Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen

As I may have mentioned, I've become a bit obsessed about the history of Hawaii after reading Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell. Vowell mentioned this autobiography by Queen Liliuokalani several times in her book, so I went searching for it on Kindle.

Liliuokalani, Hawaii's last queen, was a fascinating woman. She was the child of Hawaiian royalty, educated by New England missionaries in their boarding school. She had the rituals and traditions of Hawaii drilled out of her in favor of Christianity and Victorian morals. The pictures of her and her family make me laugh. She is a beautiful Hawaiian woman, with dark skin and black hair, dressed to the nines in stiff Victorian attire - corsets and shiny satins and bustles aplenty. Her husband, the Prince Consort John Owen Dominis, was white, but he adopted the English attire as well - a George V beard, long coat, sashes and sword.

Liliuokalani's life was pretty amazing. As a member of the ruling family, she traveled the islands extensively, visiting her subjects. She also crossed the United States, met with presidents and legislators, and went to England to help Queen Victoria celebrate her Golden Jubilee.

It was while she was in England, her brother, the King, was forced by the white missionaries, to sign a new constitution that ceded almost all control of the Hawaiian government to them. In Liliuokalani's telling, this was a travesty and miscarriage of justice, which it truly was. But when you read Vowell's account, you realize that there was more to it. King Kalakaua was fairly corrupt, accepting bribes from the white plantation owners in exchange for land and water rights and opium import licenses. Still, what the whites did to take over the government was wrong.

When Liliuokalani ascended the throne after her brother's death, she attempted to change the constitution to restore power to the monarchy. Her actions were entirely legal according to the constitution her brother had signed, but the Missionary Party saw her as a threat, and with the help of the US ambassador, forced her to give up the throne. They arrested her and threatened to execute her supporters with treason if she didn't abdicate. The ambassador's actions were entirely outside the law, but it didn't matter. Hawaiian sugar and fruit had become entirely too valuable to the US, and the white plantation owners were entirely too rich for the course of action to be undone.

Liliuokalani was kept imprisoned in the Iolani Palace for almost a year before being released to house arrest for even longer. Once she had been freed by the president of the provisional government, she traveled to the US to plead Hawaii's case with Congress and the president. She carried with her a petition signed by tens of thousands of Hawaiians, all of whom had been denied the right to vote by the constitution, protesting Hawaii's annexation by the US. Unfortunately, her efforts were to no avail. Congress voted against annexation, but the president jammed it through via a joint resolution that didn't require the same number of votes as an annexation treaty.

Liliuokalani's book ends before the joint resolution passed, which is sad. She's hopeful that the end that her people's wishes will be heard by the American government. Too bad it wasn't. Native Hawaiians have been left with almost no land and no money, kind of like the Native Americans the white people screwed over.


After reading so much about Hawaii, I am desperate to go there, not for the beaches, but for the history. The Hawaiian government seems to have done a good job of preserving historic locations, and I'd love to visit the schools and churches founded by the missionaries, as well as the Iolani palace.

I'm going to start saving my pennies.


Inspector Clouseau said...

Nice blog work. I came across your blog while “blog surfing” using the Next Blog button on the blue Nav Bar located at the top of my site. I frequently just travel around looking for other blogs which exist on the Internet, and the various, creative ways in which people express themselves. Thanks for sharing.

Susan said...

My book club read Molokaii a few years ago - I had not heard of Familiar Fishes, though. I read James Mitchner's Hawaii many years ago - excellenrt if you are obsessed.

We sure have been unscrupulous as a country, haven't we?

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