Women’s History Month: Queen Liliuokaliani

Women’s History Month: Queen Liliuokaliani

Just like last week’s lady who leads, I (Dr. Donnelly) found out about this historical queen from a book, except this time it was a non-fiction treatment. Sarah’s Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes tells the story of how Hawaii came to be part of the United States and there were a lot of times throughout the book that I said out loud “why was this not covered in history class?!” I mean, I learned about the Mayflower for like seven years in a row, could we not have given an hour to this?

I digress.

Vowell is one of my favorite popular historians – her irreverent sense of humor and quest to make sure we connect with the humanity of history has endeared me to her since her frequent guest appearances on the Jon Stewart era of The Daily Show. I picked up Unfamiliar Fishes, therefore, without even really knowing what it was about. The book focuses a lot on missionaries and capitalism, but Queen Liliuokalaniis certainly the star.

Born in 1838 as Lydia Kamakaeha, she ascended the throne in 1891 as the first woman ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Her rule would only last two years, however, as on January 17, 1893, the monarchy was overthrown by a group of businessmen and sugar planters backed by the American government. Queen Liliuokaliani was forced to abdicate, and the Kingdom dissolved in 1895, annexed to the United States before eventual statehood.

She wrote what would become their national anthem, traveled the world as a member of the royal family, and met both Queen Victoria and President Cleveland. She was married to a bummer of a man who routinely cheated on her (or so the rumors went), and adopted three children after being unable to bear her own. Mostly though, she is known for being the loudest opponent of a move by the business/plantation owners to usurp the authority of the throne.

In 1889, the Bayonet Constitution went into effect, despite her protestations, and it greatly decreased the power of the monarchy. This was the Kingdom’s shift from monarchy to a capitalist-driven republic and I’m sure you can imagine how a woman who based her identity in serving her people felt about that. Politically, however, it meant that she failed in her queenship before she was even coronated – the men behind the Bayonet Constitution were determined to ensure her failure.

During her short reign, she tried desperately to turn the tide, even against the advice of her advisors. In a lot of ways, it was simply too little, too late. In 1893, there was a coux; she was arrested, imprisoned, and forced to abdicate. She watched her kingdom disintegrate before her very eyes, but did not stop advocating for independence until her death in 1917.

For those averse to reading, by the way, a vaguely accurate movie of this whole ordeal through the eyes of the crown princess, by the way, is available. Princess Kaiulani was on Netflix, last I checked. 

We wanted to introduce you to Queen Liliuokalani for two reasons: for Americans, she is a part of our history we need to know about – Manifest Destiny was real and led to the subjugation of many cultures and peoples for “The American Dream”. To ignore that reality is doing a disservice. Second, we can all learn from her steely determination regarding the freedom of her people.

Dr. Hinson will be back next week to introduce you another non-Western woman ruler. In the meantime, if you know anyone we should be covering, comment below! Been to Hawaii and can share photos of monuments or the like to Queen Liliuokalani? We’d love to see them!

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