American Masters


Queen Lili‘uokalani - The First and Last Queen of Hawai‘i

Queen Lili‘uokalani (1838-1917) was the first sovereign queen, and the last monarch of Hawai‘i, who assumed the throne in the midst of a government takeover by American business owners supported by the U.S. military. After being deposed and placed under house arrest, she fought to preserve native Hawaiian rights and traditions.

AIRED: July 01, 2020 | 0:12:14

She was the first and the only woman to rule as the Queen of the Kingdom of


This was the first time that America took over a sovereign nation.




After her overthrow by American businessmen,

Queen Liliokalani was arrested by the provisional U.S.- led government

and placed under house arrest.

Liliokalani was marched from her private residence to Lolani Palace,

where she was locked in a bedroom suite and kept

captive for months.


occupy herself,

she stitched a quilt telling her life story,

composed hymns.


first night of my imprisonment was the longest night I had ever passed in my


It seemed as though the dawn of day would never come.

I am imprisoned in this

room for the attempt of the Hawaiian people to regain what had been wrested from


The queen was born Lydia Lili Kamaka'eha

in 1838,

at the base of an extinct volcano near Honolulu,

to a family of high chiefs and advisors to the king.

Following Hawaiian tradition,

she was raised by parents of higher rank than her own.

"Immediately after my birth,

I was taken to the house of another chief,

by whom I was adopted.

It is not easy to explain to those alien to our national life,

but it seems perfectly natural to us.".

Liliokalani became part of the Royal Court of King Kamehameha the Fourth,

who ruled the eight-island kingdom of Hawai for a decade - a

constitutional monarchy modeled after the British system.

It was a very,

very strategically important point to the British,

to the Americans,

and to the Japanese.

And there was quite a bit of wrangling in the 19th century over

what countries should have control over the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Baptized as a Christian from age four,


was educated at an English language school for children of the Royal Court,

run by American missionaries.

The first American missionaries arrived in Hawai in


And their sons and

grandsons went into the sugarcane business,

buying up land to establish plantations.

And there was active suppression of the speaking and

teaching of the Hawaiian language.

Liliokalani showed musical talent early on.

She had perfect pitch and played numerous instruments.

In the late 1860s,

she composed music that would be adopted as the national hymn

of the sovereign Nation of Hawai.

Later on,

she would write "Aloha e," which is still to this day probably the best

known Hawaiian song.

"To compose was as natural to me as to breathe.

My ancestors were particularly gifted as lovers of poetry and music.

And yet there are few,

if any,

written compositions of the music of Hawaii,

except those published by me.".

Music was her consolation,

and it was her opportunity to speak directly to her people.

My name is Meleanna Aluli Meyer.

I'm an artist,


and student of all things Hawaiian.

My great grand aunt was a lady in waiting,

a confidant of the queen.

I lead groups of youth and artists in

examining not only history,

but their creative,

visual voice.


Hawaiians and others in the community respond to these murals in a very profound

way because we're actually making visible aspects of pain and sorrow and


to help people understand our legacy.

Our murals depict who we are.

In her twenties,

Liliokalani went door to door to raise money to build Hawai's first


Queen's Hospital

opened in 1860 to combat diseases brought by foreigners,

such as smallpox and influenza,

which had decimated almost 85% of the native Hawaiian population in

50 years.



Liliokalani married John Dominis,

a white American raised in Honolulu and a commander in the Royal Court.

She later turned her attention to philanthropy,

founding a bank for women and setting up a fund to support the education of

Hawaiian girls.

After her younger brother,

David Kalakaua,

became Hawai's king,

he made her heir apparent in 1877.

But the white business-class ended up gaining much of the

economic power in the islands,

not only the plantations,

but also the churches,

the schools,

and many other cultural institutions.

More unsettlingly,

Liliokalani started to realize that her brother's

cabinet was filled with very corrupt businessmen.

In 1887,

white businessmen forced her brother,

the king,

to sign a new constitution that weakened the monarchy and removed the

right of native Hawaiians to vote,

unless they were landowners.

It became known as the "Bayonet Constitution.".

"Having matured their plans in secret,

the men of foreign birth rose one day en masse,

and forced the king to sign a constitution,

which practically took away the franchise from the Hawaiian race.".

When her brother died suddenly in 1891,

Liliokalani assumed the throne,

becoming the first and only sovereign queen of Hawai.


support from the majority of native Hawaiians,

she attempted to overturn the Bayonet Constitution.

The constitution she was putting forward was one that would have restored

voting rights to native Hawaiians and would have increased her powers as a

constitutional monarch.

But the white businessmen and politicians were already plotting her overthrow.

Queen Liliokalani became the target of what can only be

described as a vicious smear campaign against her in the U.S.


The San Francisco Examiner described her as a "black

pagan queen who wanted nothing short of absolute monarchy.".

"A trap was sprung upon me by those who stood waiting,

as a wild beast watches for his prey.".

January of 1893,

a battalion of U.S. Marines marched through

downtown Honolulu.

They had a cannon and machine guns.


48 hours,

the Kingdom of Hawai'i had been overthrown and a provisional government

led by U.S. businessman was in charge.

It was essentially a bloodless coup.

Queen Liliokalani traveled to the U.S. to appeal to the president and

Congress to restore her to the throne.

It would be very,

very unusual for a woman of color to demand a meeting with

not only the president,

but many other people in Washington at the time.

And so while she might have presented as a demure woman in Victorian-era

modest clothing,

she also contained within her the fierceness of the

native Hawaiian goddess.

"I would undertake anything for the benefit of my people.

It is for them that I would give my last drop of blood.".

President Grover Cleveland agreed the queen should be reinstated,

but Congress rejected that recommendation.

And on July 4th,


American businessman Sanford Dole,

whose family soon found Dole Food Company,

declared himself Hawai's Ppresident and placed the queen under house arrest

for eight months.


overthrow caused trauma,

not only of a political sort,

but a spiritual and an ethical sort,

because we sought to bring our queen back and reinstate her

through laws and policies that we counted on.

We even had a petition of over 37,000 signatures.

So it's like being left with nothing except a shell of who we were.

So it's taken a long time to rebuild.

Liliokalani is the reason we all do the work we do.

And there are many of us everywhere - in education,

in health,

in advocacy for land.

We are doing the work of the queen today,

bringing the culture back,

so that Hawaiians can thrive.

Liliokalani was released in 1895.

She spent the rest of her life advocating for native Hawaiian rights and


In 1909,

she sued the U.S. government to return the 1.75

million acres of Hawaiian royal lands it had seized,

but it was unsuccessful.

She passed in 1917,

giving all of her monies to the children of Hawai.


got Gandhi,



all of these leaders,

but before all of them,

you had a woman in the far-flung Pacific,

who is a leader for all,

in terms of peace,

social justice,

and righteous action for her people.

Hawai'i became the 50th state in 1959.

In 1993,

the U.S. Congress issued an apology acknowledging that the overthrow of Queen

Liliokalani had been illegal.

"Never cease to act because you fear you may fail.

The true secret is to know your own worth.

It will carry you through many dangers."


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