“Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” would be a great theme song for the surprising story of Liliʻuokalani, the first and last Queen of Hawaii. She was a naive Princess who reluctantly became the Queen of Hawaii just when her country was under siege from its enemies. If you don’t know the story of Liliʻuokalani, here are some fearless facts about her courageous battle to save Hawaii.
1. She Was Born In A Hut
Liliʻuokalani was born on September 2, 1838, in the grass hut of her maternal grandmother, which stood on the base of Punchbowl crater in Honolulu. She was from the Hawaiian Royal Family and her full name was Lydia Liliʻuokalaniu Loloku Walania Kamakaʻeha. The meaning of this long name is actually kind of gross.
2. Her Name Has A Weird Meaning
In the Hawaiian tradition, children’s names must have a link to an event that happened around the time of birth. Unfortunately for Liliʻuokalani, the only event at this time was a Princess who caught an eye infection. Because of this tradition, Liliʻuokalani’s name means smarting, tearful, burning, sore eyes. Try singing that in the birthday song.
3. Her Parents Gave Her Away
Another unusual Hawaiian tradition is to adopt children out, even when their parents are living and able to care for them. So at Liliʻuokalani’s birth, her parents gave her to another family who raised her along with their own children. If that didn’t make Liliʻuokalani feel unwelcome in the world, what happened next surely would.
4. They Sent Her To A Lousy Boarding School
Liliʻuokalani’s adoptive parents sent her away to boarding school—and not a very good one. American missionaries ran it and many royal children also attended. Lessons included the usual three Rs, but also penmanship, bookkeeping, music, and English composition. However, Liliʻuokalani’s recollections of that time were heartbreaking. She only remembered two things—going to bed hungry and a measles epidemic that took the life of a classmate.
5. She Was Almost A Teen Bride
Back at her adopted home, a house guest set his eye on Liliʻuokalani—when she was still 15. Thankfully nothing came of that union, but when Liliʻuokalani was 19 she was happily engaged to childhood friend William Charles Lunalillo. For unknown reasons, the King stopped this union. Not impressed with his meddling, Liliʻuokalani took matters into her own hands.
6. She Dated Below Her Class
Liliʻuokalani wasn’t about to let a King get in the way of her getting married, so she found a husband in the staff of the royal family. The man was US-born John Owen Dominis. The two had known each other since childhood—well, not really known each other. Dominis, not being royalty, had only been able to watch Liliʻuokalani from a distance.
But Dominis did something surprising to make Liliʻuokalani pay attention.
7. Her Husband Showed Unusual Gallantry
While on a school excursion, Liliʻuokalani required an escort to get her safely home. Dominis stepped up to be her escort but fell off his horse and broke his leg in the process. The pain of a broken leg didn’t deter Dominis and he continued his escort of Liliʻuokalani home. Well, that’s reason enough to marry him, isn’t it?
8. Her Wedding Was Tragically Delayed
Liliʻuokalani and Dominis’s wedding was to be on Liliʻuokalani’s birthday, but then tragedy struck. Around that time, the four-year-old Crown Prince of Hawaii became ill. Rumor had it his parents had put him under a cold water faucet as punishment for a tantrum. This led to his illness and subsequent passing. But Liliʻuokalani had no reason to look forward to this marriage.
9. Her Marriage Was Unhappy
After an appropriate mourning period, Liliʻuokalani and Dominis’s wedding went ahead—but instead of a fairy tale, it was more of a horror story. Rumors flew around the islands about Dominis’s many infidelities. But there was also something closer to home that was a problem with their marriage.
10. She Had Trouble With The In-Laws
It turns out that Dominis’s mother didn’t approve of Liliʻuokalani because she was Hawaiian. You’d think the fact that Liliʻuokalani was royalty might make a difference, but not to this monster-in-law. Dominis was American born and to his mother, that meant he was too good for a Hawaiian. But things were about to change for Liliʻuokalani in a big way.
11. Her Brother Made Her A Princess
Liliʻuokalani’s brother became the next King of Hawaii, and he decided to do something not normally done in Hawaiian society: give his siblings Western titles. This made Liliʻuokalani a Princess and her other brother William Pitt Leleiohoku, a Prince. Because he was male, William was set to take over if anything happened to the King. Instead, what happened next changed history.
12. A Tragedy Put Her Next In Line
Liliʻuokalani’s brother William passed away before he could bear any children. It was now clear: Liliʻuokalani was the heir apparent, and would lead the Hawaiian Islands one day. There had never been a female in this position before. But she’d only be queen in the event of her older brother’s demise. In the meantime, she had a chance to practice running a country.
