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

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

by Julia Flynn Siler

Narrated by Joyce Bean

Unabridged — 10 hours, 55 minutes

Julia Flynn Siler

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First colonized around 200 A.D. by intrepid Polynesian islanders, Hawaii existed for hundreds of years in splendid isolation. Foreigners did not visit the islands until 1788, when Captain Cook, looking for the fabled Northwest Passage, stumbled upon this nation with its own belief system and culture. Three decades later, fourteen Calvinist missionaries left Boston bound for Hawaii, and when they arrived they converted the royal family to Christianity, and set up missionary schools where English was taught.

A thriving monarchy had ruled over Hawaii for generations. Taro fields and fish ponds had long sustained native Hawaiians but sugar plantations had been gradually subsuming them. This fractured, vulnerable Hawaii was the country that Queen Lili'uokalani, or Lili'u, inherited when she came to power at the end of the nineteenth century. Her predecessor had signed away many of the monarchy's rights, but while Lili'u was trying to put into place a constitution that would reinstate them, other factions were plotting annexation. With the help of the American envoy, the USS Boston steamed into Honolulu harbor, and Marines landed and marched to the palace, inciting the Queen's overthrow.

The annexation of Hawaii was extremely controversial; the issue caused heated debates in the Senate and President Cleveland gave a strongly worded speech opposing it. This was the first time America had reached beyond the borders of the continental U.S. in an act of imperialism. It was not until President McKinley was elected and the Spanish-American War erupted, that Hawaii became a critical strategic asset, and annexation finally passed Congress in 1898.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

A San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller

“A sweeping tale of tragedy, greed, betrayal, and imperialism… The depth of her research shines through the narrative, and the lush prose and quick pace make for engaging reading… absorbing.” —Library Journal (Starred review)

“Richly…sourced… [Siler is] able to color in many figures who had heretofore existed largely in outline or black and white… a solidly researched account of an important chapter in our national history, one that most Americans don’t know but should… an 1893 New York Times headline called [the annexation] ‘the political crime of the century.’” —The New York Times Book Review

“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.” —The Seattle Times

““[A] well-researched, nicely contextualized history . . . It was indeed, as Siler characterizes it, ‘one of the most audacious land grabs of the Gilded Age.’” —LA Times

“[Julia Flynn] Siler captures… what Hawaii was then and what it has evolved into today. What happened to the islands is known as one of the most aggressive takeovers of the Gilded Age… Siler gives us a riveting and intimate look at the rise and tragic fall of Hawaii's royal family… [It] is a reminder that Hawaii remains one of the most breathtaking places in the world. Even if the kingdom is lost.” –Fortune

“Siler rehearses the dark imperial history of how Americans first arrived in the islands, how they rose in power and how they deposed the queen and took everything… This is mostly the story of white entrepreneurs and missionaries who came and conquered… A well-rendered narrative of paradise and imperialism.” —Kirkus Review

“This imperial land grab in our not so distant past is far too little known. I hope that Julia Flynn Siler’s lively, moving, colorful account will help restore it to the place in our national memory where it ought to be.” —Adam Hochschild, author of To End all Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 and Kings Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

“Only one American state was formally a sovereign monarchy. In this compelling narrative, the award-winning journalist Julia Flynn Siler chronicles how this Pacific kingdom, creation of a proud Polynesian people, was encountered, annexed, and absorbed.” —Kevin Starr, Historian, University of Southern California, and author of California: A History

“Siler… skillfully weaves the tangled threads of this story into a satisfying tapestry about the late 19th-century death of a small nation [with]… sympathetic detail.” —Publisher’s Weekly

“The takeover of Hawaii is a disturbing and dramatic story, deftly captured by Julia Flynn Siler … [S]he vividly depicts a cast of characters driven by greed, desperation, and miscalculation… How the queen lost her kingdom says as much about America and its new era of overseas expansion as it does about Hawaii.”
—T.J. Stiles, author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelious Vanderbilt, winner of the Pulitzer Price and National Book Award

