Invasive industries: An eco-industrial history of 19th vcntury Hawai’i

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

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Plantations are invaders of their environment, creating unsustainable human and biological communities. This idea, introduced by anthropologist Eric Wolf, is examined in the case of Hawai’i’s sugar industry. Beginning in the mid-19th century, small sugar plantations and their simple mills began to dot Hawaii’s tropical island environment utilizing wood, water, native labor, and cultivable acreage. By the end of the century, sugar cultivation and milling expanded it’s domain over all the islands, invading not only the landscape, but also claiming sovereignty over governance and the peopling of the native Kingdom. This fifty-year period of sugar production industrialized the Hawaiian landscape as American and European planters and capitalists confronted the hydrological, bio-geographical, and demographic limitations of a remote oceanic island chain. The result was that by the mid-20th century, Hawaii was the most efficient producer of cane sugar in the world.

This paper presents an eco-industrial history of 19th century of sugar production in the Hawaiian Kingdom—the period in which the political and ecological foundations of this powerful industry developed. It examines the essential features of an industry-ecological exchange where business and technological decisions were continuously made in response to the plantation’s radical transformation of the Hawai’ian ecosystem. Changes in forests, hydrology, soil, and sometimes climate required innovative responses from planters and capitalists to make plantations sustainable as income producing units. The result was an industry organized by a small number of vertically-integrated and co-operative firms, based upon extensive investments in science and technology, and centralized in its control over the landscape and political institutions of the islands. While this strategy created a highly profitable industry, it left Hawaii with a political and ecological legacy of an unsustainable human and biological community.

Publication Title

European Society for Environment History 3rd Annual Conference