In yesterday's hula class I shared the Fun Fact that the day before, September 2, would have been the 171st birthday of Hawaii's last reigning monarch, Queen Lili'uokalani. Ever gracious, my hula sisters remarked that she didn't look a day over 170.
Born Lydia Lili'u Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamaka'eha, she will not be soon forgotten in Hawai'i. Her slogan, Onipa'a ("Be Steadfast"), is remembered by the people engaged in the struggle for sovereignty, or those who are just plain unhappy at the disgraceful way her short reign ended.
She came to the throne after her brother, David Kalâkaua, died of illness in San Francisco during a state visit. She set out to undo some of the concessions he had made to the powerful American businessmen, who had sought legislation that would be favorable to their enterprises, such as sugar and pineapple. Kalâkaua had given in and signed the so-called Bayonet Constitution in 1887. It got its name because the king was, at least figuratively, at the point of a bayonet when he signed.
The businessmen, alarmed by the queen's intentions, quickly formed what they called the Committee of Safety, which was supposed to ensure the safety of Americans, who would be losing the vote if all went the queen's way. In 1893, after she'd been queen for a bit under two years, Lili'uokalani was overthrown by the Committee, with the armed support of 162 American sailors and Marines.
Grover Cleveland, who was president at the time, at first decried the overthrow and stated that it was patently illegal. He offered to restore the queen to her throne -- with one catch: that she absolve the Committee of any wrong doing. The Queen gave the wrong answer. She said she intended to execute them.
Sanford Dole, of Dole Pineapple fame, was declared president of the new Republic of Hawaii on the Fourth of July, 1894. The former queen was arrested Jan. 16, 1895, along with many of her supporters. She was held prisoner in an upstairs bedroom of the 'Iolani Palace.
Visiting that room is a heartbreaking experience. Her captors even covered the windows so she couldn't see the palm trees, the sky or the sea, or her own people. She was allowed one maid, who helped her make a quilt depicting events in her life that is on display in that room today. She also composed beautiful songs while she was held prisoner for eight months.
To save her followers from death sentences, the same sentences she had expected to mete out to those who overthrew her, she abdicated her claim to the throne.
She died at age 79 in 1917 in Washington Place, the Honolulu home where she had lived with her husband before becoming queen. Think of her the next time you hear her most famous song, Aloha Oe, and these haunting words: "One fond embrace before I now depart. Until we meet again."
I studied hula for three years in Aloha, Oregon, and along the way developed a passion for all things Hawaiian. I also studied 'ukulele and the Hawaiian language.
When I'm not hula'ing, 'uking or practicing 'olelo Hawai'i, I am a professional writer with years of experience writing for local, regional and national publications. Most notably, I was a regular for The Wall Street Journal for 17 years.
Someday I hope to write a book about my obsession with Hawaiian culture.