The early Polynesian settlers to Hawaiʻi brought sugar cane with them and demonstrated that it could be grown successfully in the islands; sugar was a canoe crop.
In pre-contact times, sugarcane was not processed as we know sugar today, but was used by chewing the juicy stalks. Its leaves were used for inside house thatching, or for outside (if pili grass wasn’t available.) The flower stalks of sugar cane were used to make a dart, sometimes used during the Makahiki games. (Canoe Crops)
The first written record of sugarcane in Hawaiʻi came from Captain James Cook, at the time he made initial contact with the Islands. On January 19, 1778, off Kauaʻi, he notes, “We saw no wood, but what was up in the interior part of the island, except a few trees about the villages; near which, also, we could observe several plantations of plantains and sugar-canes.” (Cook)
As a later economic entity, sugar gradually replaced sandalwood and whaling in the mid‐19th century and became the principal industry in the islands, until it was succeeded by the visitor industry in 1960.
Since it was a crop that produced a choice food product that could be shipped to distant markets, its culture on a field scale was started in about 1800 and has continued uninterruptedly up to the present time.
The first sugar to be made in Hawai‘i is credited to a man from China. The newspaper Polynesian, in its issue of January 31, 1852, carried this item attributed to a prominent sugar planter on Maui, LL Torbert:
“Mr. John White, who came to these islands in 1797, and is now living with me, says that in 1802, sugar was first made at these islands by a native of China, on the island of Lānaʻi.”
“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.”
The first commercially-viable sugar plantation, Ladd and Co., was started at Kōloa on Kaua‘i in 1835. It was to change the face of Hawai‘i forever, launching an entire economy, lifestyle and practice of monocropping that lasted for well over a century.
Hawaiʻi had the basic natural resources needed to grow sugar: land, sun and water. Hawai‘i’s economy turned toward sugar in the decades between 1860 and 1880; these twenty years were pivotal in building the plantation system.
Sugar‐cane farming gained this prestige without great difficulty because sugar cane soon proved to be the only available crop that could be grown profitably under the severe conditions imposed upon plants grown on the lands which were available for cultivation. (HSPA 1947)
A century after Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawaiʻi, sugar plantations started to dominate the landscape.
What encouraged the development of plantations in Hawaiʻi? For one, the gold rush and settlement of California opened a lucrative market. Likewise, the Civil War virtually shut down Louisiana sugar production during the 1860s, enabling Hawai‘i to compete with elevated prices for sugar.
In addition, the Treaty of Reciprocity-1875 between the US and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i eliminated the major trade barrier to Hawai‘i’s closest and major market. Through the treaty, the US gained Pearl Harbor and Hawai‘i’s sugar planters received duty-free entry into US markets.
However, a shortage of laborers to work in the growing (in size and number) sugar plantations became a challenge. The only answer was imported labor.
Starting in the 1850s, when the Hawaiian Legislature passed “An Act for the Governance of Masters and Servants,” a section of which provided the legal basis for contract-labor system, labor shortages were eased by bringing in contract workers from Asia, Europe and North America
There were three big waves of workforce immigration:
• Chinese 1852
• Japanese 1885
• Filipinos 1905
Several smaller, but substantial, migrations also occurred:
• Portuguese 1877
• Norwegians 1880
• Germans 1881
• Puerto Ricans 1900
• Koreans 1902
• Spanish 1907
It is not likely anyone then foresaw the impact this would have on the cultural and social structure of the islands.
The sugar industry is at the center of Hawaiʻi’s modern diversity of races and ethnic cultures. Of the nearly 385,000 workers that came, many thousands stayed to become a part of Hawai‘i’s unique ethnic mix.
Hawai‘i continues to be one of the most culturally-diverse and racially-integrated places on the globe.
For nearly a century, agriculture was the state’s leading economic activity. It provided Hawai‘i’s major sources of employment, tax revenues and new capital through exports of raw sugar and other farm products.
Sugar changed the social fabric of Hawai‘i.
The sugar industry was the prime force in transforming Hawaiʻi from a traditional, insular, agrarian and debt‐ridden society into a multicultural, cosmopolitan and prosperous one. (Carol Wilcox)
The image is a sculpture at the Koloa Sugar Monument (commemorating the islands’ first successful sugar plantation and depicting various immigrant sugar workers.)