“Julia Flynn Siler’s Lost Hawaii is a riveting saga about Big Sugar flexing its imperialist muscle… Its impossible not to be impressed with the breadth of Silers fine scholarship. A real gem of a book.” — Douglas Brinkley, author of The Quiet World: Saving Alaskas Wilderness Kingdom 1879-1960

“Too many Americans forget… our 'island paradise' was acquired via a cynical, imperious land grab… By the 1890s, American businessmen, especially the “sugar kings,” dominated the Hawaiian economy… [C]ombined with the flowering of American naval ambitions, Hawaii’s status as an independent kingdom was doomed. Siler’s narrative concentrates on the efforts of Queen Lili’okalani to stave off American annexation. The missionary-educated [queen’s] efforts to straddle both the modern and traditional Hawaiian worlds proved futile. This is a well-written, fast-moving saga.” —Booklist

Library Journal

In Siler's second book (after The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty), she brings to life the story of America's annexation of the sovereign Hawaiian Islands. She begins when Christian missionaries from Boston landed on Hawaii in 1820—when Western powers truly began to influence Hawaiian affairs—and follows the birth and life of Lili'uokalani, the woman who would become the last queen of Hawaii. American sugar planters, the self-styled Sugar Kings, slowly took over most of the arable land on the islands, while Lili'uokalani's elder brother King David Kala¯kaua became deeply indebted to them. He eventually sought a loan from England to pay off the Sugar Kings. Several countries, including America, England, and France, looked to the Pacific for colonial expansion and became embroiled in the controversies in Hawaii until American forces deposed Lili'uokalani against the will of the vast majority of native Hawaiians. VERDICT Siler gives readers a sweeping tale of tragedy, greed, betrayal, and imperialism. The depth of her research shines through the narrative, and the lush prose and quick pace make for engaging reading. Anyone interested in Hawaiian history or American imperialism will find this an absorbing read. [See Prepub Alert, 7/10/11.]—Crystal Goldman, San Jose State Univ. Lib., CA

Product Details

BN ID: 2940172669118
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication date: 05/18/2022
Edition description: Unabridged

Read an Excerpt


Born in Paradise, 1820–1843

On April 4, 1820, a small merchant vessel, the Thaddeus, carrying a group of Christian missionaries, arrived off the coast of the Hawaiian archipelago's biggest island, Hawai'i. The New Englanders' unwavering belief in the righteousness of their mission gave them the courage to undertake a dangerous, 164-day voyage from Boston.

The brig made its way through the treacherous Atlantic during the winter storm season, navigated the southernmost tip of South America, and then fought winds and high seas to make its way back up into the north Pacific. Fourteen members of missionary families were onboard, including the Reverend Hiram Bingham and Reverend Asa Thurston, as well as four Hawaiian youths.

Before setting off on this 18,000 mile journey, the missionaries gathered at the Park Street Church in Boston to receive their public instructions. Warned by one of the leaders of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions that they were headed to a pagan "land of darkness as darkness itself," their orders were clear. "You are to aim at nothing short of covering those Islands with fruitful fields, pleasant dwellings, schools, and churches."

The Americans hoped to bring what they considered progress to the islands while reaping the souls of the Sandwich Islanders. When they arrived, they were horrified by what they saw.

"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," wrote the Rev. Bingham. "Some of our numbers, with gushing tears, turned away from the spectacle. Others with firmer nerves continued their gaze, but were ready to exclaim: 'Can these be human beings?'" They soon overcame their disgust and sought and received permission from the chiefs to move into thatched houses, living alongside the natives.

Just a few months before their arrival, two powerful chiefesses had overthrown the kapu, the system of rules regulating Hawaiian life, by overtly disregarding the ancient law against women eating with men. At a feast in November, 1819, Alexander Liholiho, the young king who had assumed the throne as Kamehameha II after the death of his father, Kamehameha I, broke the ancient law against women eating with men by sitting down at their table. "The guests, astonished at this act, clapped their hands and cried out, 'Ai noa, — the eating tabu is broken.'"

