GREENWICH, N.Y. — When it comes to the state of Hawaii, agriculture is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the U.S.’s 50th state. Its warm weather, beaches, surfing, and other facets of Hawaiian culture likely come to mind first. However, one crop played a major influence in Hawaii’s history: sugar. Throughout the years sugar production played a role in many of the major events and developments in Hawaii’s history.
To begin, Hawaii is an archipelago comprised of eight islands: Hawaii (The Big Island), Maui, Kahoolawe, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu, Kauai, and Niihau. The state is located about 2,000 miles from the west coast of the United States in the Pacific Ocean. The first settlers that arrived in Hawaii were Polynesians who migrated there around 600 A.D. These first settlers cultivated sugarcane calling it kō. The sugarcane was not processed into sugar as it is recognized today. Rather, these first Hawaiians chewed the stalk for its juices, added the juice to sweeten other foods like taro and sweet potatoes, and used it in other food and medicines. Other parts of the plant were used for roof thatching and even an ancient game of darts that was played.1
The first European contact with Hawaii was in 1778 when English sea captain James Cook landed in Waimea Bay on the island of Kauai. On this first contact Cook and his crew observed the Hawaiians growing sugarcane. Cook also made beer out of sugarcane during their stay which the crew reportedly did not enjoy.2
In the late 1700s and early 1800s Hawaii experienced a set of political and societal changes. For centuries the islands were ruled by a number of chiefs who governed their small kingdoms on various parts of the islands. Warfare between these chiefs in the latter part of the 1700s led to the unification of the islands for the first time under King Kamehameha I in 1810. After Cook’s contact in 1778, this time also saw the increase in connection between Hawaiians and Americans and Europeans. Many of the foreigners who came to Hawaii were missionaries who sought to convert the Hawaiians to Christianity and implement facets of western civilization, and businessmen who sought to make a profit from what the islands could offer.3
Sugarcane was a crop that was of interest in the area. Hawaii offered an ideal climate for sugar production. Year-round the island is warm and sunny, but not too hot. Sugar also requires a vast amount of water to produce. The trade winds which blow over Hawaii brought abundant moisture which supplied this need.4 The earliest known attempt at sugar mill was in 1802 by a Chinese man whose name is unknown. His enterprise did not last and he eventually returned to China.5
The first successful sugar plantation was established in 1835 by the company Ladd & Co. on the island of Kauai. Three years later there were about 20 active sugar mills in Hawaii. In the 1840s Hawaiian leaders sought to instill commercial agriculture on the islands so the sugar production was able to become more established.6
A major development in the growth of sugar occurred in 1848 in what is called the Great Mahele. The Great Mahele was a land redistribution act that divided Hawaiian land into thirds: one-third went to the government, one-third to chiefs, and one-third to the people.7 The law enabled foreigners to own land in Hawaii for the first time, and planters took advantage. Its original intent was to keep land in Hawaiian hands. However, land ownership was not a known concept amongst native Hawaiians, and land claims needed to be filed within two years of the law passing. With Hawaiians not filing claims, foreign planters did and sugar plantations grew in size and scale because of it.8
Sugar output was small in the beginning years, but in the 1860s the islands experienced a boom. The Civil War brought a boom in Hawaii sugar because the war damaged sugar growing lands in the South. The North was also cut off from acquiring Southern grown sugar and Hawaii became the place to primary market for the North. In the mid-1840s Hawaii produced around 300,000 pounds of sugar per year. By the end of the Civil War in 1865 it was producing over 15 million pounds of sugar per year. This number would continue to grow and by the mid-1870s Hawaii was producing over 24 million pounds of sugar a year.9
The industry would grow even in more on the islands as a result of the 1875 Reciprocity Treaty signed with the United States. The treaty removed a tariff on Hawaiian sugar making trade with the U.S. more profitable, and in return the U.S. received the area of land that would eventually become Pearl Harbor naval base. As a result of the treaty more American planters set up sugar plantations and Hawaiian sugar production doubled within four years of the treaty.10
From the outset of the sugar industry in Hawaii the need for labor was an issue. The native Hawaiian population was uninterested in working for sugar plantations, so planters looked to other countries for workers. Beginning in the 1850s sugar companies recruited workers from mainly Asian nations such as China, Japan, and the Philippines. Later, sizable populations of workers also came from Portugal, Russia, Norway, and Korea.11
Hawaiian law allowed for contract labor and indentured servitude, so most laborers worked under contracts that bound them to their sugar companies for 3 to 5 years. Laborers worked long hours weeding and cutting the sugarcane. They lived in company owned housing that was separated by nationality and shopped at company-owned stores. Workers had to abide by strict rules on and off the job and could be punished by sugar companies’ units of armed forces if they were out of line and any way.12
This influx of foreign labor changed the make-up of Hawaii as foreign populations came to outnumber native Hawaiians. For instance in 1853 97% of the population was comprised of native Hawaiians. However, by 1923 this number had decreased to 16% and people of Japanese origin comprised the majority of the islands’ population.13 The interaction between these ethnic groups helped create the Hawaii Creole English, sometimes called “pidgin.” This language is still spoken by many Hawaiians today. The multicultural landscape that Hawaii is known for today started from the laborers who came to work in the sugar trade.14
By the 1880s and 1890s the sugar industry controlled most aspects of Hawaiian life. In the 1890s sugar cultivation was happening on 61,000 acres of Hawaiian land and production reached 224 million pounds in 1890.15 Almost 50 years after the Great Mahele, American and other foreign planters controlled 90% of land by 1893 and wielded so much influence that they had effectively established an oligarchy.16 The increase in capital for production brought infrastructure changes to the islands such as the installation of railroads and irrigation.
