In the early morning of Monday, September 9, 2013, a leak in a shipping pipeline spilled 233,000 gallons of molasses into the blue waters of Honolulu Harbor, about five miles from the beaches and resort hotels of Waik?k?. Unlike oil, which floats on the water’s surface and can be cleaned with dispersants and skimmers, molasses sinks, sucking oxygen from the water as it dissolves. Officials could only watch helplessly as the dark, gooey mass descended to the harbor’s bottom, suffocating everything in its path. Within 48 hours, more than 26,000 fish and other marine animals were dead. Gary Gill, deputy director for the Environmental Health Division of the Health Department, told journalists it was, “the worst environmental damage to sea life that I have come across.” Gill went on, “this is a biggie, if not the biggest [environmental problem] that we’ve had to confront in the state of Hawai?i.”1,2

The molasses spill, devastating enough on its own, points to an even bigger and more vexing problem: why was all that molasses at the harbor in the first place? The molasses originated from the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company plantation on Maui, and was on its way to California, where it was to be used as an additive to cattle feed. It is one of the absurdities of the modern economy that Hawai?i, which, according to the USDA, maintains at any given time only a seven-day food supply for its inhabitants, was dedicating arable land to the production of molasses for export to California’s cattle ranches.3

Typical of many regions with a history of plantation agriculture, Hawai?i’s agricultural economy has been oriented for more than a century and a half towards outside markets rather than domestic consumption. Native Hawaiians grew sugarcane for at least a millennium before European contact, but an export-based plantation system only developed in the mid-19th century. From the Hawaiian sugar industry’s height in the early 20th century, when the archipelago was a world leader in the production of sugar per acre of cane and per worker, U.S. production quotas and competition from other sources of sugar caused the industry to contract. By the time of the 2013 spill, only a single plantation remained: Maui’s HC&S, whose inability to compete with table sugar production on the world market meant that its operations were almost entirely devoted to producing molasses for cattle feed, transported through an aging infrastructure at Honolulu Harbor.

To contemplate a future for agriculture in Hawai?i after the decline of the sugar industry, we might do well to remember that the dominance of sugarcane was neither a natural nor an inevitable occurrence. In the early 19th century, Presbyterian and Congregationalist missionaries from New England at first opposed the development of cane plantations. Though different opinions existed within the missionary community, several influential missionaries argued that planting cane would lead to the oppression of workers, and, perhaps even more to their displeasure, to the distillation of cane juice into rum. Yet, as their influence in the Native Hawaiian monarchy grew, these early critics of cane planting came to embrace the enterprise—as long as it was led by moral Christians. Missionaries lent their support to the islands’ first cane plantation because they considered the founders to be “pious merchants.” By creating wage labor opportunities, planters and missionaries argued that plantations would promote Protestant values such as industry and thrift among Native Hawaiians, and would provide Hawaiian communities with the cash necessary to support local congregations.4

The Native Hawaiian monarchy also had good reason to support the development of the sugar industry. Hawai?i’s two main sources of income in the 18th and early 19th centuries—whaling and the sale of sandalwood to China—were in drastic decline. France and England, meanwhile, were flexing their imperial muscles, and establishing colonies in the Pacific. Outstanding national debt could serve as a pretext for the countries’ assault on Hawaiian sovereignty. Seeking to increase sugar’s profits, Hawai?i’s cane planters and its government, now under the rule of King Kal?kaua, worked together to lobby the United States for a treaty of reciprocity that would let Hawaiian sugar into the U.S. without the onerous tariff that was in place at the time. They secured the treaty in 1875, and the islands’ sugar industry began a remarkable ascent.

