Sugar permanently transformed Hawaii’s landscape, propelled immigration and laid the foundation for an early middle class.

Editor’s Note: The articles in this series are the result of months of research in state and national archives, on Kauai, on the Big Island and in Honolulu, and within the Washingtoniana collection at Martin Luther King Jr. Library and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Key resources include congressional testimony, hearings and historical newspaper collections. 

In 1911, Prince Kuhio took a deep breath and confronted the sugar planters directly.

This was a difficult thing to do.

As a congressional delegate who had been in office for five terms at this point, the prince generally did what lawmakers always do, which is to advance and promote the industries that fuel local economies. He lobbied for tariff protection for Hawaiian sugar and he promoted Hawaii-grown products, even as the sugar industry nationwide, known as the “sugar trust,” became a frequent target of political cartoonists who depicted them as corporate fat cats.

Harvesting sugar cane used to involve horses and mules at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company on Maui. Some historians have criticized Kuhio for the role he played in advancing the cause of sugar. (Courtesy: Alexander & Baldwin)

At one hearing Kuhio told his fellow lawmakers that dropping tariff protections for sugar would cause “industrial disaster for the Hawaiian Islands” because they were economically dependent on that single product.

But as a Hawaiian and as a man who promoted social justice, Kuhio also worried that the expanding power of the sugar oligarchy in Hawaii was causing long term damage. After a famous muckraking journalist visited the islands in early 1911 and wrote a searing report about abusive and unfair conditions, Kuhio felt compelled to take action to curb some of the industry’s abuses by trying to eject a governor he believed was in their pocket.

Until this point, Kuhio had generally worked side-by-side with the planters, except on the issue of securing local government in Hawaii, which he championed despite opposition from sugar oligarchs, and he generally did not openly criticize them.

In fact, some historians have criticized Kuhio for the role he played in advancing the cause of sugar. Lawrence H. Fuchs, author of the 1961 book “Hawaii Pono,” portrayed Kuhio as having been essentially gulled by the planters into serving their interests and that he had “conscientiously pushed probusiness policies in Washington.”

When in fact the sugar industry in Hawaii eventually disappeared, it left the state economically dependent on tourism and the U.S. military. Many people think that narrow economic base has created problems of its own.

In Kuhio’s time, though, the sugar industry was so powerful it was hard to combat.

“I look at Kuhio as a real pragmatist,” said Sumner La Croix, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Hawaii and author of “Hawaii: Eight Hundred Years of Political and Economic Change.” La Croix said that Kuhio clearly understood the dominance of the sugar industry and disliked much of what the companies did, “but it’s hard to get elected if you only fight the dominant industry.”

Lawmakers are expected to support local industry, he said, noting the example of Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, who was called the “Senator from Boeing,” because of his tireless advocacy of the aircraft-engineering firm then based in Seattle.

Archival photo showing the harvesting of sugar cane on Maui.
Sumner La Croix speaks to the Civil Beat Editorial Board via Zoom in February 2021. (Civil Beat)

Hawaii’s congressional delegates today are similarly watching out for local industry. In a press release Thursday, U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda announced she would lead a bipartisan effort to push the Agriculture Department to do more research to protect and promote the $61.9 million coffee-production industry in Hawaii. On Friday, her office announced a similar effort for macadamia nuts, which she called a “signature crop that Hawaii is known for around the world.”

During Kuhio’s lifetime the sugar industry, then Hawaii’s “signature crop,” would become a double-edged sword.

The economic power wielded by the sugar planters meant they had to be treated warily, said Ku Kahakalau, an Hawaiian educator and Kuhio scholar, and though Kuhio had mixed feelings about it, he was generally compelled to walk a fine line.

“It was the politician in him that knew he had to play the game,” Kahakalau said.

  • Special Report

Balancing Out The Newcomers

When Prince Kuhio was born in 1871, the sugar industry in Hawaii was still small. The kingdom’s population was 90 percent Hawaiian, with a small smattering of people of other races, all of whom were permitted to arrive and to stay only if the monarchy thought it was a good idea.

There is a unique archive of Hawaiian-language materials at the Library of Congress’s Rare Books Collection in Washington, D.C., and it contains a Hawaiian government edict from 1844 that precisely spells out the Hawaiian monarchy’s attitude before the annexation:

“Every nation has the abstract right to receive what visitors it pleases, or to shut the door to them altogether; and when it had admitted foreigners, to impose such restraints and disabilities as it deems most conducive to its dignity or internal rights. If a country cannot do this, where is its sovereignty and independence? Every man’s house is his castle, and every nation’s territories are its own political house and castle, not to be intruded upon without its consent,” it reads.

