It isn’t easy being queen. At least that’s what Lydia Lili’u Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamaka’eha would tell you. Born in Honolulu to a high ranking Hawaiian family, Lydia was educated by missionaries and then at the Chiefs’ Children’s School where she became fluent in English. Lydia spent time in the court of Kamahameha IV. With her musical talent she learned to play various instruments, including the guitar, piano, organ, ukulele and zither. As a skilled sight reader, she was the first person of Hawiian descent to become proficient in Western musical notation. She often passed time writing music, both sacred and secular. She married American John Dominis in 1862. As is apparent, the U.S. presence in Hawaii was far reaching. Lydia’s brother David Kalakaua was chosen king in 1874. When her youngest brother and heir apparent died, she was named heir to the throne. Thereafter, she was known by her royal name, Liliuokalani. While traveling to represent Hawaii at Queen Victoria’s crown jubilee in London in 1887, an elite class of mostly white American businessmen (haole) forced Kalakaua to sign the “Bayonet Constitution” which limited his power and forced him to sign a reciprocity treaty giving commercial privileges and control of Pearl Harbor to the United States. Her opposition to this meant that when she succeeded her brother in 1891 as the first woman to rule Hawaii, that she faced tremendous difficulties. She proposed a new constitution, thus leading a group of American and European businessmen, with the support of a contingent of U.S. Marines, to depose the queen in a coup in January 1893. The provisional government formed was led by Sanford Dole and proclaimed they were the Republic of Hawaii, with Dole as president. The U.S. ambassador, to Hawaii proclaimed Hawaii a protectorate of the United States. President Grover Cleveland commissioned a report that found the overthrow of Lili’uokalani was illegal and that American military troops acted inappropriately in the overthrow, yet the provisional government would not reinstate her as queen. No doubt Katherine Lee Bates was well aware of the overthrow of the Hawaiian government. This may have been on Bates’ mind when she wrote “God mend thine every flaw” within the lyrics of her own “America the Beautiful” in the summer of 1893. Liliuokalani was placed under house arrest in 1895 and charged with treason for a failed 1895 counter-revolution for which she may or may not have been a participant.
So what’s a woman to do when confined to a few guarded rooms at ‘Iolani Palace? She had private daily devotions, arranged flowers, read the few newspapers used to wrap the flowers she received (she was forbidden to receive newspapers), and wrote music. The most famous song was “Aloha Oe”, or “Farewell to Thee” was transcribed while so confined. Though written as a lovers’ goodbye, it later became known as a symbol of the loss of country. Several hymn writers took the tune to this secular song to write Christian hymns, such as “Go and Tell” by Austin Miles, “He Lives on High” by Baylus McKenney, and “He’s Coming Soon” by Thoro Harris. However, the hymn of which she wrote both music and lyrics and became the best known was “Ke Aloha O Ka Haku” or “The Lord’s Mercy”, and often known as “The Queen’s Prayer”. She wrote at the bottom of the manuscript “composed during my imprisonment at ‘Iolani Palace by the Missionary party who overthrew my government”. The song is about forgiveness, love, faith and hope, values she adopted first as a Presbyterian and then as an Anglican. She converted to the Anglican Church after receiving visits and letters from the Anglican Bishop in her imprisonment. The Presbyterians of her youth, she noted, ignored her. She was released and in 1896, she received a full pardon. In 1898, Hawaii became an incorporated territory of the United States.
Though she was a devoted Christian, she is remembered for her support of Buddhist and Shinto priests in Hawaii. She became one of the first native Hawaiians to attend a birthday celebration of Buddha. This helped Buddhism and Shintoism gain acceptance, prevented the potential banning of these religions by the territorial government and earned her the respect of the Japanese people in Hawaii. She died in 1917 from a stroke. Her will directed all her property be sold and used to help orphaned children. The Queen Lili’uokalani Trust Fund still exists.