That was just the first of the radical changes that Kamehameha II made. After the meal was over, he ordered the heiau, the places for worshipping the many gods of the old Hawaiian religion, destroyed. It seemed sudden, but this revolution within Hawaiian society had fomented long before that fateful meal. Cook's arrival had ended the islands' long isolation and, inevitably, Hawaiians began to see themselves differently. They had watched as foreigners disregarded the kapu with no ill effects. And they had observed that Pele did not unleash her fury on Hawaiians who dared to break the rules surreptitiously.

Thus, the Reverand Thurston and the other missionaries arrived just in time to fill a void in the Hawaiians' belief system. As Congregationalists who practiced an austere, Calvinist form of Christianity, they quickly spread out, settling in almost all parts of the island. They also brought heluhelu (reading and writing) to the islands for the first time.

Within a year and nine months of arriving, they'd given the Hawaiian language a twelve-letter alphabet (all the vowels — a e i o u — and a handful of consonants — h k l m n p w), introducing writing to an oral culture. Compared to the visiting whale men, who first arrived a year before the missionaries, in 1819, and only wanted pleasure from the Hawaiians after months at sea, the missionaries opened a wider world to them through education. By 1839 they had published the first complete Hawaiian-language Bible.

The first company of missionaries was soon joined by many more, including such passionate evangelists as Titus Coan, who began preaching in Hawaiian in the Hilo district on the island of Hawai'i, reducing hundreds of natives to crying, shouting and weeping at his descriptions of hellfire and promises of redemption. In short order, missionaries had established more than a dozen churches in the islands and won thousands of converts; even Kamehameha II himself became a Christian.

Was there ever a stranger match than that between the New England missionaries, dressed in tightly buttoned black, and the barely clad Polynesians? Did the missionaries fully grasp the fierce history of the Hawaiians or did they lump them in with the African slaves they encountered on the streets of Boston because of the dark color of their skin? Did they realize that the king was a descendant of people who had conquered the seas in canoes, and that his father was the great warrior who had unified the far-flung Hawaiian archipelago?

One missionary who grew close to the chiefs was Asa Thurston, who was assigned to head the mission at Kailua on Hawai'i Island, near the site of Captain Cook's death. There, he instructed the king and his brother on Christianity until the itinerant court moved on to Lahaina on the island of Maui and then to Honolulu on O'ahu. Like the other missionaries, Thurston and his family lived a life far removed from the relative comforts of New England, struggling to make ends meet. The family, for instance, went without butter so they could afford to buy a dictionary. Their plan backfired, though, for when the authorities of the missions discovered how they'd obtained the dictionary, they deducted its cost from Thurston's salary.

The missionaries may not have understood much about the Hawaiians when they first arrived, but they saw an opportunity for spiritual harvest. Sometime in late 1820 or early 1821, Thurston wrote to the mainland urging other missionaries to join the cause if they possessed a single-minded devotion to God: "We want men and women who have souls ... who have their eyes and their hearts fixed on the glory of God in the salvation of the heathen — who will be willing to sacrifice every interest but Christ's."

Such purity of purpose wouldn't last long in Hawai'i, however, especially among Thurston's own descendants.

Looming over Honolulu lies a geological oddity known as the Punchbowl, an extinct volcanic crater whose brilliant red soil stands out from the green skirts of the mountains. New England sailors gave the crater this nickname because its rounded shape reminded them of punch bowls they remembered from home. But to Hawaiians it was a sacred site known as Puowaina, "the hill of human sacrifices."

In a compound of grass houses at the base of the Punchbowl, where some of Hawai'i's ali'i, or high chiefs, lived, a baby was born on September 2, 1838. As the mother labored inside the windowless home, lying on mats braided from the bladelike leaves of the pandanus tree, men and women waited outside, reciting chants, oli, which traced the family's genealogy and described their ancestors' feats.

The infant emerged and began to cry. A midwife wrapped her in a soft blanket made from tree bark. The hut was filled with sweet and musky fragrances, including the coconut oil and turmeric that were often sprinkled on such cloth to give it a soft golden color.

The baby was a girl, later named Lili'u. Soon after the cries of the child were heard, gasps of a different sort were made. A few drops of rain had fallen from an otherwise cloudless sky and a rainbow had spanned the horizon. "Ali'i! Ali'i! That is the sign of our Ali'i!" the men cried out. Nature was signaling a propitious birth.

