Sugar heiress Abigail Kawananakoa, known as Hawaii’s last princess, dies at 96

AP Photo/Jennifer Sinco Kelleher
Abigail Kawananakoa appear in state court in Honolulu on Sept. 10, 2018.

Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawananakoa, heiress to a considerable sugar fortune and a surviving descendant of the royal family that once ruled over the Hawaiian Kingdom, died Dec. 11 at age 96.

Kawananakoa did not hold an official royal title but was widely referred to in Hawaii as a princess, as she was considered by historians to be one of the few surviving heirs with a claim to the abolished Hawaiian throne, and was seen as a symbol of Hawaii’s monarchy.

Kawananakoa’s death was announced Monday outside Honolulu’s ‘Iolani Palace, the only royal residence in the United States. The notice, which styled her as “Her Royal Highness, Princess,” said plans for her funeral were being coordinated, according to a translation from Hawaiian provided by Hawaii News Now. The cause of death was not disclosed.

“Abigail will be remembered for her love of Hawai’i and its people,” her wife, Veronica Gail Kawananakoa, 69, said in a statement reported by the Associated Press. “I will miss her with all of my heart.”

Princess Kawananakoa, who was born in 1926, was – according to the ‘Iolani Palace – the eldest granddaughter of Prince David Kawananakoa, who the Hawaiian Gazette said in 1908 would have been “heir presumptive” to the Hawaiian throne had it not been overthrown in the previous decade. The kingdom’s last ruling monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, was dethroned in an 1893 coup led by American business interests. Hawaii was then annexed as a U.S. territory and incorporated as the 50th state in 1959.

“Hawai’i mourns this great loss, and our aloha and heartfelt condolences go out to her entire ‘ohana and all who had the privilege of knowing Princess Abigail Kawānanakoa,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D) said in a statement. He ordered the United States and Hawaii state flags to be flown at half-staff for a week in her honor.

In addition to having a royal lineage, Kawananakoa was a member of one of Hawaii’s wealthiest landowning families. Her great-grandfather James Campbell was an Irish immigrant who arrived in Hawaii in 1850 on a whaling boat and made a sizable fortune off Hawaiian sugar plantations, which he invested in property across Hawaii. The contents of his summer house in Punaluu, on Oahu, inherited by Princess Kawananakoa, were auctioned online this year.

In addition to supporting the upkeep of the ‘Iolani Palace, Kawananakoa was a keen breeder of horses. In 2018, she was inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame. Evening Snow, one of her horses, became the first quarter horse to run the quarter mile in under 21 seconds. “She is the industry’s all-time leading female breeder at the reins of an operation that has produced the earners of more than $10 million,” the association said in 2018.

According to the Associated Press, Princess Kawananakoa became embroiled in legal disputes in 2017 when her longtime lawyer George Wright said a stroke had impaired her ability to manage her $215 million fortune. Kawananakoa rejected the assessment, fired Wright, and married her partner of 20 years, Veronica Gail Worth. In 2020 a judge ruled that due to impairment Kawananakoa was no longer able to manage her property and business affairs, the AP reported.

Princess Kawananakoa is not the only Hawaiian to have claimed royal lineage, with others disputing her position in the line of succession, should Hawaii’s throne ever be restored.

In a 1986 interview with Honolulu Magazine, Princess Kawananakoa remarked that if the Hawaiian monarchy had not been overthrown – the crown would have been inherited by the eldest child of the oldest sibling of King Kalakaua, her now-late cousin Edward Kawananakoa. “So it would have gone directly to Edward. Of course I would be the power behind the throne, there’s no question about that,” she told the interviewer, laughing.