Sugarcane growing on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Even with political support, growing sugarcane did not come easily to Hawai?i. Following the 1875 treaty opening U.S. markets to cane planters in Hawai?i, agricultural science, technological innovation, and appropriation of Hawai?i’s natural resources were essential to the rise of the archipelago’s plantation system. Cane planters adopted cutting-edge practices in agricultural entomology, cane-milling technology, irrigation, and sugarcane breeding. Their heavy investment in agricultural research and development had dramatic consequences for the islands’ environment. Cane planters’ efforts at biological pest control—the use of insects and parasites rather than chemical insecticides—were particularly transformative. Dozens of new species were introduced to Hawai?i, profoundly altering its remote island ecosystems. Advances in milling also led to complex changes for the islands. Technologies such as centrifugal mills and advanced mill rollers increased production capacity and demanded increasing acreage of cane, while irrigation projects diverted more of Hawai?i’s limited freshwater supply. Smaller and under-capitalized plantations often could not compete with larger operations and sold out, which, in turn, consolidated the sugar industry, and control of natural resources, in the hands of a smaller number of sugar magnates. Meanwhile, sugarcane breeding programs developed hardier and sweeter varieties of cane, which also increased mill output. Together, these innovations catalyzed the development of a simpler, more homogeneous monoculture plantation system at the expense of Hawai?i’s biodiversity and diversified agriculture.

Understanding the history of the Hawaiian sugar industry serves as a reminder that plantation agriculture is much more than an economic enterprise, but a cultural and political process too. Hawai?i’s plantation system was based on a view of land and labor as commodities for distant markets, on political agreements that prioritized that outlook, and on the power to claim and control an increasingly larger share of Hawai?i’s natural environment. As the molasses spill demonstrates, the impact of the plantation system did not stop at the edges of the cane fields, nor did it end with the heyday of Hawaiian sugar in the 20th century. Rather, its impact and legacy continue to extend throughout the islands.

In the aftermath of the molasses spill, Hawai?i’s sugar industry, already much reduced from its former size, declined further. Matson, the shipping company responsible for the spill, halted its molasses operations. Maui HC&S scrambled to find alternatives. As an indication of how tightly the sugar industry was still controlled, both the shipping company and the plantation had been owned by Alexander & Baldwin, a sugar firm established in 1870 by the sons of two missionary families, until Alexander & Baldwin spun Matson off into a separate company in 2012. Finally, in early 2016, Alexander & Baldwin announced that it would stop planting sugarcane and that Maui HC&S would close.

With the end of Hawai?i’s sugar industry, one might hope that Hawai?i can transition to a more diversified and sustainable model of agriculture that can do more to meet the food needs of Hawai?i’s inhabitants. This goal, however, does not appear likely. The agrochemical seed industry has claimed sugar’s place as the dominant agricultural sector, accounting for 45 percent of the value of Hawai?i’s agricultural commodities, and nearly 25 percent of agricultural jobs as of 2009.3 Agribusiness giants such as Monsanto and Mycogen make use of Hawai?i’s abundant sunshine and year-round growing season, as well as the agricultural infrastructure and agribusiness-friendly politics left behind by the sugar barons, to raise genetically modified seed corn. The seed corn developed and grown in Hawai?i is transported out of the islands for use on mainland farms, doing nothing to alleviate Hawai?i’s underlying food security problems. Moreover, the corn grown on Hawai?i relies on chemical pesticides; part of the genetic modification of much of the corn is directed toward making it more resistant to pesticides so that farmers can apply more chemicals to control weeds and insects without damaging the corn. Even without the old plantations, agriculture on Hawai?i remains geared toward off-island interests at the expense of local food systems and environmental health.

But, can an alternative exist in which Hawaiian agriculture turns toward diversified production for local markets? Such alternative land ethics and forms of agriculture, indeed, already exist. Even at its apex of power and geographic expansion in the early 20th century, cane planting never erased Native Hawaiian pre-plantation agriculture from the land. Communities based on subsistence farming, hunting, fishing, and foraging persisted through the 20th century in places both near and far from plantations, such as, respectively K?pahulu and Ke?anae, two areas in the H?na district of Maui. On Moloka?i, which was relatively untouched by sugarcane planting, but is now home to several seed corn farms, a strong culture of subsistence activity remains.5 These communities act as reminders that plantation agriculture is a relatively new way of interacting with the land in Hawai?i. If we can imagine a past before the plantation system, we can see that it is a recent creation and not a monolithic way of ordering agricultural economies.

This is not a call for a return to an imagined past or a romanticized infatuation with what historians have called the mythic “ecological Indian.”6 Species extinction and environmental inequality took place in Hawai?i well before the arrival of Euro-Americans, and old as well as new forms of resource management can result in unsustainable practices.7,8 Yet, since the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, activists and scholars have begun placing greater emphasis on the ideas of food sovereignty, sustainability, and the Hawaiian concepts of aloha ??ina (love of the land) and m?lama ??ina (care for the land). Attention to these values is a crucial step toward redirecting politics and the economy to finding solutions for Hawai?i’s environmental and social problems stemming from plantation agriculture.