13. She Took Care Of A Crisis
As Princess, Liliʻuokalani took charge when her brother wasn’t around—and nearly immediately, disaster struck. In 1881, there was an outbreak of smallpox while he was on a world tour. Instead of letting anyone else handle the crisis, Liliʻuokalani quickly took charge. She closed the ports, stopped passenger vessels, and issued a quarantine. Her strong actions kept the fatality count low. But there was also a more personal crisis at home.
14. Her Husband Messed Up
Liliʻuokalani and Dominis weren’t a happy couple and Dominis wasn’t shy about meeting up with other women. Liliʻuokalani somehow put up with it. But what Liliʻuokalani hadn’t counted on was Dominis fathering a child with a servant. What could Liliʻuokalani do? She adopted her husband’s love child and raised him as her own. But helping others was certainly in Liliʻuokalani’s blood.
15. She Was A Feminist
Liliʻuokalani was well aware that women in her nation weren’t totally independent and she wanted to fix that. Even though women could vote in elections well before they could in America, they still needed help being financially independent. So Liliʻuokalani opened a bank that was exclusively for women. She called it Liliʻuokalani’s Savings Bank.
16. She Received A Once In A Lifetime Invitation
One day, a letter arrived from Buckingham Palace inviting members of the Hawaiian Royal Family to The Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Liliʻuokalani’s brother, the King, had to choose the delegation to attend and he selected Liliʻuokalani. Of course, the party was in London, and how do you think you got from Hawaii to London in those days?
17. She Went On A Marathon Journey
It took months to travel from Hawaii to London. First, there was a boat to San Francisco, followed by a road trip across America. Liliʻuokalani and the delegation made stops in Boston, New York, and Washington, where Liliʻuokalani met president Grover Cleveland. Little did Liliʻuokalani know that this meeting would create a lifeline she’d desperately need later.
18. She Partied Royally
From New York, they set sail for London and the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The event took place at Westminster Abbey and Liliʻuokalani rubbed shoulders with foreign royals and the royal family. She even had an official audience with Queen Victoria. But while Liliʻuokalani and her delegation were partying royal style, big trouble was brewing back at home.
19. Enemies Threatened Her Brother’s Life
Back in Hawaii, a group of anti-monarchists had forced Liliʻuokalani’s brother, the King, to sign away most of the monarch’s power. They called it the Bayonet Document because of the weapon used to make him sign it. Shocked and dismayed, Liliʻuokalani and the delegation headed home as quickly as they could. But how much longer could they call it their home?
20. They Wanted Her Family Out
The anti-monarchists were after Liliʻuokalani and her family because of sugar. As long as her family reigned over Hawaii, the sugar exporters had to pay the tariffs on sugar sales to the lucrative US market. They wanted Hawaii to be part of America, so the tariffs would be eliminated, but Liliʻuokalani and her clan weren’t going to budge on that.
21. She Didn’t Want To Be Queen
Members of the Hawaiian legislature worried that anti-monarchists would remove Liliʻuokalani’s brother from power. They asked her to be Queen if that happened—and her answer was surprising. Despite the fact that she’d already shown off her leadership and diplomacy skills, Liliʻuokalani gave them a definite “no.” She didn’t want to be queen, but these guys wouldn’t take no for an answer.
22. She Became Queen Anyway
Liliʻuokalani’s brother didn’t get removed from power, but he did have a stroke and pass on. This left Liliʻuokalani in a position she had previously thought impossible: She had to be the Queen. Who else would fight against the attack of anti-monarchists? Liliʻuokalani might’ve been a reluctant Queen, but she made some drastic changes while she was there.
23. She Fired A Bunch Of People
One of Liliʻuokalani’s first actions as Queen was to replace all of the cabinet ministers. Liliʻuokalani wanted a clean slate, but of course, not everyone was happy with this first move. So, she took the matter to the Supreme Court and won. Liliʻuokalani had now tasted power and she wanted more.
24. She Took Care Of Her Girls
Another controversial action Liliʻuokalani took early in her reign was to appoint another woman as her successor. Remember Liliʻuokalani was the first woman who had led the family and the country. Liliʻuokalani liked the idea of a woman at the helm, so to ensure it kept going she had a plan. She quickly secured her niece Princess Kaʻiulani as the next reigning monarch. Liliʻuokalani was gaining confidence, but was she ready for what came next?
