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Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America's First Imperial Adventure Kindle Edition

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Length: 449 pages

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Editorial Reviews


"Siler’s Lost Kingdom is a riveting saga about Big Sugar flexing its imperialist muscle in Hawaii . . . A real gem of a book." —Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite

"A disturbing and dramatic story deftly captured by Julia Flynn Siler. She vividly depicts a cast of characters driven by greed, desperation, and miscalculation. How the queen lost her kingdom says as much about America and its new era of overseas expansion as it does about Hawaii." —T. J. Stiles, author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award

"This imperial land grab in our not so distant past is far too little known . . . Julia Flynn Siler’s lively, moving, colorful account will help restore it to the place in our national memory where it ought to be." —Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918

"[Siler is] able to color in many figures who had heretofore existed largely in outline or black and white . . . an important chapter in our national history, one that most Americans don’t know but should." —New York Times Book Review

"Siler captures . . . what Hawaii was then and what it has evolved into today. What happened to the islands is known as one of the most aggressive takeovers of the Gilded Age . . . Siler gives us a riveting and intimate look at the rise and tragic fall of Hawaii's royal family . . . a reminder that Hawaii remains one of the most breathtaking places in the world. Even if the kingdom is lost." —Fortune

"[A] well-researched, nicely contextualized history . . . ‘one of the most audacious land grabs of the Gilded Age.’" —Los Angeles Times

"A fascinating . . . tale of intrigue and imperialism, supplemented throughout with anecdotes by and about literary luminaries such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Herman Melville—all of whom traveled to and opined on the islands." —Christian Science Monitor

"A well-told history of the U.S. acquisition of Hawaii . . . when Uncle Sam closed his grasp on the islands."
Seattle Times

"A sweeping tale of tragedy, greed, betrayal, and imperialism . . . The depth of her research shines through the narrative, and the lush prose and quick pace make for engaging reading."
Library Journal (Starred review)

"Too many Americans forget . . . our 'island paradise' was acquired via a cynical, imperious land grab . . . This is a well-written, fast-moving saga." —Booklist

"Siler rehearses the dark imperial history of how Americans first arrived in the islands, how they rose in power and how they deposed the queen and took everything . . . A well-rendered narrative of paradise and imperialism." —Kirkus Reviews

"Siler . . . skillfully weaves the tangled threads of this story into a satisfying tapestry about the late 19th-century death of a small nation [with] . . . sympathetic detail." —Publishers Weekly

About the Author

Julia Flynn Siler is an award-winning journalist. Her book, The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty, was a New York Times best seller. She has written for Business Week and the New York Times, and is now a contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal in San Francisco.

Product Details

  • File Size: 2278 KB
  • Print Length: 449 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0802120016
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (January 3, 2012)
  • Publication Date: January 3, 2012
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B006BAEP6I
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #252,572 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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More About the Author

Julia Flynn Siler is the New York Times bestselling author of The House of Mondavi. Her most recent book, Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America's First Imperial Adventure, is a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. An award-winning journalist, she lives in Northern California with her husband and two sons. She is now at work on a history set in San Francisco's Chinatown at the turn of the 20th Century, forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf. Please visit for more information.

Julia discussed Lost Kingdom on NPR's All Things Considered on Sunday, February 26th. To listen to the interview by Weekend Edition Sunday host Guy Raz or to read the excerpt on NPR's website, please visit


Q&A with Julia Flynn Siler about her latest book, Lost Kingdom:

Why did you decide to write a book about Hawai'i?

A few years ago, my family and I were invited to spend the weekend at a ranch near San Francisco owned by some family friends. On a tour of the property, they swung open the door of an old, dusty barn. Inside was a treasure trove of what collectors call "Hawaiiana" - fierce-looking totems, grass skirts, feathered staffs, and carved wooden bowls known as calabashes. That's when I first started thinking about the close ties between California and Hawai'i - and started to wonder whether some of the great fortunes on the West Coast had their origins in the islands.

How did you follow up on that hunch?

Soon after visiting that barn, I went to the library looking for books that might explain the commercial and cultural ties between Hawai'i and California. One, in particular, caught my eye; it was about Claus Spreckels, a nineteenth century business tycoon whose nickname was the "Sugar King." The Spreckels were a powerful family in California's early days - controlling railroads, steamship lines, and huge sugar beet operations. But the surprise - at least to me - was that they made much of their money by virtually dominating the economy and the politics of the Hawaiian Islands.

