He keiki aloha nā mea kanu
Beloved children are the plants
(ʻŌlelo Noʻeau 684)
In the past two decades, significant advances in radiocarbon dating and the targeted re-dating of key Eastern Polynesian and Hawaiian sites has strongly supported a “short chronology” model of Eastern Polynesian settlement.
It is suggested that initial Polynesian discovery and colonization of the Hawaiian Islands occurred between approximately AD 1000 and 1200. (Kirch)
Sugar was a canoe crop; the early Polynesian settlers to Hawaiʻi brought sugar cane with them and demonstrated that it could be grown successfully in the islands.
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 Kauai, 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)
Cook notes that sugar was cultivated, “The potatoe fields, and spots of sugar-canes, or plantains, in the higher grounds, are planted with the same regularity; and always in some determinate figure; generally as a square or oblong”. (Cook)
It appears Cook was the first outsider to put sugarcane to use. One of his tools in his fight against scurvy (severe lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in your diet) was beer.
On December 7, 1778 he notes, “Having procured a quantity of sugar cane; and having, upon a trial, made but a few days before, found that a strong decoction of it produced a very palatable beer, I ordered some more to be brewed, for our general use.”
“A few hops, of which we had some on board, improved it much. It has the taste of new malt beer; and I believe no one will doubt of its being very wholesome. And yet my inconsiderate crew alleged that it was injurious to their health.” (Cook)
While the crew “would (not) even so much as taste it”, he “gave orders that no grog should be served … (he) and the officers, continued to make use of this sugarcane beer, whenever (they) could get materials for brewing it.” (Cook) Others later made rum from the sugarcane.
But beer and rum were not a typical sugar use; “in 1802 sugar was first made at these islands, by a native of China, on the island of Lanai.”
“He came here in one of the vessels trading for sandal wood, 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.” (Torbert; Polynesian, January 31, 1852)
While HSPA – HARC states, “The first successful sugarcane plantation was started at Kōloa, Kauai in 1835. Its first harvest in 1837 produced 2 tons of raw sugar, which sold for $200”, others suggest the first commercial production actually started on Maui. (Hawaii Agriculture Research Center (HARC) (successor entity to Hawaii Sugar Planters Association (HSPA))
A couple guys named Ah Hung and Ah Tai, who combined their names in order to identify their company – a 1939 news ‘Short’ says Hungtai “is said to have been one of the earliest manufacturers of sugar in the islands, at Wailuku, Maui in 1823.” (Star Bulletin, April 6, 1939) Others say Hungtai started commercial sales in 1828; still, seven years before Koloa.
Hungtai had a plantation and a water-powered mill in Wailuku, and sold the sugar in their store at Merchant and Fort Streets in Honolulu. They were still selling that sugar as late as 1841, when they were advertising in local newspapers. (TenBruggencate)
Early plantations were small and didn’t fare too well. Soon, most would come to realize that “sugar farming and sugar milling were essentially great-scale operations.” (Garvin)
Then, King Kamehameha III sought to expand sugar cultivation and production, as well as expand other agricultural ventures to support commercial agriculture in the Islands. In a speech to the Legislature in 1847, the King notes:
“I recommend to your most serious consideration, to devise means to promote the agriculture of the islands, and profitable industry among all classes of their inhabitants. It is my wish that my subjects should possess lands upon a secure title; enabling them to live in abundance and comfort, and to bring up their children free from the vices that prevail in the seaports.”
“What my native subjects are greatly in want of, to become farmers, is capital with which to buy cattle, fence in the land and cultivate it properly. I recommend you to consider the best means of inducing foreigners to furnish capital for carrying on agricultural operations, that thus the exports of the country may be increased …” (King Kamehameha III Speech to the Legislature, April 28, 1847; Archives)
Hawai‘i’s economy turned toward sugar in the decades between 1860 and 1880. These twenty years were pivotal in building the plantation system. Basic features of rural factory life were established.
This was a period of rapid growth for the sugar industry, building upon the momentum triggered by the Māhele of 1848, the Kuleana Act of 1850, and the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875. Likewise, the Civil War virtually shut down Louisiana sugar production during the 1860s, enabling Hawai‘i to compete with elevated prices for sugar.
A century after Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawaiʻi, sugar plantations started to dominate the landscape. Sugar‐cane farming proved to be the only available crop that could be grown. 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.
There were three big waves of workforce immigration: Chinese 1852; Japanese 1885 and Filipinos 1905. Several smaller, but substantial, migrations also occurred: Portuguese 1877; Norwegians 1880; Germans 1881; Puerto Ricans 1900; Koreans 1902 and 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.
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.