Wall Street Journal contributing writer Siler (The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty, 2007) 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.
The author’s story really has no heroes. Although she is deeply sympathetic with the last queen, Lili‘uokalani, the monarchs of Hawaii during the latter part of the 19th century did not exactly rule with Solomonic wisdom or Diogenic austerity. They coddled the white planters, amassed enormous debts and lived an egregiously wasteful lifestyle. Still, as Siler shows, the islands were theirs, and the white settlers took them away. The author begins with some quick geological and archaeological history and summarizes the misadventures of Captain Cook. Next, she leaps to 1893, the moment of crisis for the queen, then returns to 1820 and moves relentlessly forward to the late 1890s, when the United States annexed the islands, permanently ending the monarchy. (Oddly, as the author notes, a statue of the queen now stands facing the Hawaiian legislative building.) Born in 1838, Lili‘uokalani was not in direct line to the throne, but deaths and power politics eventually placed her there. As she relates the queen’s pathway to power, Siler also tells about famous visitors, Herman Melville (1843) and Mark Twain (1866) among them. But this is mostly the story of white entrepreneurs and missionaries who came and conquered. One man, Claus Spreckels, created a massive sugar empire, transforming the landscape, altering waterways, operating a fleet of steamships and benefitting from the cooperation of the royals. Eventually, white economic interests trumped all else, and the queen struggled and failed to retain authority.
A well-rendered narrative of paradise and imperialism.