The most recent state to join the union, Hawaii is the only one to have once been a royal kingdom. After its "discovery" by Captain Cook in the late 18th Century, Hawaii was fought over by European powers determined to take advantage of its position as the crossroads of the Pacific. The arrival of the first missionaries marked the beginning of the struggle between a native culture with its ancient gods, sexual libertinism and rites of human sacrifice, and the rigid values of the Calvinists. While Hawaii's royal rulers adopted Christianity, they also fought to preserve their ancient ways. But the success of the ruthless American sugar barons sealed their fate and in 1893, the American Marines overthrew Lili'uokalani, the last queen of Hawaii.
James L. Haley's Captive Paradise is the story of King Kamehameha I, The Conqueror, who unified the islands through terror and bloodshed, but whose dynasty succumbed to inbreeding; of Gilded Age tycoons like Claus Spreckels who brilliantly outmaneuvered his competitors; of firebrand Lorrin Thurston, who was determined that Hawaii be ruled by whites; of President McKinley, who presided over the eventual annexation of the islands. Not for decades has there been such a vibrant and compelling portrait of an extraordinary place and its people.
This expansive work from historian and novelist Haley (Wolf: The Lives of Jack London) focuses on Hawaii's annexation by the United States. Weaving a vast web of culture clashes amid the military and ideological conquests that turned native Hawaiians into "strangers in their own land," Haley delivers his narrative through big personalities: royalty, missionaries, and conquerors of various backgrounds. His excellent exploration of the legendary figures of Hawaiian culture avoids the revisionist tendency to "rhapsodize over the natives' lost innocence" and "gloss over the horrors of precontact life." Haley examines the popularly and rightfully maligned forces of "American avarice" alongside the lesser known influences of "French thuggery and British vacillation" that helped breed "native acolytes" of Western thought. This balanced perspective is certainly welcome in the canon of Hawaiian history, which is often beset by political agendas. Although the 20th century receives an all-too-brief summary that begs for a follow-up volume, this is an otherwise eye-opening study of Hawaii before it became a modern tourism capital the Hawaii which continues to fascinate Westerners today.