King Kamehameha III used this directive to expel merchant seaman from America, Australia and Asia who had left or been discharged by their ships, reasoning that sailors discharged from ships were likely “insubordinate, disorderly, drunken, lazy or inefficient.”

Hawaii’s economy was built on the backs of its migrant workers. When the sugar industry in Hawaii disappeared, it left the state economically dependent on tourism and the U.S. military. (Courtesy: Alexander & Baldwin)

Subsequent monarchs carefully balanced out the population of newcomers.

They mostly preferred other Polynesians wherever possible but accepted people from other countries if they made themselves useful and followed the kingdom’s laws.

Under the monarchy, Kuhio said repeatedly over the years, no large numbers of any other single population group were admitted because they would have overwhelmed the local Hawaiian population.

In 1855 and 1882, according to these records, the Hawaiian monarchs blocked further admissions of Chinese — although they were integrating well into Hawaii — because they believed there were simply too many of them, with unmarried men competing for a more limited number of women.

But the sugar industry started to grow rapidly after King Kalakaua signed the reciprocity treaty with the United States in 1875, which allowed Hawaiian sugar to enter the U.S. market on an equal footing with American-grown sugar.

The kingdom’s landscape began to change. The speed of change accelerated after the U.S. annexation.

In 1867, only about 10,000 acres of land in Hawaii was planted in sugar cane, or about 16 square miles, but by 1920, some 236,000 acres, or about 369 square miles, were under cultivation, according to economic historian Carol MacLennan, author of the 2014 book “Sovereign Sugar.”

This vast expansion of cultivated acreage required many new workers. After Hawaii was annexed, immigration rules converted to the mainland system, which in the late 1800s, generally allowed relatively open immigration except for explicitly excluding Chinese people. But such otherwise open immigration rules were a huge boon to the industry, which brought low-wage workers to Hawaii from all over the world, and most particularly from Japan.

Sugar Industry Side Effects

The advent and growth of the sugar industry became increasingly a mixed blessing for Hawaii. On one hand, the industry was technologically advanced and its scientists experimented with new planting techniques that boosted agricultural productivity. Hawaii’s fields produced more sugar per acre while maintaining higher wages and living standards than other sugar producing countries.

This system brought vast wealth for some entrepreneurs, including some whose charities and philanthropies touched or improved other people’s lives. It also offered an entry into a more prosperous future for others, particularly immigrants from poorer countries whose families came to Hawaii for work on the plantations and eventually moved into middle-class comfort or real affluence.

Some of the industry’s positive legacy is Hawaii’s near-universal health care, a system set up in 1974 that built on existing levels of health insurance already provided by sugar companies to their workers.

But the growth of the sugar industry also brought a host of malignant side effects including rising racism, soil and water contamination, pesticide poisoning and an uneasy, simmering consciousness of class conflict and social inequality.

For the Native Hawaiian people, much of the impact was negative.

The flood of low-wage workers pushed most Hawaiians out of the sugar fields altogether.

In 1882, according to La Croix’s book, 25 out of every 100 plantation workers was Hawaiian. By 1900, only 3 out of 100 were Hawaiian.

“Basically those people that started those sugar plantations never had the best interests of the Hawaiians in mind,” Kahakalau said. “It didn’t benefit Hawaiians.”

Monopolies Come Under Fire

In early 1911, a writer and social activist, Ray Stannard Baker, came to the islands. Four years earlier, he had founded a new publication, The American Magazine, along with a handful of fellow muckraking journalists. They included Ida Tarbell, who had penned an epic takedown of the Standard Oil monopoly in a series of articles that described how the large oil conglomerate crushed competitors and destroyed lives as it grew into a corporate goliath.

Tarbell’s work had helped to highlight problems created by groups of businesses operating collectively as “trusts,” such as the sugar trust, and also outright single monopolies like Standard Oil. The federal government began taking steps to break up Standard Oil. These terms became conflated, and efforts to oppose unfair, coordinated business activity came to be called “antitrust” or anti-monopoly.

These issues dominated the presidential campaign of 1908, and Republican President William Howard Taft swept into office, pledging to keep up the fight against monopolies. He did so, with his administration prosecuting 90 antitrust cases, more than any previous president, according to the “Insider’s Guide to the History of the Federal Trade Commission.”

Baker came looking for the same issues in Hawaii. He arrived in Honolulu, booked a room at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki and began talking to everybody he could about economic and social conditions. He traveled to Kauai and the Big Island and was feted everywhere. Back in Honolulu he spent time with Sometaro Sheba, a Japanese-born newspaper publisher, who took him to visit soy factories, Shinto and Buddhist temples and Japanese language schools.

When the three articles Baker subsequently published about Hawaii hit the islands, many people were forced to look squarely at the situation for the first time.

