Island History: Kaua‘i’s sandalwood trade

In old Hawai‘i, the fragrant wood of the iliahi tree, called sandalwood, had no special cultural significance. It was merely burned as firewood or mixed with coconut oil to perfume kapa. 

Yet the Chinese prized it, and beginning in 1811 they obtained a rich supply from American traders at Canton who’d acquired it from Hawaiian chiefs in exchange for Western goods. The Chinese then made it into boxes, chests, medicine, perfume and incense, while the Americans took on tea, silk, furniture and chinaware for sale in England and America.

On Kaua‘i, King Kaumuali‘i, enticed by Western merchandise, commanded his commoners to cut iliahi trees, carry the wood to shore, and load it aboard ships. In time, large forests of iliahi in the highlands above Waimea, Lihu‘e, Koloa, and in Wailua Valley were felled and uprooted. The commoners suffered from cold in the mountains, and having neglected their farms, were forced to eat herbs and ferns. Many died.

Kaumuali‘i also paid a Captain Rowan in sandalwood to provide for his young son Humehume’s education and welfare in Massachusetts, and when Humehume returned to Waimea in 1820 with the first missionaries aboard the Thaddeus, Kaumuali‘i rewarded its Captain Blanchard with $1,000 worth of sandalwood. Later, when Humehume got drunk and burned down Captain Masters’ houses in Waimea, Kaumuali‘i made up Masters’ losses with sandalwood valued at $2,500.

In 1816, after the mountebank Georg Anton Schaffer and Kaumualii formed an alliance, whereby Schaffer promised Kaumuali‘i Russian arms and ships in return for trading privileges, property and a pledge of allegiance to the Russian Empire — all without the blessings of the Russian government — Kaumuali‘i’s subjects began cutting sandalwood for Schaffer and building the Russian Fort at Waimea. 

Kaua‘ i’s sandalwood trade continued until its sandalwood was depleted about 1835. 


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