25. Her Enemies Plotted Against Her
European and American anti-monarchists wanted Liliʻuokalani out of power because she lacked experience: They also wanted the US to Annex Hawaii—this was to make it easier to trade with America. Surely Liliʻuokalani was in over her head. She turned to her husband for help, but then something unexpectedly tragic happened.
26. She Lost Her Greatest Support
Even though Liliʻuokalani and her husband Dominis had a loveless marriage, he was a great support to her as Queen. Another benefit to Liliʻuokalani was her husband’s popularity with the people—something she desperately needed to fight against the anti-monarchists. Unfortunately, Dominis passed away unexpectedly. The tragedy left Liliʻuokalani devastated. She was on her own.
27. She Went To Bat For The People
Despite her heartbreak, Liliʻuokalani gathered her strength and prepared for the fight of a lifetime. Foreign business interests were slowly taking over her islands. She didn’t want the profits of all her resources going to American and European businesses and not to the local population. What she wanted was more balance. But she’d soon learn that her enemies would do anything to stop her.
28. She Had Boatloads Of Enemies
On January 16, 1893, the USS Boston—full of Marines and two companies of US sailors—arrived in Honolulu to begin a coup against Liliʻuokalani. At the head of these invaders was Sanford B. Dole, the son of Hawaiian missionaries. Once ashore, the marines and sailors took positions at key political points. Intimidation was the goal. The stage was set for a battle, but Liliʻuokalani had other plans.
29. She Refused To Put Up A Fight
Even though a coup of her reign as Queen was imminent, Liliʻuokalani demanded there be no fighting in the disagreement over Hawaii. Because of her pacifist beliefs, she insisted on the use of diplomacy to solve this dilemma. Unfortunately, this tactic backfired in the worst way possible.
30. Her Enemies Took Her Down
With no way to defend herself, Liliʻuokalani was easily removed by Dole and his men. Dole quickly set up a provisional government and made himself temporary leader. He was ready for the next part of his plan: the annexation of Hawaii by the US. But Liliʻuokalani had a very sneaky scheme up her sleeve.
31. She Did Something Very Unexpected
Liliʻuokalani didn’t want Dole and his fellow anti-monarchs to have control over her Hawaiian islands, so she did something very unexpected. She handed the islands over to the United States herself. She seemed to be playing into her enemies’ hands, but there was a method to Liliʻuokalani’s madness.
32. She Called In A Favor
Back during her travels as a Princess, Liliʻuokalani had met President Grover Cleveland, and he’d left a favorable impression. Liliʻuokalani knew that Cleveland was against the annexation of Hawaii and hoped by giving him Hawaii he’d help her get it back. It was a huge risk, but she saw no other choice.
33. She Made A Fatal Hesitation
Grover was willing to help Liliʻuokalani…on one condition. He wanted her to grant amnesty to the people who had tried to remove her from power. According to Hawaiian law, treason was a capital offense and carried a capital punishment. Liliʻuokalani hesitated on letting her enemies go free and lost the support of Cleveland. What happened next was the beginning of the end.
34. Her Enemies Overwhelmed Her
Things couldn’t have looked worse for Liliʻuokalani. President Cleveland was no longer an ally and more enemies were on their way. Three US warships raced to Honolulu to finish off Liliʻuokalani and her royal reign. With more men pouring into Honolulu, Liliʻuokalani had no choice but to surrender.
35. The Anti-Monarchists Took Hawaii
On July 4, 1894, Hawaii became the Republic of Hawaii and Dole became its president. Hawaii wasn’t a part of the US yet, but this was definitely a step in that direction. It was a huge loss for Liliʻuokalani, the first Queen of Hawaii, but there was one last attempt to win it back.
36. There Was A Last Ditch Effort
Liliʻuokalani’s supporters launched a last effort to reinstate their Queen. It was later called the Wilcox rebellion and failed after just three days. The leaders of the rebellion and participants were all taken into custody. Liliʻuokalani said she’d had nothing to do with the rebellion, but it didn’t protect her from punishment.
37. Her Enemies Locked Her Up
For Liliʻuokalani’s alleged involvement in the rebellion, the anti-monarchists locked her up in an upstairs bedroom of the palace. Meanwhile, her supporters were facing the gallows for their roles in the rebellion and she knew she had to save them. Liliʻuokalani was alone and had no one to ask for guidance. She saw only one opportunity and she took it.
