Sugar gradually replaced sandalwood and whaling in the mid-19th century and became the principal industry in the islands until it was succeeded by the visitor industry in 1960.

The early Polynesian settlers to Hawaiʻi brought sugar cane with them and demonstrated that it could be grown successfully. Since it was a crop that produced a choice food product that could be shipped to distant markets, its culture on a field scale was started as early as 1800 and has continued uninterruptedly up to the present time.

Sugar-cane farming has maintained for itself the distinction of being the number one farm crop of the Islands. It gained this prestige without great difficulty because sugar cane soon proved to be the only available crop that could be grown profitably under the severe conditions imposed upon plants grown on the lands which were available for cultivation and, consequently, Hawaiian farmers were forced by nature, if not by choice, to concentrate on the cultivation of sugar cane. (HSPA 1947)

Early sugar planters shared many challenges: trade barriers, shortages of water and labor, and the lack of markets for their sugar.

The first sugar to be made in Hawai‘i is credited to a man from China. The newspaper Polynesian, in its issue of January 31, 1852, carried this item attributed to a prominent sugar planter on Maui, L. L. Torbert: “Mr. John White, who came to these islands in 1797, and is now living with me, says that in 1802, sugar was first made at these islands by a native of China, on the island of Lāna’i. He came here in one of the vessels trading for sandalwood, and brought a stone mill and boilers, and after grinding off one small crop and making it into sugar, went back the next year with his fixtures, to China.” (HHS)

The first commercially-viable sugar plantation, Ladd and Co., was started at Kōloa on Kaua‘i. On July 29, 1835, Ladd & Company obtained a 50-year lease on nearly 1,000-acres of land and established a plantation and mill site in Kōloa. It was to change the face of Kaua‘i (and Hawai‘i) forever, launching an entire economy, lifestyle and practice of monocropping that lasted for over a century.  A tribute to this venture is found at the Kōloa Sugar Memorial (Site #4) in Old Kōloa Town (Site #5).

Kōloa Sugar Mill changed locations over the years, remnants of an earlier mill are at the Kōloa Sugar Memorial (Site #4); the Old Kōloa Mill, built in 1841, is at the intersection at the bottom of Maluhia Road, as you enter Old Kōloa Town, and is the only structure in Kōloa listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The latest Kōloa Sugar Mill (Site #22,) that closed in 1996, can be seen in the distance to the east of the corridor.

Hawaiians were hired to work on the plantation. This had far-reaching affect on the social and economic make-up of the local society. This introduced the concept of independence for the Hawaiians. Workers were paid directly and no longer had to pay a tax to the chiefs. Workers were initially paid with coins.

Coin in sufficient quantity to pay the workers was difficult to come by in the 1830s. In response, Kōloa Plantation initiated the use of script as payment to workers; these were redeemable for purchases at the plantation’s store. This addressed the coinage shortage, but also directed the plantation workers to buy from the plantation-owned store. Initially, script was simply a notation of denomination and signature of the owner on cardboard.

However, due to counterfeiting, in 1839, script was printed from engraved plates, with intricate waved and networked lines. This more formal Kōloa Plantation script became the first paper money in Hawaiʻi. Not only was this script accepted at the Ladd & Company store, it became widely accepted by other merchants on the island.

Sugar was the dominant economic force in Hawaiʻi for over a century, Kōloa Plantation was the birthplace of the Hawaiian sugar industry. Other plantations soon followed Kōloa. By 1883, more than 50 plantations were producing sugar on five islands.

Kōloa Plantation set other standards that endured throughout the islands for over 100-years. In addition to the plantation-owned general store, housing was provided for workers. Barrack-type buildings or individual homes had space for workers to plant a garden. The company dairy sold milk to plantation workers. Medical services were provided.

Hawai‘i’s economy turned toward sugar in the decades between 1860 and 1880; these twenty years were pivotal in building the plantation system. Hawaiʻi had the basic natural resources needed to grow sugar: land, sun and water. A century after Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawaiʻi, sugar plantations started to dominate the landscape.

What encouraged the development of plantations in Hawaiʻi? For one, the discovery of gold and rush of settlement of California opened lucrative avenues of trade in the Pacific. Likewise, the Civil War virtually shut down Louisiana sugar production during the 1860s, enabling Hawai‘i to compete in a California market that paid elevated prices for sugar.

