Echoes of Wailua: The History of Sugar – Part II: An Industry Hoped to Engender Good

Editor’s note: This is the second column entitled “Echoes of Wailua” that will appear monthly.

As we closed last month’s article on sugar, we left at a time when Kaua‘i’s sugar plantations got their start at the hands of Wm. Hooper and Ladd and Co. which set up Koloa in 1835. The Hawaiian name Koloa — ‘ko’ meaning sugar and ‘loa’ meaning long — means long pointed sugar cane.

The demand for Sandwich Island sugar grew. California, populated during the gold rush, caused a dramatic increase. The Civil War required a constant supply.

By the 1870’s it was clear to the planters that the U.S. was their market. However, there were three big problems that would first have to be resolved:

Import labor, because sugar cane unlike sandalwood, whaling, or the fur trade, was a renewable resource, and required a steady source of agricultural workers and a provided a regular income for the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Generations of native Hawaiians had dwindled in size in view of introduced western diseases brought by the whalers. In 1852, contract laborers began arriving, first from China, followed by Japanese, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, and Filipinos, all who came in substantial numbers. At Koloa, there were a significant number of Germans, most who held supervisory or managerial positions.

The Masters and Servants Act of 1850, allowed for the importation of laborers and bound them, much as American sailors and shipmate apprentices, to serve under the duration of a voyage or contract.

In this case, bringing workers to the island’s sugar fields and signing them on for a specified — usually a five year — contract. Though primitive and in many ways imperfect, the Act stipulated rights and responsibilities, giving protection for both agricultural workers and for the sugar plantation employers.

It didn’t take long for workers on the 14 or so plantations on Kaua‘i, to realize that the 10 hour workday, six days a week, for $20 salary per month, left as soon as opportunities permitted. Labor shortage would always be a problem as long as the plantation system was in operation.

The second great problem was financial. It was clear that in order to survive, prosper and deliver sugar exports successfully, profits would have to be generated. This was no subsistence economy.

Obviously plantations couldn’t function without the toil, sweat, and muscle of thousands of hard working laborers.

The costs were considerable; housing, meals, medical care, roads, heavy machinery and up-to-date cultivating procedures in clearing fields and building cane haul roads made plantation capital expensive. Not to mention irrigation tunnels and ditches, milling, grinding and rolling stock added to laying track and providing railway engines for the harvesting and transporting of the cane crops, were additional overheads.

Until the 1876 Reciprocity Treaty which exempted Hawaiian sugar from a 30 percent import duty, Kaua‘i was a small struggling backwater.

For example, Kaua‘i had the most inaccessible coasts and harbors, freighted vessels found it difficult; loading, handling and landing heavy, bulk cargo. It wasn’t until the vision and farsightedness of men like G.N. Wilcox, Paul Isenberg and Duncan McBryde, that Kaua‘i’s cash crisis in the Sugar industry took off. McBryde would provide electricity, Wilcox a harbor and Isenberg, the art of boiling sugar.

Two additional ranch and family owned partners, starting in 1884, are still planting and are synonymous with sugar on Kaua‘i — Gay and Robinson.

Their fields have provided a way of life and living for countless immigrants, residents and their families for the last 160 years.

Their prospects in the future of sugar are promising; molasses, rum and ethanol are all viable ways to keep the cane growing. The molasses from their fields is one of the purest forms in the entire world as was recently stated by the laboratories at Michigan State University. The prospects of sugar today, though dimmer, still look bright. The alternative would be wide scale real estate development on sugar lands.

A kingdom passes.

The third great problem of the plantations on Kaua‘i would be politics, the elimination of the Hawaiian Monarchy. When sugar as an industry was endangered, the Hawaiian Kingdom was in trouble.

With the McKinley Tariff of April 1891, (the act would require all tariffs removed on imported sugar and a 2 cents-per-pound bounty paid to domestic growers. Hawai‘i thus lost the advantage it enjoyed in the 1876 Act.

Kaua‘i plantations were threatened financially and many bankrupted. Congress wanted long term rights and concessions from the Hawaiian Kingdom in exchange for the use of Pearl Harbor as a naval port. When King David Kalakaua died in January 1891, his sister Lydia Lili‘uokalani was no longer in favor of close personal ties with the United States.

By then Kaua‘i’s small planter aristocracy had power and influence, they were now virtually, ‘sugar barons.’ Men like Theo H. Davies, Duncan McBryde and C. Brewer spring to mind.

The new Queen rightly wished to assert her authority as reigning monarch and sovereign of the Kingdom. She was autocratic and pro-British, she allowed the price of sugar to go into a downward spiral and decline by not acting on behalf of the plantations. It was the beginning of the end as planters saw her as an obstacle in their economic growth. She would have to go.

The secret of Kaua‘i’s plantation success was the application of science and management in an industry that could not otherwise survive without an evolving technology. That was the contribution of HSPA’s (Hawaii Sugar Planters Association) scientists/engineers.

• John Lydgate and Tammi Tracy Andersland are launching a new publication specific to Pacific Rim 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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