Liliuokalani, Queen of Hawaii, full-length portrait. Credit: Library of Congress
Aloha oe, aloha oe
E ke onaona noho i ka lipo
One fond embrace,
A ho i a e au
Until we meet again
Farewell to you, farewell to you
The charming one who dwells in the shaded bowers
One fond embrace,
‘Ere I depart
Until we meet again
The lyrics to the song “Aloha Oe,” and their lovely accompanying melody, are familiar to many who visit America’s 50th state, the Pacific island paradise of Hawaii. But few know that the song was composed by Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, a woman who played a pivotal role in the tumultuous times that accompanied Hawaii’s transition from monarchy to American possession.
Liliuokalani (pronounced lee LEE oo oh kah LAH nee) was born in a grass house in Honolulu on Sept. 2, 1838. She came from a long line of Hawaiian rulers, going back many years to the unification of the islands in the late 1700’s. The Kingdom of Hawaii, under King Kamehameha III, adopted a constitution in 1840. The young girl, known as Lili’u or Lydia, attended a boarding school for royal children, where she learned to read and write in both Hawaiian and English from Christian missionaries. The practices and values of this religion would remain with her for the rest of her life. American missionaries had first arrived in Hawaii in 1820. Europeans were also familiar with the islands. Captain James Cook of the British Navy had landed there in 1778.
Unfortunately, the newcomers to the islands brought unfamiliar diseases to Hawaii. A measles epidemic struck when Lili’u was 10, and a smallpox epidemic occurred a few years later, killing thousands of Hawaiians. Still, Hawaiians—including Lili’u—intermarried with haoles (foreigners). Lili’u married John Owen Dominis, an American, on Sept. 16, 1862.
Hawaii became an enormously popular place for the growth and export of sugarcane during the mid-1800’s, especially after the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861-1865). The secession of cane-growing Southern states boosted the demand for sugar from Hawaii, and sugar exports helped Honolulu to become a boomtown. The sugar planters and other non-native residents of Hawaii became a strong economic and political force.
Several Hawaiian kings died following short reigns in the 1860’s and early 1870’s, and no named heir was prepared to ascend to the throne in 1874. After a bitter battle between pro-British and pro-American supporters of two rival candidates, Lili’u’s brother, David Kalakaua, was elected to become king in February 1874. However, many sugar planters resented Kalakaua’s expenditures on a new palace, a navy, and frequent travel. They also criticized his ties to people they considered unstable foreign adventurers. In 1887, they forced Kalakaua to accept a constitution that severely restricted his powers. After King Kalakaua’s younger brother and heir apparent died in 1877, he named Lili’u as his successor. He gave her the royal name Liliuokalani, meaning Lili’u of the heavens.
King Kalakaua died in 1891, and Liliuokalani became queen. Queen Liliuokalani tried to create a new constitution that would increase her power. But the American settlers who controlled most of Hawaii’s wealth disapproved of her efforts and staged a revolt. A republic was established in 1894, and Liliuokalani was forced to abdicate in 1895. The leaders of the republic accused her of participating in an attempted rebellion that would have restored her to the throne. She was imprisoned for eight months in Iolani Palace in Honolulu, the palace her brother had built.
United States President Grover Cleveland tried to restore Liliuokalani to her throne. However, he failed to do so. He later wrote that he was “ashamed of the whole affair” that resulted in Hawaii’s annexation to the United States. Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1898.
Liliuokalani died of a stroke on Nov. 11, 1917, at her home in Honolulu. She had no children. However, the former queen left as a legacy her many musical compositions, her writings, and a trust that today still cares for orphaned children in Hawaii.