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The First Hawaiian Sugar Plantation was a Failure

Updated on October 15, 2014
The Koloa Sugar Plantation, now a historical site
The Koloa Sugar Plantation, now a historical site | Source

Before the 1830s

Captain Cook was the first European to discover Hawaii. That was 1778.

At the turn of the century people started to take a closer look at the islands. Whalers jumped ship at her shores. Men with money came to see what this paradise had to offer. Missionaries showed up to convert the natives. The more writers wrote about this exotic locale the more people wanted to see it.

Men made up the majority of non-native population during those days. They saw Hawaii as the land of opportunity, something to admire and to exploit.

Before the Sugar Plantation Era

If you are familiar with Hawaiian history, you may know that Hawaii was built on sugar cane. It was because of this industry that Hawaii became the place to be in the late 1800s. It is the reason that men like Claus Spreckels, Alexander Baldwin, and Theo. Davies were drawn to the islands. It is what made most of them wealthy (if they weren't wealthy before).

But, before Spreckels, Baldwin, and Davies, there was William Hooper. William Hooper was a young man of 26 from Boston working for a company called Ladd & Co. when he was sent to Hawaii to get things rolling. Hooper became the first person to attempt a commercial sugar plantation in the islands. He also earns the distinction of being its first failure.

Where is Koloa?

A markerKoloa, Kauai, Hawaii -
Koloa, HI 96756, USA
get directions

This is where Ladd & Co. set up operations.

King Kamehameha III

Royal Portrait, Hawaiian State Archives, ca 1850
Royal Portrait, Hawaiian State Archives, ca 1850 | Source

Ladd & Co. Sets Up Shop in Hawaii

In 1832, William Hooper, Peter Brimsmade, and David Ladd formed Ladd & Co. Their plan was to be the first to set up a commercial sugar cane plantation in Hawaii. The islands had a lot to offer. The climate was perfect and there was a cheap labor force ready to be tapped.

Ladd & Co. leased 980 acres of land from King Kamehameha III. This land was located near Koloa on the island of Kauai. The lease was for 50 years at $300 a year. Plenty of time to turn a profit.

William Hooper was put in charge of the operations in Koloa. Hooper was a native of Boston, MA and 26 years old at the time.

With the King's blessing and Ladd & Co. committed to paying taxes, Hooper's plantation was on its way. Everything was in place for what would surely be his success. What could possibly go wrong?

The Best Book on Hawaii's Sugar Plantation History

Putting the Era into Perspective

To get a further understand of these times, I highly recommend reading Ronald Takaki's "Pau Hana". Takaki's work is an important read for anyone wanting to know more about the sugar plantation era in Hawaii. It starts with Hooper's failed enterprise and works its way through the 1800s and 1900s.

It is an approachable look at the structure of the plantation system, the immigrant mixture of the labor force, and what life was like within the plantation community.

I don't think there is another work that focuses on plantation life and examines the reasons why Hawaii dominated sugar cane production, why entrepreneurs were drawn to the islands, and how immigrants from around the world helped make it happen. It is a rare and refreshing history about this era.

Problems from the Start

When you are the first to do something in a new place, there are certain challenges inherent to the situation. Although sugar cane, called "ko" by the native people, had been grown in Hawaii for sometime, there was no big commercial operation. This was a problem for Hooper. This meant that the materials needed to build and maintain the equipment was not available in Hawaii. The infrastructure was not in place.

When a machine broke down, the parts had to be sent for. Think about that. Hooper would have to send his order by ship, most likely to California. Then, whoever his supplier was would fill his order and ship it back. How long could that take? Even if he found someone in the Hawaiian Islands who could make what he needed, it was most likely a custom order.

This certainly cost Ladd & Co. more money and time than it would have if suppliers were available in the islands.

In addition to this, Hooper had a problem finding trained overseers. There were none in Hawaii. Not only would he have to run the business, he would have to train the staff as well.

I have succeeded in bringing about a place, which if followed up by other foreign residents, will eventually emancipate the natives from the miserable system of "chief labour".

— William Northey Hooper, diary entry 12 Oct 1836

Just a Smidgen of Arrogance

If anything could be said about William Hooper, it was that he was optimistic about this new venture. He believed in its success as much as anyone else.

We know from history that Hawaii was the right place to grow sugar cane. Only a couple of decades later, business was booming. They didn't call Hawaii “King Sugar” for nothing. So, what happened to Hooper's plantation?

Some of it can be blamed on arrogance. As Americans, and White Americans at that, Hooper and those at Ladd & Co., felt quite superior to the Native Hawaiians. So superior that they thought their mere appearance would garner them the respect and loyalty they thought they deserved. They figured the natives would do their bidding just because. How wrong they were.

