In just over sixty years from first contact with European and white adventurers — less than life expectancy in the US on average today — the native population in Hawai’i declined by more than 75%. Much of this death was the result of the introduction of diseases to which Hawai’ians had no immunity. Sailors and well-meaning missionaries brought with them germs that decimated the established communities there, rapidly and mercilessly.
Once established, white settlers introduced political and cultural changes as well. They convinced even the king to embrace western ways, including individual land-ownership. In 1848, King Kamehameha III issued the Mahele — a decree that permitted Hawai’ians to own land, which was previously solely a royal prerogative. Two years later, the Kuleana Act allowed foreigners to purchase real estate from native sellers. For the children of missionaries, this offered the secular option of pursuing agricultural endeavors rather than the Lord’s work, and those who were not called chose commercial farming instead.
Sugar was the premiere cash crop, and two of the Big Five — as the biggest sugar producers became known — were started by these sons of evangelists (the others by various enterprising white men). The growers’ dominance of the economy led to equally significant political power, and they effectively served as a de facto oligarchy controlling the Hawai’ian economy and society. Several were instrumental in the 1893 bloodless coup that overthrew the monarchy and created the Republic of Hawai’i. They were again involved in annexation of the territory by the US.
By 1920, only 24,000 native Hawai’ians remained on the island, with only 10% of island real estate still owned by these survivors. Today, just a quarter of the state population claims any native ancestry. The social, political, and economic order there has been completely upended and remade — in great part through the effort of the powerful sugar companies.
Recently, Alexander & Baldwin announced that it is shutting down it’s last sugar plantation. After 145 years, the corporation — one of the Big Five, founded by missionaries’ sons Samuel Thomas Alexander & Henry Perrine Baldwin — is abandoning it’s once fertile agricultural pursuit. With the end of this year’s sugar harvest, the 675 employees of the once powerful company will join a workforce that has long since left field work behind — their skills as relevant in the 21st century as the intentions of their employer’s founders.
Alexander & Baldwin’s parents hoped to save and civilize the Hawai’ian people, while their sons hoped for the American dream — transplanted to an island paradise. The cost for it all was thousands of native lives and the end of many traditional ways and practices. What a stiff price for a mere 150 years of commercial success. It seems an utter waste that such sacrifice shouldn’t lead to more permanent structures and noble accomplishments.
A bitter aspect of this “White Man’s Burden” is the cruel brevity that demeans the Hawai’ians’ horrible loss. For a few generations of wealth, the better part of a society was lost. The blow seems too great for the reward. The white men’s success was too dearly bought. Now that we can measure its duration and close the history, the brutality of its temporality becomes woefully apparent.