“Hi-lalele”: ʻIliahi – The Sandalwood Trade

#157 in the Moʻolelo series

At the top of the Kamehameha campus, there used to be a pit. The pit was from the days of ‘iliahi, or sandalwood, trade in Hawai‘i. Hawaiians would cut sandalwood and throw it into the pit until it was full. The pit was exactly the size of ship’s hull – this way they knew exactly how much wood to cut, and no extra labor was expended. ʻIliahi was the islands’ first large scale interaction with the western economic system. (The fur trade had brought some traffic to Hawaiʻi as a stopover, but with ʻiliahi Hawaiʻi was the source of the commodity). Two disparate cultures and economic systems resulted in an economic crisis that was detrimental to Hawaiian society and culture.

Makaʻāinana gathering ʻiliahi at Nuʻuanu Pali. The labor in the cold and wet conditions exacerbated the illnesses already plaguing Hawaiians and caused famine, as makaʻāinana were not working in their fields.

The sandalwood trade began as a result of a demand in China for making ornate cabinets and chests, incense, perfumes, and medicine. South and Southeast Asia were the original suppliers of the fragrant wood, but when supply began to dwindle, the search began for new sources. (At this same time, the fur trade was growing in China, bringing in men from Northwest America). The Hawaiian Islands were a convenient port for trade expeditions to rest and restock for the remaining leg to Canton, the main port in China. Prior to their participation in the sandalwood trade, the Hawaiian people recognized ‘iliahi, or Hawaiian sandalwood, as an available resource used for medicine, perfume, firewood, and crafting instruments. However, once western traders discovered the abundance of ‘iliahi in Hawaiian forests, a new value was placed on the tree.

The years 1790 to 1820 saw a thriving ‘iliahi trade. Captain William Douglass and Captain James Kendrick are believed to be the first ‘iliahi traders. Both left men in the Kingdom of Kaua‘i to harvest ‘iliahi, however, neither expeditions made it to Canton. Nevertheless, American traders continue to come, carrying away 900 picules of ‘iliahiwith each ship load. A picule is a Chinese unit of measurement equivalent to 133 and ½ pounds. In these early years, trade was conducted directly with ali‘iand Kamehameha I himself. However, Kamehameha soon placed an exclusive monopoly on ‘iliahi, making him the sole exporter. Upon the arrival of the Winship brothers and Captain W.H. Davis in 1811, ships were transporting 19,000 picules each. In exchange for the ‘iliahi, Kamehameha would procure ships, cloth, and other luxury items. According to Merlin and VanRavenswaay, Kamehameha would often purchase items for inflated prices. For example it is said he purchased a mirror for $800. Some suggest that this easily accessible wealth overwhelmed the king and impaired his judgment.   This quickly earned wealth led Kamehameha to send his own ship under his own flag to Canton. In 1817 the ship “Ka‘ahumanu” arrived at Canton. Unfortunately, due to heightened port charges and brokerage fees and misconduct by the English captain, the expedition resulted in a $3,000 loss and only a partial cargo of Chinese goods. However, Kamehameha did learn the value of charging pilot and port fees and thus established them in Honolulu.

Kamehameha ca. 1815

            Kamehameha I accumulated many debts when he traded promised ‘iliahi for ships and luxury items. Unfortunately, it was the maka‘āinana who suffered most from this. In groups of thousands, the common people would ascend the mountains for days or weeks at a time. During this time they were without adequate clothing to survive the cold weather and suffered famine. Exhaustion was also prevalent as the laborers had to harvest and transport the ‘iliahi logs to store houses on the beach (Shields, 1924, 2-4). The amount of wood needed was determined by the size of the lua moku ‘iliahi, which was a man-made pit dug with the same dimensions as the hull of the particular ship. Once this was filled with iliahi, transportation began. Famine increased as crops were neglected for longer periods of time. Fortunately, Kamehameha recognized the danger his people were in and ordered his people to spend less time cutting and placed a kapu on young ‘iliahi. This addressed the problem, but only for a time until Liholiho ended the monopoly in 1819.

Liholiho, portrait is entitled “Tamehameha II,” in 1819

Kamakau’s account of the sandalwood trade during Liholiho’s reign is not flattering:

The king also went into debt buying ships such as the Haʻaheo, Ka-ʻainoa-nui, Kuko-puka, and several schooners and brigs like the Ka-umu-aliʻi, Ka-mahole-lani, and Mikapako (Mister Parker). The chiefs also bought cloth, most of which was consumed by rot and worms, and the rest by fire. They purchased ships and turned their debts in to the king, and he was a friend and adviser of chiefs, and introduced improved breeds of cattle and horses to Hawaii. John Jacob Astor is said to have thought so highly of him as to build a ship especially for his command. to the government. The king’s favorites helped to increase the debt. They were outspoken in saying, “Let us run up the debt and make the chiefs and commoners work; they are no friends of ours, so let us get what we can while our lord is alive.” The debts were met by the sale of sandalwood. The chiefs, old and young, went into the mountains with their retainers, accompanied by the king and his officials, to take charge of the cutting, and some of the commoners cut while others carried the wood to the ships at the various landings; none was allowed to remain behind. Many of them suffered for food; because of the green herbs they were obliged to eat they were called “Excreters-of-green-herbs” (Hi-lalele), and many died and were buried there. The land was denuded of sandalwood by this means.

Kamakau, 1992, 252.
Boki and Liliha

The chief Boki, who was governor of Oʻahu, was an aggressive sandalwood trader. In 1826, Boki sailed the ship Kamehameha to New Hebrides/Vanuatu in search of sandalwood, which was by then depleted in Hawaiʻi. He was never seen again. (See “Boki and Liliha”).


Kamakau, Samuel M. 1992. Ruling Chiefs of Hawaiʻi. Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools Press.

Merlin, Mark & VanRavenswaay, Dan. 1990. The History of Human Impact on the Genus Santalum in Hawai‘i. Proceedings of the Symposium on Sandalwood in the Pacific April 9-11, 1990, Honolulu, Hawaii. 46-55.

Rock, Joseph Francis Charles. 1916. Sandalwoods of Hawaii: A Revision of The Hawaiian Species of the Genus Santalum…Issued December 28, 1916. Honolulu: Board of Agriculture and Forestry.

Shields, Euphie. 1924. The Sandalwood Trade of Hawaii.

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