If you have ever wondered how Hawaii became a melting pot of many races and cultures then take a visit to the Sugar Museum in the old Plantation town of Puunene, Maui. It was here that I learned a fascinating tale of how the sugar cane industry made Maui the culturally diverse place it is today. Not long after the Polynesians brought sugar cane to the islands in the 1800s, it soon became evident that there were not enough native Hawaiians to handle all the labor. This is when sugar entrepreneurs decided to recruit labor from various countries offering free passage and a paid guaranteed job as the incentive. The Chinese were the first to come in 1952, followed by South Sea Islanders, Japanese, Portuguese, Puerto Ricons, Filipinos, Spaniards and Russians, forming a multi-ethnic workforce. Even though the Plantation Housing was divided into ethnic "camps" with names such as "Ah Fong" for the Chinese, it wasn't long before the communities started sharing food and customs. Everyone liked the Portuguese bread, and the island has quite few of their historic ovens, reminiscent of this time (see photo). We also saw one in Hana, another early plantation town. Another custom shared by many were the communal "bath houses" built by the Japanese.
It is so hard to imagine the struggles encountered, in those early days, to provide adequate irrigation for growing cane, never mind the drudgery of working the fields and harvesting them. Water had to be brought in from the rainy east coast by open ditches that sometimes had to be tunneled through rock because of the rugged terrain. Maybe the workers liked the balmy Maui weather but life was not a vacation for them as they toiled long hours in the fields. The museum has a picture of a Japanese woman dressed from head to toe, hands and feet included, in order to keep out the dust and centipedes, a stark contrast to my weather friendly tank top and shorts. In those days the cane was harvested by hand and the jobs were allocated by age and strength. The youngsters and women had the lighter chores such as weeding, while the men had the more arduous tasks of cane-cutting, lifting and carrying. Working and living conditions were always an issue of contention with the immigrants, but finally housing became more attractive and families were encouraged as a way of stabalizing the working communities.
You may be wondering who these sugar entrepreneurs were and the museum gives very detailed histories of some of the early plantation owners.
In 1849 a sea captain named George Wilfong created Maui's first sugar plantation in Hana. A few years later his mill burned down and so he quit the business. After that two Danish brothers, August and Oscar Unna, started the Hana Plantation in 1864.
Samuel Thomas Alexander and Henry Perrine Baldwin established Alexander and Baldwin Co. in 1869 and it wasn't long before they had a rival in Claus Spreckels, who befriended King David Kalahaua, with the sole purpose of influencing Hawaiian politics to obtain water rights, land and desired legislation. He apparently was later kicked out of the county, so it goes to show that "Honesty is the Best Policy". For more detailed information about Maui's sugar mills Click Here.
An interested story which has not been documented in history, is that burning the cane as a reliable harvesting method was discovered by accident. Rumor has it that a jealous sugar entrepreneur set fire to his rival's field with the hope of destroying him. It backfired however, when they discovered that the inner stalks of the cane, which held all the sugar was not burned because of the large water content. Not long after this incident burning the cane became the sole method of harvesting.
Along with telling the history of the sugar cane industry, the museum also has a video playing which describes the life cycle of the cane from planting, to harvesting and processing in the mill. There is also an excellent working model of the mill showing the various stages of the process. Of special interest is that "bagasse", one of the by products is stored and then used as fuel for the boilers, and to generate electricity.
In conclusion, a visit to the Puunene Sugar Museum not only offers an important insight into the industry that became the backbone of Maui's economy for so many years, but gives us an undertanding of many interracial communities sharing a common spirit and experiences, which hopefully is still contained in that wonderful five letter word, Aloha.
A question to ponder is What is the future of the sugar cane industry in Maui. Even though Hawaii supplies 1/3 of all US sugar cane, tourism has been the major industry of the islands since the 1960s.
With environmental issues so foremost in peoples minds these days, it will be interesting to see how long the burning process which can't be healthy for our atmosphere, and the smelly smoky mill operation, will be tolerated. I for one would rather see Maui grow more food for the locals on the vast amounts of sugar cane land. We have to start having a more sustainable lifestyle or things will only get worse in the future. It is amazing to me that the production of sugar, which is no good for you, can take up so much of our green space.
We welcome your comments on Maui's Sugar Cane industy.