Sugar In Hawaii

Sugar in Hawaii
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Hawaii was once the largest producer of sugar in the world.

• General: Educational • General: Guide • General: History

Sugarcane has been known to exist in Hawaii since at least 600 AD. It was found noted by Captain Cook (see The History of Captain James Cook) when he arrived in 1778. The eventual harvesting of sugarcane became big business in Hawaii and created jobs. Most of the field workers came to Hawaii from China, Japan, and the Philippines. The United States was the largest importer of sugar and molasses from Hawaii.

Sugar Plantations

The rapid growth of Hawaii's population was largely attributed to the plantation system. The first industrial sugar production was set up on Lanai in 1803. The first true sugar plantation was established at the Old Sugar Mill in Koloa and Sugar Monument in 1835. One year later and 8,000 pounds of sugar and molasses were shipped to the United States from that mill.

By the 1840's, sugar plantations were set up throughout the islands. Sugarcane and pineapple represented a major part of Hawaiian agriculture. However, a negative consequence of the growth in foreign agricultural exports was the displacement of native Hawaiians from their land due to the land division laws set up in 1848, which allowed foreigners to buy and lease land.


In the mid 1800s, the number of sugar plantations in Hawaii declined. Only five major plantations existed by 1850 after an increase in import tariffs from the United States adversely impacted the ability for smaller plantations to operate. In addition, the U.S. Civil War had a detrimental effect of the sugar exports to the U.S.A.

By the 1890s, 75% of Hawaii's privately held land was foreign owned. Five former missionary families established corporations that eventually controlled nearly all aspects of commodity exports, banking, and other services in Hawaii. Cheap labor, land, and close ties to the Hawaiian Ali'i (chiefs) added to the power of the "Five Families". Eventually, plantation owners started an effort to make Hawaii a U.S. territory to avoid paying U.S. import tariffs. This was the catalyst which led to the overthrow of the "Republic of Hawaii" and started Hawaii on its path to becoming a U.S. territory.

Acknowledging the role that white plantation owners played in the illegal, U.S. backed overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and eventual 1898 annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory, President Bill Clinton in 1982 apologized to the Hawaiian people on behalf of the U.S.A. I'm pretty sure that apology meant very little.

Environmental Impact

Sugarcane plantation and production adversely affected the environment. The most fertile land was sought to plant crops. It was necessary to have access to large water sources, which were often located near taro ponds. Areas where native Hawaiians once grew taro and bananas were now growing sugarcane. The environment suffered as coal driven trains were used for transportation, irrigation canals were dug, and deforestation took place. Harvesting sugar cane is also a messy business and requires the burning of the cane fields, leading to massive amounts of smoke that are released into the environment.

The eventual demise of the sugar plantations in Hawaii happened as a result of increased labor costs, manufacturing costs, and foreign competition. Global supply of sugar is now predominantly exported from the Philippines.


Hawaii eventually evolved from an agricultural export economy to one based on tourism. Today you can see the locations of several sugar mills such as the Waialua Sugar Mill on Oahu and the Old Sugar Mill in Koloa and Sugar Monument on Kauai. The North Shore of Oahu once had over 20,000 acres of land being used primarily for pineapple and sugarcane production. The Waialua Sugar Company was once a major employer to locals with over 2,000 workers, but it eventually closed down in 1996 after nearly 100 years in operation. Today, the Waialua Sugar Mill is popular with tourists and is occupied by small artisan shops.

Maui was home to the last remaining sugar plantation in Hawaii which was owned by the Alexander & Baldwin company through its subsidiary Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company. After losing $30 million in 2015 and forecasting further losses in future years, A&B decided to close the Maui sugar cane fields at the end of 2016. That left 675 people without jobs but as the company moves to energy crops, agroforestry, livestock, diversified food crops, and orchard crops there is hope that some of those jobs will come back. Next time you're on Maui, be sure to stop in the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum for more.