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The islands of Hawaii are shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Their storied history tells tales of warrior kings, deity rulers, and the eventual overthrow of an ancient kingdom.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The last reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii was King Kalākaua, who ruled from 1874 until his death in 1891.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the origins of the Hawaiian kingdom, its rise to prosperity in the 1800s, the turbulent overthrow by American businessmen, and finally, the end of the monarchy with the passing of Hawaii’s last king, Kalākaua.

The Origins of the Hawaiian Kingdom

The First Hawaiian Kings and Kingdoms

The Hawaiian Islands were originally settled around 400-500 A.D. by Polynesian voyagers. Over the next few centuries, the islands were divided into four main kingdoms – Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai. Each kingdom had its own royal family and ali’i (chief) that ruled over the land and common people.

On the Big Island of Hawaii, legends tell of the first man, Kumuhonua, who came from a faraway land. His sons and grandsons formed the first dynasty of Hawaiian kings. Other legendary figures like the demigod Maui brought the islands together according to mythology.

The early Hawaiian religion centered around natural forces and the worship of ancestral spirits called akua.

Unification under King Kamehameha I

Over hundreds of years, there was near-constant warfare between island kingdoms as ali’i battled for regional control. By the late 1700s, the Hawaiian Islands were unified under one ruler – King Kamehameha I.

Through both warfare and diplomacy, he managed to conquer all major islands by 1810 and established the Kingdom of Hawaii with himself as monarch.

King Kamehameha implemented a more centralized government and legal system based on religious guidelines. He welcomed visiting ships from Europe and America which brought western knowledge and goods to the island in exchange for supplies.

The Hawaiian Kingdom entered into treaties with world powers and became recognized globally under Kamehameha’s leadership.

The Ascendance of the Hawaiian Monarchy

King Kamehameha III and the Hawaiian Bill of Rights

King Kamehameha III instituted several progressive reforms during his reign from 1825 to 1854. Most notably, he promulgated the Hawaiian Bill of Rights in 1839, which guaranteed basic human rights to all Hawaiian citizens and limited the powers of the monarchy.

Some key rights included freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to elect representatives to advise the king.

Kamehameha III also reformed land ownership policies by introducing the Great Mahele in 1848, which enabled commoners and foreigners to own land in Hawaii for the first time. This brought Hawaii more in line with Western concepts of private property.

However, many Native Hawaiians lost control of ancestral lands in the process.

Statistics show that during Kamehameha III’s reign, Hawaii’s population grew rapidly from approximately 124,000 in 1823 to 84,000 Native Hawaiians and 2,500 foreigners by 1848. The influx of Westerners led to great changes in Hawaiian society and politics in the years that followed.

King Kamehameha V and Political Reforms

King Kamehameha V, who ruled from 1863 to 1872, is known for enacting Hawaii’s first written constitution in 1864, which formally established a constitutional monarchy. The constitution also created Hawaii’s first legislature with appointed representatives sharing power with the king.

Kamehameha V also restructured the executive cabinet into a modern government ministry system based on Western models. Departments were created for areas like finance, foreign affairs, interior, education, and attorney general.

These political reforms brought Hawaii even closer to Western style governments. However, the king maintained great power and mainly worked with American and European advisors rather than native Hawaiians. Only two of his twelve cabinet ministers were of Hawaiian ancestry.

During Kamehameha V’s reign, sugar plantations expanded greatly with thesigning of the Reciprocity Treaty in 1875 that enabled duty-free sugar exportsto the U.S. This further strengthened economic ties between Hawaii and the United States in the late 1800s.

The Reign and Death of King Kalākaua

The Election of King Kalākaua

In 1874, King Lunalilo died without naming an heir. Two candidates emerged to assume the throne – David Kalākaua and Queen Emma. The legislature elected David Kalākaua as the new monarch with 39 votes to Emma’s 6.

This controversial election caused the Honolulu Courthouse Riot, where Emma’s supporters attacked and wounded Kalākaua’s followers.

Eventually, Kalākaua took the oath to uphold the 1864 Constitution and formally ascended to the throne as Hawaii’s last king on February 13, 1874. As king, Kalākaua aimed to revive ancient Hawaiian traditions and culture suppressed during the missionary era.

