Psuddenly Mary pauses. Lower your voice, cast your eyes down, become very still. The warmth and cordiality with which she welcomed us, the friendly gentleness that harmonizes so perfectly with the long, floral dress and the flower in her hair – everything has evaporated in one fell swoop. Mary, aware of the effect, lets the silence take effect. And then says, it almost whispers: “Now we come to the prison room.” To the prison room.
Mary leads through the only royal palace on American soil – the Iolani Palace in the heart of Honolulu, the capital of the state of Hawaii. The time of monarchy in the Pacific Islands is long gone, it ended dramatically in January 1893. At that time, a group of white businessmen declared the Queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani, deposed in a coup – with the backing of American troops. The subversive took over the rule and the royal palace as the seat of their provisional government. Two years later, where the queen once held court, she was imprisoned, tried in a military tribunal and sentenced. She was not allowed to leave her room for eight months. Hence Mary’s gloomy mood in the palace. Hence the name: prison room.
Liliuokalani shapes the Hawaiians
Queen Liliuokalani is a symbol for many Hawaiians. She was the first reigning queen, she fought for independence and the preservation of Hawaiian culture, she campaigned for more freedom for girls and women, and she wrote more than 200 songs, including “Aloha Oe”, the Hawaiian classic was heard in Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” and in the Disney film “Lilo & Stitch”. Mary, who was born in Hawaii, also grew up with the songs of Liliuokalani. “She was and is the most popular monarch among the Hawaiians,” she says.
Liliuokalani grew up in difficult times. In 1810, King Kamehameha united all the islands in one empire for the first time. Hawaii became an important trading post for seafarers in the Pacific. More and more whites flocked to the islands, from whalers to the missionaries who landed in 1820. They taught the Christian faith, developed an alphabet for the Hawaiian language, built schools, provided education. Life on the islands changed, conflicts arose between the way of life of the locals and the values of those who came to the island. But the ali’i, the leading class of the Hawaiians, knew that if they didn’t want to lose touch with the world and with time, they had to follow the path of the whites. The native population shrank, from as much as 400,000 before the Whites arrived to just under 60,000 in 1872. Many Hawaiians had lost their land and were working on plantations of white employers. The descendants of the missionaries increasingly transferred their sense of mission from religion to business life: the large companies that determined economic life were clustered in their hands. They only wanted the best for Hawaii, they said. In truth, it was best for herself above all.
A way between two worlds
Liliuokalani stood between the two worlds. Born on September 2, 1838 in Honolulu, she was shaped by her Hawaiian origins and her training at an elite school of white missionaries. Throughout her life she tried to find her own way. When her brother David Kalakaua was king, she saw how difficult it was to balance interests. In 1875, Kalakaua agreed with the United States that Hawaiian products would be imported duty-free.
The result was a boom on the islands. The sugar industry in particular benefited: production shot up from 8,800 tons, which were exported in 1866, to almost 130,000 tons (1890). In order to extend the customs treaty, Kalakaua, financially and politically in dire straits, had to grant the Americans exclusive access to Pearl Harbor in 1887 – a controversial concession. For Liliuokalani it was a disregard for Hawaiian sovereignty. And the first step towards a threatening horror scenario: the annexation.