She was born during the time of year some islanders called Mahoe Hope,meaning "the time when the plumes of the sugarcane begin to unfurl from their sheaths." It was a significant coincidence, since Lili'u's life would be inextricably bound to the fortunes of Hawai'i's sugar trade.

Although Lili'u was born a high chiefess, with lineage that reached back to the high chiefs under Kamehameha the Great, at the time of her birth it would never have seemed possible she would someday become queen. And despite the appearance of a rainbow shortly after she was born, the full name she acquired foretold not a blessed life but one filled with pain. As was the tradition, she was named by the highest chiefess who, unfortunately, was suffering at the time from an eye infection. Marking the birth with her own complaint, the chiefess named her Lili'u (smarting) Loloku (tearful) Walania (a burning pain) Kamaka'eha (the sore eye.)

Bloodlines were crucial to Hawaiian society and elders scrutinized genealogy closely before a marriage to make sure that a partner of high rank was marrying an equal. Lili'u's social position rose soon after her birth, when she was adopted by chiefs of a higher rank than her own: Konia, a granddaughter of Kamehameha I, became her foster mother and Paki, a high chief and adviser to Kamehameha III, became her foster father. The couple's only daughter, Bernice Pauahi, became Lili'u's foster sister.

Lili'u was welcomed by Paki and Konia as part of a Hawaiian custom known as hanai. To strengthen family ties, newborns were sometimes given to close friends and relatives for adoption. The birth parents could not reclaim their child, except in the event of a death or serious illness on the part of the adoptive, or hanai, parents. They could, however, maintain a connection with the child by visiting and conferring with the adoptive parents over the child's welfare.

Lili'u adored her foster parents, particularly Paki. An imposing man at six foot four and three hundred pounds, Paki was a gentle giant, with a light complexion and reddish hair. At some point, a photographer captured an image of the enormous chief, looking somewhat uncomfortable in a dark, Western-style suit. Perhaps to display his wealth, a watch chain is looped from his vest and he holds out in front of him a walking stick topped with an ornamental knobbed handle.

Lili'u's feelings toward her adoptive father were much warmer than those for her biological parents. She recalled climbing on Paki's knees and putting her small arms around his neck, kissing and hugging him. He returned her affections and "caressed me as a father would his child," she later wrote. Yet when she met her biological parents, "it was with perhaps more interest, yet always with the demeanor I would have shown to any strangers who noticed me."

The practice of hanai was abhorrent to the New England missionaries, who discouraged it. But it continued anyway, reflecting not only a communal attitude toward child rearing but also a practical response to the rising incidence of infertility on the part of native Hawaiians.

It was a time when old Hawaiian customs were being swept away and new ones emerging to replace them. One sign of the changes was a flurry of activity on Punchbowl Street, not far from where Lili'u was born. Rising above the few square blocks of storefronts, taverns, and grog shops that then made up downtown Honolulu, an extraordinary structure, Kawaiaha'o church, arose out of blocks of buff-colored coral rock, weighing 200 to 1,200 pounds each. Native divers had quarried them from an offshore reef and then dragged them from the sea to the site of an ancient freshwater spring. Soaring above the palace and every other building in town was the first large Christian church to be built on O'ahu.

The child Lili'u was swept up in the Christian fervor. She was baptized at two and given the Christian name Lydia. She spent her earliest years with Konia and Paki in Lahaina on the island of Maui, the Hawaiian capital until the court moved permanently to Honolulu in 1845. Looked after by a Hawaiian nursemaid there, Lili'u as a toddler wandered one afternoon out of her hut, where she was supposed to be napping, and climbed onto a morning glory vine to swing. Losing her grip, she fell off, and her howls of pain sent her nursemaid running. Lili'u lay on the ground, writhing. She had broken a leg, which left her with a mild limp all her life.

Perhaps believing Lili'u needed closer supervision, she was sent by her parents to a boarding school on the neighboring island of O'ahu just before her fourth birthday. At the school, near the palace and the stone church at the eastern edge of Honolulu, American missionaries educated ali'i children, with the support of Kamehameha III and the chiefs.

