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Once upon a time: King Sugar and King Tourism

By Staff | Aug 20, 2009

Continuing the bedtime fable — not really a fable — begun in the last column based on the book “Hawaii: Return to Nationhood,” here’s the rest of the story.

Once upon a time, a people called Calvinist missionaries landed in a kingdom called Hawaii to bring a new religion to the native people. Eventually, some of their sons and daughters began to promote a new kind of religion: capitalism. They became interested in a new kind of king — King Sugar.

To grow the sugar, they needed to acquire a great deal of land — land used in common by the people and that no one owned. These newcomers, known as businessmen, pressured the king to declare what became know as the “Great Mahele.” The kingdom’s undivided land — 4.1 million acres of it — would be divided up.

King Kamehameha III, considered one of the smartest of the monarchs, allotted the kingdom itself 1.5 million acres (36 percent). He allotted one million acres (24 percent) to himself. These became known variously as crown or ceded lands, and sovereignty advocates are still fighting over ownership of them today.

Just 84,165 acres, less than one percent of the total distributed land mass, were awarded to the common people, and those who acquired plots got an average three acres each.  Also, in appreciation for bringing Christianity and literacy to the islands, each missionary was awarded land, too — 526 acres each. 

Some 1.6 million acres, or 39 percent, were converted into private ownership given to 251 ali‘i (local chiefs), in effect allowing any of them to sell their holdings to anyone they chose. Many of the ali‘i, who had acquired the habit of coveting foreign goods, were in debt to foreigners. Foreigners had the money. Ali‘i  had the land.

Through the Great Mahele and the associated Kuleana Act of 1850, foreigners were allowed to acquire land ownership for the first time. So-called ‘ohana lands shared by the people could now, for the first time, be exchanged for money.

And so, it came to pass after a number of years, that 95 percent of the cherished land came under the control of just 82 major private landowners, including many who formed what became giant companies, some still in operation today.

Britain and the United States also had their eye on the land, considering the islands a strategic place that could be used to protect and provide services for their interests in the Pacific. Lord Paulett in 1843 declared the Hawaiian Islands a possession of Great Britain, starting a legacy still present in the form of a Union Jack on today’s Hawaii State Flag. 

Select numbers of Americans wanted more than land. They wanted control of the Hawaiian government. In 1893, they organized, in effect, a coup d’état to take the Hawaiian Kingdom away from Queen Lili‘uokalani. In an amazingly speedy turn of events, a “Committee of Safety” falsely formed to protect lives and property during a period of supposed unrest, called in the U.S. Marines on Jan. 16, 1893, to restore order. 

On Jan. 17, people who wanted to protect their business interests, who were not Hawaiians, declared establishment of a provisional government. Just 11 days later, after a long sea journey, representatives of the new “government” arrived in San Francisco on their way to Washington, D.C. And six days later, they made it to the American capital. 

Six days after that, a treaty of annexation to bring the islands under the control of the U.S. was introduced in the United States Senate. A representative of the United States to the new “government” in Honolulu named Stevens had opined, “The Hawaiian pear is now fully ripe, and this is the golden hour for the United States to pluck it.” In 1898, Hawaii was officially annexed. And in 1900, it became an official U.S. territory. And 50 years ago this month, it became a state — an action that most now feel worthy of celebration. 

After the land division, great plantation towns eventually grew up, filled with new immigrants — Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Portuguese, Filipinos — to meet the demand for labor that could not be supplied by diminishing numbers of Hawaiians. Some 65,000 Asians alone arrived around 1890.

Twelve decades after the arrival of the missionaries came a rising power to the east, who sent waves of war machines swooping in to strike a blow against the United States at a place called Pearl Harbor. Soldiers, sailors and marines came to help out their comrades. After four years of fighting throughout the Pacific, some stayed and some vowed to one day return.

On Maui, during all of this time, the land was transformed. Green waves of sugar cane covered the mountains. Pineapple fields blossomed with row upon row of succulent fruit grown, harvested and sent to big canneries that packed and prepared the yellow gold for shipment to what came to be known as the Mainland.

Finally, powerful winged craft called jet airplanes were invented, providing relatively easy access to this paradise in the middle of the Pacific. King Sugar gave way to King Tourism. Luxury hotels, condominiums and cramped quarters called timeshares arose.

Once-in-a-lifetime trips to paradise were turned into annual jaunts. The rich, famous and newly affluent came. They built million dollar homes where taro patches once flourished.

New lifestyles appeared, practiced by locals out of touch with Hawaiian roots and newcomers called malihini.    

Hawaiians, once told to abandon their customs, drop their language and forget their past, began to recognize how much they had lost. And so began the “Hawaiian Renaissance,” in which the native language and cultural practices were revived, and new respect was given to the so-called host culture.

Once upon a time, a captain named Cook landed on majestic islands. It is still unclear whether the people lived happily ever after, or not.