The Bittersweet Legacy of Sugar

posted in: November 2015 | 0

image113547-horizCarol A. MacLennan. Sovereign Sugar: Industry and Environment in Hawai`i. University of Hawai`i Press, 2014. 392 pages. $39.00 (cloth).

In 1939, Harper & Brothers Publishers released John W. Vandercook’s history of sugar in Hawai`i. King Cane, it was called, and Vandercook was nothing if not enthusiastic in his regard for the benevolence of the planters, the benefits for the workers, and the boon for the territorial economy that the sugar plantations represented.

In Sovereign Sugar, Carol A. MacLennan, an anthropologist at Michigan Technological University, makes no reference to Vandercook, despite the uncannily similar and alliterative titles of their respective works.

But the titles are the only similarity that Vandercook’s and MacLennan’s books share. While Vandercook surveyed sugar at its peak, MacLennan examines its impact at a time when it is at its nadir. The only working plantation today – Alexander & Baldwin’s Maui plantation, Hawai`i Commercial & Sugar – is holding on to its land and water for the time being, but challenges over its ongoing diversion of East Maui streams and renewed, reinvigorated concerns over its cane burns cast a shadow over its future viability.

In reviewing the evolution of Hawai`i’s economy from the time of first Western contact up to the present day, MacLennan identifies a number of critical turning points that led to the unique characteristics of Hawaiian sugar, as opposed to plantation economies in other islands such as Java, Cuba, and the Philippines.

One of these decisive factors was the involvement of missionaries in the shaping of the laws and policies of the Hawaiian kingdom.  “Modern ecological change in Hawai`i begins with money and law,” MacLennan writes at the start of the third chapter, “Four Families,” which lays out the ways in which missionaries sent to the islands by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Boston helped lay the foundation on which the sugar economy was erected in the second half of the nineteenth century.

“Imperceptibly linked with the Christian agenda was the idea of the natural right to property,” MacLennan writes. “A simple concept, but contrary to Hawaiian culture, it was a product of Europe’s enlightenment and, colored by the American experience, influenced the developing institutions of a sovereign Hawaiian state.” She notes other factors as well, including trade with Pacific powers and the growing presence of British, French, and American business interests. None of these, however, seem to match the influence of the missionaries when it came to shaping the minds and values of young Hawaiian elites.

MacLennan is not the first to point out the close ties between the missionaries and the evolution of Hawaiian law into a system that protected private rights and allowed the islands to be carved into private holdings. She does, however, point out some of the milestones that drove this process, including the decision of the mission board in Boston to cut off support:

“The ABCFM in Boston sent word as early as 1848 that the missionaries should begin to plan for self-support,” she writes. “Realizing that missionary families frequently left their posts prematurely to educate their families in the United States, it reversed its policy forbidding personal gain from landholding and businesses. Instead, it encouraged its people to become residents and citizens and allowed them to acquire property.” By 1854, when the tether was finally cut, the mission board assigned its holdings to the missionaries, with the blessing of the Hawaiian government. “Nearly everyone recognized the opportunity to buy land as crucial to their economic survival.”

The ability to hold private property was necessary but, on its own, not sufficient to allow the plantation economy to develop in Hawai`i as it did.

“Hawai`i’s specific path is marked by development of a corporate lock on economic and political power rather unique in the history of sugar,” MacLennan writes. “Control of land, water, forest, and other natural resources through either outright ownership or political influence made Hawai`i’s sugar kingdom a standout example of global sugar production and, more importantly, set the agenda for natural resource use policy for decades to come.”

MacLennan describes the development of plantations from small holdings of many individuals into the larger plantations that were eventually held by the famed “Big Five” (which, she notes, were themselves largely owned by the descendants of four missionary families). The small planters’ need for credit led to their dependence on agencies, or factors. “These two developments – credit dependency and corporate ownership of the sugar enterprise – proved central to the development of industrial agriculture in the 1880s,” she notes, with the end result of dependency being outright ownership by the agencies. And the missionary and other New England investors, she points out, “were the first to employ the corporate ownership structure,” insulating them from the pitfalls of individual ownership.

When the corporate structure was combined with the agency structure, the foundation for plantation control was complete. “Every agency claimed money from three sources of the plantation enterprise: profit from sales of regular supplies such as food, lumber, and tools; interest on any cash advanced to pay workers or buy supplies and on any debt for capital expenses; and commissions on sugars sold in California.” After the 1876 Treaty of Reciprocity, allowing favorable treatment of sugar exports to the United States, indebtedness increased substantially, as planters sought to keep up with newer, more efficient technologies requiring substantial investment.

