“The arrival yesterday morning of the Suez, the first of the line of the Oceanic Steamship Company, which proposes to run regularly between these Islands and the Coast is an event of importance.”
“It has become quite apparent of late that the rapidly increasing trade on this route requires more and better accommodation than we now have, both for freight as well as passengers.”
“We are assured by the President of the Oceanic Company that they will have in actual service on this route, before the end of twelve months, two boats which are being specially built for them, and that the Suez is merely chartered as a pioneer.” (Daily Bulletin, June 15, 1882)
During the decade of 1875-1885 Pacific Mail operated a monthly service to New Zealand and Australia, via Hawai‘i. It could not handle the growing demands in the fast developing community in Hawaii.
Sons of the Hawai‘i “Sugar King” (Claus Spreckels) formed John D Spreckels and Brothers (John Diedrich, Adolph Bernard and Claus August Spreckels.) On December 22, 1881, the Oceanic Steamship Company was incorporated in California.
The company had its roots in a fleet of sailing vessels created in 1878 by Claus Spreckels, then a major sugar planter in Hawaii, to move raw sugar to his refinery in California.
Claus built the California Sugar Refinery in 1867 to process sugar. While grocers, then, sold “sugar loaves,” Spreckels introduced the European process of packaging granulated sugar and sugar cubes (so customers could more easily divide the portions.)
In 1878, through his friendship with King Kalākaua, Claus Spreckels secured a lease of 40,000-acres of land on Maui and by 1882 he acquired the fee simple title to the Wailuku ahupuaʻa.
That same year, Spreckels founded the Hawaiian Commercial Company, which quickly became the largest and best-equipped sugar plantation in the islands.
In 1882, Oceanic Steamship first chartered ships, then owned and operated their own fleet. The first of the fleet was the Mariposa, launched on March 7, 1883.
The large steamers provided more cargo space than was needed for sugar, so they expanded into merchant shipping more generally.
It was the first line to offer regular service between Honolulu and San Francisco, and it reduced travel time immensely. While the sailing ship “Claus Spreckels,” made the trip in less than ten days in 1879, the new steam vessel Mariposa required fewer than six days to make the run in 1883.
On November 8, 1883, the Mariposa delivered Mother Marianne Cope, the leader of a small group of Franciscan Sisters who sailed to Hawaii to help “procure the salvation of souls and to promote the glory of God.” (She is now Saint Marianne.)
Likewise, the family enterprise controlled the sugar trade and, from 1884, the mail service on the San Francisco-Honolulu stretch as well. In 1885, steamer service was extended to New Zealand and Australia. (Spiekermann)
When Pacific Mail decided not to continue their service from San Francisco, Oceanic Steamship submitted a proposal and was ultimately awarded the contract with Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand (terms of the contract required a British firm be involved.) (Plowman)
The Oceanic Steamship was economically dependent on trans-Pacific mail contracts from the US government, which at the time were awarded through a political process by act of Congress.
Oceanic thrived when it had the contracts but fell into economic problems when it didn’t. Meanwhile, the Spreckels family’s position in the sugar business was overtaken by other firms, calling into question the basic reason for the shipping company’s existence. (McMillan)
As a result the line was sold to Matson Navigation Co. in 1926 and operated as a Matson subsidiary thereafter. (The Mariposa was sold in 1912 to the Alaska Steamship Company. On December 18, 1917 it sank after hitting a Straits Island reef off the coast of British Columbia.)
With increasing passenger traffic to Hawai‘i, Matson built a world-class luxury liner, the SS Malolo, in 1927. At the time, the Malolo was the fastest ship in the Pacific, cruising at 22 knots. Its success led to the construction of the luxury liners Mariposa, Monterey and Lurline between 1930 and 1932.