- Hawai'i: Eight Hundred Years of Political and Economic Change by Sumner La Croix
La Croix explores change and evolution in Hawaii's fundamental political, legal, and economic institutions over eight centuries. To the average reader, these topics are unfamiliar and not well explored. Historians, [End Page 605] anthropologists, and scholars in ethnic studies have conducted some work in this area, but to my knowledge, this is the first endeavor by an economist to account for political and economic change and outcomes in Hawaii. Thus, this book is novel in perspective and analytical methods.
La Croix starts by providing a good overview of Hawaii in the precontact era from an archaeological, anthropological, and demographic viewpoint, using the extensive research in these areas to inform readers about settlement, family, and early political structures. He also explores the environmental transformation that occurred during the settling of the Hawaiian Islands by its first peoples. He relies to some extent on Native Hawaiian cultural and historical perspectives but only from sources that have been translated into English. Large repositories of written documents in Hawaiian have yet to be consulted in exploring these topics. A recent example of work using primarily Hawaiian sources is Noelani Arista's The Kingdom and the Republic: Sovereign Hawai'i and the Early United States (Philadelphia, 2018), which provides the insight that the traditional system of religion was replaced not for religious purposes but for political ones—a nuanced and convincing argument based on extensive Hawaiian language letters, journals, and other texts.
Notwithstanding that La Croix does not use these Hawaiian language sources, he explores the pre-contact phase of Hawaii and the settlement of the islands with existing research and scholarship, tracing the evolution of smaller political units into a much more elaborate and hierarchical organization as agricultural advances increased productivity. Most of the discussion focuses on the land-based agriculture, but the aquacultural activities that lined the shores of most islands produced significant amounts of protein sources for the population. The absence of any mention of this important economic activity is regrettable.
The book follows the evolution of the nascent Kingdom of Hawaii into a fully international political actor during the period of contact. The influx of missionaries and sailors created novel issues for the new government, which attempted to forge exclusive trading (and military) relationships with Japan, China, Britain, and the United States. La Croix describes the next era of trade in sandalwood and sugar in relation to the transformation of property ownership called the Great Mahele, which divided the lands and allowed for private land ownership. This era led to the sugar and pineapple period in Hawaii's history and to an influx of foreign workers, primarily from Asia. The end of the nineteenth century brought the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii by an elite band of U.S. citizens and assistance from the U.S. military.
The chapters covering the history of Hawaii in the twentieth century comprise the best part of this book. They rely on research conducted by La Croix and his team. This section covers such important topics as policies for leasehold land ownership, labor prices in the sugar industry, and the rise of labor unions in democratizing politics in the former territory, which helped in shaping the path of Hawaii from kingdom to territory to [End Page 606] statehood. La Croix's analysis of these changes from the perspective of an economic historian offers a new understanding of these fundamental changes to Hawaii's economy and political landscape and suggests possibilities for further research in this time period. This book is a useful foundation for other aspiring economists to build upon.