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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 | 2011 | 296 pages

Reviewed by Emily Rosen

julia flynn siler

Aloha! I’ve spent time in some of the most exotic places in the world, experienced traditions, people, history, and mores as far from my Brooklyn upbringing as my imagination had ever dared to take me, but I’ve never been to Hawaii. And since the wretched economy has placed me on travel hiatus, I plunged headlong into this other world, ready to lap up its story, (and its sugar) as I tried to retrieve old memories of James Michener’s 1959 classic, Hawaii.  

      Lost Kingdom is history in action, worthy of Broadway staging, complete with front-of-the-book “Cast of Characters,” including appropriate references. And lest you cannot make context connections, there is a convenient glossary of translations from the Hawaiian dictionary.

Author Julia Flynn Siler, a prize winning journalist, is no newcomer to bringing historical dynasties into full vitality on the printed page. Her 2007 The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of An American Wine Dynasty won many awards.

      Lost Kingdom takes us from Captain Cook’s arrival on the island in 1778, (bringing “deadly diseases, liquor and firearms”) to the establishment of the territory of Hawaii in 1898. It is a story of a sovereign monarchy and descendants of peaceful Polynesians that were transformed into a target for what has been called American imperialism. And in case we have lost our sense of history, corruption and greed are not germane only to the 21st century. Missionaries and white entrepreneurs were responsible for much of the treachery that caused the demise of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Lili”uokalani, descendant of the Kamehameha dynasty, was born in 1838 and married John Owen Dominis, the America born son of a ship captain who became Prince Consort when Lili”u (pronounced Lee lee ooh) ascended to the throne in 1891. Theirs was surely less than an ideal marriage and it produced no children.

Claus Spreckels, German immigrant/entrepreneur, was responsible for the development of Hawaii’s sugar crop into a major industry, and not incidentally, he emerged as the richest islander of the period. In transactions that were considerably less than philanthropic, he loaned money to the royal family, which drove them deeply into debt and eventual downfall. As an aside, Siler informs her readers that author Danielle Steele owns the Spreckles “Sugar Palace” mansion now located in San Francisco.

The book brings readers into several insurrections and uprisings as commercialism and the strong influence of missionaries conspired to weaken the royal hold on its people, despite Lilli”u’s efforts to retain power. If you haven’t yet seen the movie, The Descendants, this book can serve as a kind of prelude to where the George Clooney character is coming from.

With the United States, Great Britain, France, and indeed Japan, all looking to sink their tentacles deep inside “Paradise” and its sprawling largesse of the sweetest of sweets, sugarcane, President Grover Cleveland, along with the Queen, attempted to block the U.S. move to annex Hawaii as a territory. By 1898, however, it was clear that the U.S. government, despite the objections of many who bewailed the loss of the monarchy, as well as those who did not want to see us as an imperialistic power, had quelled a counterrevolution, thereby acquiring the new territory.

And intertwined in the political and economic struggles of that land, we get the cultural and geographical appeal of the Hawaii that has attracted tourists to its shores for decades. Characters are fleshed out as real people and events unfold cinematically.      If historical biography is your métier, or if Hawaii calls you to her bosom, or if you merely want a good, well researched book of action, character and authenticity, give yourself the treat of Lost Kingdom.

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