Sugar Cane in Hawai'i

Hawaii, Hawaii/ Like a dream/ So I came/ But my tears/ Are flowing now/ In the canefields”.[1]

This simple poem, written by a Japanese migrant who came to Hawai‘i to work on a sugar plantation, instills in the reader a feeling of melancholy emptiness. This emptiness was rooted in the sugar cane industry, in the form of extreme greed, slave-like labor, and exploitation. Hawai‘i’s sugar cane industry completely altered the Islands physically, economically, socially, and politically, and has left a multitude of legacies, including ethnic diversity, mistrust, inequality, and environmental degradation.

Arriving Hakaui

Sugar cane was already a cultivated food crop in Hawai‘i when Captain Cook first arrived there in 1778.[2] It was often planted on the banks of lo‘i (kalo patches), and was used as part of the food supply.[3] Sugar cane is not native to Hawai‘i, however, and was probably introduced by the ancestors of the first Polynesian migrants.[4] Sugar was first milled in Hawai‘i in 1802 by a Chinese sandalwood trader who was temporarily living on Lana‘i. [5] The Islands were still dominated by the sandalwood trade in 1802, but by 1835 almost all of the sandalwood forests were decimated, and the sandalwood trade was nearly, if not completely, obsolete.[6] This left a niche open in Hawai‘i’s export market, and the first company to take advantage of it was Ladd & Company in 1835. Ladd & Co. was an American company that established Hawai‘i’s first sugar plantation and mill, on the island of Kaua‘i. It is now known as the Old Sugar Mill of Koloa.[7]

In the 1830s, wealthy business owners began to pressure King Kamehameha III into new land-ownership schemes. Until that time, land in Hawai‘i was considered a common resource, not owned by individuals, but taken care of by the ali‘i (chiefs) and konohiki (caretakers of natural resources).[8] By 1848, the old system was completely dissolved, and the land was split up as follows: 23% went to the Hawaiian Crown, 40% was divided among 245 konohiki, and 37% was awarded to commoners who were active tenants on the land.[9] This land division, known as the Great Mahele, was complemented by the Kuleana Act two years later, which gave landowners both official title and the ability to sell their land to people with no historical ties to the area.[10]

The commoners who suddenly became the title-bearers of this land were not wealthy people. Herman Melville gives a passionate description of the state of the Hawaiian people in the late 1840s in his novel Typee. He writes: “the common people [are] more and more destitute of the necessaries and decencies of life. But the end to which [the chiefs and commoners] will arrive at last will be the same: the one are fast destroying themselves by sensual indulgences, and the other are fast being destroyed by a complication of disorders, and the want of wholesome food.”[11] Once their land was worth money, the Hawaiian people sold it. Within a few years, foreigners owned more land than the Monarchy.[12]

The foreign purchasers transformed many of the tracts of land into canefields. Hawai‘i’s climate proved suitable and profitable for growing sugar cane, despite the need to irrigate the fields for half of the year. The only problem for purchasers was that, because Hawai‘i was not a territory of the United States, American sugar companies were taxed on the sugar they exported from Hawai‘i to the US.[13]An opportunity arose to eliminate those tariffs after the Civil war. States that had been the main sugar producers (i.e. Louisiana) were dealing with the aftermath of the war, and no longer producing sugar, making prices skyrocket.[14] Planters knew that allowing Hawaiian sugar into the US market tariff-free would regulate prices in the US, allowing planters to make a larger profit. The Reciprocity Treaty, as it was called, also allowed imported US products to enter Hawai‘i tariff-free.[15] The planters negotiated with King Kalakaua, who then negotiated with the United States on the terms of the Reciprocity Treaty.

This was the first time that sugar plantation owners wielded their political power, and after the Reciprocity Treaty, their power was able to grow even more. No tariffs meant larger profits, which allowed the plantation owners to buy more land and expand their plantations.[16] Large-scale plantations such as these required an immense amount of manual labor. By 1890 the struggling Native Hawaiian population was reduced to less than 40,000,[17] and other ethnic groups were brought to the islands to fill the labor demand. The largest immigrant pools came from Japan, China, the Philippines, Korea, Puerto Rico, and Portugal. Between 1885 and 1924 about 200,000 Japanese immigrated to Hawai‘i to work on sugar plantations. Japanese accounted for almost 70% of plantation workers in 1893, when the Hawaiian Monarchy was overthrown by a group of plantation owners.[18] There were also over 15,000 Portuguese, almost 30,000 Filipinos, 5,000 Puerto Ricans, and 25,000 Chinese immigrants who came to Hawai‘i for the sole purpose of working on a sugar plantation. By the end of the plantation era, people of Chinese and Japanese ancestry far outnumbered all other ethnic groups in Hawai‘i.[19]

