Sovereign Sugar: Industry and Environment in Hawai'i

By Rosa, John P. | The Historian, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Sovereign Sugar: Industry and Environment in Hawai'i


Rosa, John P., The Historian


Sovereign Sugar: Industry and Environment in Hawai'i. By Carol A. MacLennan. (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i Press, 2014. Pp. 342. $39.00.)

Anthropologist Carol MacLennan combines field work with extensive historical documentation to show how sugar as a large-scale industry affected Hawaii's environments and communities. Her book is an extremely valuable one that complements older social histories like Ronald Takaki's Pan Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835-1920 and oral history interviews that mostly focus on the work and recreational activities of plantation workers, their families, and small communities.

MacLennan's scope is much broader, explaining the dynamics of sugar's ecology and how Hawaii's industry compared to other production centers in the Pacific (such as Fiji, Australia, the Philippines, and Java) and the Americas (including Louisiana, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Peru). In analyzing the corporate organization of sugar production in the islands, she deftly reveals the interconnectedness of four families of missionary descendants who--along with other businessmen from the United States, Britain, and Germany--became the "Big Five" firms of Alexander & Baldwin, Castle & Cooke, C. Brewer & Co., Theo. H. Davies, and American Factors (formerly Hackfeld & Co., a German company seized during World War I by the federal government and sold to investors from the other four firms). Like other scholars, MacLennan explains how the industry was powerful enough to bring about the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893 and eventually the annexation of the islands to the United States in 1898 (albeit by a domestic joint resolution of Congress and not an internationally recognized treaty).

In the early twentieth century, new federal and territorial land policies and the move away from homesteading initiatives allowed sugar firms to secure ever larger tracts of land--and thus reinforce the centrality of the industry to the islands' political economy. …

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