Soon after moving to Maui, I read a story about Her Majesty Queen Lili’uokalani, the last queen of Hawaii. She was married to an American Croat; John Owen Dominis – a Prince Consort of the Hawaiian Islands, who also served as the Governor of Oahu. I was intrigued by the story and did some of my own research. Initially, I thought it would be a cute little story, but I soon realized the story had a bitter twist and was not as pretty as it first sounded.
When we think of royal marriages we usually think of ‘happy ever after’ scenario: They loved each other so much, had lots of children, were very wealthy and has perfect lives. We tend to forget those people are human as well, thus equally subject to pain, sorrow, discomfort, loneliness, anger and a number of other ‘not so easy to handle’ emotions. This is not a fairy tale. This is a true story of two people of high rank in a not so happy marriage.
John O Dominis’s father John Dominis-Gospodnetich was born on the island of Brac, in Dalmatia, Croatia. He seemed to have developed a passion for sailing and seamanship in his early childhood. Not surprisingly though, that tends to happens to people who grow up on a beautiful island in the middle of an even prettier sea. Life on an island was especially difficult in those days, so a lot of islanders migrated abroad. So did John’s family. They didn’t go far at first, they settled in Trieste, Italy.
John was of an adventurous nature and in his early twenties decided to try his luck in the ‘New World’. He settled in Boston and soon worked his way up the ladder in the sailing world. John was an admirable sailor and a great businessman. He had it going for him and he soon married Mary Jones, a pretty girl from a good family (read: wealthy).
His maritime career took him to Hawaiian Islands several times. No one really knows why, maybe it was a memory of his childhood on Brac, but he fell in love with the islands and decided to move his affairs there. His wife Mary, and his then 6 years old son John Owen, accompanied him. They left their two daughters at a boarding school in New York, where they both died young!? Not sure what happened to them. It sounds very odd. It looks like Mary’s father financed their long and costly journey.
Considering his business affairs and the beauty of the place, they opted to settle in the heart of Honolulu, on Oahu. King Kamehameha lll awarded some land to the family, where they built a beautiful, Greek Revival style mansion. John continued to take voyages to raise money for the building of their grand new home. He was lost at sea on his voyage to China, intending to buy Chinese-built furniture for their nearly completed house. That’s what you call life!
Mary had moved on and decided to support herself and John Owen by renting rooms. One of her first renters established American Legation in the house and named it ‘Washington Place’. Later on, their spacious home was used as a governor’s palace and now serves as a museum.
John O, the future Prince, attended a day school in close proximity to the Royal School, founded for the children of Hawaiian nobility. Noblesse oblige, even in Hawaii. He would often climb the fence to look at the princes and princesses and made some long-lasting friendships, among which, the one with Princess Lydia. This friendship will prove to be quite life changing later on.
He became a clerk and was an apprentice in San Francisco. He returned to Oahu and got a position at a Honolulu commercial house. He seemed to have possessed his father’s business abilities and was success driven as well. He was soon a royal staff member and would regularly accompany the Royal family on their travels.
His friendship to Princess Lydia grew and they were soon engaged to be married. Their marriage was postponed a little due to death of young Prince Albert. I deliberately didn’t mention the word love here, as there was more to this story than love, at least on John’s part. Once they were finally married, the marriage was very unhappy. From what I read and my inner gut feeling, John liked Lydia, but was also very keen on social status and success in business. Marriage to Lydia would give him just that. Lydia on the other hand fell madly in love with John. It might have had somewhat to do with the fact that he was haole (a word used in Hawaii to describe a white person), she wanted to bring new ways to the Hawaiian Kingdom to modernize it.
Princess Lydia could not conceive children of her own and John was not open to adoption. The Princess suffered greatly and did not hide her unhappiness. John, on the other hand, decided to look for happiness and probably love, outside of his marriage and had numerous affairs. One of those affairs was with Mary Purdy Lamiki ‘Aimoku, one of his wife’s household retainers. She was also related to his wife, not by blood, but by native Hawaiian tradition ofhanai or very loosely translated – adoption (I’ll write about hanai in a different post). Mary probably made the Prince very happy by giving birth to a healthy baby boy John Domonis ‘Aimoku.
It’s not easy to imagine how Lydia felt. She had accepted her husbands constant unfaithfulness and knowing he has a son with another woman brought her much pain. Lili’uokalani tried to spare her husband the embarrassment, she loved him so much, that she wanted to adopt the child as her own. This would, however, make the child successor to the throne and was illegal, so she did not follow through. She just wanted to do everything in her power to make her husband happy. It didn’t seem he had any intention of doing the same for her. It didn’t seem he even cared.
Little did she know of his ancestry, how could she? She travelled, but never as far as the Mediterranean. Brac, were John’s father was from, is situated in the part of Croatia called Dalmatia. Dalmatian men are known for their charm, their good looks and their persuasive seductive ways. Yes, they are good with the ladies. Maybe this has nothing to do with the way he treated her, just saying…
Some sources say she had ‘someone’ to console her as well, an old friend from childhood. She wasn’t very vocal about their relationship and always referred to him as a friend. They both seemed very discreet. She was a Princess after all.
John’s plan on establishing a successful career and high social status worked as a result of his marriage to the Princess and his friendships to the King Kamehameha V and King Kalākaua. His ‘achievements’ were many: he was a Royal Commander of the Royal Order of Kamehameha, the Royal Order of Kalākaua, and several others, he served on the King’s Privy Council as well as in the House of Nobles and from 1868 until his death as was a Royal Governor of Oʻahu. He served on the Board of Health, Board of Education, Bureau of Immigration, and was Quartermaster General and Commissioner of Crown Lands. He served as a Royal Governor of Maui and was appointed Lieutenant General and Commander-in-Chief. When Lydia became the Queen, he was ‘promoted’ to a Prince Consort. Rumor has it Governor Dominis was a very dedicated freemason and held the 33rd degree. That’s what you call marrying well!
Lydia became Queen Lili’uokalani after her brother King Kalākaua died. John died soon after. She then adopted his son, she really had a big heart. But it wasn’t only her husband that gave her headaches, it was also her mother-in-law, who she did not get along with. Some sources say Mary, John’s mother, was somewhat racist and considered Lydia ‘not good enough’ for her son. Considering the previous paragraph, seems to me he got everything and anything he asked for.What else could Hawaii give him?
As if it wasn’t enough that Lydia had and unhappy marriage, a very unfaithful husband, she couldn’t bear children (she wanted them so much!), she didn’t get a long with her mother-in-law and she adopted her husbands son, conceived with another woman, she was also faced with the end of the world as she knew it. She went through the overthrow of her Kingdom by pro-American forces that later led to Hawaii’s annexation to the U.S.A. She not only lost her throne, but that was also the end of Hawaii’s independence as a nation. She wrote a book in which she conveyed her frustration and sadness, but could not change the course of history. At least she did everything she could: she pleaded and fought, wrote, spoke and protested, but as you know Hawaii stayed under the wing of a much bigger fish.
Lili’uokalani inherited ‘Washington Place’ after death of her mother-in-law Mary, little consolation for such a turbulent life. She died at the age of 79 in that very house. The formal version states she died from complications after a stoke. I think she died of sadness and heartbreak. The woman who wanted children so much, but could not have them, dictated in her will that all of her possessions and properties be sold and the money raised would go to the Queen Liliʻuokalani Children’s Trust to help orphaned and indigent children. The Queen Liliʻuokalani Trust Fund still exists today.