Before the review, let me make a brief note, mostly for reference, of other books I have read that may have similar appeal. This is mostly the reader's advisor in me. You can find the books in my GoodReads profile shelves:
- Hardy Green, The Company Town.
- Greg Grandin, Fordlandia.
- Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew.
Lost Kingdom: The Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America's First Imperial Adventure by Julia Flynn Siler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I will start by saying that I was in the mood to read a good, solid history book, and this definitely fit the bill. In addition, I did not know much about the history of Hawaii prior to it being annexed by the U.S., and this book did a great job in filling that gap for me. The neat thing about reading it is that it "reads" like a fiction piece in the sense that it has a good narrative, and it will engage you.
Siler's book tells the tale of Hawaii from the time when Cook landed on the islands that were known as the Sandwich Islands up until the point when annexation occurs. It is a very interesting tale, but it is also a tale of intrigue, a lot of political play and maneuvering, and often tragic moments. Indeed the title is very appropriate for in annexation a kingdom was lost. That the U.S. can brag it has a royal palace on U.S. soil does not convey the conflicts and imperialistic schemes that came to pass for that to happen. In this regard, the book also provides a lesson in early American imperialism. This is a time when the famous declaration of "the frontier is closed" happened in the U.S., so Americans were seeking new places to expand in terms of territory and trade. The Hawaiian Islands were a very alluring place to expand. Well, they were alluring to many; even some in the U.S. did debate on whether to annex or not, often depending on what interests they were trying to safeguard. The big interest that seems to loom large in the story is that of sugar. Siler shows us how the sugar trade played such a central part in the story, shaping the monarchy as well as the drive to annexation.
The book has a simple organization. It runs two parallel stories, so to speak. One is the story of the royal dynasties leading to Queen Lili'u, the last monarch of the Kalakua House and the last monarch of Hawaii. The other story is the story of Hawaii and the sugar barons who shaped the nation and the economy of Hawaii in ways that no armed force could do. In essence, the sugar interests were the real rulers and owners of Hawaii, even to the point that the monarchy was in heavy debt to them. And yet, towards the end, Queen Lili'u finds a very unlikely ally, one I did not expect, but when you realize much of this is about watching out for your interests, the alliance made sense. I will let you read the book to find out who it was.
The book displays excellent research. It is clear the author did a lot of work and spent a lot of time in archives seeking out material to write the history. She draws heavily on the diary of the Queen, a woman who was intelligent, cultured, and a song composer who was committed to being a true chiefess to her people. The author also draws on various other sources as well. The book features extensive endnotes and bibliography (in fact, this research material does take about a third of the book at the end). The book also features a good set of photos and illustrations as supplementary material. I think the visual materials provide a nice visual element to the story.
Maybe the only reason I gave it four stars out of five is because it left me wanting more. What happens after annexation? There was a bit of closure in the epilogue though. Maybe that is another topic for another book? I will add that for me, being familiar with the Spanish-American War, this book added a bit of a new perspective to that part of history as well given Hawaii did play a strategic role for the U.S. as a "coaling" and supply station on their way to the Philippines.
Overall, a neat and interesting read. If you are looking for a good history book with a good narrative, this may be a good choice for you. If you want to learn more about Hawaii and go past the usual images of Pearl Harbor, the tourist attraction and volcanoes, this is a book for you. And if you want a book on a chapter of American history and its imperialism, then this is a good book for that as well.
Final note: To make the FTC happy, I am disclosing I won this book in a GoodReads First Reads giveaway. (Though between us here, I had noted this book earlier as one to read, so winning it was a neat thing).
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