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 its supply was ultimately exhausted.
Trade in Hawaiian sandalwood began as early as the 1790s; by 1805 it had become an important export item. As the value of sandalwood increased, the Hawaiian Islands emerged as a major source of heartwood sandalwood. Hawai‘i soon became known as “Tahn Heung Sahn” (the sandalwood mountains.)
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 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.
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.
In order to measure how much sandalwood to harvest and move down the mountain, they dug “Lua Na Moku ‘Iliahi” (sandalwood measuring pits) in the forest.
The pits were used to measure an amount of sandalwood that would fit in a ship’s hold. The wood was cut and placed in the pit. When the pit was filled, the logs were carried down the mountain to a waiting ship.
Because of the lack of roads and vehicles the wood was carried down in the form of logs, 3 to 6 feet long, and from 2 to 18 inches in diameter, after the bark and sapwood had been chipped off with adzes.
Large numbers of people were involved in the harvesting and handling of the sandalwood. As noted by Eillis in 1823, “Before daylight on the 22d we were roused by vast multitudes of people passing through the district from Waimea with sandal wood …”
“… which had been cut in the adjacent mountains for Karaimoku (Kalanimoku,) by the people of Waimea, and which the people of Kohala, as far as the north point, had been ordered to bring down to his storehouse on the beach, for the purpose of its being shipped to Oahu.”
“There were between two and three thousand men, carrying each from one to six pieces of sandal wood, according to their size and weight. It was generally tied on their backs by bands made of ti leaves, passed over the shoulders and under the arms, and fastened across their breast. When they had deposited the wood at the storehouse, they departed to their respective homes.” (William Ellis 1823)
The standard unit of measure was a picul, approximately 133 pounds (a shoulder-load,) the maximum weight a man could easily carry on his back. The price fluctuated from $3.00 to $18.00 a picul.
While, reportedly, Lua Na Moku ʻIliahi were dug in forests throughout the islands, only a couple are reported to remain.
One such site was dug in the early 1800s and is located at Kamiloloa, adjacent to the Maunahui Forest Reserve on Moloka‘i, Hawai‘i. The Maunahui Road (Molokaʻi Forest Reserve Road) leads into and through the Molokaʻi Forest Reserve.
Reportedly, another is at about the 800-foot elevation on the Kapālama-Nu‘uanu ridge near the Kapālama campus of Kamehameha Schools on Oʻahu.
During Kamehameha I’s reign, all lands, and with this all ʻiliahi, in Hawaiʻi were under his control. This meant he held a monopoly, or complete control, on the ‘iliahi supply. He placed a kapu on the trees and forbid the cutting of young trees. This assured a steady supply of ‘iliahi for years to come.
Between 1810 and 1820, sandalwood sold for about $125/ton, generating more than $3 million. By 1821, sandalwood exports totaled about 1,400 tons annually. The peak years of the sandalwood trade were from 1810 to 1840, a time that also saw a steadily increasing desire for Western goods in the Islands.
The death of Kamehameha I, in May 1819, ended the peace, prosperity and monopoly of the sandalwood trade … and the kapu. Under Liholiho, the controls on harvesting were ended. In their rush to collect wood, the chiefs ordered even young trees to be cut down.
To obtain sandalwood for the China trade, American merchants were willing to extend enormous amounts of credit to Liholiho and the chiefs.
While King Kamehameha I had always paid cash for purchases, the succeeding chiefs and Ali‘i purchased western goods on credit payable in sandalwood, a resource that was dwindling while the national debt was escalating. In 1821, JC Jones, the American Trade Consul, reported that the native debt had risen to $300,000.
Soon there was little ‘iliahi worth gathering in Hawaii. As the supply dwindled the trading of ‘iliahi came to an end.