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The islands of Hawaii are shrouded in mystery and intrigue when it comes to their history of rulers and monarchs. If you’ve ever wondered who the final Hawaiian monarch was before annexation by the United States, you’re not alone.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s only reigning queen, was the last monarch of Hawaii before it became a U.S. territory in 1898.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the full history leading up to Liliuokalani’s rule, the key events that defined her reign, the tensions that led to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, and the lasting legacy that Hawaii’s last queen has left even decades after her death.

The Early History of Hawaii’s Rulers

The Unification of the Islands Under King Kamehameha I

In the late 18th century, the Hawaiian Islands were divided into several territories ruled by local chiefs. Around 1795, Kamehameha I, also known as Napoleon of the Pacific (Britannica), embarked on a campaign to unite the islands under his rule.

After years of warfare, diplomacy, and determination, he succeeded in uniting all the main Hawaiian Islands by 1810, establishing the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Kamehameha was an outstanding leader and military strategist. His success in unifying Hawaii is remarkable considering the islands had never previously been unified. By bringing the islands together under centralized rule, his kingdom set the stage for Hawaii’s development into a cohesive society in the 19th century.

The Kamehameha Dynasty and the Establishment of the Hawaiian Kingdom

After Kamehameha I’s death in 1819, the kingdom passed to his son, Kamehameha II. However, his reign lasted less than five years before he died unexpectedly during a visit to London. The throne then went to his younger brother, Kamehameha III.

Unlike his brother’s brief reign, Kamehameha III ruled for nearly 30 years, from 1825-1854. During that time, Hawaii’s government evolved from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. In 1840, Kamehameha III introduced Hawaii’s first constitution limiting the power of the king.

This was a major milestone in establishing a more democratic system.

The Brief Reigns of Kamehameha II and III

Kamehameha II’s short reign meant he had little chance to make his mark on Hawaii’s history. However, one notable event was a change in traditional Hawaiian religion. Under pressure from Christian missionaries, he abolished the indigenous religious kapu (taboo) system before traveling abroad where he later died.

While longer than his brother’s, Kamehameha III’s reign was also cut short by his untimely death at the age of 41. However, he oversaw Hawaii’s growing involvement in world trade and took the first steps towards establishing a constitutional government.

The groundwork he laid brought stability and prosperity to the kingdom in the coming years.

The Rule of King Kalakaua and the Growing Threats to Hawaii’s Sovereignty

The Election of King Kalakaua and Cultural Renaissance

In 1874, David Kalākaua was elected to be the last reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii. King Kalākaua embraced native Hawaiian culture and the arts, leading to a renaissance of Hawaiian traditions during his reign.

Some of his influential efforts included the rebuilding of Iolani Palace in 1882 to reflect indigenous Hawaiian architecture.

The Bayonet Constitution and the 1887 Rebellion

In 1887, King Kalākaua was forced under duress to sign a new constitution that stripped him of most of his authority, empowering the white American minority instead. This “Bayonet Constitution” triggered a rebellion by native Hawaiians who opposed the limiting of the monarch’s power.

However, the rebellion was crushed with force by white landowners with help from US Marines.

Increased U.S. Business Interests and the Growing Power of the Missionary Party

During the 1800s, American business interests in Hawaiian sugarcane and pineapple plantations were steadily growing. Missionaries and white landowners formed the Missionary Party in Hawaii to promote business interests and limit native Hawaiian influence.

This party gained significant political power, controlling meetings with King Kalākaua and shaping government policy to benefit U.S. business interests.

The McKinley Tariff Act Deals a Major Economic Blow

In 1890, the U.S. Congress passed the McKinley Tariff Act, eliminating the previous duty-free import of Hawaiian sugar into the United States. This dealt a severe economic blow to Hawaii’s economy. With their business interests threatened, the white American plantation owners and Missionary Party began planning for Hawaii’s annexation by the United States.

The Reign and Overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani

Liliuokalani Inherits the Throne Amid Rising Tensions

In January 1891, King Kalakaua passed away unexpectedly, leaving his sister Liliuokalani to inherit the Hawaiian throne. Queen Liliuokalani was an intelligent and strong-willed woman who was committed to protecting Hawaiian sovereignty against growing American business interests in the islands.

