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How Sugar Brought An End to Hawaii's Nationhood

Julia Flynn Siler is an award-winning journalist and author of <em>The House of Mondavi</em>.
Donna Goldman / Buzz Pictures
Julia Flynn Siler is an award-winning journalist and author of <em>The House of Mondavi</em>.

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 Consideredhost 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."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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