Sugar Industry


Pre-1778: Around 600 A.D., the first settlers in Hawaii brought to the islands several varieties of sugarcane. The Native Hawaiians cultivated sugarcane, or kō in Hawaiian, and ate it as food and medicine. The Native Hawaiians chewed the cane stalk for its sweet juices and to maintain their teeth and gums. The juices from the sugarcane sweetened puddings made of taro, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, and bananas. Other parts of sugarcane plant were used, including the leaves for thatching, the flower stalks for game darts, and the charcoal for dying. Before European contact, the Native Hawaiians never produced sugar.

1778: European explorer Captain James Cook recorded in his journal, “We saw…a few trees about the villages; near which…we could observe several plantations of plantains and sugar-canes.” With sugarcane, Captain Cook made beer, which his sailors reportedly did not enjoy.

1802: In Hawaii originally for the sandalwood trade, a Chinese man operated a sugar mill on the island of Lanai with his stone mill and boilers. However, his enterprise failed, and he returned to China.

1825: John Wilkinson made the first attempt to mass produce sugar and cultivated 100 acres of sugar cane on Governor Boki’s land at Manoa Valley. Shortly afterward his death, the operation lasted long enough only for one more harvest.

1835: William Hooper of Ladd & Co. started the first sugar plantation operated by foreigners in Kōloa, Kauai.

1838: Twenty sugar mills operated in Hawaii. Water powered eighteen, and animals powered two.

1848: The “Great Mahele” (a land distribution act) allowed foreigners to own land in Hawaii for the first time. As large amounts of land are needed for the mass cultivation of sugar, the “Great Mahele” contributed to the growth of the sugar industry in Hawaii.

June 21, 1850: The Masters and Servants Act was enacted. This new law legalized apprenticeships, indentured service, the contract-labor system, and large importation of workers. Under this law, a laborer who has absenteeism issues or leaves a position before the contract’s could be captured by “coercive force” by employers and face strict punishments. They included working extra hours beyond the time specified in the work contract (usually twice the original contract period) and serving a prison sentence and perform hard labor there. Workers could not organize labor unions or go on strike.

1852: Workers start immigrating from other countries to work in the plantations, starting with the Chinese. On January 3, 1852; 175 Chinese workers arrived on the ship Thetis.

Eventually, other ethnic groups will come to Hawaii to work in the plantations, including the Portuguese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Spaniards, Russians, and Norwegians. This situation of extreme globalization resulted in the multiculturalism of Hawaii and the Hawaii Creole English, commonly referred as “Pidgin,” which developed during Hawaii’s plantation days and is now spoken by more than half of the residents in Hawaii.

1846-1874: Hawaiian sugar exports increased from 300,000 pounds in 1846 to 1,204,061 pounds in 1857, and 24,566,661 pounds in 1874. In 1861, the American Civil War caused the demand of sugar to skyrocket.

1875: Hawaii’s Reciprocity Treaty with the United States was signed. This treaty allowed sugar and other products from Hawaii to be sold without a tariff in the United States. In return, the United States received land in the area of Pu’u Loa, later known as the Pearl Harbor naval base. As a result, Hawaii’s sugar industry doubled its output after four years. From 1875 to 1880, in five years, Hawaii went from having 20 sugar plantations to 63.

1900: With the passage of the Hawaiian Organic Act, Hawaii became a territory of the United States, and the sugar industry in Hawaii grew even more.

When American laws became effective in Hawaii, contract labor and the importation of contract laborers became illegal. A large number of Japanese workers move to the continental United States, since wages there were at least double the wages in Hawaii. Workers were now able to join labor unions and strike against their employers, and 20 strikes happened in Hawaii that year. As a result of the workers’ increased bargaining power, the workers eventually received more fringe benefits, including housing, medical services, and recreation facilities.

Suggested Search Terms

In the field with all of the words, enter the query “sugar plantation” and select Hawaii in the Select State(s) list box.

Relevant Historical Articles

Articles From Chronicling America

Masters and Servants Act (legal ad)
Polynesian, September 21, 1850, Image 1

“Settlement of the Strike Felt” and “Strikers Slow at Returning”
Hawaiian gazette, August 6, 1909, Images 1 and 5

“A history of the progress of the sugar industry of Hawaii since the Reciprocity Treaty of 1876”
Evening bulletin(Honolulu [Oahu, Hawaii) 1895-1912 – 1909-03-25 – edition 2

“The Sugar Industry of the Hawaiian Islands”
Evening bulletin, November 30, 1901, Industrial Edition, Image 1

“Banner Sugar Output of the Hawaiian Islands”
Evening bulletin, May 25, 1902, Image 9

“Exports and Imports of the Hawaiian Islands”
Evening bulletin, November 30, 1901, Industrial Edition, Image 43

“Japanese Strike on Plantations”
Honolulu Republican, June 24, 1900, Image 1

“Strike Nipped in the Bud”
Independent, December 9, 1904, Image 3

“Thugs Active and Strike Food Short”
Evening bulletin, May 26, 1909, Image 1, 4

“Strikebreakers by the Hundreds Caring for the Big Plantations”
Hawaiian gazette, May 18, 1909, Image 1, 2, & 3


2 Comments on “Sugar Industry”

  1. […] Hawaii’s dominant language. And their descendants would greatly influence, if not control, the islands’ economy and government and overthrow the Hawaiian […]

  2. […] Spreckels, died after a brief illness. As one of the ten richest Americans, Spreckels dominated the sugar industries on the U.S. West Coast and in Hawaii from mid-1800s until his death. In Hawaii, he owned a […]

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