In addition, the Treaty of Reciprocity – 1875 between the United States and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i eliminated the major trade barrier to Hawai‘i’s closest and major market. King Kalākaua was determined to keep his realm from reverting to a subsistence economy by furthering the advancement of agriculture. Through the treaty, the U.S. gained lands in the area known as Wai Momi, meaning “water of pearl,” (Pearl Harbor, now known as Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam) and Hawai‘i’s sugar planters received duty-free entry into U.S. markets for their sugar.

However, a shortage of laborers to work in the growing (in size and number) sugar plantations became a challenge. The only answer was imported labor.

Starting in the 1850s, when the Hawaiian Legislature passed “An Act for the Governance of Masters and Servants,” a section of which provided the legal basis for contract-labor system, and continuing to the end of World War II, labor shortages were eased by bringing in contract workers from Asia, Europe and North America.

There were three big waves of workforce immigration:
Chinese 1850
Japanese 1885
Filipinos 1905

Several smaller, but substantial, migrations also occurred:
Portuguese 1877
Norwegians 1880
Germans 1881
Puerto Ricans 1900
Koreans 1902
Spanish 1907

It is not likely anyone then foresaw the impact this would have on the cultural and social structure of the islands.

Sugar changed the social fabric of Hawai‘i.

The sugar industry is at the center of Hawaiʻi’s modern diversity of races and ethnic cultures. Of the nearly 385,000 workers that came, many thousands stayed to become a part of Hawai‘i’s unique ethnic mix.

Hawai‘i continues to be one of the most culturally-diverse and racially-integrated places on the globe.

For nearly a century, agriculture was the state’s leading economic activity. It provided Hawai‘i’s major sources of employment, tax revenues and new capital through exports of raw sugar and other farm products.

The sugar industry was the prime force in transforming Hawaiʻi from a traditional, insular, agrarian and debt-ridden society into a multicultural, cosmopolitan and prosperous one. (Carol Wilcox)

The sugar plantations were Hawaiʻi’s first stable economy.  Unlike the sandalwood traders who stripped the forests or the whalers who killed the animals into near extinction, sugar replenished itself.

Five major companies gradually emerged to provide marketing, supplies and other services for the plantations and eventually came to own and manage most of them. They became known as the Big Five:
Alexander & Baldwin – started by Samuel Alexander and Henry Baldwin, sons of missionaries. Their daring irrigation project sent water 17 miles from the rainy slopes of Haleakala to 3,000 dry sugar cane acres in central Maui.
Theo H. Davis – a British firm that became a maritime shipping company and branched into the sugar trade.
Castle & Cooke – founded by missionaries, which originally sold sewing machines, farm tools and medicine in Hawaii. It later bought stock in sugar plantations and focused on sugar companies.
C. Brewer – founded by James Hunnewell, an officer on the Thaddeus, that brought the original missionaries to Hawai‘i in 1820. He returned in 1826 to set up a trading company, which was itself later traded to Capt. Charles Brewer, who gave the lasting name.
Hackfeld & Company – a German firm that later became American Factors (Amfac.) It was started by a young German selling goods to whalers, who came to manage sugar growers’ businesses.

Growing sugar requires water, lots of it. Plantations developed intricate collection and distribution system of flumes, ditches, tunnels and reservoirs. Kōloa was water poor and depended on excess water from its neighbors. Constrained by the lack of surface and groundwater sources, Kōloa concentrated on developing water storage. The Kōloa Marsh (above the present Kōloa Town) was an ideal location for a reservoir. Ultimately, a 2.3-billion gallon capacity reservoir (Waita Reservoir (Site # 24)) was constructed (second in overall size to Oʻahu’s Lake Wilson with 3-billion gallon capacity.)

Waita Reservoir (also referred to as Hauiki Reservoir, Marsh Reservoir or Kōloa Reservoir) Waita Reservoir (Site #24) – (Goggle Earth – Young) initially built in 1906 and expanded in 1931, covers an area of approximately 525-acres. The water source was supplied by the Wilcox Ditch and Kōloa Ditch (Waiahi-Kuia Aqueduct.) This enabled irrigation of over 70-percent of the fields.

Located on private property, Waita Reservoir (Site #24) not only provides irrigation to local agricultural ventures, through private fishing charter arrangements it is also a popular bass and other sport fishing location on the island.