The Sun Finally Sets on Sugar Cane in Hawaii

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A report by Lawrence Downes for The New York Times. Countless Puerto Rican workers migrated to the Hawaiian sugar field after 1898.

Hawaii’s last working sugar mill, in Puunene, Maui, produced its last harvest last month. The last truck, piled high with newly cut cane stalks, blew its horn as it circled the mill yard. People cheered and held high their phones; a priest led a prayer. The cane was later put on a ship for processing in California, and 375 employees of the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company became the last of the last to be laid off.

And that was it — as 2016 ended, so did an industry that has shaped Hawaii for almost 200 years. So much of the islands’ modern history and character, in all its color and complexity, can be traced to one export crop.

Mark Twain, visiting as a newspaper reporter in 1866, marveled at Hawaii’s sugar trade. “This country is the king of the sugar world,” he wrote, suggesting America should grab a piece of the action. It did. A treaty in 1875 gave Hawaiian sugar duty-free access to the United States; in return the United States took Pearl Harbor. Soon enough it took the rest: American planters engineered the overthrew of the monarchy in 1893. American annexation followed in 1898 and statehood in 1959.

The cane fields needed workers. Native Hawaiians, then a dying people, were too few. In their book “The Hawaiians,” Gavan Daws and Ed Sheehan explained the great labor migration of the mid-19th to mid-20th century:

“It was understood that the Anglo-Saxon would never perspire for plantation wages, bent over in the hot sun with hoe or cane knife. If you wanted Europeans, they would have to be … ‘just low enough to make them contented with the lot of an isolated settler and its attendant privations.’

“In practice this meant Portuguese, mostly from Madeira and the Azores. Otherwise it meant Orientals, peasants: two kinds of Chinese, the Punti and the Hakka; Japanese from Yamaguchi, Fukuoka, Kumamoto, and Hiroshima prefectures; some Okinawans from the Ryukyus; a handful of Koreans; and four kinds of Filipinos – Tagalog, Ilocano, Visayan, Panganisan.”

About 300,000 recruits never went home. They joined the native Hawaiians and Caucasian descendants of missionaries and merchants to form the core of modern Hawaii, the source of its wondrous social polyphony.

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