Echoes of Wailua: An industry hoped to engender ‘good’

Part I

Kaua‘i has always been the oldest, the wettest and the greenest of the islands.

My father had told me that, “It takes a ton of water to produce a pound of sugar; all you need is good soil, plenty of water and lots of sunshine and cool nights.”

The early years of the sugar industry were a struggle with very modest beginnings. Koloa, with Ladd and Company, the “three pious traders,” had the support and confidence inspired by early Westside missionaries, Samuel Whitney, Peter Goulick and George Rowell of Waimea.

Huge debts were incurred. Payrolls, taxes and machinery all had to be paid for and the weather was often un-cooperative, either too dry or too wet and often too windy. Thousands of native workers were willing to labor on the land with the promise of a more stable prosperity which was not always the case with whaling.

Lahaina and Honolulu had become breeding grounds for corruption and disorder, waterfront brothels, cheap booze and general corruption. The chiefs, along with the missionaries, pinned their hopes on a more healthy and stable “aina” by cultivating wealth from the land, rather than the sea now that whaling had diminished.

The idea of establishing successful sugar plantations that would employ Hawaiian labor appealed to King Kamehameha III who signed the Koloa Land Lease Agreement on July 29, 1835.

Hooper, Ladd and Brinsmade, the three partners of Ladd and Company, were mindful of their Calvinist ancestors: The contract expressly stipulated, “No ardent spirits,” were to be manufactured or consumed on the land.

Koloa was the seed bed of what would become 14 or more flourishing plantations . The story includes kings and queens, native chiefs, commoners, and foreign merchant princes with an eye for a dollar and a voracious appetite for land and its development. All poured forth with the hope of prosperity and profits, including many beached whalers and soldiers of fortune.

Native workers were to be supplied with a daily meal of fresh fish and poi, plus a wage of 12 and a half cents.

For his part, the king received, through the island’s governor, the payment of 25 cents for each man, per month, tax free. Royal favor was bestowed upon Kaua‘i’s lucrative agricultural lands. A proud Hawaiian Kingdom would be restored, a successful “aina,” rural countryside, native cultivation and a “separate kingdom,” free from corruption.

With the construction of the Koloa Mill, 16-foot cane stalks were ground down, pulped and boiled. With the liquid, raw sugar was processed. Planting and harvesting were carefully controlled, the fields prepared for burning, and the stalks withheld from water for six to eight weeks to force the water from the ripening sugar.

Today, an acre of sugar cane often produces 100 tons of sugar; in the days of old it was more like 10 tons.

The “Bagasse,” or cane fiber, was used as fuel for the mill boilers and evaporators, while heating, and washing water to clean the stalks irrigation.

The dirt from the silt ponds was added with fertilizer and the sediments were put back in the fields. Juice from evaporators became a thick dark syrup and the boiled liquor was sent off into a centrifuge and reprocessed as molasses.

The details of this will be shortly available by the Koloa Rum Company at Kilohana.

The tasting room will be opened in the near future on the grounds of the Plantation.

Thinking of the idea of a rum tasting room brings to mind a fond memory from my grandfather’s old stone parsonage at the Lihue Union Church. A sign displayed on his library wall, “Drink, the curse of the working class.” Flash forward 100 years to the walls of Whalers Brew Pub and a sign that reads, “Work, the curse of the drinking class.”

Koloa set the example, not only for Kaua‘i’s plantation system, but for the forerunners of Honolulu’s factoring companies.

Edward Joesting, author of “Kauai a Separate Kingdom” (1984), described it as “financially benefiting plantation owners, helping Hawaiians make their transition from their ancient dependence on the chiefs into a new world of independence.

In time, it would also assist contract laboring immigrants “coming to a strange country,” to settle on Kaua‘i.

Look for part two of the sugar industry in the April 15 edition of The Garden Island.

• John Lydgate and Tammi Tracy Andersland are launching a new publication specific to Kaua‘i history, The Pacific Journal. The launch is planned for some time this spring. They are residents of Wailua and offer this exclusive column for The Garden Island readers.

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