Cutting sugar cane by hand at Makaweli Plantation, Kaua‘i, ca. 1910. KHS archive photo by Ray Jerome Baker.

Plantation Era
Polynesians brought sugar cane, or ko, with them in their sailing canoes. It was a plant whose leaves they used for thatching, and to wrap fish bait.

They also used ko as a sweetener in herbal preparations and chewed on it to clean their teeth. Some reported that mashing its young vines with those of another plant—koali ‘awa vine—and adding salt was effective in reattaching severed portions of the body.

In their wildest dreams, the Hawaiians would never have developed the plan that put the town of Koloa, Kaua‘i on the map, brought riches to Caucasians, opened the door to waves of immigrant laborers and set the new order of the land for the century to come. Hawaiians were subsistence/sustainable agroforesters. The newcomers—children of the missionaries and other immigrants, true to their western leanings— embraced the industrial revolution and were into agrobusiness before it became a buzzword.

Koloa Plantation, started in 1835, closed its operations in 1996. This was its third site. Photo by Anne E. O'Malley.

The first successful commercial milling of sugar in all of Hawai‘i began in 1835 in Koloa Town on the South Shore. It was to change the face of Kaua‘i forever, launching an entire economy, lifestyle and practice of monocropping that lasted for over a century.

Because of a dwindling native population, sugar plantation owners contracted immigrant labor elsewhere. First came the Chinese, then the Japanese, Koreans, Spanish, Germans, Puerto Ricans, Portuguese, Norwegians, and Filipinos, each bringing their own overlay of culture.

Many of these immigrants settled here, purchased land and became entrepreneurs. As a result, ethnic foods, arts, languages and traditional celebrations are all part of the rich history of Kaua‘i.

From hula to kachi-kachi dancing, from the Japanese O-Bon festival to the Taro Festival, King Kamehameha Day, Tahiti Fete and more, Kaua‘i enjoys a proud multicultural heritage.


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