Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America's First Imperial Adventure
Julia Flynn Siler
Atlantic Monthly Press: 416 pp., $30
Queen Lili'uokalani is the focus but not the sole subject of "Lost Kingdom," journalist Julia Flynn Siler's well-researched, nicely contextualized history of events leading to the U.S. annexation of Hawaii in 1898. Born in 1838, 50 years after white explorers first arrived on the islands, Lili'u (as she preferred to be called) entered a world in the throes of dramatic change.
Kamehameha the Great had unified the islands into the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1810 with the aid of Western advisors and guns; in 1819, Kamehameha II renounced the ancient kapu system and destroyed traditional places of worship, opening the doors to missionaries who brought reading and writing as well as Christianity to the islands.
Just as Western religion was challenging traditional Hawaiian beliefs, large-scale cultivation of sugar was displacing the taro fields and fish ponds that provided the native food supply. Ill-advised reforms by Kamehameha III in 1850 ended the ancient custom of communal land tenure and permitted foreign ownership, leading to the creation of vast plantations to meet the burgeoning demand for sugar from the new state of California. Hawaii's economy was ever more closely linked to that of the United States, not least by the fact that many missionary families went into the sugar trade, justifying their plantations as "a mission of progress into a barbarous region."
Native Hawaiians took a more sardonic view of Christian activists' transformation into crusading capitalists, which gave rise to the local saying, "They came to do good and did well."
By the time Lili'u's brother, David Kalakaua, became king in 1874, the monarchy was dangerously dependent on the goodwill of American businessmen. Kalakaua made matters worse by borrowing large sums of money from sugar baron Claus Spreckels and granting the San Francisco-based businessman controversial water rights in return.
Kalakaua's shady financial dealings undermined his attempts to revive traditional Hawaiian culture and protect indigenous rights. His opponents were able to portray the constitution they forced him to sign in 1887 as a necessary restraint on a corrupt, power-hungry despot, when in fact it further reduced the political power of native Hawaiians.
Lili'u, her brother's heir, was outraged by the document that came to be known as "the Bayonet Constitution." Although she was a devout Christian and a proper Victorian lady, always photographed in Western attire, she was also a proud Hawaiian, the composer of many songs in her native language that, as early as 1864, had urged her compatriots to "stand firm" for their king and their rights. She caustically referred to the Hawaiian League, fomenter of the 1887 constitution, as "the missionary party" — founders Sanford Dole and Lorrin Thurston were from missionary families — and came to the throne in 1891 determined to restore the authority of the monarchy.
Queen Lili'uokalani's attempt to repeal by fiat the hated Bayonet Constitution in January 1893 provoked the formation of an all-white Committee of Safety, guided by Thurston, which persuaded U.S. envoy John L. Stevens to call in Marines from a ship anchored in Honolulu harbor "to secure the safety of American life and property." The committee proclaimed the abolition of the Hawaiian monarchy and the establishment of a Provisional Government headed by Dole — and promptly recognized by Stevens.
Siler is balanced, if hardly impartial, in chronicling the tense two years leading to that moment and the subsequent maneuvering that ended with annexation in 1898. She dispassionately records the belief of members of Thurston's Annexation Club "that Hawai'i's tumultuous politics hurt business … annexation would lead to stability and prosperity."
The author also acknowledges the tactical errors made by Lili'u, in particular the fit of royal rage that led the deposed queen to tell the initially sympathetic Albert S. Willis, dispatched by President Cleveland to restore her to power, that the men responsible for her overthrow "should be beheaded and their property confiscated to the government."
Lili'u retracted this hasty statement too late; though the Cleveland administration officially notified the Provisional Government to stand down, reports from Thurston in Washington assured his fellow revolutionaries that the U.S. would not send troops to enforce this request. Dole felt free to coolly tell Willis, "We do not recognize the right of the President of the United States to interfere in our domestic affairs."
A failed royalist rebellion in 1895 led to Lili'u's arrest; in confinement, she bitterly wrote that she was punished "for the attempt of the Hawaiian people to regain what had been wrested from them by the children of the missionaries who first brought the Word of God to my people." Siler closes her main narrative with a haunting description of a photo taken of Lili'u and other members of the royal family on the day the Hawaiian flag was lowered and the Stars and Stripes raised over her former palace: "the expression of defeat and inexpressible sorrow on their faces."
It was indeed, as Siler characterizes it, "one of the most audacious land grabs of the Gilded Age," so blatant that even the U.S. government was embarrassed by it — eventually. In 1993, Congress passed a joint resolution apologizing for the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, the first time such a statement had ever been issued.
Queen Lili'uokalani died in 1917, but her statue today faces Hawaii's state legislature, and she remains a symbol of the effort to preserve the islands' native culture. The Hawaiian economy, Siler notes, is still dominated by the companies founded by missionary families.
Smith is a contributing editor for the American Scholar and reviews books for The Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.