Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure
Julia Flynn Siler
Atlantic Monthly Press
$30.00, hardback, 480 pages (also available as an ebook)
Release date: Jan. 3, 2012
As America expanded beyond its original 13 colonies, almost all new states and territories were added through treaties, purchases or by claiming land the U.S. government felt no one owned. Texans will tell you their state was an independent country before annexation although Mexico refused to acknowledge its independence.
Then there’s Hawaii. The chain of islands, annexed in 1898, was originally a series of island kingdoms before being unified in 1810 under Kamehameha I after a series of battles. Seven kings and one queen ruled the island chain before the monarchy crumbled under an influx of foreigners who invested heavily in the country.
Julia Flynn Siler’s Lost Kingdom details the end of Hawaiian independence in a fact-filled book that falls just short of a must-read.
The story of Hawaii’s downfall is readymade for Hollywood – kings and queens fighting for their people, villainous sugar-cane magnates, midnight coups, secret messages encoded in songs. The facts as Siler lays them out should be a more compelling read than they are. Perhaps Lost Kingdom’s shortcomings are only apparent when judged against other history books, such as those by Erik Larsen. And it may be unfair to judge Siler’s work against Larsen. The two writers have different styles, and a reader’s personal preference may determine which comes out on top.
Siler begins her tale of Hawaii before its last monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani takes the throne. The book explains the Hawaiian acceptance of visiting missionaries and lays the groundwork for what should be a peaceful future.
To the Hawaiians’ detriment, the foreign population brings disease for which the native population has no natural defense. The native population begins to decrease as Europeans and Americans increase their numbers. Marriages between Hawaiians and outsides further dilute the native population.
As children raised by missionaries come of age, economic forces begin to tug at Hawaii. The islands can grow sugar and foreign investors are quick to start building empires and making their fortunes. When the crown needs to borrow money, it is foreign loans that shore up the throne. And with those loans come requests for favors and political power.
Siler portrays an almost inevitable march to Hawaii’s subjugation to outside influence. By 1887, King Kalākaua is forced to sign what becomes known as the Bayonet Constitution. The new constitution moves power from the King to his cabinet and legislature. Foreign resident aliens could now vote as could Hawaiians who met economic and literacy requirements. Asian immigrants, who made up a substantial part of the islands’ population, saw their right to vote taken away.
Lost Kingdom wants to place Lili’uokalani as its central figure, but history dictates other figures take center stage before Lili’uokalani gains the throne. Siler is rightly fascinated by Hawaii’s queen (whose authorship of one of Hawaii’s most famous songs “Aloha Oe” is among her many accomplishments), but that fascination sometimes leads to a less detailed portrayal of other monarchs or the sugar barons. The book is not an objective look at Hawaii’s history; Siler tells the story from Hawaii’s point of view. Claus Spreckels, Lorrin Thurston and other foreigners are clear villains, motivated by profit and not caring about the Hawaiian people. After reading Lost Kingdom, it’s hard to argue otherwise, particularly in the case of Thurston who seemed to take personal pleasure in destroying the monarchy. One suspects another side of the story exists.
Lost Kingdom is a worthwhile read for those interested in Hawaiian history and culture, America’s expansion and how less powerful governments and people can be swept away by an economic tide. It’s not a perfect book and readers truly interested in Hawaii should seek out a more balanced book, but Siler’s story is interesting.