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Book Review: Hawai’i: Eight Hundred Years of Political and Economic Change – Sumner La Croix

Ford, G. (2019). “Hawai’i: Eight Hundred Years of Political and Economic Change” by Sumner La Croix, Asian Review of Books, 2 September.

The first Hawaiians ran late. Sumner La Croix claims they first voyaged from the Society Islands around 1250 when Kublai Khan was a boy rather than, as some others have it, twelve centuries earlier while Christ was awaiting death and resurrection. Discovery fed flood, with the long century that followed bringing new waves of immigrants to fill the land, before changing ocean currents slammed the door closed on economic migrants for four hundred years.

The fertile fields and taro’s hydraulic agriculture produced the surpluses that enabled the organized state: chieftain rule underpinned by the props of ideology and entertainment. “Bread” fed “church and circus” with adepts at prayer and monument construction, artists, sportsmen and war.

When Captain Cook and his germ-ridden crew made landfall it 1778, they brought careless genocide, industrial revolution and a slow-burning colonialism. A society that had barely changed for centuries almost overnight gained gonorrhea and guns, markets and missionaries. Initially a lucrative entrepôt for the fur trade between the Pacific Northwest and China, between 1805-45 the islands were stripped of sandalwood in the interest of the same market. Betwixt Cook’s arrival and the forests’ departure, the infectious sailors saw their germs collapse the population from 400,000 to less than a third: a population decline more keen than the Black Death visited on Britain.

Technology trumped ideology. To win, hold and consolidate power buying firearms proved more effective than shaping minds. Taboos cast aside, Kamehameha’s guns forged a shrinking united Kingdom. The exploitation of sandalwood segued into whaling with the rich sperm whale grounds off Peru and Japan leading a new economic surge until the guns of Fort Sumter spoke to announce America’s Civil War. By the time Lincoln’s sat down to watch Our American Cousin Hawaii’s future was back on shore with sugar. Prices had soared during the war. As the missionaries erased Hawaii’s culture the plantocracy stole their land while sucking in and conscripting contract labour to till these new estates. Acreage went from 8,500 to 87,000 in the twenty years to 1890, while that same year the US mainland swallowed 100,000 tonnes of Hawaiian sugar.

The Chinese arrived first in the 1870s, followed by the Portuguese and the Japanese. Chinese immigration was feared by Washington and cut-off by annexation, while the Portuguese petered out, but the Japanese just kept on coming. Native-born Hawaiians  were 92% of the population in 1872 but inn 1900 those born in Hawaii and those from Japan were running neck and neck at 38 and 37%.

This era of plantation and dilution saw the balance of power tip from Monarchy to Sugar’s Big Five corporations. The Free Trade Treaty of 1876 saw Honolulu as horse and Washington rider. By the end of the century, the US share of Hawaii’s merchandise exports was close to 90%. Where economics led, politics followed. Despite the all but unanimous opposition of the native Hawaiians, the Monarchy was first forcefully gelded in 1887 by the Bayonet Constitution and then toppled six years later all in the interests of the US oligarchs on the islands. Natives and contract labor alike were driven to the margins. The Republic of Hawaii (1893-98) was the waiting room for US annexation.

The Colony’s entrenched interests were joined by fruit and the Forces. Pineapples came and stayed until the 1960s, while the military, or at least the Navy, arrived after 1898. Admiral Alfred Mahan’s 1890 treatise The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 sold to (an initially reluctant) Washington the merits of organised military strength based on strategic position—Hawaii was perfect to dominate the Pacific. The military became part of the Honolulu’s governing coalition whose ultimate power was demonstrated all too nakedly in 1931. After being cleared of raping a naval officer’s wife, Joseph Kahahawai was subsequently murdered by the victim’s mother and a gang of navy friends. Convicted of manslaughter and given ten year prison terms under pressure from the military, Hawaii’s Governor commuted each sentence to one hour’s jail time.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor punctuated history. The military ruled from December 1941 until 1944. Peace brought conflict. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) struck sequentially against sugar, pineapple and docks between 1946-49. There was a sting in the tail: higher wages saw plantations start their long slide into oblivion as costs were undercut by increasing global competition. The House Un-American Activities Committee broke the Union and seven of the ILWU’s leadership were jailed in 1953. Too late, the guilty verdicts were overturned in 1958.

In 1946 the UN had pointedly listed Hawaii as a “Non-Self-Governing Territory”. Statehood had long been a hope for Honolulu. It finally came—a year after Alaska—in 1959 when the recognition of both the bravery of Japanese-Americans soldiers fighting the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and the successful suppression of the ILWU  delivered the votes in Congress.

It was the start of a thirty-year boom that owed more to aircraft than statecraft. Flocks of middle-class Americans began descending on the islands cocooned in Boeing’s new 707s. Between 1960 and 1990 tourist numbers soared from 296,000 to 6,724,000.

Had Hawaii finally come close to full circle? The territory maybe, from nation to colony to part of the US federation. For the native Hawaiians, maybe not. Since 1959 Hawaii’s representatives in the House and Senate have been the descendants of American colonialists and contract laborers and absent a single native Hawaiian.

La Croix writes his history within the paradigm of economics. It’s neither a history of inevitable progress—certainly to even hint at that the Hawaiians would need to be written out—nor the collective biography of great men. That sets it apart from much of the competition. It does get bogged down across two chapters in the intricacies of residential leasehold tender, and land reform and housing prices. Both seemingly stowaways from another book.

For all that Hawai’i gives a clear and succinct exemplar of the true cost of colonialism for indigenous people and the aftermath that makes it relevant far beyond Hawaii’s shores.