. Hawaii became the 50th state on August 21, 1959.

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