I've always loved stories about families and the Spreckels truly were a true family dynasty - with all the infighting and intrigue one would imagine. They were a nineteenth century version of the Mondavis. And as I started learning more about Hawaiian history, I came to realize that American history also could lay claim to one true royal family - the kings and queens who once ruled Hawai'i.

What did you learn about Hawai'i's royal family?

There have been all sorts of books about Hawaiian royalty over the years, but so far nothing that offered an intimate glimpse into their lives or investigated the ways in which their lives became painfully entangled with those of enterprising businessmen such as Claus Spreckels. Thanks to my luck of meeting David Forbes, a historian who had spent the past four years collecting and transcribing every single letter, diary entry, and document pertaining to the last family that had ruled the Hawaiian Islands, I got an extraordinary look into the private lives of the last king and queen of Hawai'i. Many of these letters have never been published before and David very generously offered to share them with me.

The Forbes collection - which included intimate correspondence among the members of Hawai'i's last ruling dynasty - helped me understand this talented and passionate family caught between their love and loyalty for their native Hawaiian subjects and the very powerful force of nineteenth century capitalism. They were under tremendous pressure.

Who was your favorite character?

I was especially moved by Lili'uokalani (Lee-lee-ooo-oh-kalani, known as Lili'u,) the last queen of Hawai'i, who was as much Victorian lady as fierce Hawaiian chiefess. She spoke four or five languages, did charitable works, and wrote more than a hundred songs - including what is still Hawai'i's most famous song, Aloha Oe. She was worldly - travelling to New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and even London, after Queen Victoria invited her to join her in celebrating her Royal Jubilee.

Yet, not long after Lili'u took the throne, the San Francisco Examiner and other papers viciously attacked her, calling her "savage," "immoral" and "blood-thirsty," even though she was a devout Christian educated by white missionaries. Old stereotypes die hard and writers such as Mark Twain had helped popularize the idea of Hawaiians as being "sceptered savages" who ate dogs and indulged in orgies. Lili'u, who was brilliant and headstrong, embodied a profound cultural schism: dressing in elegant silk crinolines and diamond brooches of the late Victorian era as she battled to protect her nation's sovereignty and her Hawaiian heritage.

I was delighted to come across letters and other documents that offered glimpses of Lili'u'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.

What was your most interesting research find?

I remember spending an afternoon in the archives of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and coming across a fascinating document - a page that Lili'u 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 goose-bumps. Or, as Hawaiians say, it gave me chicken skin!

How does the fall of the Hawaiian Kingdom relate to today's world?

As a business reporter for many years, I saw what happened to Hawai'i through the lens of modern corporate behavior: it could be argued that the overthrow was a takeover of the islands, funded and supported in large part by business interests. In fact, many of the families and firms behind Queen Lili'uokalani's overthrow more than a century ago still wield power in Hawai'i. Castle & Cooke, one of the companies founded by the first Christian missionaries to the islands, was intimately involved in her overthrow. What happened to Hawaii was one of the most audacious land grabs of the Gilded Age, in which 1.8 million acres of land - now worth billions of dollars - was seized from native Hawaiians and claimed by American businessmen.

What were the challenges in writing about a nineteenth century native Hawaiian woman?

I am not Hawaiian and I don't read or speak the Hawaiian language. And although Lili'u wrote most of her letters and diary entries in English, she was a native Hawaiian chiefess living in the nineteenth century - in other words, a very different time and place than our own.

From the beginning, people warned me off the project. When I first started, I met with someone at the University of Hawai'i who told me the story about the kolea, a migratory bird from the mainland that travelled across the sea from North America to Hawai'i to gorge on the island's luscious fruits. After growing fat, it flew back to the mainland. The point of this story was that this bird, like so many other visitors to Hawai'i, took without giving back. And the person who told me this story suggested that it would be better for a native Hawaiian to write this book. Someone else told me a cautionary tale about being prayed to death by kahuna! (a Hawaiian priest, magician, or expert.)