It is probable that many plantation immigrants believed they were coming to work on a plantation in a Hawaiian paradise. Those sentiments are expressed in the poem that opens this paper. However, when the author says “But my tears/ Are flowing now/ In the canefields” it is not hard to imagine that what he found was not Paradise. A worker’s life was centered almost entirely on the plantation, and the plantation was not always a pleasant place. Workers and their families lived in plantation housing in “neighborhoods” with people of the same nationality. Food and other products were bought from the plantation store, with money made by working on the plantation. The workers and their families went to plantation churches; children went to school at plantation schools; the sick went to plantation hospitals. Virtually every facet of a worker’s life occurred on the plantation.[20] Many workers fell into debt because of their extremely low wages—around $20 per month—and they were generally ignored and abused by the luna (overseers) and managers.[21],[22]

By 1929, 42 out of 51 plantations and mills were managed by only five companies, commonly known as the “Big Five”[23] (Alexander & Baldwin, Amfac, Castle & Cook, C. Brewer, and Theo Davies), and by 1939, half of the total working population of Hawai‘i was directly or indirectly employed by the sugar industry.[24] The Big Five also controlled the vast majority of imports: wholesale and retail commodities, shipping, banks, utilities, hotels, and canneries in Hawai‘i.[25] In other words, they controlled everything. This extreme concentration of power allowed the industry to regulate itself, and rendered the workers voiceless. Many workers signed binding contracts with sugar companies, giving the company legal jurisdiction over them until the contract expired several years later.[26] Workers were employed on the plantation year round, doing construction and maintenance on facilities for six months, and planting and harvesting for the other half of the year.[27] When the crop was ready for harvest, the fields would be set aflame. When the flames died down, all that remained were the juice-filled cane stalks. The harvesters would then cut down the stalks with machetes and load them onto trucks. The trucks took the stalks to temporary trains, which transported the cane to the plantation mill to be turned into sugar.[28] The plantations and mills were managed by haoles, but the physical labor was performed by immigrants of different nationalities. All plantation workers lived on the plantation together, and had to create an environment of cultural acceptance and understanding in order to endure. Hawaiian Pidgin English evolved as the major mode of communication between the different groups. It was influenced by Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, and English. It is still spoken by most people in Hawai‘i.

People perceived plantation life in varying ways. The plantation manager and owner procured all the wealth generated by the plantation, and therefore had a very different experience from the workers.[29] The workers were provided with housing, public spaces, and schools, but the untold side of the story came from the actual workers and their families. Extremely low wages forced workers to live in squalor, and many families fell in debt to the plantation[30]. Domestic abuse was not uncommon, and probably stemmed from the psychological trauma of moving to a foreign land to work an unrewarding job. Some Japanese families hoped that their children would be able to return to Japan, while others simply enforced Japanese culture in their households, expecting them to learn traditional arts, such as the tea ceremony.[31] Perhaps the most depressing thing about plantation life was the knowledge that there was no hope for advancement, and that there were people becoming rich from your toil.

The sugar plantation became the dominant social structure in the islands because of the sheer number of people associated with the business, but sugar was also an important political tool. Plantation owners acquired an immense amount of power in the islands because of their enormous land holdings. They owned far more land than the Monarchy, had far more money, and were therefore able to influence political decision-making.[32] Plantation interests were behind both the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 and the Bayonet Constitution.

The Reciprocity Treaty linked the economies of Hawai‘i and America, allowing sugar cane to be exported untaxed. The Bayonet Constitution essentially removed native Hawaiian political rights and awarded them to wealthy business owners.[33] The beneficiaries of these agreements, however, still desired all of the economic benefits that annexation to the United States would bring, including free trade with the US and more trade with other countries. A secret organization of plantation owners and businessmen, called the Committee of Safety, devised a plan to overthrow the reigning monarch in the late 1880s, Queen Lili‘uokalani.[34] With the help of a US naval captain, the Committee of Safety succeeded in overthrowing the Kingdom of Hawai‘i in 1893.[35] The Queen refused to retaliate with violence for fear of losing more of the already decimated Hawaiian population. With the Queen in subordination, the Committee of Safety created the Republic of Hawai‘i, and instated Sanford Dole, a pineapple plantation owner, as the President. By 1898 the annexationists had almost achieved their goal. President Cleveland, who was sympathetic to the Hawaiian monarchy, was out of office, and President McKinley had taken his place. McKinley liked the strategic advantage of having Hawaii as part of the United States, so he easily agreed to the wishes of the annexationists, thus creating the Territory of Hawai‘i.

Although only one functioning sugar plantation remains today, the industry has left its legacy in the islands. Serious social and environmental issues have arisen due to actions taken by sugar barons. Large scale and wide spread stream diversion for irrigation caused entire valleys to dry up, and in many cases the streams have still not been restored. Private companies and the military currently use the diverted water. The issue has reached a breaking point on Maui where numerous lawsuits have been filed against the companies that currently hold the water. The plantation companies have been ordered to restore stream flow.[36]

Racism, resentment, and mistrust toward American Caucasians also continues to exist. The years of cultural oppression and exploitation are fresh in the collective memory of Hawaiians. Some seek sovereignty from a government that will never be willing to give it, and from a country where many people are unaware even of the existence of Native Hawaiians, let alone the history of the place. Others feel that the sovereignty movement is too little, too late. But both sides do agree on one thing: the United States was in the wrong, and the derogatory connotations that the word haole* has acquired over the years can attest to this.

