Sandalwood (ʻiliahi) has been highly prized and in great demand through the ages; its use for incense is part of the ritual of Buddhism. Chinese used the fragrant heart wood for incense, medicinal purposes, for architectural details and carved objects.
Sandalwood was first recognized as a commercial product in Hawai‘i in 1791 by Captain Kendrick of the Lady Washington, when he instructed sailors to collect cargo of sandalwood. From that point on, it became a source of wealth in the islands, until it’s supply was ultimately exhausted.
Trade in Hawaiian sandalwood began as early as the 1790s; by 1805 it had become an important export item.
Waimea Bay became the sandalwood capital during the 1800s. Huge cargo ships would anchor offshore to load sandalwood.
Sandalwood trade was a turning point in Hawai‘i, especially related to its economic structure. It moved Hawai‘i from a self-sufficient economy to a commercial economy. This started a series of other economic and export activities across the islands.
In 1809, two brothers, the American ship captains Jonathan Winship of the “Albatross” and Nathan Winship of the “O’Cain,” started on a voyage that established the sandalwood trade.
After trading for furs on the coast of Oregon, they sailed in October, 1811, for Honolulu, where they and Captain William Heath Davis of the “Isabella” took on cargoes of sandalwood.
The ships sailed to Canton, where the fragrant wood was sold at a large profit. Returning to Honolulu, the three captains persuaded King Kamehameha I to grant them a monopoly of the sandalwood and cotton trade for 10 years. However, after the first trip, Kamehameha cancelled the arrangement. (St John)
In 1811, an agreement between Boston ship captains and Kamehameha I established a monopoly on sandalwood exports, with Kamehameha receiving 25% of the profits. As trade and shipping brought Hawaiʻi into contact with a wider world, it also enabled the acquisition of Western goods, including arms and ammunition.
Kamehameha used Western cannons and guns to great advantage in his unification of the Islands and also acquired Western-style ships, buying the brig Columbia for a price of two ship loads of sandalwood in 1817.
Between about 1810 and 1820, the major item of Hawaiian trade was sandalwood. Kamehameha I rigidly maintained control of the trade until his death in 1819, at which time his son, Liholiho, took over control.
When Kamehameha I died, although Liholiho (his son and successor) should have inherited all of Kamehameha’s lands, the chiefs also wanted the revenue from the sandalwood.
Chiefs persuaded the king to give them an in on the royal sandalwood monopoly; trade continued at an accelerated rate, following Kamehameha’s death.
In America, the Panic of 1819 (the first financial crisis in the United States) made it difficult for traders to obtain sandalwood for the China trade.
However, because the Hawaiian chiefs had become enamored of items of foreign manufacture, the islands provided an open market for goods like rum, clothing, cloth, furnishings and a host of other things.
Foreign traders shipped these goods to the islands, exchanging them for sandalwood, which continued to be in demand in China.
It was Hawaii’s first source of revenue and major debt. Credit secured by payment in sandalwood saddled the Hawaiian Chiefs and the Islands’ struggling economy.
In 1826, the kingdom of Hawaiʻi enacted its first written law – a sandalwood tax. Every man was ordered to deliver to the government 66 pounds of sandalwood, or pay four Spanish dollars, by September 1, 1827.
Every woman older than 13 was obligated to make a 12-by-6-foot kapa cloth. The taxes were collected to reduce the staggering debt.
The common people were displaced from their agricultural and fishing duties and all labor was diverted to harvesting sandalwood. This period saw two major famines as ʻiliahi was over-harvested to the point of commercial extinction in Hawaiʻi forests.
Unfortunately, the harvesting of the trees was not sustainably managed (they cut whatever they could, they didn’t replant) and over-harvesting of ‘iliahi took place.
By 1830, the trade in sandalwood had completely collapsed. Hawaiian forests were exhausted and sandalwood from India and other areas in the Pacific drove down the price in China and made the Hawaiian trade unprofitable.
Once reported as growing on landscape scales, today, there are only remnant patches of ‘iliahi. Several are trying to bring sandalwood back.