In Hooper's mind, his company was bringing something great to the people of Hawaii. It was freeing them from "chief labour". They were bringing them the American way of life. Something that the White people who came to Hawaii seemed to think the Hawaiians needed desperately. They saw themselves as Fatherly leaders and the Hawaiians as children. The Native Hawaiians were seen as ignorant people who didn't understand how the world worked and they wanted to take advantage of that.

He had come to change their way of life, something he thought they needed. Who wouldn't want to live like Americans and Europeans, after all?

Group of Hawaiian warriors, ca 1860
Group of Hawaiian warriors, ca 1860 | Source

How the People of Kauai Saw It

First off, Kauai was somewhat removed from the activities happening on Hawaii and Oahu. The appearance of a White person on Kauai in the early 1830s was a rare sight indeed.

The Hawaiian people had a different culture than the one Hooper was familiar with. It was a culture of sharing. They believed that a community thrived when it worked towards a common goal. It was not ignorance or stupidity. It was survival. And, it worked for them since the beginning of time.

The native people of Kauai weren't all that thrilled with Hooper's presence or his plantation. They mistrusted him and his intentions. White people who had come before didn't really show much respect for their culture or way of life. Hooper tried to make them conform to his needs and that was part of his downfall.

He exacerbated their animosity. This as much as anything doomed his enterprise.

Learn Koloa's History

The Story of Koloa: A Kauai Plantation Town
The Story of Koloa: A Kauai Plantation Town

A fascinating book on the town of Koloa that includes oral histories, diary entries, and more.

 

Labor Problems Surmount

Ladd & Co.'s contract stated that they had to pay their laborers fairly. From the start the concept of “fairly” was put into question. First, they paid them in goods. In his diary, Hooper mentioned that his laborers were tired of receiving calico.

Money was in short supply in Hawaii in the 1830s. Since the natives no longer wanted the merchandise they were receiving as pay, Hooper had to find a substitute. He came up with a clever payment plan whereby he would create his own script money. This script could only be used to buy stuff from the plantation store. Thus, the money he paid as wages would then be paid back to him.

The problem is the people of Kauai didn't care much for this. While Hooper may have thought he had outsmarted them, they taught him otherwise. You see, they robbed him blind. They had no need for his fake money. Some stole openly from his store. I would imagine they felt Hooper had more than he needed, so why shouldn't he share?

Also, his script was being counterfeited. At one point, he writes of finding several rolls of it, so well printed, that he wasn't entirely sure it was not his own.

To trust it to the natives is worse than nothing--they are, alas, children, boys, and always will be.

— William Northey Hooper on the need for Chinese workers to run his mill

Trying to Right the Ship

For a time, his plantation did grow. The first year he had 25 acres cultivated and he was planning to expand. He had a mill, a blacksmith shop, as well as other buildings constructed. But, his laborers were not happy. In addition to disliking the pay, they hated the work. Sugar plantation work is grueling.

The laborers didn't respect the traditional work day Hooper inflicted upon them. As I said, cane work is demanding. Whether it's hoeing the rows or cutting stalks, it is hard labor. His workers didn't always show up for work and those that did sometimes walked away halfway through the day.

Hooper had a difficult time keeping his crews together. He replaced workers continually. Those who chose to stay spent their time trying to deceive Hooper about how much work they were doing. His overseers, all White, were inept at keeping order. As the cane grew taller and taller, Hooper was faced with the fact that he may not have the laborers necessary for the harvest.

At one point in 1836, he hired six Chinese laborers. He was pleased because many were skilled at mill work because they had previously been employed at a sugar mill in Waimea. But, the addition of Chinese men on the plantation seemed to increase the animosity that the Hawaiians felt towards Hooper. Their distrust increased, which meant Hooper had a difficult time convincing them that they should come work for him at all.

A Timeline of Events

 
 
Ladd & Co. makes deal with the King
1832
William Hooper gets to work
1835
Chinese workers brought in
1836
Hooper exits
1839
Laborers go on strike
1841
Ladd & Co. goes out of business, government sells plantation
1844
Robert Wood takes over
1846
Foreign investors pump money into the plantation
1857
McBryde family buys the Koloa Agriculture Company
1899
The original chimney constructed ca 1840
The original chimney constructed ca 1840 | Source

Hooper Wants Out

By 1838, Hooper had had enough of this whole operation. It seemed that everywhere he turned there was one road block after another. His frustration is clear in his diary entries. His early optimism was gone. He wrote about his workers robbing him blind and how he could not maintain a labor force. He was left with an empty store, fields to tend, and a mistrustful community. The people no longer wanted to be a part of his operation.

