Julia Flynn Siler's "Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America's First Imperial Adventure" is a well-told history of the U.S. acquisition of Hawaii. The central figure is Lili'uokalani, who had the misfortune of being queen when Uncle Sam closed his grasp on the islands.

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‘Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure’

by Julia Flynn Siler

Atlantic Monthly Press, 415 pp., $30

Expansionism, Manifest Destiny, imperialism — no matter what you call it, the United States has shown itself to be extremely adept at the activity since the first ex-colonists filtered across the Appalachian Mountains and spread westward.

Julia Flynn Siler picks up the story in the 19th century in “Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure.” Her well-told history with its photos and glossary of Hawaiian terms comes at a time when sovereign rights are being considered for native Hawaiians and debate continues over ownership of land seized from the monarchy, now worth billions.

The central figure in her history of the U.S. acquisition of Hawaii is Lili’uokalani, the last queen of the Pacific Island kingdom.

Lili’u (as she was known) had the misfortune of being queen when Uncle Sam closed his grasp on the islands. But by the time she took the throne, those who had gone before her had given away most of the store.

Land reform, started under Kamehameha III in 1843, turned taro fields and fish ponds into sugar plantations; voting rights were given to non-Hawaiian property owners but denied poorer Hawaiians and thousands of foreign laborers; an 1887 treaty amendment gave the United States rights to Pearl Harbor in return for favorable treatment of sugar imports from Hawaii; and the monarchy’s financial indebtedness to the sugar kings gave Lili’u’s brother and predecessor, David Kalakaua, no choice but to accept the “Bayonet Constitution,” also in 1887.

Siler, a writer for The Wall Street Journal, uses a journalistic style of assembling historical facts to tell her story, and a definitive image of Lili’u seems just out of reach of that approach. Or maybe Lili’u is too complex a figure to be reduced to facts and figures.

She was a Christian who disparaged the “missionary party,” those descendants of well-meaning church folk who “came to do good and did well.”

In Siler’s hands, Lili’u is a sympathetic figure, the composer of 100 Hawaiian songs and more likely to be found puttering in her garden or bathing in the Pacific than fomenting revolt against the provincial government. These new rulers stormed to power in 1893, abolished the monarchy and were quickly recognized by the United States, whose troops had come ashore to “protect American lives and property” during the takeover.

While Lili’u tried to restore powers to the monarchy, she always gave way if being strident threatened bloodshed. However, she may have had prior knowledge of an unsuccessful insurrection against the provincial government, which led to charges against her and eventual abdication.

When the United States reviewed its own actions and those of the provincial government, Lili’u was asked, if she were restored to the throne, would she pardon those who had come to power? She replied that they would be put to death — the word “beheading” may have been used — which provided ammunition for the U.S. press to portray her as a barbarian queen and hurt her cause, despite her backing away from that statement later.

In the end, what she did or did not say mattered far less than a war that started elsewhere. The United States annexed Hawaii in August 1898 to have a refueling station for its Navy during the Spanish-American War, in which it would conquer the Philippines, occupy Cuba and add Guam and Puerto Rico to its growing realm.