Hawaii’s journey from independence to statehood

Chris Banner

By A Contributor

Today, we often think of Hawai’i as a place to go as a tourist, to lie in the sun on the beach, to swim in the warm waters,  to enjoy “authentic” Hawaiian feasting and entertainment-the “Paradise of the Pacific .”  Perhaps we think of it as a home to the U.S. military, particularly the Navy at Pearl Harbor.  We may think of it as the fiftieth state, for so it has been since 1959.  Hawai’i is all that and many more things besides.

Siler’s “Lost Kingdom” is much more than the tale of the last Queen, for it tells the story of Hawai’i. The introduction tells of the Islands’ volcanic origins, the settling by Polynesians, and the coming of the white man.  The preface briefly introduces its last queen, Liliuokalani, and tells of the overthrow of the monarchy.  To make it easier for the reader, Siler has a cast of characters, in order of appearance, and a glossary of commonly used Hawaii an words.

After these preliminaries, the first third of the book, Siler tells the story of the coming of the missionaries in 1820 and their dealings with the Hawaiians, particularly the nobles, the ali’i.  Shortly before their arrival, King Kamehameha I, with the help of some whites, haole, conquered the Islands and his house became the ruling family.  During this period, the descendants of the missionaries and the new coming non-missionary whites also established relations with the ali’i, and started their sugar plantations and other big, supporting businesses. 

Over time, the sugar planters and other big businessmen, particularly the “Big Five” became the de-facto power by marrying into the ruling classes, taking over large tracts of land, and becoming the dominant economic force in the Islands. 

Siler calls them the “sugar kings.”  They loaned money to the ali’i which allowed these native rulers to live a lavish life-style, but kept them under the haole control.

With the extinction of the Kamehameha line in 1883, the House of Kalakaua, founded by David Kalakaua, the so-called “Merrie Monarch,” became the rulers.  The middle third of the book deals with their activities, including their increasing financial indebtedness to the big planters.  Since the United States was the main market for sugar, the planters sought increasingly close ties with the U.S., even though England, France, and Germany were also interested in trade and power.

In 1887, the planters forced the “bayonet constitution” on the rulers to curb excesses of the ali’i at the expense of the planters. 

The haole now had most of the real power, leaving the native rulers as figureheads, somewhat along the lines of the British model.

The final third of the book deals with the last of the Kalakaua line, Queen Liliuokalani and her dealings with the planters, businessmen, and foreign powers. 

For a number of years, the sugar kings had wanted to have Hawai’i annexed by the U.S. to protect their product against tariffs and other restrictions that other foreign countries faced.  In 1893, Liliuokalani tried to impose a new constitution on the Kingdom which gave much more power to the ali’i than the haole liked and could lead to troubles with the U.S.  The result was a coup in which the U.S. military helped, the founding of the Provisional Government, and its first, unsuccessful, attempt to have the Islands annexed by the U.S. 

An unsuccessful royalist counter-coup followed shortly. 

A new U.S. president and the Spanish-American war tipped the U.S. in favor of annexation in 1898, which ended Hawaii’s existence as an independent country.

The last chapter tells very briefly the history of the Islands since annexation, including the decline of the agricultural power, and the rise of the military and tourism as the main economic forces in the second half of the twentieth century..

The 16 pages of photos and drawings add a lot to t he interest.

“Lost Kingdom” is basically a history of nineteenth century Hawai’i following the coming of the missionaries, but, despite its title, it is much more than the history of the monarchy. 

It tells of land ownership and use; introduction of the white man’s diseases and the decline of the native population as a result; the taking over of the social values and structure and the economic power of the natives by the whites; and many other things as well.  It is a well researched and written book with a lot of detail. 

The liberal use of Hawaiian words and the large cast of characters give it an unusual authenticity. 

It is a very good introduction to the history of nineteenth century Hawai’i and a good read.

Christopher Banner is a Manhattan resident who grew up in the Territory of Hawai’i.

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