After tenuous negotiations with the Hawaiian kingdom over matters, the planters decided carry out a coup d’état and form a new constitution. The “Bayonet Constitution” as it came to be known stripped Hawaiian King Kalakaua of much of his authority and further empowered the planters. In 1893 the monarchy was overthrown entirely with the help of the U.S. navy so that the islands could be annexed by the U.S. At the time President Grover Cleveland refused to annex the islands because he viewed the events as an unapproved act of aggression against the sovereign Hawaiian state.17 However, the planters retained control and the next president William McKinley supported annexation and Hawaii became a U.S. territory with the passage of the Organic Act in 1900.18
Throughout most of the 20th century sugar remained Hawaii’s dominant crop and industry with some changes though. After becoming a U.S. territory plantations had to abide by U.S. labor laws meaning the contract labor system was abolished. While most workers still lived and worked with the plantation system in the early 20th century, they were able to work with somewhat better conditions and less stringent rules.19
Sugar production remained high into the latter half of the century. In the 1970s there were 19 sugar mills producing over 1,100,000 tons of sugarcane each year. Most of the sugar from this time was shipped to California where the California & Hawaii Sugar (C & H) company for refining.20 In 1980 around one-tenth of all U.S. sugar was supplied by Hawaii. However, the costs to produce sugar steadily climbed and it became cheaper to produce sugar in other countries.21 Many sugar plantations and mills closed throughout the 1980s to the early 2000s. In 2016 the last sugar company, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar, closed its doors and the sugar industry in Hawaii came to an end.22
The sugar industry dominated Hawaii for over 150 years and its effects can still be seen today. Sugar was one of the factors that opened the islands to the Western world for the first time. Sugar influenced the political developments in Hawaii’s history when sugar producing foreigners gained increasing power. Sugar was one of the contributing factors that led to Hawaii becoming a part of the United States. Perhaps the most noticeable legacy of sugar in Hawaii today is its multicultural population. Descendants of the plantation workers comprise Hawaii’s unique population today.
1 “Chronicling America: Historic Newspapers from Hawaiʻi and the U.S.: Sugar Industry,” University of Hawaii at Manoa, updated March 17, 2022, https://guides.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/c.php?g=105252&p=687131.
3 “History,” Hawaii Tourism Authority, accessed March 2, 2023, https://www.gohawaii.com/hawaiian-culture/history.
4 “History of Grove Farm,” Grove Farm Sugar Plantation Museum, accessed March 2, 2023, https://grovefarm.org/kauai-history/.
5 Chronicling America: Historic Newspapers from Hawaiʻi and the U.S.: Sugar Industry,” University of Hawaii at Manoa, updated March 17, 2022, https://guides.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/c.php?g=105252&p=687131.
6 Carol A. MacClennan, “Foundations of Sugar’s Power: Early Maui Plantations, 1840-1860,” The Hawaiian Journal of History vol. 29 (1995): 34, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/5014561.pdf.
7 “History,” Hawaii Tourism Authority, accessed March 2, 2023, https://www.gohawaii.com/hawaiian-culture/history.
8 Richard A. Hawkins, “The Impact of Sugar Cane Cultivation on the Economy and Society of Hawaii, 1835-1900,” Illes I Imperis vol. 9 (2006): 60, https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/document?repid=rep1&type=pdf&doi=35ab97283b473b6a59c8646cb2d99b0f9da34f7f.
9 Chronicling America: Historic Newspapers from Hawaiʻi and the U.S.: Sugar Industry,” University of Hawaii at Manoa, updated March 17, 2022, https://guides.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/c.php?g=105252&p=687131.
12 “Hawaii: Life in a Plantation Society,” Library of Congress, accessed March 2, 2023, https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/immigration/japanese/hawaii-life-in-a-plantation-society/.
14 Chronicling America: Historic Newspapers from Hawaiʻi and the U.S.: Sugar Industry,” University of Hawaii at Manoa, updated March 17, 2022, https://guides.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/c.php?g=105252&p=687131.
15 Hawkins, p. 70.
16 Hawkins, p. 60.
17 Hawkins, p. 73.
18 Chronicling America: Historic Newspapers from Hawaiʻi and the U.S.: Sugar Industry,” University of Hawaii at Manoa, updated March 17, 2022, https://guides.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/c.php?g=105252&p=687131.
19 “Hawaii: Life in a Plantation Society,” Library of Congress, accessed March 2, 2023, https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/immigration/japanese/hawaii-life-in-a-plantation-society/.
20 Susan Schenck, “A Short History of Sugarcane in Hawaii,” Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, accessed March 2, 2023, https://www.atacori.co.cr/biblioteca/History_of_Sugarcane_and_HARC_3.pdf.
21 “History of Grove Farm,” Grove Farm Sugar Plantation Museum, accessed March 2, 2023, https://grovefarm.org/kauai-history/.
22 Molly Solomon, “The Final Days of Hawaiian Sugar,” NPR, December 17, 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/12/17/505861855/the-final-days-of-hawaiian-sugar.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.