Liliuokalani, the last sovereign of the Kamehameha dynasty that ruled the Hawaiian kingdom. ca. 1891. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. LOT 3559, LC-DIG-ppmsca-53150
Native Hawaiian, Music, Activism
Queen Lili‘uokalani (Lydia Lili‘u Loloku Walania Wewehi
Born Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Waiania Wewehi Kamakaʻeha on the island of Oʻahu in 1838, Queen Liliʻuokalani was the last reigning monarch of Hawaiʻi before the US overthrow. Through diplomacy, writing, and music composition, she was a powerful voice for Hawaiian political sovereignty and the value of sustaining Hawaiian heritage. Over a century beyond her death, her words and songs still resonate popularly as well as for contemporary activists and artists working for cultural and political independence.
From an aliʻi (Native Hawaiian royalty) family, Lydia Kamakaʻeha was educated in the same schools as other aliʻi descendants. She grew up literate in both English and Hawaiian languages during a time when diverse cultural influences were in circulation on the islands and ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi was the language commonly spoken by all citizens. She began music lessons at an early age—learning piano, organ, autoharp, and zither. She was also skilled in repertoire of Hawaiian traditional narrative and composition forms. Over the course of her life, she composed approximately 150 songs—notable for the way in which they lyrically embrace Hawaiian storytelling and poetry, express deep connections to the land and elements while being musically built upon European forms.
Before serving as queen regnant, she contributed to building community-serving institutions — including a bank for women and an organization supporting the education of young girls. In 1891, she ascended the throne after the sudden passing of her brother King David Kalākaua, who had been forced by a group of white men calling themselves the Hawaiian League, to sign a new constitution commonly called the Bayonet Constitution. This constitution was rooted in white supremacy, undermined the authority of the Native-led Hawaiian monarchy and disenfranchised both makaʻainana (Hawaiian people) and national subjects who emigrated to Hawaiʻi from other countries, primarily Asia. At the behest of the people, Queen Liliʻuokalani attempted to regain Hawaiian control of the islands; co-writing a new constitution which would have empowered women, citizens of Asian ancestry, and restored Native leadership in government. She also implemented the 1892 Highways Act, which upheld public rights of access despite private land ownership. Members of the Hawaiian League formed another group called the Committee of Safety comprised of white businessman living in Hawaiʻi—half of them subjects of Hawaiʻi. In 1893, they staged a coup backed by the US military, overthrowing the Queen. In 1895, after a Hawaiian insurrection against this self-appointed provisional government and in opposition to US annexation, she was charged with treason and placed under house arrest. During this time, the Queen penned numerous songs expressing deep sentiment of aloha ʻāina (love of land, love of country) and her commitment to the people of Hawaiʻi. Some of these songs were disseminated to the public through Hawaiian-language newspapers of the time. During her imprisonment, she also translated into English her brother’s version of the “Kumulipo” chant, which tells the Hawaiian creation story that connects the Hawaiian people to the Hawaiian islands through common ancestors and a genealogy of interconnectedness with the elements of the environment.
In 1896, Queen Liliʻuokalani was released from house arrest and pardoned, but she never stopped fighting for the restoration of Hawaiʻi`s sovereignty. She and others organized and travelled to DC on several occasions to appeal to the president, Congress, and through the courts—but to no avail. Hawaiʻi was absorbed under the governance of the US in 1898 and then declared a US territory in 1900.
At a time of great political turmoil and pressure, Queen Liliʻuokalani put her worldview and experiences into written words to encourage the people of Hawaiʻi, to describe aloha ʻāina, and to fight against US imperialism through Hawaiian history and culture. She compiled her songs into a volume, He Buke Mele Hawai’i. ( 1897), one copy was gifted to Queen Victoria, the other donated to the Library of Congress. Her memoir Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen was published in 1898. Some of these works, which would be of interest to folklorists, can be accessed in digital form:
He Bu ke Mele Hawai’i (1897)