Koloa: The First Sugar Plantation

#159 in the Moʻolelo series

Ronald Takaki, in his book Pau Hana, writes of the experience of Hawaiians to the first effort to establish a plantation, at Koloa – the name of the place itself could be interpreted to mean “long sugar cane:”

One day in 1835, the natives of Koloa on the island of Kauai [sic] were surprised to see a white man walking through their village, ʻa mere hamlet, seldom visited even by a missionary’ … As the native curiously watched their new visitor, they compared William Hooper to other haoles ʻoutsiders’ living on Kauai: the merchants in Waimea shipping the fragrant sandalwood to China … But the people of Koloa did not realize that William Hooper, more than the merchants and the missionaries, represented a new era in the history of Hawaiʻi.

Takaki, 1983, 3-4.

With Hooper as manager, Peter Brinsmade and William Ladd, founded a trading company called Ladd and Co., which became the first of many such enterprises, which as Takaki correctly points out, would create a new era – the era of “King Sugar.” They started the first plantation on a 980 acre plot next to Waihohonu Stream leased from Kamehameha III for 50 years at $300 per year (Takaki, 1983, 4).

But perhaps this was not the very first attempt at sugar cultivation in Kōloa – Arthur Alexander notes that a previous mill was established by Chinese, and this mill was actually in operation until 1840 or 1841.

Brinsmade and Ladd were brothers in law and brought their wives with them to Hawaiʻi in 1833 (Alexander, 3). Both were Hollowell, Maine. Some historians have noted a connection between the effort toward annexation and the towns of Hollowell and Augusta Maine; Daniel Dole, Secretary of State James Blaine, US Minister John L. Stevens, as well as Brinsmade and Ladd were from the two adjacent towns. Some have even called it a “Maine mafia” (Crapol in Coffman, 1998).

James Jarves had a very low opinion of Hawaiians as laborers, who he called “ignorant, indolent people,” and he also complained of the pettiness of the chiefs. There’s no wonder that Hawaiians did not take to plantation work in the early industry: Alexander describes how “in lieu of cattle,” forty Hawaiians were employed to drag a plow! This perceived unsuitability of Hawaiians for work on sugar plantations led to the drive for immigration. By the late nineteenth century, plantation records show hundreds of Japanese and Chinese workers at Koloa, along with a smaller number of “South Sea Islanders,” Portuguese, Hawaiians and a very small number of Germans.

Sources:

Arthur C. Alexander. Koloa plantation, 1835-1935; a history of the oldest Hawaiian sugar plantation. public domain. Accessed at Hathi Trust Digital Library.

Tom Coffman, (1998). Nation Within. Kaneohe, HI: Epicenter.

Ronald Takaki. (1983). Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835-1920. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

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