However, tensions were rising between the monarchy and the influential American plantation owners and merchants in Hawaii. In 1887, an attempted coup by armed militia was put down by Kalakaua, but resentment continued to fester.

As Liliuokalani was crowned, the political situation remained extremely volatile.

The Queen Begins Drafting a New Constitution

Shortly after taking power, Queen Liliuokalani began working on a new constitution aimed at restoring monarchy powers that had been lost under Kalakaua. In particular, the goal was to limit suffrage to Hawaiian citizens and Asians rather than allow all European and American residents to vote.

This proposed constitution alarmed the American business leaders and plantation owners in Hawaii, who called it “radical” and “despotic.” They quickly organized in opposition to Liliuokalani’s rule, fearing the loss of power and influence.

American Business Leaders Organize the Overthrow of the Monarchy

In response to Liliuokalani’s constitution plans, Sanford Dole and other powerful American lawyers, plantation owners, and businessmen developed a plot to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy.

In January 1893, aided by John L. Stevens, the U.S. Minister to Hawaii, this group of businessmen and plantation owners forced Queen Liliuokalani to abdicate her throne. They established a provisional government under Dole’s leadership shortly thereafter.

The Establishment of the Republic of Hawaii

Following the coup, President Grover Cleveland launched an investigation whose findings clearly stated the overthrow of Liliuokalani was illegal. Cleveland called for her reinstatement as queen, but Dole refused the demand.

In 1898, the Spanish-American War broke out, and the strategic importance of Pacific naval bases became evident. As a result, the U.S. annexed Hawaii, and in 1900 the Territory of Hawaii was officially created. Dole was appointed its first governor.

Queen Liliuokalani remained beloved by native Hawaiians, who continued to push for her restoration long after she was overthrown. Though she was never reinstated, Liliuokalani came to be seen as a Hawaiian national heroine for her dignity and peaceful acquiescence after the loss of her kingdom.

The Annexation of Hawaii and the Lasting Impact of Queen Liliuokalani

Liliuokalani Officially Abdicates the Throne

In January 1893, a group of American businessmen and Hawaiian subjects staged a coup against Queen Liliuokalani with support from U.S. military. They established a Provisional Government in Hawaii which sought annexation by the United States.

After an unsuccessful attempt by the Queen to regain control in 1895, she was charged with treason and placed under house arrest at Iolani Palace. With a heavy heart, Liliuokalani formally abdicated her throne on January 24, 1895 in the hopes that her people may be spared.

Hawaii Comes Under U.S. Control Through Formal Annexation

Over the next few years, negotiations led by U.S President William McKinley eventually culminated in the formal annexation of Hawaii through the Newlands Resolution in 1898. This brought the Hawaiian islands under full U.S jurisdiction as an American territory.

While Native Hawaiian protested America’s seizure of their homeland, further political maneuvering by the U.S led to Hawaii becoming the 50th U.S state in 1959.

The Legacy and Influence of Hawaii’s Last Monarch

  • Liliuokalani is revered for her resilience and grace even in the face of adversity. She continued to lobby for Native Hawaiian interests whilst living out the rest of her days in Washington Place. Through her autobiography, she made sure later generations understood Hawaii’s history from the viewpoint of its indigenous people.
  • The loss of sovereignty still leaves deep scars within local communities till this day. However movements to revive native languages and traditions have led to a cultural renaissance in recent years.
  • There is a growing push for self-governance and policies righting previous wrongs done towards Native Hawaiians. In 1993 President Clinton issued an official Apology Resolution, finally acknowledging the American government’s role in overthrowing Hawaii’s rightful rulers.
  • Conclusion

    As the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian Islands before annexation, Queen Liliuokalani faced incredible political turbulence and threats to her nation’s independence. Through it all, she remained devoted to restoring Hawaiian sovereignty.

    Though she was never able to regain her throne, Liliuokalani’s activism and nonviolent resistance established her as a beloved figure both in Hawaii and abroad. The aloha spirit and local culture she championed continues to inspire both native Hawaiians and visitors to the islands alike over a century later.

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