- From King Cane to the Last Sugar Mill: Agricultural Technology and the Making of Hawai‘i’s Premier Crop by C. Allan Jones and Robert V. Osgood
The Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S) on Maui was the archipelago’s last sugar mill. Its owner is Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), whose financial report for 2012, C. Allan Jones and Robert V. Osgood tell us, identified three concerns that render A&B’s future as a sugar producer “uncertain” (p. xvi). It worried about a lack of irrigation water, a fall in sugar prices through domestic or foreign competition, and a rise in production costs—from normal or catastrophic weather, plant diseases and pests, equipment failures, or the scarcity and wages of sufficiently skilled workers (p. 224). Every one of these concerns, Jones and Osgood show in their comprehensive book, would have been a familiar worry to HC&S and A&B when they were founded in the nineteenth century.
From King Cane to the Last Sugar Mill begins with the introduction of sugarcane to Hawai‘i by its first settlers, but it is perhaps best understood as a retrospective view of how HC&S became the Hawaiian industry’s sole survivor. The book’s structure is chronological, demarcated by dates that testify to Hawai‘i’s embeddedness in global economic and political networks: 1875, 1898, 1929. Each chapter is usefully divided into thematic sections and subsections on labor, planting, harvesting, fertilizing, irrigation, machinery, and so on. The authors’ background as agricultural scientists and even as “sugarcane enthusiast[s]” (p. vii) lets them expose all the constitutive parts of the sugar-production system in detail. Drawing on historical sugar textbooks, bulletins, almanacs, and manuals, as well as extensive contemporary scientific literature, Jones and Osgood have collected and presented a colossal amount of information.
An important conclusion that emerges from all this information is that enormous changes took place in the technology and labor of sugar production after its “mechanization” and “industrialization” of the late nineteenth century. Too often, histories of sugar—grounded, for all the right reasons, in labor history and the history of slavery—treat industrial sugar mills as black boxes, as though nothing changed after steam-powered rollers and vacuum pans. As the historian of technology David Edgerton has pointed out, however, the history of technology is mostly not a story of the new and disruptive, but of the old and improved. Here, again, the authors’ scientific and technological training attunes them to the ways that a century of individually minor innovations might accumulate to make sugar production a remarkably different business. “Hawai‘i probably had the most technically advanced [End Page 159] sugar industry in the world” in the early twentieth century (p. 117), but the automation of HC&S in 2014 would have astonished its managers and workers in 1900. And not all “technical advances” move in the expected direction. It is remarkable to see, for instance, that the adoption of mechanized harvesting actually resulted in higher sucrose losses through “dirty” loads of cane (p. 155), but that the vastly reduced wages for field hands outweighed the escaping sugar.
I only wished that the authors had applied their expertise more often. The book contains a staggering amount of raw, unprocessed detail, and Jones and Osgood are singularly qualified to refine it for a wider audience. Too much space is taken up, however, for instance, giving the dimensions of water ditches to the foot and their costs to the dollar. Jones and Osgood have usefully collated these numbers from a range of primary sources, but I regretted that the data were presented in the flow of the text, rather than in tables or graphs, of which there were too few. One alternative might have been to assign most numerical data to appendices, freeing the text for more of the authors’ own insights and analysis.
At times it even...