The story of Hawai'i is rich and I hope other writers, native Hawaiians and others, will write about it from their own perspectives. Perhaps my book will help them the way that a number of native Hawaiian scholars graciously provided me with guidance and shared ideas and resources. I also hope Lost Kingdom helps repay their generosity by inspiring readers to learn more about Hawaiian culture and the important work these scholars are doing.

What role did Christian missionaries play in the drama?

Many of the sugar kings were descendants of the Christian missionaries who arrived in the islands to spread the gospel. As the old saying goes, they came to do good and they did well. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, some of their descendants ended up controlling the vast majority of the arable land of Hawai'i, transforming the landscape from a patchwork of taro fields and fish ponds to large sugar plantations. They also controlled the banks, railroads, steamship lines, and most industry. However, the sugar kings were far from the Simon Legree-type villains I had expected. Some loved the natural world of Hawai'i: a few spoke fluent Hawaiian and had a deep understanding of native Hawaiian culture. It would be simplistic to characterize the industrialists as all evil and the Hawaiians as all exemplary. In fact, I found that there were admirable characters and scoundrels among both native Hawaiians and haole, the native Hawaiian word for someone who is a foreigner.

Would you describe Lost Kingdom as a tragedy?

Yes - but with some uplifting and even comical moments. It is the story of how a vulnerable Polynesian people, who lived on one of the most remote places in the world, collided with the industrialized world. The result was disease, death, and the overthrow of a sovereign kingdom by the relatively young nation of America, which was just then beginning to look beyond its continental borders for growth. That said the story has tragic-comic elements, as well. The collection of characters who found their way to Hawai'i in the nineteenth century, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, and a monumentally brazen scoundrel named Walter Murray Gibson, could only have thrived in the heady tropical climate of Gilded Age Hawai'i. The uplifting part comes from Lili'u's ability to forgive her enemies at the end. That was inspiring to me.

What happened to the descendants of Hawaiian royalty and to the Spreckels family?

Answering that question was one of the things I loved most about writing Lost Kingdom. The woman who is generally considered the closest relative of Lili'u, HRH Abigail Campbell Kawananakoa, now lives in California and breeds quarter horses. Descendants of the Spreckels own vast swaths of Napa Valley. The romance novelist Danielle Steele owns the massive Spreckels mansion in San Francisco, which was once nicknamed the "Sugar Palace."

Was it hard duty having to travel to Hawaii for your book?

My friends tease me that I seem to end up doing research in beautiful places - and there's truth in that. The House of Mondavi was set in the Napa Valley and as part of my research I made a trip to Italy to visit the Mondavis' ancestral village. I spent four years working on Lost Kingdom, and my research took me on some wonderful adventures - a private tour of 'Iolani Palace, the only royal palace on U.S. soil, as well as what is now the Governor's mansion in Hawaii. I sang with the choir in the first church built on Oahu, which is made from coral stone, and watched performances of old-style hula and chanting. I sampled kava, a mouth-numbing drink made from the 'awa plant, out of a coconut shell, and inside the private home of the descendants of the sugar kings of Hawaii, who showed me medals and other gifts given by the last king of Hawaii to their great-grandfather which have remained with their families in California. I also grew to appreciate the natural landscape of Hawai'i. It is one of the most isolated places on earth, with plants and creatures that live nowhere else. It's a miraculous place that's now part of the United States. Lost Kingdom explains how and why.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

199 of 225 people found the following review helpful By Makana Risser Chai on January 28, 2012
Format: Hardcover
As the author of a book on the history of Hawaiian traditions published by the Bishop Museum, I appreciate a mainland journalist and publisher taking interest in our history. Perhaps their hearts were in the right place, but this book fails on many levels. It contains numerous errors, both major and "minor." Human sacrifices were not made to the goddess Pele (p. xix), and ancient Hawaiians did not have a tradition of bodies lying in state for weeks (21). In recounting the riots after Kalakaua got elected, the author says that the people in the streets rioted against the Legislature which had elected him in "effectively a race riot," implying that the legislators were all haole, but she never talks about the racial makeup of the Legislature. In fact, almost 3/4 of the legislators were Hawaiian. Yes, Kalakaua was preferred by Americans but also by Hawaiians in the Leg. If anything it was more of a class riot than a race one.