Most Hawaiians, however, are extremely proud of the wide range of ethnic diversity in the Islands. It is not unusual to meet someone who claims to be Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Filipino, Portuguese, and English, and for this we have the sugar industry to thank. It was the singular force that brought hundreds of thousands of migrants from an array of countries to Hawai‘i. The development of the tourism industry can also be attributed to sugar. The Big Five controlled hotels as well as the sugar industry, and as money poured in for sugar, it was reinvested in the infrastructure of building hotels and the advertising needed to attract visitors to the islands.[37]The sugar era was when Hawai‘i first started to be marketed as Paradise.[38]

The way Hawaii is perceived, and the ways it functions politically and socially can, in many ways, be attributed to the influence of the sugar industry. One can only speculate as to what would have become of the Hawaiian Kingdom without sugar, but Hawaii’s history would most certainly have been different without the influence of the Committee of Safety, which was in essence a group of sugar planters. Sugar plantations and mills are still very much a part of the physical landscape, a constant reminder of what made the Hawaii we know today.

Alana Bryant, George Washington University



*  Foreigner; outsider; white person.

[1]  Seguro, Maria. "'Hawaii, Hawaii/ Like a dream/ So I came/ But my tears/ Are flowing now/ In the canefields': Beauty's Price in Philip Gan Gotanda's Ballad of Yachiyo." Coolabah 3. (2009): 17-23. Web. 8 Jan 2011., [1]

[2]  Mangelsdorf, AJ. "Sugar-Cane: As Seen From Hawaii. "Economic Botany 4.2 (1938): 150-176. Web. 8 Jan 2011.

[3]  Hughes, Robert. "Hawaii's First Sugar Mill." The Hawaiian Historical Society. Hawaiian Historical Society, 1994. Web. 8 Jan 2011. <>.

[4]  Mangelsdorf

[5]  Hughes

[6]  Choy, Duane. "Hawai'i's sandalwood empire is long gone." Honolulu Advertiser 14 April 2006: Web. 17 Jan 2011. <>.

[7]  National Park Service,"Old Sugar Mill of Koloa." National Historic Registry, 29 Dec 1962. Web. 25 Jan 2011. <>.

[8]  "The Mahele." Hawaii History, 2011. Web. 26 Jan 2011. <>.

[9]  Ibid.

[10]  Ibid.

[11]  Melville, Herman (1996). Typee. New York, NY: Penguin Group. 188. Print.

[12]  Rhodes, Diane. "Changes After the Death of Kamehameha." Overview of Hawaiian History. National Park Service, 15 Nov 2001. Web. 26 Jan 2011. <>.

[13]  Oliver, Douglas.The Pacific Islands. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.

[14]  Reciprocity Treaty of 1875." 2009. Web. 26 Jan 2011. <>.

[15]  Monet, Sam. "Treaty of Reciprocity Between the United States of America and the Hawaiian Kingdom." Independent and Sovereign Nation-State of Hawaii. 2009. Web. 26 Jan 2011. <>.

[16]  Oliver, Douglas.The Pacific Islands. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.

[17]  "Population and Visitor Statistics." Hawaiian Encyclopedia. n.d. Web. 26 Jan 2011. <>.

[18]  Fry, Kathie. "Immigration to Hawaii by Ethnic Group. "Hawaii for Visitors. n.d. Web. 26 Jan 2011. <>.

[19]  Ibid.

[20]  Coulter, John. "The Oahu Sugar Cane Plantation, Waipahu."Economic Geography9.1 (1933): 60-71. Web. 8 Jan 2011. <>.

[21]  Ibid.

 [22]  "Plantation Life." The Philippine History Site. n.d. Web. 27 Jan 2011. <>.

[23]  Oliver, Douglas.The Pacific Islands. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.

[24]  Ibid.

[25]  Ibid.

[26]  Coulter, John. "The Oahu Sugar Cane Plantation, Waipahu."Economic Geography9.1 (1933): 60-71. Web. 8 Jan 2011. <>.

[27]  Ibid.

[28]  Ibid.

[29]  Ibid.

[30]  "Plantation Life." The Philippine History Site. n.d. Web. 27 Jan 2011. <>.

[31]  Seguro, Maria. "'Hawaii, Hawaii/ Like a dream/ So I came/ But my tears/ Are flowing now/ In the canefields': Beauty's Price in Philip Gan Gotanda's Ballad of Yachiyo." Coolabah 3. (2009): 17-23. Web. 8 Jan 2011. <>.

[32]  Pitzer, Pat. “The Overthrow of the Monarchy”. Spirit of Aloha. May 1994. Web.

[33]  Ibid.

[34]  Ibid.

[35]  Ibid.

[36]  “Restore Stream Flow”. Earthjustice. 2011. Web. 30 Jan 2011.

[37]  Freeman, Otis. “Economic Geography of the Hawaiian Islands”.Economic Geography 5.3 (1929):260-276. Web. 8 Jan 2011. <>.

[38]  Ibid.