The State of Aloha

What a difference a century makes. One hundred years ago, our queen was dead. Perhaps the most symbolic event of this transition from the old to the new world was the death of Queen Lili’uokalani in Honolulu on Nov. 11, 1917.

Lydia Lili’u Loloku Walania Kamaka’eha was born near Punchbowl Crater on Oahu. She came from a long and illustrious line of high-ranking attendants to the king of the Hawaiian Islands. The year was 1838 — about 10 years before the mahele (it used to be called the “Great Mahele,” but more modern historians have noted that for many Hawaiians, it did not deserve such a description) when the king formally recognized Western concepts of property and landownership.

The start of private property in the islands went hand in hand with Western-style commercial activity, lending and the rise of a business class that would later engineer the overthrow of the monarchy itself.

The queen saw the establishment of a written constitution, legislature, courts and other European and American-style forms of governments. She also saw the rapid growth of commerce in the islands. It was capitalism and business interests that resulted in a coup d’etat.

During her reign she was overthrown by a cabal of local-born white men who saw her and the monarchy itself as a threat to their business interests. She was imprisoned in her own home and an oligarchic republic was established. A few years later, the Americans annexed the islands as a territory.

Territorial status brought a new form of government run by a governor appointed by a president thousands of miles away. Counties were established in 1905.

It’s easy to forget that in the midst of this great, and for many catastrophic, transition, the queen was still around. No longer a prisoner at the palace (the palace had been converted into a territorial legislature, where it would eventually fall into disrepair and neglect even well into statehood), the queen was a living reminder of the overthrow and the kingdom’s independent past.

She still made public appearances. One of my favorite pictures of the queen was taken in 1914 at the birthday celebration of Capt. Henri Berger, bandmaster for the Royal Hawaiian Band. The overthrow had been over for decades, and the islands had been firmly annexed with the United States when the queen posed for a photograph between Sanford Dole, one of the ringleaders of the overthrow, and Lucius Pinkham, a Massachusetts-born businessman appointed as governor of the territory.

The queen is dressed in black and wears gloves. She still carries herself with poise and dignity. But it seems like her face is almost a scowl. Dole, on the other hand, is dressed in a lily-white suit and sits in a simple wooden chair with his hat in his hands. They look past each other as if they had nothing left to say.

On the other side of the queen is the territorial governor in a white three-piece suit. He stares at the camera awkwardly. Three years after the picture was taken, the queen would be dead at the age of 79.

1917 was the start of a new world. Europe, the center of colonial rule, was bogged down in a highly advanced and mechanized war. This war was different from any other war before it. A contest of two groups of allies met in the west on a front line extending for miles. Machine guns, tanks, airplanes and even poison gas couldn’t break the stalemate that settled across the continent. The eastern part of Europe had two fronts to contend with — Germans on one side and the last generation of the Ottoman Turks. The war had been grinding along for three years before the Americans got into the fray.

And then, just months after the Americans joined the fighting in the trenches, Russia — a nation with colonies, a royal family and all of the other trappings of what you’d expect in a European country at the time — bowed out of the conflict. It had been overtaken and transformed into something the world had never seen before: a socialist state. The West feared the Bolsheviks and their new brand of equality and the elimination of private property. The old world was fading and a new, uncertain future awaited.

The 20th century had truly begun. A century later the world is very different from the queen’s day. Still, some of us found time to recognize her passing with a ceremony in Honolulu earlier this month.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”