Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Book Review: 'Under the Crown and Stripes: Two Kings, Two Princes, a Queen, and Their American Dreams' by Joseph Ford Cotto

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American Royalty?

Joseph Ford Cotto is enamored of royalty. He wrote an apparently glowing article on King Kigeli V of Rwanda, and the exiled king (from his base in Washington) made him a knight and then a baron. Under The Crown And Stripes is Cotto’s ode to royalty in the USA. He has selected two kings, a queen and two princes with some attachment to the United States to profile.

Of the five, Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii has the least connection to life in the USA. Her country was taken over by it, on the sly, by conspirators. She never was a citizen, refugee or even loyal to America. She was enormously respected and recognized as honorable at home, and it is a shame how she was treated and how she ended up. She definitely deserved better. But then, Hawaii lost its independence too.

King Kigeli V of Rwanda was also not an American citizen, but a political refugee seeking asylum. He never mastered English, and spent his life trying to position himself for a return to Rwanda. Cotto says he too was honorable and attended to his subjects with care and concern. Unfortunately, he spent his last decades scrounging for money so he could continue his work. His fortune of land and cattle stayed behind. The chapters on Kigeli are by far the most detailed, as Cotto had access to the king himself as well as his chancellor and other supporters in the court. They all had great respect for the king, and it shows.

King James I of Trinidad was not so much a king as a fraud. James Harden-Hickey stumbled onto a small (3x5 mile) island off the coast of Brazil (not the Caribbean) and claimed it for himself. He named himself king, produced sashes, rings, bonds and titles to sell, and always seemed to be on the run. He married into extreme wealth in the USA, but despised the family patriarch so much he never enjoyed it. He seems to have been an entirely unpleasant fellow, the only one in this group of royals. Before his island discovery, he was a hustler in Paris, a boulevardier , duelist, and writer. He loved to sue people. In America, King James I committed suicide.

The two princes made the best Americans of the collection.

Achille Murat was a prince whose father was king of Naples as appointed by Napoleon. Later administrations dispensed with the family’s services and he found his way to America for a fresh start. He married Kate, grandniece of George Washington. He settled in and proved himself valuable, not as royalty, but as an American. He became an author, philosopher, adventurer, planter, politician, soldier, and public intellectual. “I came to America, poor, friendless, and an exile, and have here found a home and country which Europe refused me!”

Camille de Polignac, became a prince just as his father’s purchased title came through – a month before he died. It came from the Papal States, notorious for selling indulgences and honorifics. The young prince drifted and ended up in Shreveport Louisiana in the mid-1800s. He too worked to become a valued American. He raced through the ranks to become a major general in the confederate army, highly respected and loved by those serving under him. He managed to prove himself despite the handicap of his accent, broken English and complaints that the troops couldn’t even pronounce his name. His royal background played no part in his achievements.

The book is a very fast read. It is breezily written, with numerous asides from Cotto on the situation he has just or is about to describe. Uncommonly for biographies, he likes to break the fourth wall and address the reader directly from time to time.

There’s not a lot of, shall I say, commonality among the royals he portrays. They are humans, caught up in their times, trying to keep their heads above water. Only the Kigeli line seems to have continued, still in exile. Cotto’s choices are good because of their obscurity to 21st century Americans. The book is as much an alternative history lesson as biography.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.