He was determined to restore pride in the spirit of the Hawaiian people.

Key Events During Kalākaua’s Reign

King Kalākaua accomplished much during his reign from 1874 to 1891:

  • In 1881, he took the first trip around the world by a Hawaiian monarch and met with foreign heads of state to strengthen Hawaii’s global recognition.
  • In 1883, the Pacific Cable Company connected the Hawaiian Islands telegraphically with the rest of the world.
  • In 1884, Kalākaua commissioned the construction of the ʻIolani Palace to mark the pinnacle of Hawaiian civilization.
  • In 1886, he reformed the Hawaiian Constitution to give more of his powers to his cabinet ministers.

However, later in his reign, Kalākaua’s spending and attempts to expand Hawaiian ties brought tensions. In 1887, he approved Bayonet Constitution which limited his power and gave more control to white settlers and business owners.

The Illness and Passing of Hawaii’s Last King

In 1890, Kalākaua visited California due to his ill health. He was diagnosed with chronic nephritis and given medication. Unfortunately, his condition worsened over the next months. He returned to Hawaii in the fall of 1890 in critical condition.

King Kalākaua passed away at the ʻIolani Palace at age 54 on January 20, 1891. His sister Lili`uokalani assumed the throne after him, becoming Hawaii’s first-ever queen regnant. She would also prove to be the last sovereign to rule over the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Reign Duration King Kalākaua
Start February 13, 1874
End January 20, 1891
Total Years 17 years

Learn more about Hawaii’s last king from the Hawaiian History site.

The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy

The Bayonet Constitution and Loss of Power

In 1887, King Kalakaua of Hawaii was forced by American businessmen to accept a new constitution that stripped him of most of his executive powers, an event that became known as the “Bayonet Constitution” due to the threat of force.

This greatly weakened the Hawaiian monarchy and was a major step towards its eventual overthrow.

The Bayonet Constitution enabled wealthy American plantation owners and merchants to gain tremendous political power and influence in Hawaii while disenfranchising many Native Hawaiians and Asian immigrants.

King Kalakaua’s successor, his sister Queen Liliuokalani, attempted to draft a new constitution to restore Native Hawaiian voting rights, but she was soon overthrown by the American business interests.

The 1893 Overthrow

In 1893, a group composed mainly of Euro-Americans and supported by the U.S. diplomat John L. Stevens and American troops from U.S. warships, forcibly overthrew Queen Liliuokalani, ending the centuries-long sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

The coup organizers established an unofficial Provisional Government and sought annexation by the United States. President Grover Cleveland strongly disapproved of the overthrow, condemned the actions of the American minister Stevens, and initially worked to restore Liliuokalani and Hawaiian independence.

However, his successor President William McKinley negotiated the annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory, which was formalized in 1898.

Annexation by the United States

Following the overthrow in 1893, President Cleveland sent James Blount to investigate the situation in Hawaii. Blount found that Stevens conspired in the overthrow, which led Cleveland to submit the Blount Report to Congress.

Congress then conducted its own investigation led by Senator John Morgan, who produced the Morgan Report, which completely contradicted the Blount Report and found no evidence of U.S. involvement in the overthrow.

Public opinion in the U.S. favored annexation, seeing Hawaii as a naval base of strategic importance. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the strategic value of the Hawaiian Islands became apparent and Congress approved the Newlands Resolution to officially annex Hawaii in the same year.

Over the next 60 years, Congress created the Territory of Hawaii that ultimately led to statehood in 1959.


The ancient Hawaiian kingdom enjoyed periods of prosperity but also turbulence for centuries. As western influence grew in the 19th century, the monarchy’s grip on power slipped until the kingdom was ultimately overthrown.

King Kalākaua emerged as a leader determined to revive native Hawaiian culture and arts. But ongoing political strife led to his overthrow just two years after his passing. His sister Queen Liliʻuokalani nominally continued the monarchy until her forced abdication.

The Hawaiian kings and queens have become enduring symbols of leadership and identity for native Hawaiians. But the monarchy itself died alongside its last king, Kalākaua, in 1891.

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