Kamaka’eha: The Painful Eye

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One of the realities of living away from Hawai’i is not being able to participate in public commemorations of Hawaiian historical events. January 17th is not so much a day of celebration, but one of remembrance. For some, it is a day of mourning. For others, it is a day that stirs anger. Although I am not living in Hawai’i, I observe this day as one of reflection.

On January 17, 1893, Hawai’i’s Queen Lili’uokalani was forced to abdicate her throne by a coup of local businessmen. Led by Sanford B. Dole, this coup was backed by the U.S. military. The Queen’s abdication ultimately led to the annexation of Hawai’i as a U.S. territory and its admission as the 50th state.

Queen Lili’uokalani was born Lydia Lili‘u (smarting) Loloku (tearful) Walania (a burning pain) Kamaka‘eha (the painful eye). When her brother, King David Kalākaua, made her heir to the throne, he gave her the name Lili’uokalani (okalani means “from the heavens”).

Although I know that Elizabeth Kīna’u (she acted as Regent for her brother King Kamehameha III) named her Kamaka’eha because she had an eye infection at the time the Queen’s birth, not because the Queen was born with teary eyes, this name is the one I most associate with the Queen. I find this name haunting, as if it was foreboding of the sad reign that the Queen would have.

The Queen ascended to the throne after the death of King Kalākaua on January 20, 1891 at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. The King’s body arrived back in Honolulu nine days later on a ship with sails at half-mast.

Four years before King Kalākaua’s death, an armed militia forced him to sign a document (“The Bayonet Constitution”) that stripped him of his power and created a constitutional monarchy under which power was vested in the legislature and cabinet.

It was this Bayonet Constitution that Queen Lili’uokalani sought to replace with a Hawaiian constitution that would restore power in the Hawaiian monarchy and voting rights back to the Hawaiian people. The Queen’s resolve made her the continued target of the coup that deposed her in 1891.

In 1893, the Queen’s efforts prompted President Cleveland to denounce the overthrow of the Queen and to urge Congress to restore the Hawaiian monarchy. Congress declined to restore the Queen to her throne, but it postponed a vote on Hawai’i’s annexation.

Following an uprising of royalists, the Queen was placed under house arrest in a corner room of Iolani Palace on January 16, 1895. The Queen was tried and convicted of misprision of treason (knowing of treason and not reporting it). She remained under house arrest in Iolani Palace until September 6, 1895, when she was released on parole and permitted to return to her private home, Washington Place.

After the Queen received a pardon with restoration of her civil rights in October 1896, she returned to Washington, D.C., and presented President Cleveland with documents signed by many Hawaiians asking President Cleveland to reinstate her as queen. Although President Cleveland was sympathetic, he was unable to stop the momentum of support behind the annexation of Hawai’i.

When President William McKinley succeeded President Cleveland, native Hawaiians submitted a petition to Congress with 29,000 signatures opposing annexation. They also petitioned the Republic of Hawai’i for a public vote on annexation, but annexation was never put to such a vote.

Congress passed a resolution annexing Hawai’i on July 4, 1898. The Hawaiian flag was lowered and the United States flag raised at Iolani Palace on August 12, 1898. The Queen suffered another personal loss when Princess Ka’iulani, heir to the throne and the Queen’s niece, died in 1899.

A portrait of Queen Lili’uokalani hangs in my home. I remember her struggle – mai poina – do not forget. For me, forgetting would render all the pain she witnessed and experienced meaningless. I hope my remembering and my heeding her motto, onipa’a – be steadfast – bring the Queen with the Painful Eye a measure of comfort, and maybe even a little bit of joy.

©Living off Island, writingwahine, 2015.

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