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  • Sovereign Sugar: Industry and Environment in Hawai‘i by Carol MacLennan
  • Richard P. Tucker
Sovereign Sugar: Industry and Environment in Hawai‘i. By Carol MacLennan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014. x + 378 pp. Appendices. Maps. Notes. Illustrated. Bibliography. Index. $39.00 cloth

Much has been written about the sugar barons of Hawai‘i and the vast sugar empire that they created from the late 1800s onward, shaping large areas of the islands’ landscapes and the politics that made the transformation possible. The story is central to the islands’ position as the crossroads of the Pacific world. It includes the incursions of haoles from mainland North America, the import of the Asian majority of today’s population, and the collapse of the native Hawaiian population with its finely tuned integration with land and sea.

But no previous publication has unified all these dimensions of modern Hawai‘i’s history into as lucid a synthesis as Sovereign Sugar. This impressive book is the result of historical anthropologist Carol MacLennan’s long years [End Page 217] of immersion in the lives of the islands’ peoples and their ecological settings. She writes that this is not just another history of the sugar industry, but “what is historically important is the complex tapestry of social and natural forces that shaped sugar’s history, often altering its direction and dictating its dynamic” (p. 7). She asserts persuasively that the sugar-dominated transformation of the islands’ life in the modern era was not inevitable, as previous writers on King Sugar have often used as their plot line, but was the result of interactions among all the ethnic and economic groups on the islands. Nature herself has also been a player, since natural systems have their own processes, whether untouched by humans and their associated (introduced, invasive) species of plants and animals, or severely distorted by the wide range of invading species.

Professor MacLennan sets the scene with a clear and vivid description of Hawaiian culture and its adaptation to land and water resources before interactions with Europeans began in the 1770s. She places this cultural story within the exceptionally rich literature of Hawai‘i’s island biogeography, archaeology and human ecology.

The chapters that follow trace the fundamental ecological implications of the transformative power of haole civilization, with its radically different concept of land ownership. The author introduces four founding missionary families (the Cookes, Castles, Alexanders, and Baldwins), who brought a “civilizing mission” to both non-Protestant peoples and the natural world. Together they created a “powerhouse network” nicknamed the “Big Five” companies (p. 52), integrating the islands into the international capitalist consumer economy. Their controlling political influence, first under the independent Hawaiian kingdom, and then after U.S. annexation in 1892, centered in the remarkable Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA), which became an internationally leading organization for scientific management of land, forest cover, and water. MacLennan shows convincingly that from today’s sustainability criteria, HSPA preserved forest watersheds, in contrast to forestry management on the U.S. mainland, which lay far greater emphasis on timber production. But in this HSPA worked in close conjunction with the sugar interests, rather than small farmers and non-white populations, to implement advances in agro-industrial science. This collaboration necessitated political power, controlling laws and their implementation for environmental policy and management, which was critically important for the distribution of the islands’ forest and water resources.

The industry evolved in two broad phases; first the nineteenth century commercial plantations, and then more modern industrial operations, which were far more efficient. The era after 1900 saw major advances in public [End Page 218] health for the workers, as well as sugar production as efficient as any plantations around the world, for markets primarily in the western U.S. But the sugar mono-crop continued to divert vast amounts of water to irrigation, as well as struggling to maintain soil fertility.

This account integrates all the islands, as the narrative moves from one plantation to another, one watershed to another, from O‘ahu to Kaua‘i to Maui and Hawai‘i Island. MacLennan describes four plantation centers, each with its central coastal town, and the workers’ villages that spread...


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