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Sugar Plantations in Hawaii

Chinese contract laborers on sugar plantation in 19th century Hawaii

Chinese contract laborers on sugar plantation in 19th century Hawaii

The sugar industry played an enormous role in Hawaii.  You can better appreciate Hawaii as a potential or returning visitor to the islands by gaining an understanding of one of the major forces that has shaped the state’s past and still influences it today.  Because of this, we’ve pulled together some information on how the sugar industry has impacted the history, culture and economic development of the Aloha State.

Sugar Facts

It takes a lot of natural resources and effort to produce sugar.  Sugar cane is known as a “thirsty crop,” and takes a significant amount of water to grow it.  Moreover, approximately 3 feet of cane is needed to produce one cube of sugar.  So in addition to water, a lot of labor is involved in growing, harvesting and processing sugar cane.

Because it was such a labor intensive process, plantation owners needed much more manpower than what was available in Hawaii at the time.  Starting in the mid-1800’s, they began to recruit overseas laborers on a continuing basis, which over time, generated an increase in Hawaii’s population of about 340,000 more people.  People from all over the world were contracted to work on the plantations, many of which were Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans and Portuguese.  Even though, plantation owners segregated the workers by ethnicity, a common language evolved so that the workers could communicate with other ethnic groups, called Hawaiian Pidgin English, which is technically considered a creole language.

By the year 1959, one out of every 12 people in Hawaii was employed by the sugar industry and its agricultural workers were among the highest-paid in the world.  At one time there were large sugar plantations and mills on all the larger Hawaiian Islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai Molokai and the Big Island of Hawaii.

In 1980, Hawaii supplied about one-tenth of the sugar used by the 215 million people in the US, but saw a severe decline that began in the 1990’s, leaving the industry in Hawaii a fraction of what it once was.  Today, there is only one company in Hawaii that still grows and produces sugar on the island of Maui.

Plantation operations, such as those afforded by the sugar industry, were the most important driving forces behind large scale immigration into Hawaii.  Even though there is only one sugar plantations still in operation today, one of the lasting legacies of the sugar industry in Hawaii is its influence in creating the rich diversity of ethnicities and cultures and in the unique creole language that we are accustomed to often hearing today.


Sugar cane was introduced to Hawaiians around 600 AD, and was noted by Captain Cook, the first European explorer to the islands, when he arrived in 1778.


Old Sugar Mill of Koloa chimney, Kauai

Old Sugar Mill of Koloa chimney, Kauai

The first sugar plantation called the Old Sugar Mill of Koloa was established in 1835 by Ladd & Co.  Many other plantations soon began production and by the 1840’s, coinciding perfectly with the California Gold rush, steamships brought a steady supply of sugar to United States shores, as the demand for sugar increased.  In 1865 the American Civil War caused an increase in market when sugar grown in the South wouldn’t be shipped north.  Eventually this growth caused an economic foundation allowing the U.S. Annexation, and eventual statehood of Hawaii in 1959.

The sugar harvesting process in Hawaii included the washing, crushing, grinding and centrifuging of the raw material, which was then sent to The C&H (California & Hawaiian) Sugar Refining Corporation in Crockett, California.

The industry was mainly run by former missionary families in Hawaii, and the largest plantations became known as the “Big Five.”  This included:  Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors (once called Amfac) and Theo H. Davies & Co.  These companies had a great amount of power during the early 20th century and ended up controlling 90% of the sugar business. These companies either do not exist anymore or have dramatically changed their business focus away from sugar.  Today, Hawaii’s only sugar producing company is Alexander & Baldwin.

A look at the Past

Though some islands had a larger industry presence than others in the height of the sugar production, most of the Hawaiian Islands offer unique tours, explorations or visits to historic plantations.  Every guest is sure to get a sugar fix at one of the below places:

Oahu:  For a colorful view of the history and the diverse ethnicities that were drawn to the islands through the sugar industry, The Hawaii Plantation Village gives tours around the village of where plantation workers lived, and offers museum visitation from 10 am to 2 pm Monday through Saturday.

Maui:  Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum hosts a large collection of memorabilia from the sugar industry, providing a look into how harvesting sugar works, as well as a broad understanding of the history of sugar-production in Hawaii.  As one of the original “Big Five” plantations, this is not one you will want to miss.  The museum is open daily from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm, Monday through Saturday.

Kauai:  The Gay and Robinson Sugar Plantation in Kaumakani offers plantation tours from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm Monday through Friday.   For a history-saturated tour, the Grove Farm Homestead in Lihue was one of Hawaii’s earliest plantations and has an extensive museum.  The Waimea Sugar Mill Camp Museum in Waimea is also a great spot to delve into this chapter of Hawaiian heritage.

Molokai:  The R.W. Meyer Sugar Mill is the last of its kind, using a century-old steam engine, mule-driven cane crusher, copper clarified and redwood evaporating pan.  There is also a museum that allows a peek into the past sugar plantation worker’s lives, etc.  The museum also hosts several events including taro festivals, wine tastings and cultural art classes such as loom weaving and ukulele making.


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