Today, the Hawaii State Quarter Coin remembers 180 years ago and the beginning of the first large-scale sugar plantation by Ladd & Co. on the islands of Hawaii.
James Jackson Jarves included the following description of the sugar industry in his History of the Hawaiian Islands published in 1872:
The first instance of the manufacture of sugar on these islands dates back previous to 1820, but the name of the pioneer planter is lost.
Old residents speak of sugar and molasses of a coarse quality having been manufactured here in sufficient quantities for ordinary domestic consumption in 1828.
In that year, extensive fields of cane were grown in and about Honolulu, and mills were erected in Nuuanu Valley and at Waikapu, Maui.
At the latter place, a Portuguese, named Antonio Silva, is spoken of as the pioneer sugar planter. Some Chinamen also had a sugar mill near Hilo. These mills were all of wood, very primitive in their construction, and worked by oxen.
The first attempt to cultivate sugar on a large scale was at Koloa, on Kauai, where Ladd & Co., a firm of Honolulu merchants, commenced what is known as the Koloa Plantation of Dr. R. W. Wood.
This was about the year 1835, and the first breaking up of the soil for planting was done with a plow drawn by natives.
From 1836 to 1841, sugar was exported from these islands to the value of $36,000, and molasses to the value of $17,130.
In the “Hawaiian Spectator” for April, 1838, the late William Ladd contributed an article on “The Resources of the Sandwich Islands,” in which he speaks thus prophetically of the manufacture of sugar, then in its infancy: “It is a very common opinion that sugar will become a leading article of export. That this will become a sugar country is quite evident, if we may judge from the varieties of sugar-cane now existing here, its adaptation to the soil, the price of labor, and a ready market. From experiments hitherto made, it is believed that sugar of a superior quality may be produced here. * * * It may not be amiss to state that there are now in operation, or soon to be erected, twenty mills for crushing cane, propelled by animal power, and two by water power.”
The price of labor at that time, was indeed an argument in favor of making the islands a sugar producing country, which unfortunately does not exist now. Abundance of native labor could then be had, and the current rate of wages was from 12.5 to 37.5 cents per diem, or $2 to $5 per month.
In Wyllie’s “Notes” on the islands, published in the “Friend,” December, 1844, the export of sugar from the Island of Kauai is estimated at about 200 tons, and 20,000 gallons of molasses.
Hilo in the same year exported 83,000 pounds of sugar. Maui at that time had two mills, but the amount of sugar produced is not reported.
That was twenty-eight years ago. Since then, our sugar growing business has passed through many vicissitudes.
As is generally the case in new pursuits, the pioneers have in many instances lost their time and money in their struggles for success, and those who have come after have learned to profit by their dear-bought experience. Today, the total number of sugar plantations is thirty-two, — on Hawaii, nine; Maui, twelve; Oahu, seven; and Kauai, four.
The Custom House statistics have, during the past twenty years, given sugar the first place in our products and exports.
The quantity exported in 1871 was 21,760,773 pounds, which added to the consumption in the group, gives a total of twenty-two millions of pounds.
Not more than one-quarter of the area adapted to cane culture is at present under cultivation. Large tracts suited to cane are neglected, or devoted only to grazing, from want of capital and labor.
As a general rule, droughts are rare, and rain sufficiently abundant, in all localities, both, for grazing and agricultural purposes. On the four larger islands fine sugar plantations are established or in progress, varying from two hundred to several thousand acres in extent.
On these are some of the largest, most complete and expensive sugar mills ever constructed in any country, driven by steam or water, and capable of manufacturing six to ten tons of sugar a day.
No country can boast of finer mills or plantations, or more perfect arrangements for the manufacture of sugar and molasses.
The plantations now in operation number thirty-two, producing less than half the sugar which they are capable of manufacturing.
This is owing chiefly to the scarcity of laborers — a want which is each year more seriously felt.
Next to Hawaiian laborers, who are considered the best and least expensive, Chinese are sought for. As they are always ready to leave their country and migrate to this group, it is probable that no difficulty will be encountered in obtaining all that may be needed.
The mode of manufacture is similar to that pursued in other sugar countries. The sugar is packed at the mills— the better grades in kegs, and the poorer in bags, and carted thence to the nearest port or anchorage, from which it is shipped to Honolulu by schooners or the steamer Kilauea, a vessel of four hundred tons burthen, owned by the Government, which makes regular weekly trips to Maui and Hawaii.
It is estimated that the cost of manufacturing sugar here, on well-conducted plantations, is about five cents per pound, taking all grades into the estimate. At the present time San Francisco is the principal market for this as it is for most of our productions, though Oregon and Australia attract a portion of the sugar crop, the average net price realized for which is six cents a pound.
From that time, sugar cane production increased and peaked in the late 1960s early 1970s at almost 1.2 million tons.
In the mid-2000s, the production had decreased to roughly 200,000 tons.
Today, the Hawaii State Quarter Coin shows against a field of sugar cane.