Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Song for a Lost Kingdom

A section of Queen Lili’uokalani's quilt, on display in the I’olani Palace in Honolulu

There’s a song everyone has heard. It’s a gentle song, written by a queen some 135 years ago. The queen had watched her sister parting from her lover (and future husband) and been touched by their affection for each other. The song has come to be a sad song of farewell, rather than the song of love it was intended to be. The lyrics are beautiful, although most people might only know the chorus if they know any of it.

Farewell to thee, farewell to thee                   Aloha `oe, aloha `oe
O fragrance in the blue depths.                     E ke onaona noho i ka lipo.
One fond embrace and I leave                      "One fond embrace," a ho`i a`e au
To meet again.                                             A hui hou aku.

The queen was the last queen of Hawaii, the last American state to have had a monarch. The only American state to have a royal palace. I’olani Palace is a wonderful building, the stunningly gorgeous koa wood floors are protected from wear, and visitors now have to wear cotton covers over their shoes when they tour. When the last queen, Lili’uokalani, last lived there it was as a prisoner in a room on the second floor. It’s a lovely big room, but she was a prisoner just the same. The koa wood floors were not protected at that time. American soldiers trod the floors in their boots, pilfering treasures from the royal collection. Stealing jewels from the crown, and sending them back to relatives in the States, or selling them. It was a tragedy and a shock.

Queen Lili’uokalani
Liliu admitted that she made mistakes in dealing with the commercial farmers and bankers and politicians who came to Hawaii’s shores. She is quoted as saying, “I am Liliuokalani, Queen, Queen over these islands I was, and I welcomed the businessmen from far-off lands coming over the seas, for I sought to bring my country into the modern age and what I did was help to bring about these transformations of the land and of the seas. I opened the doors to pollution. I opened the doors to this kind of farming business and I have wept for so long for my people. Aaaaweii-my people! I have such sorrow (weeping) for I lead the wrong path, I took that which is easiest, because in truth there were overwhelming forces. They were backed by armies which had no end and had I resisted it would have been even worse for my people in terms of bloodshed, for these men would not have hesitated in order to have their way. So I took the way of business, I took the way of politics…” She took the wrong path.

That path is described in fascinating detail in a new book by journalist Julia Flynn Siler called Lost Kingdom. The subtitle sets the stage: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure.

The Hawaiian people were deprived of their monarch, of their way of life, of their language, and of their lands by the empire builders from the United States. They came like everything comes to Hawaii, carried across the seas by the winds and currents.

On a business trip to Waikiki a few years ago, I toured the island of Oahu. I took a nature tour which drove us around the eastern half of the island, and the guide informed us that everything that grew in Hawaii had its origins elsewhere. The trees, plants, livestock, and citizenry arrived that way. The island was ripe for growth, the weather allowed everything to bloom. The forests are rich and verdant. When cattle were imported, they soon expanded to the point where they were taking over. When sugar was needed, the plantations grew and with them the need for control.

Author Julia Flynn Siler
On another day, I took a bus in to Honolulu, and visited the I’olani Palace. I was deeply moved by this visit. Standing in Liliu’s bedroom, reading the quilt she worked on during her imprisonment, I felt a tear come to my eyes. More tears came as I read Siler’s book. The lust for land, power, and the expansion of a country under the guise of Manifest Destiny is a shocking and heartbreaking story. The wrongs that were done to the Hawaiian rulers are too many to mention in this review: they take up 300 pages in Siler’s text. Suffice it to say that they are numerous. There was a battle for supremacy of the Pacific in which major powers sought a safe harbour, and Pearl Harbour was the gemstone.

The story is a tangle of misdeeds and misunderstandings, opportunities taken and lost. Siler tells the tale well. She is sympathetic to Liliu, and the reader can hardly be otherwise, for all Liliu's wilfulness and naïveté. The story may have taken place over a century ago, but it lays out the familiar plot of governments and industries who working together to ignore tradition and “the little guy”. T hese days we may have changed our opinions on the divine right of kings and the responsibilities of government, but the 99 percent today are calling for a redraft of their constitution in much the same way that Liliu did in 1893.

Liliu should have the last word as she spoke so long ago…
I have brought these elements of destruction and devastation and desecration to this land, even more than they were here before. And so I say to you, my beloved people, ho’oponopono, forgive me, I am sorry. 

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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