Ladd & Co. did not have the resources necessary to solve his problems. He wrote letters pleading for materials and funds. His requests were denied or they were only partially fulfilled.

Probably no one was happier than he was when his wish was granted. He had reached his limit and in 1839 his wish was granted.

“No galley slave looks foraward to the day when he is to be made free with half so much satisfaction as I do when I shall bid a final adieu to intercourse with Hawaiians! Gracious Anticipations!”

— William Northey Hooper

The End of Ladd & Co.

The Koloa Sugar Plantation did go on to be hugely successful, but not with William Hopper or Ladd & Co. at the helm. Things got worse after Hooper left. The workers went on strike in 1841 showing that the situation had not improved.

In 1844, Ladd & Co. went out of business. Operations were taken over by the Hawaiian Government and sold. Ironically, it was sold to Hooper's brother-in-law, Dr. Robert Wood. Wood turned the plantation around. It became the Koloa Agriculture Company. In 1899, it was bought out by the McBryde's—a well known family on the island of Kauai.

Hooper made a lot of assumptions about the people of Kauai and his own abilities to succeed at the business. His worst assumption may have been that the people would be happy with the work he offered The problem was they really didn't want what he was selling.

Without truly attempting to understand the people and their culture, Hooper paved the way for his own failure. He was not the only one to display such arrogance. It was a predominant opinion at that time that the White Christians (Americans and Europeans) were simply superior to the “uncivilized” natives. He really didn't give the natives much reason to trust him. That as well as other factors lead to the failure of the Koloa Sugar Plantation.

The sculpture honoring the workers of the Koloa Sugar Plantation
The sculpture honoring the workers of the Koloa Sugar Plantation | Source

A Look at Koloa and Its Monument

150th Anniversary of the Koloa Sguar Plantation

In 1962, Koloa's Old Sugar Mill was designated a National Historic Landmark. Some of the foundation and an old chimney built in 1840 remain.

Jan Gordon Fisher, a native of California, was commissioned to create a sculpture honoring the Koloa Sugar Plantation workers in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the plantation. It was dedicated in 1985.

The sculpture is made of bronze. It depicts the ethnic mix of the sugar plantation community in Koloa and throughout the islands. It includes a Hawaiian, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Filipino (in that order) laborer doing work one would find on a typical plantation.

It is a beautiful monument as you can see. While my Portuguese ancestors had no hand in Hooper's failure, they certainly had a hand in the success of another plantation in Kilauea. It's nice to see that they and others are remembered for their hard work in such a wonderful way.

© 2014 Melody Lassalle

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    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      Cal, thank you for your comments! That is quite a history your family has tied to the Grove Farm area. My people worked on the Kilauea Sugar Plantation, so our family histories are similar. I still have family on Kauai.

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      Cal Santos. 2 years ago

      I grew up less than a mile from here, my childhood home was built on grove farm land in 1937, my parents still lives there.. I was born in 1976 so I grew up a 80's kid and the last generation to witness the sugar cane industry before closing, I had generations of family worked for the plantation.. It was such a great time to grow up.. Now everything's rapidly getting commercialized.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      SheGetsCreative, you speak the truth! It is a repeat of a pattern throughout history.

    • SheGetsCreative profile image

      Angela F 2 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Fascinating - but not surprising... wouldn't be the first time arrogance and a lack of understanding of native culture equaled "epic fail" ;)

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      Randall, I think this is one of the things that hooked me on genealogy. It's one thing to read about history events. It is another to realize that your ancestors were there, that they played a small part, and that it impacted their lives.

    • Randall Guinn profile image

      Randall Guinn 2 years ago from Pinellas Park, Florida

      I read this article of yours a few days ago, and forgot to leave a comment. Very interesting. It's neat to know that your family acestors took some part in recorded history.

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Enjoyed reading your article, always interested in history of how other parts of the world worked for success or failure in the early years before our time, it always makes interesting reading. Thanks for sharing with us.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      Thank you smine77! Hawaii has a rich history that has made it the vibrant place it is today. I'm fascinated by it because my Azorean ancestors immigrated to Hawaii in 1882 to work the sugar plantations.

    • smine27 profile image

      Shinichi Mine 2 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      This was so interesting to read, especially since I used to live on Oahu. Great article.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      Susanna, European arrogance was definitely present in Hawaii. I believe they saw the Hawaiians as a source of cheap (or free) labor as they did in many places. And, when that didn't work, they found a way to bring foreign labor to the islands in a system that was meticulously constructed so as to not let any one group get too powerful.

    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 2 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      There's so much about Hawaii that I don't know but the European arrogance was certainly widespread at that time.