This is my review of Julia Flynn Siler’s “Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, The Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Venture”. One of the latest entries in the Hawaiian history genre, tell the story from Queen Liliʻuokalani’s perspective. It is a book I wholeheartedly recommend!
I am always on the lookout for Hawaiian history books, especially those that look at things from a different perspective. I’ve read Takaki’s Pau Hana which covers the sugar plantations and their laborers. I’ve also read Kuykendall’s Hawaii: A History series which gives a look into how business owners changed Hawaii. I’m also read others, but few gives me a sense of how Hawaiians viewed the changed that were thrust upon them..
The Lost Kingdom covers transition from the Hawaiian Kingdom to American territory. It covers the period from 1820 to 1896 and is told primarily from the perspective of Queen Liliʻuokalani. It follows her from her childhood through adulthood to her reign as queen.
When I saw it was available on ebook, I knew I’d have to add it to my collection. Let me tell you what the book is about and why I recommend it.
The book is divided into three sections:
Part I: Island Kingdom
This seciton starts in 1820. Kamehameha I has unified the islands and Prince Liholiho has come to power as Kamehameha II. Liliʻuokalani is a young babe just saying her first words and taking her first steps.
This period is marked by the introduction of Christianity by Missionaries. The missionaries are there to convert the natives and to educate them. But, they also bring diseases which kills off large portions of the native population and a crushing of native customs and beliefs which they find unseemly and unChristian.
Part II: The House of Kalakaua
This section covers the shift from the Kamehameha’s to the Kalakaua’s as the ruling family. Lunalilo is the first ruler of the House of Kalakaua. His reign is short and gives way to King David Kalakaua.
This period is strife with conflict as each royal faction fights to rule the nation. David Kalakaua reign is one of excess and flamboyance. His advisers prime the gears to make life easier for business interests. Those businessmen see the possibilities of making boatloads of money in Hawaii.
It is through his leadership, or lack thereof, that these foreign interests wrap their tendrils around the islands. David Kalakaua spends so much money on festivities and palace renovations that the islands near bankruptcy.
Part III Manifest Destiny
This section is all about the rise of Queen Liliʻuokalani and her eventual fall. She has changed quite a bit since her younger days of Christian fervor. She tries to hold on to Hawaiian traditions while embracing the ways of the Victorian era. She straddles two different worlds–one of which is slipping away. It is all too clear that the days of the monarchy are numbered even before she is named queen.
TOLD FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF Queen Liliʻuokalani
I found it interesting and refreshing that this book is told from Liliʻuokalani. Through her lifetime Hawaii is transformed from a native culture to an economic powerhouse. The author shows that the ruling families were as much to fault as foreigners for the inevitable fall of the monarchy.
One example is the Great Mahele where King Kamehameha III and several hundred chiefs decided to divide up land and give native Hawaiians land ownership rights.
When the Great Mahele was enacted, natives earned the right to own the land that they lived on. However, the king did nothing to help them prepare for this transition. The concept of land ownership and property rights were foreign concepts in the Hawaiian islands. Many were clueless as to the process or the necessity of ownership of their land. They were okay with system the way it had always been.
Add to this the fact that Hawaii had no currency at this time. People were rich in land but otherwise poor. This left them ripe for opportunists who bought their land cheaply or took their property rights out from underneath them. In the end, most of the land up for grab went to foreigners.
THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY AND THE LOSS OF HAWAIIAN IDENTITY
Before reading the Lost Kingdom, I knew that missionaries came to the island to convert the natives. Robert Schoof’s in Pioneers of the Faith covers the early tumultuous years where different Christian factors fought over the souls of the Hawaiians. Physical clashes between Catholics and Protestants were not uncommon.
What I did not realize was how quickly Christianity spread. It was embraced by the king and spread like wildfire. Some natives and royals held onto the old ways, but for the most part native customs were abolished.
While missionaries had a positive impact on literacy, the preservation of the Hawaiian language, and overall education, there were negatives, too. For one, they brought diseases which were completely unknown to the islands and to which the natives were vulnerable. They squashed native traditions including hula dancing which they found shocking and immoral. They sought to make the Hawaiians in their own image and they nearly destroyed everything that was Hawaiian in the process.
WHEELS SET IN MOTION
Though this is not meant to be a depressing book, it made me sad none-the-less. Each step of the way from the Kamehameha’s embrace of the foreigners and their ways to David Kalakua’s extravagances, you can see how they were being manipulated and how Hawaii’s ultimate loss of independence was imminent. They were outmatched by those with more money, more power, and more worldly ways. People like Claus Spreckels saw opportunity, knew how to win favor with the king, and created conditions in their favor. In Spreckel’s case, the king was so indebted to him that he could have any piece of land or law enacted that he felt would benefit himself. The threat of calling in his debt left him with more power than anyone in the kingdom including the king himself.
Once sugar production boomed, it was too late. Though try as she might, Queen Liliʻuokalani was fighting windmills. The king makers and game players had already carved up Hawaii the way they wanted. The author makes it crystal clear that midway through the 1800s Hawaii could not change the course that it was on.
Learning all of this, it is amazing that Hawaii’s music, customs, stories, and dance survived at all. David Kalakua might have run the country into financial ruin, but he did save Hawaiian culture. For that we can be thankful.
Also available for Kindle
WHY I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK
I am sure there are many books which cover Hawaiian royalty and may offer different historical perspectives. What I liked about The Lost Kingdom is that it has a personal touch. It is accessible and enlightening.
It is also told from the female perspective. The snippets from diaries and letters included come from the queens own works. We are included as Liliʻuokalani grows from a young school girl to a bride who is in a loveless marriage to the highest position in the kingdom. Siler presents an educated, musically gifted woman, but one growing up in a world that saddles ancient Hawaii and Victorian mores.
This will be a great read for anyone wanting a better understanding of Hawaii’s history and the beginnings of the sugar plantation era. It’s for those looking for a book that tells the Hawaiian side of the story.
There is a richness to her portrayals that make the individuals come to life. I found the queen a sympathetic figure. And now, I know why an elderly cousin once referred to Claus Spreckels as “That Bastard Spreckels”.
It is an enjoyable read that takes the reader along for the ride as history unfolds–for better and for worse and a little in between. I feel as if I have a better understanding of this time period having read Siler’s work.
Genealogist and writer. Creator of the Portuguese Hawaiian Genealogy and Heritage website, yourislandroutes.com