Author Interviews
3:03 pm
Sun February 26, 2012

How Sugar Brought An End to Hawaii's Nationhood

Originally published on Mon February 27, 2012 7:40 am

If you've seen a Hawaiian tourism commercial, a beach movie, or even a cartoon with Daffy Duck in a lei and a grass skirt, you've heard the poignant strains of "Aloha Oe."

But the tune has a history stretching far beyond cartoons and commercials: It was composed in 1878 by the woman who would become the last queen of Hawaii, Lili'uokalani.

Hawaii is the only state to have once been an independent monarchy. And when Lili'u, as she called herself, was born in 1838, it was at its height.

"She was born at a time when all things seemed possible to the kingdom of Hawaii," author Julia Flynn Siler tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

Siler has written a new book about Lili'u and her times, Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America's First Imperial Adventure.

She says the seeds of Hawaii's downfall had already been planted when Lili'u was born — by the missionaries who came early in the 19th century to bring reading, writing and Christianity to the islands.

"The old saying in Hawaii about the Christian missionaries who arrived was, they came to do good and they did very well," Siler says.

By the end of the 19th century, "the sons and grandsons of the missionaries controlled the vast majority of arable land, as well as the banks, the steamship lines and most other businesses," she says.

Those missionary descendents had snapped up vast tracts of land from the cash-poor, land-rich Hawaiian aristocracy; the Hawaii of Lili'u's childhood, a land of small-scale taro farms and fish ponds, had been plowed under and converted into sugar plantations.

When Lili'u came to the throne in 1891, she found herself in an impossible position. The islands and the mainland were suffering a terrible economic depression. Her brother and predecessor, David Kalākaua, had plunged the monarchy deeply in debt to the sugar planters.

He had also been stripped of many of his powers by the white merchant class.

"He was essentially a figurehead," Siler says, "and Lili'u, upon taking the throne, and at the request of her people, tried to regain some of those powers by introducing a new constitution."

It did not end well. The merchants and sugar planters banded together and overthrew Lili'u in 1893. And though she campaigned tirelessly for restoration, she was unsuccessful. Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1898.

Siler says the annexation of Hawaii marked a turning point for the United States.

"This was the first time in America's history that we reached beyond our mainland shores and took a nation that had been independent, sovereign, recognized by the other great powers," Siler says. "And we grabbed it for America."

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALOHA OE")

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Even though this song might make you think of a relaxed afternoon on a Hawaiian beach under a palm tree, the woman who wrote it actually lived through one of the most stressful times in Hawaiian history. The song is called "Aloha Oe," and it was in 1878 by Lili'uokalani, the last queen of Hawaii. The last one, because in 1893, Lili'u, as she called herself, was ousted by a cabal of white sugar planters who eventually engineered Hawaii's annexation to the United States five years later.

That story is told in our book this week. It's called "Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America's First Imperial Adventure." Author Julia Flynn Siler says that Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii a few years before Lili'u's birth in 1838, and they would soon change the islands almost beyond recognition.

JULIA FLYNN SILER: The old saying in Hawaii about the Christian missionaries who arrived was they came to do good, and they did very well. And they did very well, indeed, in fact. By the last decade, when Lili'u assumed the throne of Hawaii, the sons and grandsons of the missionaries controlled the vast majority of arable land, as well as the banks, the steamship lines and most other businesses.

Like when Lili'u was born, there had been, you know, for centuries, taro fields and fish ponds, and those were very rapidly replaced by sugar fields. And so the span of her life really followed the economic transformation of the islands. And my book is really about the collision between these two cultures, very vulnerable Polynesian peoples who had been isolated for so many years colliding with the Western capitalist world.

RAZ: By the time Lili'u becomes the queen, she finds herself in almost impossible position in Hawaii, right? I mean, at that point, it's almost as if the independence of Hawaii has already been determined.

SILER: Yes. She inherited the throne in 1891 after the death of her brother, David Kalakaua. The islands were being buffeted by an economic downturn, as was the mainland at that point. The white business class in Hawaii was crying for a solution to their problems, and some of them saw the solution to be closer ties to the United States or annexation.

And so while Lili'u is facing that, she's also facing a personal crisis, the death of her husband who had been her closest counselor for many, many years. He was a white man, the son of a ship captain. And the third leg of the stool is that native Hawaiians urged her to try to regain more powers for the monarchy.

During the time of her brother's reign, he had essentially been stripped of many of his powers by the white merchant class. He was essentially a figurehead. And Lili'u, upon taking the throne, and at the request of her people, tried to regain some of those powers by introducing a new constitution.

And what happened was that a very small group of people, the Committee of 13, which was named after the French revolutionaries, formed and used that action on Lili'u's part as a pretext for an overthrow that was backed by U.S. Marines in January of 1893.

RAZ: At this point, President Grover Cleveland calls for a congressional inquiry that finds this to be illegal, right? I mean, they - the U.S. Congress says what these merchants have done in Hawaii is against the law.

SILER: Yes, that's right. And that's one of the saddest parts of "Lost Kingdom" is that there was a 2,000-page report by the envoy sent out by President Cleveland that absolutely found on behalf of the queen that this was an illegal action. But that didn't end up reversing what had happened, and the queen never did end up getting put back on the throne.

RAZ: She had some initial success but could never convince enough people to back her, right?

SILER: Partly, that was it, and partly, that the second envoy that was sent out found something very different than the first envoy had found. And so he sent back a big report that muddied the waters about what exactly had happened. Meanwhile, Lili'u, in speaking to that envoy, perhaps in a moment of anger, perhaps in a moment of fury at what had happened, had spoken of the conspirators being beheaded as was the law at that time in Hawaii. And so that put the U.S. president into a terrible position. Could he put a queen back on the throne who had suggested that those who had overthrown her should be beheaded?

RAZ: What happened in Hawaii takes place at a time when the United States was really beginning to engage - actively engage in what could be described - easily could be described as imperialism, right? I mean, eventually, they would get to Cuba and the Philippines. So was this seen as a perfectly normal thing for an emerging power to be doing at the time anyway?

SILER: Well, our founding fathers had had a vision, at least initially, that we would not be an empire. And why this episode in 1893 in Hawaii is so important, is that this was the first time in America's history that we reach beyond our mainland shores and took a nation that had been independent, sovereign, recognized by the other great powers of the day, including Great Britain, including France, as being an independent nation, and we grabbed it for America.

RAZ: That's Julia Flynn Siler. Her new book is called "Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America's First Imperial Adventure." Julia, thank you so much.

SILER: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.