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Around 200 A.D., intrepid Polynesians arrived at an undisturbed archipelago. For centuries, their descendants lived with little contact from the western world. In 1778, their isolation was shattered with the arrival of Captain Cook.
Deftly weaving together a memorable cast of characters, Lost Hawaii brings to life the ensuing clash between a vulnerable Polynesian people and relentlessly expanding capitalist powers. Portraits of royalty and rogues, sugar barons, and missionaries combine into a sweeping tale of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s rise and fall.
At the center of the story is Liliuokalani, the last queen of Hawaii. Born in 1838, she lived through the nearly complete economic transformation of the islands. Lucrative sugar plantations gradually subsumed the majority of the land, owned almost exclusively by white planters, dubbed the Sugar Kings.” Hawaii became a prize in the contest between America, Britain, and France, each seeking to expand their military and commercial influence in the Pacific.
The monarchy had become a figurehead, victim to manipulation from the wealthy sugar plantation owners. Liliuokalani was determined to enact a constitution to reinstate the monarchy’s power but was outmaneuvered by the U.S. The annexation of Hawaii had begun, ushering in a new century of American imperialism.
The queen was back at the palace, just a few blocks from Honolulu Harbor, having been rebuffed two days earlier in her attempt to introduce a new constitution. Hearing the beat of the American military drums, she stepped onto the veranda and watched from above as the troops marched from the harbor. As they kicked up dust in the unpaved streets, she could see they were heavily weighed down with double belts of cartridges. The sun sank and the skies over Honolulu darkened. The blue-jacketed sailors approached the palace.
Beneath the town’s newly installed electric streetlamps, Lili‘uokalani could see them pushing a revolving cannon and a fearsome Gatling gun that could rip through a large crowd. Following their movements in the streets, she felt fear. Why had the troops landed when everything seemed at peace? The air was heavy with the scent of gardenias. Mosquitoes were drawn to the sweat of the blue-jacketed sailors. As the troops marched past the palace grounds, accompanied by drum rolls, they hoisted their rifles to their shoulders and seemed to point them in the queen’s direction.
Were their weapons drawn and ready to fire, as Lili‘uokalani later recalled? Or were they merely signaling their respect for Hawai‘i’s queen by marching past and beating the drums in a royal salute, as one of their commanding officers later insisted? Whatever their intention, this brash display of military power ignited a crisis that would change the course of American history.