38. She Signed Her Country Away
Liliʻuokalani wanted to save the lives of her supporters, so she made an absolutely heartbreaking choice. She agreed to abdicate her throne and finally give up her reign as Queen of the Hawaiian Islands. She says she would’ve given her own life for her country, but she couldn’t make that choice for her supporters. As a reward for her kindness…well, there was no
39. She Received A Harsh Sentence
Even though Liliʻuokalani gave up her country for her supporters, she still faced a trial for her involvement in the rebellion. The judge found her guilty and sentenced her to five years of hard labor and a $5,000 fine. So, she abdicated for what exactly? Surely this was the worst ending possible for Liliʻuokalani.
40. Her Enemies Had Compassion
Dole must have realized that the punishment against Liliʻuokalani was extreme and decided to downsize it—a lot. She went from a hard labor camp to a palace. Well, imprisonment in a palace with a lady attendant. Liliʻuokalani had one bedroom and no visitors, but she found a cunning way to stay in touch with the outside world.
41. She Tricked Her Captors
While under palace arrest, Liliʻuokalani couldn’t have any visitors or contact with the outside world. They did, however, allow her to receive flowers. In order to keep her informed, her supporters delivered the flowers wrapped in the current newspapers of the day. Once delivered, Liliʻuokalani was free to devour the papers for news about the world and the state of her country.
42. She Sang A Song Of Forgiveness
While imprisoned in the palace, Liliʻuokalani composed the song “The Queen’s Prayer,” which was about the wrongs committed against her country. She does, however, in the third verse, say that she forgives the people who took her country away from her. But don’t worry, she hadn’t given up the fight just yet.
43. She Begged A President For Help
On her early release from her palace prison, Liliʻuokalani was still convinced she could get her country back. She packed up her niece and headed to Washington to beg the president to stop the annexation. Unfortunately, her friend President Cleveland was no longer in office. Now she was facing a new president, William McKinley, and he wasn’t at all sympathetic.
44. She Snubbed A Ceremony
The time had finally come to formally hand Hawaii over to the United States. The ceremony took place on August 12, 1898, at the palace that had previously belonged to the royal family. They replaced the Hawaiian flag with the American one but it wasn’t the huge event they’d hoped for. Neither Liliʻuokalani, her family, or any supporters attended the ceremony.
Liliʻuokalani was busy moving on to another battle.
45. She Received A Life Sentence
At the turn of the century, doctors gave Liliʻuokalani a devastating diagnosis. She was battling cancer. But Liliʻuokalani didn’t let her illness slow her down. While she was dealing with the terrible disease, she was fighting to get the crown lands back. She traveled to Washington—with her doctor in tow—and met with the President. Well, her doctor had devious plans of his own…
46. She Couldn’t Trust Her Own Doctor
Liliʻuokalani didn’t make much headway in Washington and her health was deteriorating. While traveling back to Hawaii, her doctor—Charles H. English—drafted a settlement letter that he wanted her to copy in her handwriting and sign. Historians believe that English was out to take the crown lands for himself—from a dying woman no less. Liliʻuokalani quickly fired the doctor, but there was good news coming her way.
47. She Finally Received Payment
Liliʻuokalani fought for over a decade to get her seized land back. In 1911, she was finally awarded a pension from the US government of $1,250 a month for the rest of her life. Although the government never admitted to taking her land, Liliʻuokalani could at least see this money as an apology. She collected the pension until the end of her life.
In 1917, Liliʻuokalani died at the age of 79—but her story didn’t end there.
48. They Erased Her From The History Books
If you read Hawaiian history in English, you won’t find much mention of Liliʻuokalani and her struggles to stop the annexation of Hawaii—all for a chilling reason. Historians have written her out of the story. It’s only in the Hawaiian language that you can find her sad but heroic tale. Sadly, this language is slowly disappearing and we may lose her story forever.
49. She Wrote Her Own History
A book of Liliʻuokalani’s songs, published in 2014, is one way that people have tried to keep her story alive. The Queen’s Songbook is like a history book set to music. It’s a first-hand account of Liliʻuokalani’s opposition to annexation by America. It may even help to keep the Hawaiian language alive.
50. The Struggle Is Real—And Continues
A group of interested Hawaiians, continuing Liliʻuokalani’s struggle, have drafted a new constitution that would give power back to native Hawaiians. In response to this, the Interior Department passed a law in 2016 that would allow indigenous Hawaiians to vote on creating their own government. If only Liliʻuokalani had lived to see this day.