By the early 1900s, as members of the second generation of missionaries passed away, she writes, “their stocks gradually appear under the names of trusts, estates, and banks – all forms of holding companies. … By 1920, a very large portion of the sugar assets were in the hands of the families that controlled Castle & Cooke, C. Brewer, and Alexander & Baldwin.” In addition, descendants of missionaries established “most of the new companies providing essential support services to plantations and the new industrial economy,” MacLennan notes.

The most significant change in the landscape wrought by sugar occurred after the reciprocity treaty. From 377 tons in 1850, to 12,540 tons in 1875, exports jumped exponentially by 1880 – to 31,792 tons, a whopping 250 percent. Before 1880, “the environmental reach of the plantation centers … was relatively small – at least physically,” she writes. Once the plantations expanded, requiring the import of labor from China, fields once planted in taro were converted to rice. Taro became scarce and pa`i`ai (pounded taro) became expensive. What’s more, “salted salmon, delivered in barrels to the plantation store, provided the fish that Hawaiians could no longer provide on their own. … It, too, became an expensive food staple.”

Beyond the cultivated coastal lands, sugar reached into the upland areas as well. “Hawai`i’s forests also showed signs of wear from sugar by 1880. Cattle and goats had already decimated the kula lands on Haleakala’s slopes above Makawao on Maui and the forested regions around Waimea and the Kohala Mountains on Hawai`i island. The heavy demand for firewood to power the larger mills culled the forests of valuable wood above plantation districts where cattle had not yet encroached, extending farther the areas already denuded of forests.”

As early as the 1860s, the planters began to address the barren uplands. “At Lihu`e Plantation, manager Paul Isenberg began a reforestation project on the company’s lands above the cane fields during his tenure (1863-1878)… He recognized the link between water production and forests.” Before the century’s end, the Hawai`i Sugar Planters Association had undertaken a replanting program, which eventually partnered with the territorial government in the establishment of the first forest reserves in the islands.

The forest uplands were vital to replenishing the island aquifers, which in turn fed the increasingly complex hydraulic system of the plantations. Water was used to transfer cane from the fields to the mills as well as to irrigate crops. By the turn of the 20th century, “when government and crown lands passed into the hands of the American Government, so did the right to grant licenses for water development in island interior mountain ranges. … These projects extended sugar’s environmental reach into interior forests and granted it control over the significant water resources of Kaua`i, O`ahu, Maui, and northern Hawai`i island.”

In the 1930s, the territorial government and the U.S. agricultural extension service hired a University of Hawai`i geography professor, John Wesley Coulter, to map the islands and collect land-use data. MacLennan reproduces his maps, which show “the extent of the plantations’ replacement of natural and human Hawaiian landscapes. Except for the lava fields and the highest alpine lands of Haleakala, Mauna Loa, and Mauna Kea, all available land had a direct economic use. Even the forests were devoted to water production for irrigation…. [A]ll available arable land was occupied by agricultural establishments, including what [Coulter] determined were marginal and submarginal lands under sugar cultivation.”

MacLennan describes the “evolution of natural resource policies,” arguing that it may be divided into two main periods. “The first covers the era of the independent Hawaiian nation from the 1840s until its overthrow in 1893. The second period coincides with the American capture of state power during the Republic and territorial eras. … Over the course of these two periods, the role of Hawai`i’s resource policies evolved from one of serving agricultural development and nationhood into one of protecting the profitability of sugar plantations and the spin-off of the pineapple industry.”

This entailed what she calls “the gradual transformation of public resources into private goods.” At the time of the Mahele, land was divided into three categories: private, public (government), and crown lands. “Within fifty years, these distinctions virtually disappeared into legal fiction, and public resources primarily served the exclusive interests of the plantation economy.”

“Once land was occupied and producing income, it was difficult for Hawaiians and their government to reverse the usage,” she notes.

Even in the post-sugar era, the footprint of the plantations remains. “Although gone from the landscape, the mark of sugar remains today in Hawai`i’s land use and water policies and in the lives of people who worked and grew up in its sugar economy. Acting as an invisible force, sugar’s ghost continues to frequent the islands with its legacy of economic dominance.”

At nearly 300 pages of text, 11 appendices, more than 50 pages of notes, and an index, Sovereign Sugar provides a comprehensive overview of the political, economic, and social history of sugar in Hawai`i. Interleaved with this, MacLennan catalogs the heavy footprint the plantations have left on the islands’ natural resources.

While the book may not be the last word on sugar’s environmental impact, MacLennan is to be commended for bringing the environment into the larger context of the revolutionary social and political changes the planters wrought.

— Patricia Tummons


Volume 25, Number 7 November 2015

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