More important, this book fails the most critical duty of a history book, which is to place events in context. It fails to do this in two, opposite, ways. First, because the book jumps into the middle of history, it does not explain Hawaiian tradition before white contact. In perhaps an effort to bring that tradition into the narrative, the author makes it sound like the modern Hawaiian kings and queens descended from barbarians and continued to be "uncivilized." One paragraph (31) begins by describing the wood-framed home of King Kamehameha IV and his wife, Emma, and ends noting that they wore the latest fashions from London.
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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Malvin VINE VOICE on November 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"Lost Kingdom" by Julia Flynn Siler tells the sad history of Hawaii's subjugation by sugar planters and its annexation by the United States in the 19th century. Ms. Siler has extensively researched the most relevant people and events to help bring us back to an unique time and place that has passed into memory. Written with precision, perceptiveness and humanity, Ms. Siler's fascinating book should appeal to everyone interested in U.S. history and the Hawaiian islands.

Ms. Siler centers her narrative around the remarkable family and person of Lili'uokalani, who was born in 1820 and served as Hawaii's last reigning queen. Without overtly romanticizing the native people, Ms. Siler does suggest that the Hawaiians were wholly unprepared for the complexities of western culture. On the one hand, Lili'u's own writings confirm that she whole-heartedly embraced the message of love taught to her in the Christian Missionary schools in which she was raised. On the other hand, Ms. Siler documents how the monarchs who served over the course of Lili'u's lifetime became progressively less effective as they became compromised by western business interests who ceaselessly worked behind the scenes to slowly erode their powers. Ultimately, the humiliating Bayonet Constitution institutionalized a government that was effectively controlled by the sugar barons, leaving Lili'u's brother Kalakaua as a mere figurehead. For her part, Lili'u assumed the throne in 1891 and conspired in a failed counterrevolution in 1895 which led to her imprisonment. In the aftermath of this unrest, the U.S. decided to settle matters permanently by annexing Hawaii in 1898, crushing Lili'u's hopes for justice for herself and her people.

Apart from recounting the facts (which she does extraordinarily well), Ms.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By John C. Navarra on December 20, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I was able to review Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America's First Imperial Adventure through the Amazon Vine program. Before reading Julia Siler's book I only knew about Hawaii's history through the documentary by American Experience's Hawaii's last Queen and the recent movie about Princess Ka'iulani.
Siler doesn't tell a standard biographical account of Queen Liliu's life. The story is really told through the story of the rise and fall of the Hawaiian monarchy. Most of the story spans the Queen's lifetime but her story is interspersed with many others. Siler for Hawaiian novices like myself describes many Hawaiian traditions and cultural norms.
If you're looking for a book that will tell a concise story of how the Hawaiian monarchy was started, developed and was ended because of the value of the sugar trade, then this book will teach you a lot. Julia Siler obviously did a ton of research and presents a very readable account of Hawaii in the nineteenth century. Siler tells wonderful stories of the Thurston's, Doles, and the many Hawaiian monarchs who we may have forgotten if it wasn't for historical research. I bet even someone who knows Hawaii well will probably learn something new.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Peter G. Keen on October 20, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The merit of this book is that it tells a story that we all should know more about, vividly and with empathy. It is judicious in presenting what happened without moralizing, taking political sides or putting players into hero and villain categories. This has the merits of letting readers draw the messages out for themselves and having the events encourage interpretation, not any authorial advocacy. It is a sad tale, that needs no embellishing or melodrama; what stands out is almost the inevitability of the decline of royal control and its takeover by one of the imperial powers - Britain, France or Japan. Everything was against Hawaii's retaining real independence, as contrasted to some titular client relationship. All that glorious land, the sugar, the chance for outsiders to grab political influence, the money to be made, and finally the strategic location of the Pearl basin as a deep water port and supply center as the geopolitics of empire spread across the Pacific. The Spanish-American war sealed its doom. As one player noted, when Commerce and Defense came together, Hawaii had no chance: "Annexation is manifest destiny and we are bound to have it."

One of the attractions of the book is that the tale is very different from, certainly, what I expected and, probably, for most general readers. It's centered on the kings and queens of Hawaii who were caught up in the drift of historical forces and their interactions with the power players in the game about who would have real authority. These royals were not the stereotypical war paint, girth and feathers of so many images. Hawaii was a sophisticated society, with well-educated and cosmopolitan leaders. The palace had electricity years before the White House. The elite travelled widely, and was urbane and educated. They met with U.S.
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