"Could there be any plainer recognition than this that I was the constitutional ruler of my people?" wrote Queen Lili'uokalani about her family's right to the Hawaiian throne after her monarchy was overthrown by the US government in 1893. After this coup - which eventually resulted in Hawaii becoming the 50th US state in 1959 - Lili'uokalani's descendants have continued to argue over the true heir to the Hawaiian throne. These efforts raise an important question: does the Kingdom of Hawaii still exist?
Imprisoned and under duress, Lili'uokalani was ordered to abdicate by a small group of sugar plantation owners who were unhappy with the progression of Hawaiian politics. In 1887, then King David Kalakaua was forced to sign a new constitution into law that favored business interests. Once Lili'uokalani ascended after her brother's demise, she refused to adhere to the constitution, leading to the coup.
Since then, the legality of the American takeover of Hawaii has been challenged by Native sovereignty groups. Lili'uokalani's own House of Kawananakoa has claimed the throne should be returned to them, while other groups have come out of the woodwork claiming their right to rule what they believe to be the still intact Kingdom of Hawaii. Some of these claims have been mired in controversy, while others have been fueled by a simple desire to see the American government acknowledge and rectify its actions in the Pacific islands.
After Lili'uokalani was overthrown as ruler of Hawaii, it was officially annexed by the United States in 1898, nullifying the legality of her family's right to rule from an American perspective. She'd attempted to name Prince David Kawananakoa and Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole as heirs in an 1893 constitution she drafted before the coup, but it was never ratified or approved by the legislature.
Lili'uokalani eventually retired from public life, accepting the fate of her land. As she writes in her autobiography :
The conspirators, having actually gained possession of the machinery of government, and the recognition of foreign ministers, refused to surrender their conquest. So it happens that, overawed by the power of the United States to the extent that they can neither themselves throw off the usurpers, nor obtain assistance from other friendly states, the people of the Islands have no voice in determining their future, but are virtually relegated to the condition of the aborigines of the American continent.
When she passed in 1917, Lili'uokalani's descendants - the House of Kawananakoa - claimed the throne, designating the new American rulers illicit occupiers. Lili'uokalani had no children, leaving her various family members to vie for the throne. According to them, their case was justified by the Native constitution they still deemed legal.
In her autobiography, Lili'uokalani describes the day her heir was named:
On the ninth day of March, 1891, Princess Victoria Kaiulani, Kalaninuiahilapalapa Kawekiu i Lunalilo, daughter of my sister, Princess Miriam Kekauluohi Likelike and Hon. A.S. Cleghorn, was duly proclaimed heir apparent, and her nomination recognized by the United States ship-of-war Mohican by a salute of twenty-one guns.
This proclamation remained legitimate in the eyes of Lili'uokalani's royal family after the coup. In 1899, Princess Kaiulani, who was Lili'uokalani's niece, passed suddenly at the age of 23. In her short life, she contributed quite a bit to the House of Kawananakoa. At 17, she traveled to New York City, making a direct appeal to the American government to return Hawaii to her people. She seemed to avoid plenty of the bad press surrounding her family at the time, and the San Francisco Examiner characterized her as "a charming, fascinating individual." After Kaiulani's visit, President Grover Cleveland ordered the provisional government in Hawaii restore Lili'uokalani's monarchy, but those in charge refused.
When Kaiulani perished, she was engaged to Prince David Kawananakoa, one of the men Lili'uokalani attempted to name heir in her 1893 constitution. Kaiulani had no children, and Lili'uokalani never named another heir before she passed in 1917, leaving the House of Kawananakoa without any officially mandated successors.
The genealogy of Hawaiian royalty is convoluted and divergent: a growing, multi-ethnic family tree. The number of those who claim royal ancestry continues to expand and has led to internal fighting over which of the various lineages should actually bear the title. The House of Kawananakoa is targeted often, and one petition on Change.org asks the public to "stop addressing the members of the Kawananakoa family as Prince/ss," maintaining the "titles of 'prince' and 'princess' are European in origin and are not Hawaiian."
The authors of the petition write:
It is acceptable for them to be addressed as ali'i and be given the courtesy of a native chief, it is not acceptable for them to be addressed as prince/ss as those titles only emanate by the Reigning Sovereign and the last legal sovereign of the Hawaiian Kingdom [passed] in 1917.
The same critics who push for the removal of the "prince" and "princess" titles for the House of Kawananakoa also challenge the belief that the Hawaiian throne is automatically hereditary. Their Change.org petition states:
The titles of "prince" and "princess" are European in origin and are not Hawaiian and therefore not governed by Hawaiian tradition but solely and strictly by proclamations signed by the Hawaiian sovereign and are not automatically hereditary.
These critics cite Articles 22 and 35 from the 1887 Hawaiian Constitution to justify their stance. Article 22 includes a clause that if "there is no heir as above provided, the successor shall be the person whom the Sovereign shall appoint with the consent of the Nobles, and publicly proclaim during the Sovereign's life," while Article 35 asserts, "All Titles of Honor, Orders, and other distinctions, emanate from the King." To these critics, since the named heirs - Lili'uokalani and Kaliunali - are both deceased, the House of Kawananakoa's right to rule based on hereditary, despite its insistence otherwise, is not guaranteed.
All of these arguments are further complicated by the fact that the 1887 Hawaiian Constitution - the kingdom's final one before it was overthrown - was a document forged by King David Kalakaua under pressure from sugar farmers and American aristocrats with interest in the islands. Coined "The Bayonet Constitution" because King Kalakau was forced to sign under duress, it reduced royal power significantly.