“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. 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, 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.
From January 27, 1848 through March 7, 1848 King Kamehameha III participated in what we refer to as the “Great Māhele” that was a reformation of the land system in Hawaiʻi and allowed private ownership; this fundamentally changed the land tenure system to a westernized paper title system through the Māhele.
The lands were formally divided among the king and the chiefs, and the fee titles were recorded in the Māhele book. Deeds conveying land contained the phrase “ua koe ke kuleana o na kānaka,” or “reserving the rights of all native tenants,” in continuation of the reserved tenancies which characterized the traditional Hawaiian land tenure system. (Garavoy)
The 1850 Kuleana Act allowed “native tenants” to claim fee simple title to the lands they worked. Those who claimed their parcel(s) successfully acquired what is known as a kuleana.
The Kuleana Act did not allow the maka‘āinana to exercise other traditional rights, such as the right to grow crops and pasture animals on unoccupied portions of the ahupua’a. The court’s interpretation of the act prevented tenants from making traditional use of commonly cultivated land. (MacKenzie)
The growth in the size and number of sugar plantations was further fueled by the Treaty of Reciprocity – 1875 between the United States and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i that 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.
During the Civil War boom period, the typical 1860s plantation was two hundred to three hundred acres in size, with about one hundred acres in cane, employing around one hundred workers year-round.
Hawai‘i’s government committed extensive resources to the success of sugar export. Honolulu’s merchants and financiers came to dominate sugar production. The Islands turned a corner during these decades – Hawai‘i’s dependence upon sugar began.
The fastest growth occurred on Maui, which in 1866 had twelve plantations, compared to Hawai‘i’s eight, O‘ahu’s six, and Kauai’s four. Production on Hawai‘i Island, was just under a third of the total.
The island of Hawai’i had become the major sugar producer. Plantation statistics for the Hawaiian government in 1879 shows Hawai‘i with twenty-four plantations, Maui with thirteen, Kauai with seven, O‘ahu with seven, and Molokai with three – a total of fifty-four operations.
At the heart of this transformation was the plantation center. Unlike the commercial sugar mill, which drew on existing communities of Hawaiian workers, the plantation center represented a new clustering of population and technology.
Specifically, it was characterized by a sizable increase of foreign population, government recognition of the area as a vital economic region with distinct political needs, and by public and private investment in a shared physical infrastructure (e.g., stores, wharves, harbors) established specifically to trade with the West.
An important development in Hawai‘i’s history, the plantation center created new social institutions of dependency. The Hawaiian government also had a significant hand in the rise of plantation centers.
The decline of whaling, collapse of the native vegetable trade, and a rapidly decreasing native population left the government with huge expenditures and little source of income.
In response, it applied public funds and assets toward the sugar trade in hopes of increasing Hawai‘i’s wealth. The Board of Immigration was established in 1866 to recruit workers for plantations. (MacLennan)
Five plantation centers changed the surrounding landscape and altered nearby Hawaiian communities. Plantations in Līhu‘e, Wailuku, Makawao, Hilo and Kohala brought an invasion of agricultural practices, technologies and repeopled the land with foreigners (from China, Portugal and Japan) and Hawaiians from other islands.
Characteristics of the five developing plantation centers separate them from the smaller sugar ventures of the period. Plantation centers comprised several separate sugar mills and fields of different owners. Schools, stores, and worker villages sprang
up around these centers, serving the plantations.
By 1880 there were several other very new centers in Ka‘ū and Honoka’a on Hawai‘i, Lahaina on Maui, Princeville on Kauai, and several scattered plantations on O‘ahu. (MacLennan)