'Lost Kingdom': How Hawaii joined America's 'destiny'

A meticulously researched book about a place that, even in simpler times, was never a true paradise

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In the beginning of the movie "The Descendants," George Clooney, who plays real estate attorney Matt King, seeks to dispel the myth that Hawaii is a paradise for the people who live there.

Even amid a backdrop as idyllic as Hawaii, all is not always well, he says. As the movie proceeds, it becomes clear that the problems Mr. King was alluding to involve his marriage, family and money.

Against the same picturesque backdrop of the isolated Pacific island chain, Julia Flynn Siler explores the problems of not just one man, but of an entire sovereign nation, in "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
Atlantic Monthly Press ($30).

The 50th state to join the United States was a separate kingdom until the late 19th century, when it was annexed in a move that could be seen as America's first imperial push, when the notion of "manifest destiny" expanded beyond the boundaries of North America.

The term "manifest destiny" was coined by American journalist John L. O'Sullivan, who argued that the United States should expand westward across the North American continent.

That idea soon evolved to apply beyond the boundaries of North America. Hawaii, with its strong sugar industry, its convenient Pearl Harbor and its ideal location for the United States to gain a foothold in the Pacific Ocean, both for security and economic reasons, became an unwitting fulfillment of America's "manifest destiny."

In a note sent in 1893 to U.S. Secretary of State John W. Foster, U.S. minister to Hawaii John Leavitt Stevens said, "The Hawaiian pear is now fully ripe and this is the golden hour for the United States to pluck it."

Just how the United States arrived at that "golden hour" is what Ms. Flynn Siler, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek, shows in her meticulously researched book about a place that, even in simpler times, was never a true paradise.

When a group of Polynesians, traveling by boat over thousands of miles of ocean, arrived on the islands as early as A.D. 200, they found beautiful, lush land. Yet they also found volcanoes that could erupt unexpectedly and cause great devastation.

For hundreds of years, Hawaii's first inhabitants remained isolated from the outside world, until 1778, when Captain James Cook and the British Navy arrived, in search of the Northwest Passage.

To the British, and everyone who came after, it was paradise found. Great Britain, France and the United States all eyed Hawaii as a potential addition to their landholdings.

It was missionaries who made the first move. They brought religion, reading and writing to the islands, and also brought Western ideas such as constitutions and the concept of private property. Later, it would be descendants of these missionaries finding a higher calling -- to Hawaii's sugar industry -- who would overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy, ushering in U.S. troops and leading to annexation.

In the history of Hawaii's transformation from independent kingdom to annexed islands, there is a wide cast of characters, but the focus of Ms. Flynn Siler's book is on Queen Lili'uokalani, the last queen of Hawaii and author of "Aloha Oe," Hawaii's most famous song.

By the time Lili'uokalani inherited the throne from her older brother in 1891, the monarch had been reduced to a figurehead by the machinations of sugar industry leaders. Determined to reassert her rule over the islands, Lili'uokalani instead lost it all during the aftermath of a coup. U.S. troops moved into Hawaii to protect American interests, and there they remained.

Although it was Hawaiian businessmen who had urged the annexation of the islands, it was ultimately Hawaii's location as a spot to control the Pacific Ocean by navy that tipped the scales toward annexation.

After the USS Maine exploded in a Havana harbor in 1898, America went to war with Spain, and shortly thereafter President William McKinley signed a bill annexing Hawaii. Statehood would come more than six decades later.

The book benefits from the time Ms. Flynn Siler, who relies heavily on personal writings by Queen Lili'uokalani, spent conducting research in Hawaii. No one has ever mistaken Washington, D.C., for paradise, but it seemed, especially as the book neared its conclusion, that Ms. Flynn Siler could have focused some of her research there to provide more insight into the political discussion leading up to the annexation of Hawaii.

Perhaps in a sequel to "Lost Kingdom." Hawaii, which as Ms. Flynn Siler points out has now produced a U.S. president, is a topic that remains ripe, and there is much more to be written about what transpired in the six decades between annexation and statehood.

Kaitlynn Riely : kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. First Published January 22, 2012 5:00 AM


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