Baker described how the bulk of Hawaii’s arable land was divided into 50 large plantations, operating as what he called “veritable principalities,” owned by corporations whose business operations were dominated by five large firms — three owned by Americans, and one each by British and German interests. All had interlocking directorates, he explained, which allowed their wealth to dominate the economic and political system. Moreover, he wrote, stock in those companies was widely held throughout the territory, which meant that many people had a secret, vested interest in their continued profitability.

Hawaiians, including Kuhio, whom he described as a charming man “who makes a fine appearance on ornamental occasions,” were political pawns to these economic interests, Baker wrote; while workers of all races were left competing with each other for the low wages the oligarchs imposed.

Territorial delegate Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, who might have been king if the monarchy had survived, balanced between supporting the sugar industry and opposing it. (Hawaii State Archives)

If Kuhio had been a lesser man, he might have been humiliated to be described in this way, but instead he was galvanized into action. Baker’s articles, Kuhio told officials in Washington, were “among the best, if not the very best,” that had been written about Hawaii. They seem to have spurred him to do the most overtly adversarial thing he ever did: He decided to try to block the territorial governor’s reappointment.

The person Kuhio went after was Gov. Walter F. Frear, a man who Kuhio accused of being a corporate puppet favoring the sugar industry who was depriving local people of a chance to occupy government owned land as homesteaders. About 90,000 acres had been promised for homesteads under the Hawaiian Land Act of 1895, but when small farmers tried to claim parcels that became available, Frear and government officials acting on his behalf blocked them with trickery and even threats of violence, Kuhio asserted.

Moreover, he said, Frear was allowing railroads in Hawaii to operate as monopolies that could exclude other users.

‘Toughest Campaign To Date’

Amid great publicity, with intense coverage of the confrontation by Hawaiian newspapers, Kuhio published his accusations in a printed booklet he presented to Interior Secretary Walter L. Fisher. The charges were published in newspapers and also reprinted in Lori Kuulei Kamae’s 1980 biography of Kuhio, “The Empty Throne.”

This was a dangerous attack — Frear had been appointed to his job by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1907, and as Kuhio had indicated, was strongly supported by the sugar planters. Moreover, Frear was married to the sister of Walter Dillingham, a wealthy Honolulu industrialist whose company had built the dry dock at Pearl Harbor.

But Kuhio’s timing was well calculated. Taft had publicly supported antitrust action. Kuhio was a Republican, as was Taft. Progressive Republicans, as Taft in some ways aspired to be, liked business but valued fair business practices.  So Kuhio, supported by the general reformist temper in Washington was able to force Taft to look into the situation. The president sent Fisher, the Interior Secretary, to investigate.

Frear fired back, publishing his own reply to Kuhio, which claimed that Kuhio was more a tool of the sugar planters than he was, because the salary of Kuhio’s assistant, George McClellan, was in fact paid by the planters. Frear said he had tried to promote homesteading and had had more success than his predecessors, but that homestead laws were being abused by speculators. He also said that Kuhio’s claims about what had happened to specific homesteaders was untrue.

Thanks to his backing by the sugar planters and also because some of Kuhio’s specific allegations were effectively disputed, Fisher recommended that Frear be reappointed. But just three weeks later, according to historian H. Brett Melendy, Taft lost his bid for reelection to Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Frear became a lame duck appointee. He was not reconfirmed as governor.

The sugar planters and their allies were boiling with rage at Kuhio, and they fought him in Kuhio’s 1912 race for reelection as congressional delegate. It became what a U.S. House of Representatives’ historian called Kuhio’s “toughest campaign to date,” but the prince squeaked to victory.

Kuhio Rep. James Mann and his wife, Emma
Rep. Mann, a Republican party leader, was one of the prominent lawmakers brought to Hawaii by Prince Kuhio in 1915. (U.S. House of Representatives)

Kuhio was rescued in part by U.S. Rep. James Mann of Illinois, House minority leader, the man who in 1919 would introduce the successful resolution for woman’s suffrage. Mann would later be one of the people who came to Hawaii with Kuhio. He shored up Republican support for Kuhio by praising him and publicly crediting him with having brought $10.5 million in appropriations to Hawaii in the previous decade. That’s a notable haul, worth $327 million today, for a territorial delegate who had no vote because Hawaii was not yet a state.

And in a sense, Kuhio won the governor’s fight in any case. President Wilson, surprisingly enough, appointed Lucius Pinkham, ostensibly a Democrat but who was known in Hawaii as a Republican, with Kuhio’s endorsement. Pinkham was also unpopular with the sugar planters because he had advocated for better conditions for Filipino workers. Frear was gone and Kuhio emerged as a kingmaker.

NEXT: Kuhio pushes for better homestead legislation for Hawaiians.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author