Sugar Plantation Workers, Kauai

How Sugar Helped Hawai’i Become The Melting Pot

Article Submitted by Quinn Nelson.

Have you ever wondered why Hawaii is such a melting pot of cultures? The history of Hawaii is central to one major business, sugarcane.

Around 600 A.D., the first settlers in Hawaiʻi introduced several sugarcane varieties to the islands. The Native Hawaiians cultivated sugarcane, or kō in Hawaiian, and primarily used it as a sweetener. However, it was also used to clean teeth, burn as charcoal, or thatch homes using the leaves.


1778, Sugar & Captain Cook

In 1778 when Captain Cook arrived in Hawaii, he tried to make beer out of the sugarcane, but according to his journals, it was not a successful creation. In the time after Captain Cook, the knowledge of sugar cane in Hawaii began to spread, bringing in interest and the start of sugar mills in Hawaii.

1838, Sugar & The Mills

By 1838, Hawaiʻi had twenty active sugar mills, with eighteen of them powered by water and two powered by animals. The biggest influence in Hawaii history was the “Great Mahele” in 1848, this act allowed foreigners to buy land in Hawaii.

1852, Extreme Globalization & Immigration

The extreme globalization of Hawaii happened in 1852.  With workers immigrating from other countries to work in the sugar plantations, starting with the Chinese. On January 3, 1852; 175 Chinese workers arrived on the ship Thetis. Eventually, with the promise of work in a beautiful, tropical place, other cultures, including the Portuguese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Spanish, Russians, and Norwegians traveled to Hawaii. In the sugar plantations, new connections of cultures were made, influencing language, resulting in the “pidgin” language spoken throughout Hawaii. 

Immigration + Settling = Melting Pot

By the 1900’s labor and wage laws had changed (the result of over 20 strikes), and workers were able to receive fair wages, housing and benefits.  More workers arrived in Hawaii to work at the sugar plantations (including this writer’s grandfather).  As families grew and planted their own roots on the island (pun intended), the diversity of the island’s culture continued to develop- thus creating a beautiful melting pot.

Want To Learn More?

For more information on the history of sugar, check out the Hawaii Plantation Museum in Papa’ikou:

Hawai’i Plantation Museum- Papa’ikou
27-246 Old Mamalahoa Highway
Papa’ikou, Hawai’i 96781

Museum Hours:
​Tuesday – Saturday  10:00 am – 3:00 pm
Closed Sundays, Mondays & Holidays.
We accommodate tours or groups. Call 808-964-5151 for reservations.

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