Choice Magazine review, August 2010
Queen Liliuokalani was the last monarch of the Native Hawaiians before a group of US annexationists overthrew her in 1893. But before Hawai’i was annexed in 1898 by the US, she waged a heroic effort to publicize the illegality of the coup d’etat and the wrongful seizure of one million acres of crown land by the annexationists. While scholars such as Sally Engle Merry (Colonizing Hawai’i, 2000) and Jonathan Osorio (Dismembering Lahui, CH, Mar’03, 40-4207) have discussed the cultural consequences of Western law for Hawai’i, Proto (Georgetown) uses a different approach. He describes in painstaking detail the complicated maneuvering in Hawai’i and Washington as the queen sought to win public opinion, influence the media, persuade Congress, and prevail in the US courts. As a seasoned lawyer who has represented Hawai’i in its dealings with the US, Proto is able to emphasize the significance of the media campaign and legal strategies employed by Liliuokalani against her opponents to regain control of the crown lands. Sadly for the queen, her tactics were destined to fail before the Congress and the courts, with devastating consequences for Hawaiian sovereignty and her people. Fascinating narrative account, suitable for a general audience. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. — F. Ng, California State University, Fresno
Review by Cascadian for Lunch.com, March 2010
Depressing but very educational reading for students of empire
The more American history I read, the more I find myself wishing the delegates at the Hartford Convention of 1814‐15 had succeeded in their aims and New England had seceded from the rest of the country and gone its own way. Certainly the people of the remaining United States would have benefited from the change. Maybe that would have helped the native Hawaiians too who, as Winston Churchill might have put it, have suffered in every respect from their association, involuntary as it was, with what author Neil Thomas Proto aptly calls the long echo of seventeenth‐century Massachusetts. “The Rights of My People” is an intensely depressing book in its catalog of all the ways religious authoritarianism, racism, mercantilism, and imperialism came together to undermine and overthrow the government, denigrate and (almost) destroy the culture, and seize the land and resources of the native Hawaiians. It’s an unattractive story with few heroes. But it’s also educational and important for modern readers. Neil Thomas Proto does a fine job in telling it.
“The Rights of My People” is a thoroughly‐researched book, especially as concerns the many questions of precedent involved in the legal battle over the former Hawaiian Crown Lands (the “enduring battle with the United States” described in the subtitle is primarily a political and legal battle, though with significant cultural elements as well). The depth of that research is the most notable thing about Proto’s work ‐‐ that and the skill with which he makes a complex and meandering legal story understandable to the lay reader. He also does a good job portraying the woman at the center of his story, Liliuokalani, deposed Queen of Hawaii. Overall, his prose is pretty good. But it changes sometimes. When he is summarizing history. Then his sentences get short. His style becomes choppy. Almost telegraphic. It’s as if he is impatient. He wants to get back to legal questions. This sudden change is distracting. Also a little weird. The reader is relieved when we’re past the rapids and the river flows more smoothly again.
Although “The Rights of My People” is a work of history, it’s also profoundly relevant to issues of today. Most obvious, of course, is the light this shines on contemporary politics in Hawaii and the issues of importance to native Hawaiians ‐‐ issues partially acknowledged but still hardly resolved by the so‐called “Apology Resolution” adopted by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1993. The contemporary comment that the post‐overthrow government of Sanford Dole replicated in many ways the worst aspects of the monarchy, with all power concentrated in a few hands, reminded me of former governor George Ariyoshi’s note in his memoirs With Obligation to All that “In Hawaii we have a tradition of highly centralized government that can be traced to Kamehameha’s wars of conquest and the formation of the Hawaiian kingdom” ‐‐ in other words, that the worst aspects of the monarchy are still part of the state today. And certainly Proto’s mentions of military tribunals as alternatives to court trials when the state is unsure of its evidence or uncertain of the outcome, or the passing reference to the prosecution of American soldiers for waterboarding rebels in the Philippines, were surely not for historical application only.
What the reader comes away with most strongly, though, is an understanding of that aforementioned combination of narrow religious authoritarianism, racism, and covetousness (imperial as well as economic), as well as the extent to which some people will go, then as now, to avoid ever admitting the United States could have made a mistake, let alone committed a crime. A lawyer as well as a historian, Proto is clearly arguing a point in this book, and I’ve no doubt some readers will react as strongly to his arguments as they have to other suggestions the US has anything to apologize for in its relations with the crown and people of Hawaii. Students of America’s descent into empire will want to study these arguments closely. I think there are facts here worth knowing.