Known as the Chiefs' Children's School, later renamed the Royal School, it was founded by Amos Starr Cooke and his wife, Juliette, in 1839. The modest mud-brick building, its rooms ringed a central courtyard. As the unlit streets of Honolulu grew dark in the evenings, the Cookes kept a lamp burning in the courtyard, setting out a beacon of light against what they saw as the sins and temptations of the rollicking port town.

The Cookes sought to protect their royal charges from bad influences by keeping them away from the rougher elements of Honolulu, as well as from their own people, whom they were allowed to visit for only short periods in the spring and fall. Honolulu, along with the port of Lahaina on the island of Maui, had become the Pacific base for the hundreds of ships that made up the American whaling fleet. As the kingdom's exports to China trailed off, trade with whalers took its place.

The first thing the land-sick sailors would hear after their ship entered Honolulu harbor was the eerie blow of the conch shell announcing their arrival. At the height of the whaling season, up to five hundred ships would anchor in the harbor at any one time and ships so crowded the port that it was possible to cross the harbor by jumping from one ship's deck to the next. A Hawaiian composed a song describing Honolulu's harbor crowded with masts, calling it "Ka Ulu La au o Kai," or "Forest Trees of the Sea."

As the ships disgorged hundreds of sailors onto the streets of the town, the languid port would roar to life with merchants hawking their wares and large groups of horseback riders kicking up dust. Merchants' tills clattered with English guineas, French double Louis, American eagles, Spanish doubloons, and even Russian ducats. The sailors' appetites drew them not only to taverns and shops but also to a special red-light district near the harbor, named Cape Horn.

But prostitution was not the only way lusty sailors found pleasure. Some were happily surprised to find that native women offered themselves up freely. The islanders even had a lighthearted word for this practice: moekolohe, or "mischievous sleeping." The result was a growing number of half Hawaiian, half white children, known as hapa haole. In Honolulu's schools, the skin colors of the students were often not just dark or light but somewhere in between.

Missionaries such as the Cookes and the Thurstons sought to counter the sexual exuberance of native Hawaiians by instilling modesty. Lucy Thurston joined with Hawai'i's dowager queen to start a sewing circle, stitching modest calico dresses for native women to wear. That and other efforts led to the adoption of the holoku, the form-concealing dresses (patterned on the Mother Hubbard gowns worn by the missionaries) that native women began to wear in the 1820s. That replaced tapa cloth wrapped around the hips and gathered at the waist, which left the breasts uncovered — a shocking state of undress, at least to some foreigners.

The aesthetics of the West also reached the draftsman's table. Honolulu and Hawai'i's other ports absorbed the West's culture and architectural styles, as tidy wood frame houses with white clapboard fronts rose alongside the Hawaiians' grass houses. Even the Chiefs' Children's School, where the missionaries were educating the next generation of chiefs, became a blend of the two cultures. The Cookes filled their parlor with furniture and knickknacks from New England, along with goods imported from China, within whitewashed adobe brick walls and beneath a thatched roof.

Literacy flowered in the kingdom. As the ali'i children learned from the Cookes, thousands of Hawaiian adults and children attended other schools, learning to read and write in Hawaiian and sometimes also in English. Lahainaluna, a high school on the island of Maui, produced the first generation of native Hawaiian journalists and historians working in the written word. This thirst for learning began with the king and the chiefs. Within two decades of the missionaries' arrival, Hawai'i had achieved one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

The routine of Lili'u's school days followed the pattern set by schools in New England. She and the other Hawaiian students started their day at 5 a.m. with morning devotions, receiving their instruction in English and attending Kawaiaha'o church every Sunday, sitting in a straight-backed pew near the king's. All of the students were required to take a temperance pledge, which the older boys, in particular, had difficulty keeping as drinking alcohol was pervasive among Hawaiians and haole alike. As well as studying from English textbooks, the students had more than sixty books that the missionaries had translated into Hawaiian, most of which had moral or practical lessons to impart, such as Pilgrim's Progress, Animals of the Earth, Geometry for Children, and tracts on marriage and intemperance.


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