A Woman to Know: Kaʻiulani

I must have been born under an unlucky star, for my life seems to have been planned in such a way that I cannot alter it. — Kaʻiulani

(image via Hawaii State Archives)

Ka'iulani was born a Hawaiian princess, raised on the royal family's sprawling Waikiki estate alongside pet peacocks and celebrity visitors. Once her aunt, Queen Lili'uokalani, ascended to the throne in 1875, the family sent the young princess to boarding school in England, where she could train to be heir apparent to the throne. Robert Louis Stevenson, a long-time friend of the Hawaiian royal family, wrote this ode to her leaving:

Her islands here, in Southern sun,
Shall mourn their Kaiulani gone,
And I, in her dear banyan shade,
Look vainly for my little maid.

She remained abroad until the Hawaiian kingdom was threatened by a takeover in 1893. As a mere teenager, she visited American to plead with New York dignitaries and Washington politicians for help restoring the island government to the Hawaiian people.

President Grover Cleveland was impressed with 18-year-old Kai'ulani's poise and eloquence; but as a lame duck leader in the latter half of his term, he couldn't fight Hawaii's eventual annexation. When William McKinley won the presidency later that year, Kai'ulani returned to Hawaii in exile, desperate to help her aunt salvage any political power.

After a lavish luau and some strategic politics, the queen and her almost-queen secured voting rights for the Hawaiian people in their new state. But Kai'ulani wouldn't live long enough to see the voting rights affirmed, Hawaii anexxed as a U.S. territory or her family's monarchy officially dismantled — after a stormy horseback ride along the Hawaii Island mountain range, she died of pneumonia at age 23.

"You can almost say that she is known for what she wasn't able to do," says archivist DeSoto Brown.

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