by Don Wallace
As the principals of The Descendants prepare to stroll down Oscar’s red carpet, and the 119th anniversary of Queen Liliuokalani’s overthrow is observed, a major and masterful new book about Hawaii hits the shelves. Julia Flynn Siler’s Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure, is big, scholarly and highly readable. In it, Siler traces the shady land transactions, the snares of debt and the extra-legal maneuvers that strangled the Hawaiian nation in its crib. Scrupulously fair-minded, she also doesn’t spare the monarchy, the alii and the court advisors their follies, such as King Kalakaua’s attempt to seize Samoa with a one-ship navy. But the cool telling and preponderance of evidence leave no doubt in the reader’s mind where the blame, and shame, ultimately belong.
DW: This is a deeply researched book, filled with illuminating details. Can you describe some of your discoveries?
JFS: In the four years I spent researching and writing this book, I tracked down pages from the royal cashbooks detailing loans to King David Kalakaua from Claus Spreckels, the Gilded Age tycoon known as the “Sugar King.” The king’s indebtedness was one of the reasons that his sister, Liliuokalani, ended up in such a difficult position when she ascended to the throne in 1891. I also found letters and other documents that offered glimpses of Liliu’s personality—her moments of scolding her sister for being flirtatious and her wifely pique at her husband for not picking up the fish she wanted, for example, as well as her diary entries which recorded the hot anger she felt at the white men who held her captive in her own palace.
DW: Any other surprises?
JFS: At the Bishop Museum archives, I found a page that Liliu had torn from the Book of Psalms. She had written in pencil: “Iolani Palace. Jan 16th 1895. Am imprisoned in this room (the South east corner) by the Government of the Hawaiian Republic. For the attempt of the Hawaiian people to regain what had been wrested from them by the children of the missionaries who first brought the Word of God to my people.” Finding that yellowed page, which she had presumably torn out of the Bible and written on during the first night of her imprisonment after a failed counter-coup, gave me chicken skin.
DW: What were other influential sources?
JFS: Meeting David Forbes, who is a leading bibliographer of Hawaiian history, influenced the shape of my book. He’d recently finished a many-year project to collect and transcribe every letter and document he could find involving members of the Hawaiian royal family. He gave me early access to that collection, which he’d generously donated to the Hawaii State Archives. Some of those letters have never been published before.
DW: In the Wall Street Journal, you recently wrote about the legal issues underlying The Descendants.
JFS: The filmmakers reached out to University of Hawaii law professor Randall W. Roth and others to drill down on the legal issues underlying the plot. Roth provided guidance on trust law to the filmmakers, particularly on the somewhat arcane subject of the rule against perpetuities. It’s a key point in the plot. Matt King and the other descendants of a Hawaiian princess and haole banker have inherited a piece of land, which is held in trust. They must decide whether to sell it because the trust itself, under the rule, must be wound down by a set date.
DW: Can you comment on parallels between 1893 and now? An economic depression. Gambling on the legislative agenda. The economy dependent on sugar then, tourism now. The American military presence growing.
JFS: Interesting comparison. Do you think we’re heading towards a new “Committee of Safety”?
DW: Maybe the fruition of the old one. Was Liliuokalani handed a similar bum set of cards to Obama’s in 2009?
JFS: No doubt, they both faced serious challenges when they took power. The difference is that Queen Liliuokalani was set up to fail in almost every respect, while President Obama, who entered office inheriting two wars and a global economic crisis that threatened to topple the US financial system, also had powerful political momentum on his side and a strong electoral mandate. Although President Obama’s critics would surely like to stage a coup against him, he’s still in office and may be again for another four years.
DW: When Liliuokalani attended Queen Victoria’s Silver Jubilee, you say she was influenced by the lavish spectacle and the power and respect accorded this tiny woman at the center of the world’s greatest empire. Did she recognize Victoria’s position as largely symbolic?
JFS: Queen Liliuokalani combined a western view of the somewhat limited role of a constitutional monarch with the ancient Hawaiian reverence for the alii–the high chiefs who held absolute power over the commoners. The view of the kingdom’s largely white business class was that she should just be a figurehead. She hoped to restore some semblance of real power to her position by introducing a new constitution in January of 1893—a move that became a pretext for her overthrow.
DW: Was there ever a chance Hawaii would emerge a sovereign nation from the colonial squeeze play between Great Britain, America and Germany?
JFS: Sadly, I think that was unlikely, given its strategic position in the Pacific. It was only a matter of time before it was swallowed up by a superpower. As the prescient nineteenth-century Hawaiian historian, David Malo predicted, “they will eat us up, such has always been the case with large countries, the small ones have been gobbled up.”
DW: How disastrous was King Kalakaua’s military adventurism in Samoa?
JFS: It was a public relations disaster for him—his enemies turned it into a propaganda victory against him and the Hawaiian monarchy. But considering the energetic empire-building that was going on in the rest of the world at the time, it was truly a small matter.
DW: How significant was Liliu’s talk of beheading the plotters of the overthrow?
JFS: The challenge of writing history is that you can’t ask your subjects to explain themselves. In this case, her statement about having her enemies “beheaded” was in the form of a conversation she’d had with a US envoy. That envoy then wrote down his dialogue with the queen in a memorandum and Liliuokalani signed it, attesting to its truth. Here were her words as reported in the memorandum: “There are certain laws of my government by which I shall abide. My decision would be, as the law directs, that such persons should be beheaded and their property confiscated to the Government.” My guess is that she spoke out of anger because she later retracted what she’d said. However, just as her brother’s Samoan misadventure was used against him, Liliu’s angry words were used against her.
DW: As author of a book about America’s first family of wine, the Mondavis, do you see similarities to the Spreckels sugar family?
JFS: Both in their talent for business and their passionate disagreements with each other, the Spreckels were the nineteenth century version of the Mondavis.
DW: Do you see a parallel between the Mondavi sibling rivalries and those among the Hawaiian royal lines leading up to the overthrow?
JFS: Yes, there are parallels. But I challenge you to name a single dynasty—royal or otherwise—where there aren’t sibling rivalries or succession issues. These conflicts just seem to be part of human nature, though they stand out more clearly in cases where the families are powerful.