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?”...