Driven by greed and self-preservation, a wealthy trade conglomerate invades a classical world, rich with natural beauty. The conglomerate uses military might to subdue the world’s peaceful monarchy, usurping authority over the world’s bountiful resources. Blinded by its own economic greed, the conglomerate, in its endeavor to enrich itself, easily is manipulated by a darker hidden force advancing its own imperial power.

It happened a long long time ago, but not in a galaxy far far away. This isn’t the synopsis for “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” but rather, it is the history of Hawaii in the latter part of the 19th century.

Land is currently the most valuable resource in the Hawaiian Islands and development of the land (or not), has played a significant role in shaping the character of this place – both physically and societally. Is Oahu destined to be one contiguous mass of concrete and asphalt? Will the neighbor islands suffer the same fate? Is there no value or place for vast undisturbed natural environments? Will tourism and construction forever define us?

Honouliuli Landscape

Understanding this land-and-society dynamic requires an understanding of Hawaii’s history. So, there’s a history lesson imminent. For historical accuracy, I rely primarily on Professor Jon M. Van Dyke’s “Who Owns the Crown Lands of Hawai‘i?” and George Cooper’s and Gavan Dawes’s “Land and Power in Hawaii.” Hopefully, between the four of us, we can make this beastly topic a tad more comprehensible.

On Jan. 17, 1893, a group of wealthy businessmen, with the support of the United States military, overthrew the Hawaiian government. These wealthy businessmen assumed control of governmental powers, which, in great part, included authority over approximately 1.8 million acres of land (roughly 828,000 acres in government land and 971,463 acres in Crown Lands) – about 44 percent of the land in the Hawaiian Islands.

These wealthy businessmen, many of whom were sugar-plantation owners or affiliates, had sought annexation of the Hawaiian Islands by the United States to further their economic interests. Their proposed treaty of annexation failed when President Grover Cleveland took office and removed the proposal from the Senate floor.

These wealthy businessmen assumed control of … approximately 1.8 million acres of land (roughly 828,000 acres in government land and 971,463 acres in Crown Lands) – about 44 percent of the land in the Hawaiian Islands.

When Cleveland’s term ended, these wealthy businessmen tried annexation once more and failed yet again. Only this time, in 1898, the United States flat-out laid its claim to the Hawaiian Islands through its own domestic law. This is, to this day, a point of contestation for many Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians). The Hawaiian Islands, without agreement from the vast majority of its population, had been made a U.S. territory; and Sanford B. Dole, the named leader of the annexationists, had been made the first territorial governor.

Between 1898 and 1899, “officials acting on behalf of the new territory began to sell and dispose” of 15,334 acres of public land, before President William McKinley stepped in with an executive order to suspend further unloading of the land. Many questionable land claims later and fast-forward to today, this very briefly explains how the State of Hawaii came into possession of “state lands.”

This snippet, however, doesn’t explain where the majority of the land – that 56 percent — went, and how its status has shaped the character of Hawaii. To understand the role of the 56 percent, we need to rewind this story back a bit further than the overthrow.

Prior to the arrival of American missionaries, the relationship between land and Kanaka Maoli was familial – an anthropomorphism, if you will, that resulted in a far more environmentally friendly Hawaii than it is today. Two hundred years ago, the concept of land ownership did not exist within the culture. Things, however, changed as more foreigners were discovered by Kanaka Maoli.

American missionaries had firmly established themselves in the Hawaiian Islands, acquiring advisory roles to Kanaka Maoli leadership. Those leaders relied on the missionaries’ knowledge of foreign politics in exercising their own Kanaka Maoli agency to develop a new type of Hawaiian government.

When the idea of land privatization took hold, those American missionaries (and their descendants) were in the perfect place to capitalize on available land.

When the idea of land privatization took hold, those American missionaries (and their descendants) were in the perfect place to capitalize on available land. A number of them abandoned their missions and became entrepreneurial land owners and industrialists, who established business dynasties in conglomeration with one another. Through their economic power, this trade conglomerate’s members could shape the character of Hawaii in their image – though Kanaka Maoli agency was a significant hurdle (and had to be overcome through an overthrow).

The forebearers of these missionary-turned-business-dynasties, to name just a few, included Samuel Northrup Castle and Amos Starr Cooke (Castle & Cooke Inc.), the sons of Rev. William Alexander and Dwight Baldwin (Alexander & Baldwin Inc.) – and that’s just the tip of the point of a very long spear.

Benefactors of the American mission would eventually join other foreigners (such as Charles Reed Bishop of Kamehameha Schools) in forming the league of wealthy businessmen who would overthrow the Hawaiian government.

The oligarchy of businessmen bolstered their own land holdings and economic interests in the period following the overthrow and throughout Hawaii’s territorial era, where their social-political-economic control furnished them with the epithet: The Big Five.

From 1900-1959, the Big Five controlled a substantial portion of the 56 percent of privately-owned land in Hawaii. They also controlled government, which put them in control of the 44 percent of public land.

From 1900-1959, the Big Five controlled a substantial portion of the 56 percent of privately-owned land in Hawaii. They also controlled government, which put them in control of the 44 percent of public land. For the most part, the Big Five used the land for their agricultural empire; yet so oppressive was their reign, that agriculture in Hawaii is stigmatized – locals are undoubtedly familiar with stories of persevering migrant plantation workers slaving in the fields, so that their children would have better lives. The character of the Hawaiian Islands during the territorial era (outside of urban Honolulu) was primarily rural. Then came the land grab.

On Aug. 21, 1959, Hawaii was admitted as the 50th state of the union and the Hawaiian Islands were no longer as foreign as they once were to America. Americans wanted a piece of paradise; and the landowners, realizing the sale of land was a more lucrative venture than growing sugarcane and pineapples, were willing to sell.

According to Land and Power, “(i)n the 1960s, after statehood, development money started flowing into Hawaii from outside in unprecedented quantities.” In essence, development was driven by outside housing needs. The value of land shifted from agriculture to urban.

Urbanization continues today, but development interests have conflicted with interests in sustainability and environmental conservation. With an incredibly finite amount of land held primarily by private owners, they who control land, control the character of the Hawaiian Islands.

Of the top 10 largest landowners in the Hawaiian Islands that aren’t the feds/state/counties, eight are developers with a combined total, between them, of 768,390.5 acres (about 18 percent of all the land). If land is power in Hawaii, then these landowners have the power to shape our future and play a vital role in the need for sustainable practices and smart growth. Yet financial interests loom and residential over-development might be more lucrative to a profit-oriented corporation holding vast quantities of land, than preserving the land for the biophilic enjoyment of future generations.

Or is it?

To be continued…

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