The early Polynesian settlers to Hawaiʻi brought sugar cane with them and demonstrated that it could be grown successfully. In 1802, sugar was first made in the islands on the island of Lānaʻi by a native of China.
He came here in one of the vessels trading for sandalwood, and brought a stone mill and boilers and, after grinding off one small crop and making it into sugar, went back the next year with his fixtures, to China.
But it wasn’t development of a sweetener that was one of the first popular uses of the canoe crop (that later ended up changing the landscape and social make-up of the Islands.)
“In short it might be well worth the attention of Government to make the experiment and settle these islands by planters from the West Indies, men of humanity, industry and experienced abilities in the exercise of their art would here in a short time be enabled to manufacture sugar and rum from luxuriant fields of cane equal if not superior to the produce of our West India plantations.” (Menzies, 1793)
Rum is a beverage that seems to have had its origins on the 17th century Caribbean sugarcane plantations and by the 18th century its popularity had spread throughout world. Rum is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane byproducts by a process of fermentation and distillation.
The origin of the word ‘rum’ is generally unclear. In an 1824 essay about the word’s origin, Samuel Morewood suggested the word ‘rum’ might be from the British slang term for ‘the best,’ as in “having a rum time. … it would be called rum, to denote its excellence or superior quality.” (Samuel Morewood, 1824)
According to Kamakau, “The first taste that Kamehameha and his people had of rum was at Kailua in 1791 or perhaps a little earlier, brought in by Captain Maxwell. Kamehameha went out to the ship with (John) Young and (Isaac) Davis when it was sighted off Keāhole Point and there they all drank rum.”
“Then nothing would do but Kalanimōku must get some of this sparkling water, and he was the first chief to buy rum.”
Shortly thereafter, while in Waikīkī, after having tasted the “dancing water,” Kamehameha I gained the apparent honor of having spread the making of rum from Oʻahu to Hawaiʻi island. (Kanahele)
After he saw a foreigner make rum in Honolulu, he set up his own still. Spurred by his own appetite for rum, he soon made rum drinking common among chiefs and chiefesses as well as commoners. (Kanahele) Many of the subsequent royalty and chiefs also drank alcoholic beverages (several overindulged.)
Within a decade or so, Island residents were producing liquor on a commercial basis. “It was while Kamehameha was on Oʻahu that rum was first distilled in the Hawaiian group,” wrote Kamakau.
“In 1809 rum was being distilled by the well-known foreigner, Oliver Holmes, at Kewalo, and later he and David Laho-loa distilled rum at Makaho.” Several small distilleries were in operation by the 1820s.
By November 1822, Honolulu had seventeen grog shops operated by foreigners. Drinking places were one of the earliest types of retail business established in the Islands.
“For some years after the arrival of missionaries at the islands it was not uncommon in going to the enclosure of the king, or some other place of resort, to find after a previous night’s revelry, exhausted cases of ardent spirits standing exposed and the emptied bottles strewn about in confusion.” (Dibble)
In 1825 an English agriculturist named John Wilkinson, who in his younger years had been a planter in the West Indies, arrived at Honolulu on the frigate Blonde. He had made some arrangement with Governor Boki, while the latter was in England, to go out and engage in cultivating sugar cane and coffee and in making sugar and, probably, rum. (Kuykendall)
A plantation was established in the upper part of Mānoa valley. Six months after beginning operations Wilkinson had about seven acres of cane growing, Untimely rains raised the stream and destroyed a dam under construction at the mill site. (Kuykendall) His partners constructed a still and began to make rum from molasses. (Daws)
Boki’s trade in entertaining the visiting ships and distilling liquor ran him afoul of the missionaries and Kaʻahumanu. Kaʻahumanu had him fined in 1827 for misconduct, intemperance, fornication and adultery, apparently in connection with his brothels and grog-shops. (Nogelmeier)
Kaʻahumanu ordered the sugar cane on his Mānoa plantation to be torn up when she found it was to be used for rum. When Boki could no longer provide the cane for distilling and Kaʻahumanu had the sugar crop destroyed, Boki turned to distilling ti-root. (Nogelmeier)
But the missionaries apparently also shared in the libations. As late as 1827, the Honolulu missionaries ran in effect a liquor store for its members. From May 15, 1826 to May 2, 1827, Hiram Bingham bought on his personal account 7 ½ gal of wine, 6 ¾ gal, 1 pt and a bottle of rum, 4 gal of brandy, 1 doz bottles of porter and 4 bottles of port. (Mission Account Book, Greer)
The Binghams were not the only missionaries to imbibe. Elisha Loomis bought 8 gal, 1 pt of wine, 1 gal of rum, and 1 ½ gal of brandy. Abraham Blatchley bought 4 gal of brandy, 2 gal of rum, and 2 gal of gin. Joseph Goodrich bought 2 ½ gal of wine and 1 qt of rum. Samuel Ruggles bought 1 ¼ gal of brandy and 2 ¼ gal of wine. Levi Chamberlain bought 3 qts of wine and 2 qts of brandy. The Medical Department drew 4 gal of rum. (Mission Account Book, Greer)
In March 1838, the first liquor license law was enacted, which prohibited all selling of liquors without a license under a fine of fifty dollars for the first offense, to be increased by the addition of fifty dollars for every repetition of the offense. (The Friend, December 1887)
All houses for the sale of liquor were to be closed at ten o’clock at night, and from Saturday night until Monday morning. Drunkenness was prohibited in the licensed houses under a heavy fine to the drinker, and the loss of his license to the seller. (The Friend, December 1887)
In 1843, the seamen’s chaplain, Samuel C. Damon, started ‘The Temperance Advocate and Seamen’s Friend;’ he soon changed its name to simply “The Friend.” Through it, he offered ‘Six Hints to seamen visiting Honolulu’ (the Friend, October 8, 1852,) his first ‘Hint,’ “Keep away from the grog shops.”
However, that was pretty wishful thinking, given the number and distribution of establishments in the early-years of the fledgling city and port on Honolulu.
In 1874, a legislative act was passed that allowed distillation of rum on sugar plantations. According to a report in ‘The Friend,’ “the only planter in the Legislature voted three times against the passage of the Act.” The first export of Hawaiian rum was made on May 15, 1875 – the product of Heʻeia Plantation. (Today, others are making a comeback.)
The sweetener production focus of sugar caught hold. The first commercially-viable sugar plantation, Ladd and Co., was started at Kōloa on Kaua‘i. On July 29, 1835 (187 years ago, today,) Ladd & Company obtained a 50-year lease on nearly 1,000-acres of land and established a plantation and mill site in Kōloa.
Hawai‘i’s economy turned toward sugar in the decades between 1860 and 1880; these twenty years were pivotal in building the plantation system. A century after Captain Cook’s arrival in Hawaiʻi, sugar plantations started to dominate the landscape.
At the industry’s peak in the 1930s, Hawaii’s sugar plantations employed more than 50,000 workers and produced more than 1-million tons of sugar a year; over 254,500-acres were planted in sugar. That plummeted to 492,000 tons in 1995.
With statehood in 1959 and the almost simultaneous introduction of passenger jet airplanes, the tourist industry began to grow rapidly. A majority of the plantations closed in the 1990s. As sugar declined, tourism took its place – and far surpassed it. Like many other societies, Hawaii underwent a profound transformation from an agrarian to a service economy.