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Albert Gates

The United States Empire – Its History

Hawaii – Land of Sugar and Pineapples

(December 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 36, 16 December 1940, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Hawaiian Islands are situated in the Pacific Ocean, some two thousand miles southwest of San Francisco. Many merchant ships use Honolulu as an anchorage. There are twelve principal islands in this group, nine of which are inhabited, one with a population of two. Although not the largest island, the most populated is Oahu which has as its capital Honolulu. The greatest wealth and industry is concentrated there; it is the principal port through which the bulk of the Island’s commerce passes.

The history of Hawaii is connected with its principal crop – sugar. True, there were other reasons for the white man’s interest – a mid-Pacific harbor, a strategical military and naval base, etc. – but sugar pushed everything else into the background.


First American contact with the Hawaiian Islands goes back to 1790 when the merchant ship Columbia sailed into Honolulu. In those days, sandalwood desired and prized by the Chinese, was the principal export. The Chinese soon afterwards began to settle on the Islands. By 1822, sixty New England whaling ships anchored in Honolulu; twenty years later, four hundred such ships availed themselves of the harbor.

The Islands were legend in many countries, Europeans, Portuguese and English, Chinese and Japanese, began flocking to Honolulu. But Americans were the most powerful single group of colonists. They set up the first businesses in the capital city. They were accompanied, sometimes proceeded, by missionaries, who were no little factor in the developments which led to the loss of the natives’ independence. Charles A. Beard aptly wrote: “Among the motley throngs came also the fishers of men, the first vanguard of Congregational missionaries landing in 1820 to prepare the way for the conquering church militants.” The presence of so many nationals made it patently clear that the struggle over Hawaii would and must ensue.

The climate of Hawaii made it an extremely fertile region for sugar raising. To be more precise, that land which was available for cultivation, although a small percentage of the total island area, was especially adapted to the growth of sugar, and later on, of pineapples. Because most of Hawaii is lava formation and coral reefs, only 8% per cent of arable land, 72% is used for sugar, 22 per cent for pineapples and only 6 per cent for other crops. Thus, the struggle for the control of sugar led to the extinction of almost the entire native population (one time numbering three hundred thousand) and the occupation of its land by aggressive Americans.

The New Rulers

The Hawaiians were unable to hold their own against the “pushing Yankees, the thrifty Chinese, and the tireless Japanese.” The new competitive economy (imported with the new foreign populations), whiskey (the white man’s great ally in conquering primitive peoples), and the diseases of civilization “cut them down like corn before a sickle.” By 1940, there were only 20,000 native Hawaiians left on the Islands, and another 35,000 Caucasian-Hawaiians and Asiatic-Hawaiians.

It did not take long for the Hawaiians to be done out of their lands. From the first days of foreign settlement the natives found their land passing into the hands of the “aliens”. By 1890, more than half of the real estate was owned by foreigners, and two-thirds of the personal property was in the hands of outsiders. The Americans were the leading owners, followed by the English and Germans, At the end of five more years, the Hawaiians owned one-third of the land, and only six per cent of the capital invested in the Islands; such was the rapid rate of expropriation brought about through “sales”. “It was then boastfully claimed ...” wrote Beard, “that two-thirds of the sugar business belonged to Americans, many of whom were sons of missionaries, who had chosen the way of Dives rather than the thorny path of Paul.”

While the royal government continued to exist, the real rulers of the Islands were five thousand whites, mainly Americans. Since they had acquired the best lands, and operated all the businesses, they actually dominated the lives of more than eighty thousand natives, Chinese and Japanese. The big sugar plantations operated under a contract labor system “more efficient than the old plantation methods of Virginia and South Carolina.” They imported labor from the orient, paid them small wages, put them up in company houses, where they traded in company stores and lived “company” lives.

How conscious was the United States of the value of the Hawaiian Islands? Even before sugar became an important money-bringer, the United States had coveted the country and warned the rest of the world not to trespass its interests thereon. In 1851, Admiral Du Pont reported that: “The Hawaiian Islands would prove the most important acquisition we could make in the whole Pacific Ocean – an acquisition intimately connected with our commerce and naval supremacy in these seas.”

As early as 1875, a treaty was concluded with the royal government which contained the pledge that Hawaii would not alienate any territory except to the United States. In the reciprocity treaty of the same year, it was agreed that certain grades of sugar would be admitted to the United States (the principal market) free of duty. This one act led to an extraordinary rise in the export of sugar to the mainland and resulted in enormous profits to the American plantation owners. A bridge was erected between the vested American interests in Hawaii and Washington, even though, at times, events at the American capital were to vex the businessmen on the Islands.

In 1887, a supplementary treaty gave Americans the exclusive use of Pearl Harbor, which is today the biggest military and naval base in the world and can accommodate the entire Pacific fleet of the United States Navy.

Three years later, however, President McKinley signed the tariff bill which removed the tax on imported sugar, placing the Hawaiian product in the same category with Cuban, Javan and Brazilian sugar. The bill was directly responsible for the sugar crisis visited, upon the Islands. The rich planters, owning large tracts of lands, suffered great losses. American businessmen began a great agitation for annexation of the Islands. For the moment, two roads were open to restore plantation profits: 1. Annexation by the United States; and/or 2. The imposition of a duty on sugar which was competing with Hawaiian production.

The Revolution

The American minister to the Islands, J.S. Stevens, announced that “... wise and bold action by the United States will rescue the property holders front great losses.” What this “wise and bold action” was we shall soon see. The American businessmen and land-owners in Hawaii proceeded to organize a revolution, calling for annexation by the United States or the establishment of a sovereign state. The revolution itself was preceded by its “propaganda stage.” The native monarchy was denounced as a corrupting influence; better roads were needed and were unobtainable by the existing government; sanitary conditions were required on the islands and withheld by the Queen. The insurrectionists also demanded that Pearl Harbor should be fortified by the United States. It is well to bear in mind that the business interests in Hawaii were extremely serious about this question of the revolution. Having chartered their course, they proceeded to set up the organs of the revolution. “A Committee of Public Safety” was set up in 1873, under the chairmanship of Chief Justice James Dole (the pineapple man) who resigned his judicial post to undertake the leadership of the businessman’s revolutionary committee. The ascent to the throne in 1891 of Queen Lilinokalani sharpened the conflict between the “revolutionaries” and the native government. The special favors and grants given the foreigners by her predecessor were challenged and threatened by the new monarch as she advocated “hatred of the missionaries” and an “anti-foreigners” policy – a policy of exclusion.

But the Americans, who led and organized all the foreigners for the revolution, were ready for action. Minister Stevens sent a request to the State Department for a warship to protect American lives and property. On January 16, 1893, at his direction, the commander of the U.S.S. Boston landed marines at Honolulu. The government of Oahu and the native foreign minister sent a protest to the United States saying that the marines were landed “without permission from the proper authorities.” But it was clear that the State Department recognized no authorities except the minister and the marines.

(Continued in next issue)

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