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 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)
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; shortly after, the first reported processing of sugar was noted. “(I)n 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)
As production grew, the early sugar ventures were either Hawaiian-owned or regulated by Hawaiian rulers. Stephen W Reynolds, crew on the New Hazard, kept a diary; his March 5, 1811 entry (presumably in Honolulu) notes:
“Sent a boat ashore after water. Went ashore in cutter with captain; saw the King’s cane mill and boiler, ship—a small one hauled up of about 175 tons, fort, etc.” (This suggests that King Kamehameha was making sugar in Honolulu in 1811.) (Cushing)
A friend of the King, Don Francisco de Paula Marin is also credited with early sugar processing. In Robert Crichton Wyllie manuscripts of Marin’s journals, Wyllie noted an entry concerning sugar, “On the 25th of February, 1819, he was engaged in making sugar.” There are eight additional entries that mention sugar or molasses. (Cushing)
In most instances, the Hawaiian-owned sugar processing was managed by either Chinese sugar boilers or American shopkeepers in rural districts. (MacLennan) Although sugar cane had grown in Hawaiʻi for many centuries, its commercial cultivation for the production of sugar did not occur until 1825.
In that year, John Wilkinson and Governor Boki started a plantation in upper Mānoa Valley. Within six months they had seven acres of cane growing, and by the time Wilkinson died, in September 1826, they had actually manufactured some sugar. The sugar mill was later converted into a distillery for rum, prompting Kaʻahumanu to have the cane fields destroyed around 1829. (Schmitt)
“The first successful sugarcane plantation was started at Kōloa, Kauaʻi in 1835. Its first harvest in 1837 produced 2 tons of raw sugar, which sold for $200. Other pioneers, predominantly from the United States, soon began growing sugarcane on the islands of Hawaii, Maui, and Oahu.” (HARC)
Shortly thereafter, King Kamehameha III, seeking to encourage commercial cultivation of sugar by native Hawaiians offered the “acre system,” giving “out small lots of land, from one to two acres, to individuals for the cultivation of cane.”
“When the cane is ripe, the King finds all the apparatus for manufacturing & when manufactured takes the half. Of his half one fifth is regarded as the tax due to the aupuni (government) & the remaining four fifths is his compensation for the manufacture. These cane cultivators are released from all other demands of every description on the part of chiefs.” (Armstrong (1839;) MacLennan)
About this time, the initial signs of commercial sugar are found on Maui, in Wailuku. In 1840, the King ordered an iron mill from the US, and it was erected by August. Hung & Co in 1841 advertised the sale of sugar and sugar syrup from its 150-acre plantation in Wailuku. More than likely, this was sugar from the King’s Mill. (MacLennan)
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, the King 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)
A few things helped kick-start this vision – following finding gold in 1848, the California gold rush stimulated a small boom in commercial agriculture for the Islands – particularly in potatoes and sugar. However, by the end of the 1850s, the boomlet became a depression (California started to supply its own needs.)
A decade later, the American Civil War virtually shut down Louisiana sugar production during the 1860s. Hawaiian-grown sugar soon replaced much of this southern sugar through the duration of the conflict.
By the end of the war, over thirty extremely prosperous plantations were in operation and expanded to new levels previously unheard of before the war’s commencement.
Hawaiʻi’s industrial plantations began to emerge at this time (1860s;) they were further fueled by the Treaty of Reciprocity – 1875 between the United States and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i eliminated the major trade barrier to Hawai‘i’s closest and major market.
A century after Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawaiʻi, sugar plantations started to dominate the landscape. Hawai‘i’s economy turned toward sugar in the decades between 1860 and 1880; these twenty years were pivotal in building the plantation system.
The industry came to maturity by the turn of the century; the industry peaked in the 1930s. Hawaiʻi’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; a majority of the plantations closed in the 1990s.) The image shows sugarcane.