January 1893. Hawaii. The United States Navy stood poised. Gatling gun and bayonets in place. The Navy’s military prowess was intended to displace the native Hawaiian culture and the constitutional monarchy in place for fifty years. Poised, as well, was Queen Liliuokalani. She took the long view. Neither the coup d’état’s leaders – Sanford Dole, William O. Smith and Lorrin Thurston, all lawyers and descendents of Calvinist missionaries – nor the Navy, were engaged in principled conduct in accordance with law or precedent. She knew it. The long view meant avoiding bloodshed, subjecting the coup d’état to the broader moral and legal judgment of the United States and history, and fashioning a strategy that – through the remainder of her lifetime – ensured Hawaii’s sovereignty would, at its emotional and legal core, remain unsettled.
The Rights of My People examines the two battles for Hawaii’s sovereignty. Liliuokalani led them. Author Neil Thomas Proto revisits the first battle – the 1893 coup d’état and annexation in 1898 – through a new perspective: The harsh remnants of the Civil War, the missionary’s disquieting view of race, and the Renaissance and newly defined role of Hawaiian women. Explored for the first time is the second battle – the fate of the Crown lands, a quarter of the Hawaii islands, taken in the 1893 coup d’état and contested aggressively by Liliuokalani through 1910. Over more than a decade, the queen took up residence in the nation’s capital, often for months in duration, to challenge the complicity of the United States in the media and before congress. With reluctance, and disquieting to many, she turned to a court of law.
With previously unexamined court records, and correspondence, and with graphic portrayals, The Rights of My People weaves into the story Liliuokalani’s political, legal, and media maneuvering, and the exercise of her harshly learned wisdom and skill in giving life to her claim that the taking of the Crown lands by the United States was immoral and illegal. The threat of execution and assassination and the continued use of religious and racial condescension and deception by her adversaries, old and new, unfold in Honolulu, Hilo, and onto the continent in San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C.
The prologue begins in 1910 with the lawyers’ entrance into the United States Court of Claims – now the Renwick Art Gallery. With an easily accessible but penetrating analysis, Proto demonstrates the deliberate effort by Liliuokalani’s lawyers to denigrate her claim. The story ends with the lawyers’ arguments and the final decision in Liliuokalani v. United States of America.
The Rights of My People reflects the queen’s intent, through the end of her life in 1917, to ensure persistence among her people and discomfort among those who had taken Hawaii. Through Proto’s new perspective and exploration, Liliuokalani’s cosmopolitan character and place in a larger history, and the foundation for continued contentiousness within Hawaii and between its native people and the United States – the continued battle for sovereignty and the Crown lands – emerges with clarity.