[Marxism] Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Mar 11 09:59:21 MDT 2012

NY Times Sunday Book Review March 9, 2012
The Other Side of Paradise


Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure
By Julia Flynn Siler
Illustrated. 415 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press. $30.

Until about 30 years ago, most schoolchildren in Hawaii learned a 
version of the state’s history that went something like this: Christian 
missionaries came over in the early 1800s and handed the Hawaiians a 
single god, a written language and their very first muumuus. Later, 
American officials supported a group of well-intentioned gentlemen, many 
of them descendants of those missionaries, who replaced the monarchy 
with a democratic system. Eventually, the United States magnanimously 
annexed the tiny island republic. Sure, native Hawaiians gave the world 
entertaining things like the hula and surfboards. But really, they were 
the luckier ones, receiving the trifecta of monotheism, democracy and 
American appropriation.

The flip side of that story — how it all looked to the native Hawaiians 
— is much darker. Julia Flynn Siler’s new book, “Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s 
Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure,” 
recounts that tale using more than 275 sources, including 
contemporaneous Hawaiian newspapers and the letters and diaries of 
Lili’uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch.

After a brief synopsis of the initial settlement of the islands and 
their 1778 “discovery” by Capt. James Cook, Siler digs in at the 
beginning of the end with the arrival of the first missionaries in 1820. 
The cultural contempt of these New Englanders, though typical for the 
era, was no less heartbreaking in what it would mean for the islanders. 
“The appearance of destitution, degradation and barbarism among the 
chattering, almost naked savages, whose heads and feet and much of their 
sunburnt swarthy skin were bare, was appalling,” the Rev. Hiram Bingham 
wrote. “Can these be human beings?”

What followed was a slow-motion stripping of tradition, land, political 
power and health from the native Hawaiians over the next 70 or so years, 
which Siler details intricately: the shaming of traditional dress and 
dance, the gobbling up of property belonging to land-rich but cash-poor 
locals by American and British sugar planters, the “Bayonet 
Constitution,” forced on King Kalakaua by, among others, a missionary 
grandson, which turned the monarch into a figurehead, gave voting rights 
to property-­owning whites and took them away from many native 
Hawaiians. And of course, there was the toll of foreign-borne smallpox 
and measles, which reduced the native Hawaiian population by a horrific 
75 percent between Cook’s arrival and 1853.

The Kingdom of Hawaii’s death march ended in 1893 with Lili’uokalani’s 
forced abdication to a provisional government, dominated by missionary 
descendants and haole (white or foreign) businessmen. Five years later, 
the United States quietly annexed the eight main islands. During the 
overthrow, Marines landed in Honolulu and occupied points including 
Iolani Palace. While there, Siler tells us, a recruit “found Kalakaua’s 
crown and pried off the jewels, which he then used as payment in a game 
of dice. He managed to avoid gambling them all away and kept one of the 
biggest diamonds, which he sent to his sister on the mainland, not 
realizing its value.” This story is an apt metaphor for the annexation — 
capturing the disrespect American citizens and representatives often 
showed to the Hawaiian people, culture and government. That jewel the 
recruit sent home without realizing its worth? It might as well have 
been Pearl Harbor, the value of which would become incalculable in a few 

To her credit, Siler does not hide the painful truth that the Hawaiians 
were complicit in their fate. For example, King Kamehameha III gave 
millions of acres to his friends and family without adequately ensuring 
the commoners would get their share. In the end, commoners held less 
than 1 percent of the lands distributed, and many ali‘i (chiefs) sold 
out to foreign sugar barons to raise cash. Later, King Kalakaua spent 
lavishly on parties, pomp and travel, driving the kingdom into great 
debt, much of it held by a shrewd sugar baron named Claus Spreckels.

 From the outset, Siler faces certain credibility issues: she is 
nonnative and nonlocal. She is also working with a language — Hawaiian — 
that is highly nuanced, often making accurate translations difficult to 
come by. Yet her book is richly and diversely sourced, and she’s able to 
color in many figures who had heretofore existed largely in outline or 
black and white. Lili’uokalani manages to keep her Christian faith, 
though she blames the missionaries for undermining her people. Kalakaua 
seems to be led by the nose by his mainland cronies, yet he is 
singularly responsible for reviving the deeply Hawaiian tradition of 
hula, which had been dormant since the 1820s.

“Lost Kingdom” is not as gripping as it could have been, given the 
palace intrigue and double dealing it describes. But it is a solidly 
researched account of an important chapter in our national history, one 
that most Americans don’t know but should. It will probably provoke 
missionary descendants and native Hawaiians alike, which is praise in 

Sadly, though President Clinton apologized to native Hawaiians in 1993, 
a bill aiming to restore a measure of sovereignty has languished in 
Congress for well over a decade. And Siler underscores another bitter 
footnote to the story: while the Hawaiians vie for political recognition 
that may never come, many descendants of those who profited from what an 
1893 New York Times headline called “the political crime of the century” 
remain some of the state’s wealthiest and most influential landholders.

Malia Boyd, a native of Honolulu, has written for Travel & Leisure, Food 
& Wine and other publications.

More information about the Marxism mailing list