The Courage to Lead


By Dr. Ronald Williams, Jr.

On 23 March 1891, the Honolulu newspaper Ka Leo o Ka Lāhui published a well-defined appeal to the nations’ newest sovereign: “Na Kumuhana a ka Lahui e Panee aku nei Imua ou e ka Moiwahine Liliuokalani” (The Matters of the Nation put forward in front of Queen Liliʻuokalani).

The request announced the principal desire of the lāhui; a “Kumukanawai Hou” (New Constitution). The constitutional monarchy of the Hawaiian Kingdom had been disrupted three years earlier when a clandestined group of white businessmen and missionary descendants – through a militia-led coup – forced the 1887 “Bayonet Constitution” upon Mōʻī Kalākaua.

This imposed document disenfranchised many Kānaka ʻŌiwi and all Asian subjects, shifting power to the white minority in the islands. It was despised by a majority of the populace and the lāhui wanted it replaced.

The goal of a new constitution eluded the lāhui over the final years of Mōʻī Kalākaua’s reign, but now, in 1891, with a new head-of-state, the campaign intensified.

Photo: Queen Liliʻuokalani
Her Majesty Queen Liliʻuokalani.

Over the 24 months of Mōʻīwahine Liliʻuokalani’s reign, Hawaiian Kingdom subjects and their supporters, continually, in various ways and at various sites, reiterated their demand for a governing document that would return leadership of the lāhui to its native people.

The Queen explained, “Petitions poured in from every part of the Islands for a new constitution. These were addressed to myself as reigning sovereign.” Indeed, thousands of the Queen’s subjects from all over the kingdom signed petitions addressed “Ia Liliuokalani” (To Liliʻuokalani) from “i kupono i Koho Balota” (qualified voters) “me ka iini nui” (with intense desire)…“e loaa koke mai he Kumukanawai hou no ko kakou Aina a me ko kakou lahui (to obtain soon a new Constitution for our land and nation/people.)

Concurrently, Her subjects petitioned the Hawaiian Kingdom legislature to convene a constitutional convention that could enact their wishes. Representatives White [Lahaina], Nāwahī [Hilo], Bipikāne [Pauoa], Akina [Kauaʻi], Pua [Kalaupapa], and many others delivered petitions from their districts. Soon after, White and Nāwahī delivered the people’s message to the Queen in person.

She recalled, “until these conversations, it had not occurred to me as possible to take such a step in the interest of the native people: but after these parties had spoken to me, I began to give the subject my careful consideration.” After several meetings and a gathering at Muʻolaulani Palace to kūkā with diverse leaders, the Queen agreed. Despite the evident dangers involved, Her subjects’ wishes were clear.

The decision to act upon the voice of the people would end up costing Queen Liliʻuokalani Her throne, Her ʻāina – nearly one million acres of Crown Lands – and for nearly a century, Her rightful place in history as a exceptional leader.

In a false-hearted twist, the truth of her determined stand for representative government was omitted from the record in order to shape a master narrative that sought to justify the theft of a nation.

The insurgent’s narrative described a “power-hungry” queen who had attempted to seize control by thrusting a new constitution on her people, and the “long-suffering whites” of the Islands. This false history garnered institutional support.

The 1931 edition of the University of Hawaiʻi’s yearbook Ka Palapala offers a history of Hawaiʻi that describes the 1893 coup and subsequent seizure of the Islands by the United States as “THE TRANSITION,” and explains, “This period reveals the Islands on the verge of dramatic changes. Queen Liliʻuokalani was on the throne and had ruled despotically, bringing about changes without consulting the will of her people. Revolution followed and her throne was seized from her.”

Princess Liliʻuokalani took the throne begrudgingly, saddened by the death of Her brother, and saddled with a deep responsibility that several other royals over the previous years had turned down.

Amidst the treacherous turmoil of the day, the easiest thing would have been to simply occupy the throne and carry on as normal. Yet, Her nation needed her. The remarkable constitutional monarchy crafted by Mōʻī Kauikeaouli and shaped by other aliʻi nui before her was broken. Under Bayonet, it was no longer a representation of the will of the people and those people had called out to her.

Learning of the truth of her brave actions, offers hope, inspiration, and courage to the lāhui today – the courage to listen, the courage to act, and most of all, the courage to lead.

Historian Ronald Williams, Jr., Ph.D., is an archivist at the Hawaiʻi State Archives, owner of Ka ʻElele Research and Writing, and hoʻopaʻa kūʻauhau for ʻAhahui Hawaiʻi Aloha ʻĀina.