The Kahului Railroad began operating on Maui in July 1879 to transport sugar more rapidly across the island.

Knowledge is essential for raising awareness of the problematic history of agricultural production in Hawai?i. Academic programs in Hawaiian Studies have helped bring greater attention to Hawaiian culture, history, and agricultural practices. Work in ethnobotany has likewise investigated earlier systems of production in the islands. These programs can provide the basis for the knowledge that will help ensure that a history and culture of small-scale agriculture for local consumption is not lost. Along with this academic attention to the cultural aspects of agriculture, research in regenerative agriculture, which combines old techniques, such as contour farming and cover cropping, with innovations in the study of soil microbiology indicate a path away from agribusiness.

Knowledge of production must be accompanied by activism for change, and this has, indeed, been present and effective in Hawai?i. What began as a small political movement in the late 20th century has developed into a culture of advocacy for sustainable agricultural and food sovereignty. Grassroots organizations have mobilized to rein in the seed corn industry and make greater opportunities for small farmers. Chefs, restaurateurs, markets, and farmers’ co-ops support local agriculture, and add to its cultural resonance. Political advocacy for a more sustainable agricultural system is also prominent. Activists have succeeded in passing moratoriums against GMO farming, but still face legal challenges regarding their implementation. Hawaiians are now also raising civil rights complaints that pesticides from agribusiness are causing particular damage to Native communities. This connects the issue of food sovereignty to the greater struggle for political sovereignty that is ongoing in Hawai?i. The recent decision of the U.S. Department of the Interior acknowledging the Native Hawaiians’ right to form a sovereign government provides the potential for both greater political autonomy and greater political power to control land use. Much remains in question, especially regarding the need for well-paying agricultural jobs, but it is clear that a growing contingent of people in Hawai?i are working toward a future of agriculture that breaks from the islands’ plantation past.

Is it naïve to think that promoting food sovereignty can solve the problems that monoculture agribusiness has caused in Hawai?i? Maybe not. It was, after all, a particular mode of thinking that caused the sugar industry to flourish: an emphasis on private property, on the idea that the value of land was tied to capital investment, on the insistence that wage labor would create the sort of tractable citizenry that an economy based on subsistence could not, and on engagement with global markets rather than local networks of exchange. All these were relatively recent imports to Hawai?i, and while these ideas will not disappear, they might be tempered by a renewed focus on sustainability and diversity.

When we notice how drastically our industrial food systems have changed the environment, and remember how recently those systems were established, we can begin to see that alternatives exist. Land use is part of a values system, and values can be more dynamic than we realize. An economy that takes questions of food sovereignty seriously, and that acknowledges the importance of local values such as aloha ??ina, is easier to stomach than 233,000 gallons of molasses and 26,000 dead fish at the bottom of Honolulu Harbor.


  1. Joaquin, T & Gutierrez, B. Underwater Video Uncovers Mass Kill from Matson Molasses Spill. Hawai?i News Now [online] (September 12, 2013).
  2. Joaquin, T. 25,000 Fish Killed in Matson Molasses Spill. Hawai?i News Now [online] (September 16, 2013).
  3. United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency. Hawaii State Fact Sheet (2014).
  4. Kessler, LH. A Plantation upon a Hill; Or, Sugar without Rum: Hawai?i’s Missionaries and the Founding of the Hawaiian Sugarcane Plantation System. Pacific Historical Review 84(2), 129-162 (2015).
  5. McGregor, DP. Na Kua??ina: Living Hawaiian Culture (University of Hawai?i Press, Honolulu, 2007).
  6. Krech III, S. The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2000).
  7. Culliney, JL. Islands in a Far Sea: The Fate of Nature in Hawai?i (University of Hawai?i Press, Honolulu, 2006).
  8. Gupta, C. Aloha Aina as an Expression of Food Sovereignty: A Case Study of the Challenges to Food Self-Reliance on Molokai, Hawaii in Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue International Conference (Yale University, New Haven, September 2013).

Lawrence Kessler

Lawrence Kessler is an environmental historian and postdoctoral fellow at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine. His current project is a history of the Hawaiian Islands and the...

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