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Know Your Roots

Sugarcane is believed to have originated more than 10,000 years ago in New Guinea. From there, early human migrations spread the plant westward into Southeast Asia and eastward into Polynesia. In the Middle East and India, cane had been processed into sugar since 300 BC, and the techniques were introduced to Europe during the crusades of the medieval period. In 1493, Christopher Columbus brought sugar to the West Indies, and by 1751 the plant was grown successfully in Louisiana.

Image by Thomas Kinto

In the Pacific, Polynesian settlers introduced sugar cane to Hawaii more than a thousand years ago. Hawaiians planted cane around their taro patches and chewed the sweet stalk, but did not make sugar. The Hawaiian sugar industry dates back to 1835, when the first successful sugar plantation was established on the island of Kauai. Sugar plantations sprang up throughout the islands, reaching a peak number of 80 by 1884. Over time, consolidations and closures reduced the number to fewer, but larger, plantations.

Sugarcane got its start commercially on Maui in 1848, beginning with the Haliimaile Plantation. Samuel Thomas Alexander & Henry Perrine Baldwin, friends since childhood, formed a partnership and began planting near Makawao in 1870. Alexander & Baldwin secured a lease for water rights from the kingdom in 1878, and built a ditch to bring water to arid central Maui. Meanwhile, in the same year, Claus Spreckels established Hawaiian Commercial Company, an enterprise in Central Maui which soon became devoted to sugar. It was renamed Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S) in 1882. Claus built the Spreckelsville Mill, which was rumored to be the largest sugar mill in the world. Alexander & Baldwin purchased HC&S in 1898, and began building the Puunene Mill in 1901. For 168 years, sugarcane brought people from many different backgrounds to the island and wove them into the fabric that is Maui’s community.

The Era of King Sugar in Hawaii

Once the most influential crop in the daily lives of Maui’s residents, sugar cane was major economic contributor for the state of Hawaii; both as a leading agricultural crop, and in the form of bagasse (“ba-GAS”), dried cane fiber which was used as fuel for steam-driven mill equipment.

During sugar’s heyday, an extensive irrigation system was developed by private enterprise. This irrigation system still provides a significant portion of Maui’s water supply. The sugar industry also built workforce housing, stores, hospitals, churches and recreational facilities. This collection of homes and businesses evolved into culturally rich, self-contained communities that included most of the island’s population.

As the industry’s need for manpower grew, immigrants from around the world were recruited to work on the plantations, hailing from places as far-flung as China, Japan, Puerto Rico, Korea, the Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Germany, and Scandinavia. These immigrants became the foundation of the islands’ multi-ethnic society, the “melting pot of the Pacific.”

Sugar’s reign in Hawaii lasted until the 1960s, when tourism outpaced it as the state’s number one industry. It remained Hawaii’s leading agricultural crop until the closure of several plantations in the 1990s. The crop value of sugar fell below that of pineapples, marking the end of a major era. The last and largest plantation in the state of Hawaii, The Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company, closed in December 2016. In 2018, the acreage that was formerly used to grow sugarcane (36,000 acres), was sold to Mahi Pono, LLC, an agricultural company that is planting diversified agriculture on the former cane lands.

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