Julia Flynn Siler’s Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012) is a meticulously researched narrative of the events that took place over three generations that led to Hawaii’s annexation by the United States.
The basic story is well known: Sugar became Hawaii’s economic base in the early 1830s, and foreign-born sugar barons cultivated influence in the island nation’s political and social structure to protect their economic interests there. Then, riding the imperialist wave of the 1890s, they gained enough influence to win U.S. annexation of Hawaii as a territory.
When British Navy Captain James Cook visited the archipelago in 1778, it was governed under a sophisticated system by the ali’i nui (high chiefs) and the ali’i (lesser chiefs). The islands had an agricultural and marine-based economy, with an elaborate arrangement of stone aqueducts and food-fish ponds; taro, yams, sweet potatoes were major crops. The islanders were magnificent athletes—canoeists, cliff divers, wave riders.
“The Hawaiians welcomed [Cook] and his men with lavish hospitality,” Siler writes. By 1820, when the first missionaries arrived, Kamehameha I had united the islands into one kingdom; six years later he signed its first treaty with the U.S. But the view of the missionaries differed from Cook’s. A reverend described the Hawaiian people as “almost naked savages,” their language as “chattering,” their “sunburnt, swarthy skin…appalling.” They saw Hawaiians as subjects needing to be educated, their indigenous lifestyle tamed.
Moreover, American- and European-born sugar manufacturers thought themselves the best stewards for the island’s natural resources, which they craved. The grandchildren of the missionaries, in their quest for political power and continued control of natural resources, would perpetuate their forebears’ views to cultivate a view abroad of the Hawaiians as racially inferior and less able than white immigrant families to run the country.
Even in the 1890s, as she sought to save the monarchy, Queen Lili’uokalani—fluent in several languages, a guest of Queen Victoria at her diamond jubilee—was described in one U.S. newspaper as a “fat squaw.” Annexation propagandists referred to her English-educated heir, Ka’iulani, as a “barbarian princess.” A British publication dubbed the archipelago “the Lilliput Kingdom.” With these and other crude terms, Siler shows, language became one of the most potent weapons in the fight for annexation.
The monarchy was always held to a double standard. Lili’uokalani’s predecessor King David Kal?kaua was a technophile who met Edison and brought electricity to the Hawaiian capital in 1886, four years before it arrived in the White House. He embarked on a world tour that supporters thought would help achieve international prominence for Hawaii and, likely, more diplomatic support for the throne. By contrast his critics, who would be instrumental in overthrowing the monarchy, criticized the trip as an example of excess and self-aggrandizement.
But Hawaii had a history of cultivating relations with other nations. From 1826 to 1887, Hawaii negotiated and/or signed 30 bilateral treaties. Queen Victoria was godmother to the son of Kamehameha IV and his queen, Emma; the boy was named Albert, after the queen’s consort. Princess Victoria Ka’iulani was also a namesake.
Not surprisingly, Lili’uokalani’s critics blasted her as power hungry when she tried to replace the existing constitution with one that strengthened the monarchy and restored voting rights to Native Hawaiians and Hawaiian-born subjects. The new constitution would have made Hawaiian citizenship, not land ownership, a requirement for suffrage. But that would have disenfranchised foreign-born landowners who had obtained voting rights in the 1887 constitution that Kal?kaua signed under threat of being deposed.
Lili’uokalani ultimately showed mercy toward those who overthrew her in 1893, but the gesture was not returned. President Grover Cleveland, looking to restore the monarchy, sent a representative to meet her and work out terms for restoration. The queen initially wanted the leaders of the revolution to be executed and their lands confiscated. She later agreed to amnesty, only to be put on trial by the provisional government and sentenced to five years’ hard labor. She was pardoned when American newspapers questioned the legality of the coup.
As Siler demonstrates, backdoor political maneuvering, questionable business deals and fighting words combined to produce the death of a dynasty. It is a tragic story, worth retelling.