Italian adventurer and sea captain Celso Cesare Moreno traveled the world lying, scheming, and building an extensive patron/client network to establish his reputation as a middleman and person of significance. Through his machinations, Moreno became a critical player in the expansion of western trade and imperialism in Asia, the trafficking of migrant workers and children in the Atlantic, the conflicts of Americans and Native Hawaiians over the fate of Hawaii, and the imperial competitions of French, British, Italian, and American governments during a critically important era of imperial expansion during the nineteenth century. Oh Capitano! teases out Moreno’s enormous peculiarities and fascination as well as his significance.
Celso Cesare Moreno was simultaneously toxic, deceitful, and charming in equal measure. He wandered, adventured, cheated, exaggerated, promoted (mainly himself), and continuously created newly invented past lives. He repeatedly sought a role at the center of a globalizing world with gusto and had no qualms about lying or betraying others. He claimed at times to be the ruler of a Southeast Asian island that he then offered for sale to several western nations. He briefly became prime minister of Hawai’i. He testified before the U.S. Congress as an expert witness. He sought to promote a trans-Pacific cable project. He fought with the ministers and leaders of many countries (and with his fellow Italians and Catholic churchmen almost everywhere) but was more often ignored and rejected than feted. He was accused, probably with good cause, of abusing his obligations after claiming guardianship of the sons of King David Kalakaua of Hawaii. Dragged by his uncontrollable polemical passions, the old Captain died alone, unloved by anyone and with no significant relations to others.
With its focus on Moreno, Oh Capitano! illustrates some of the most puzzling cultural traits of emigrant Italian elites. Called a “carpetbagger,” “land pirate,” “extinct volcano,” among many other derogatory monikers, Celso emerges in this fascinating biography as a multifaceted, chameleon-like personality not reducible to a single epithet.