When Hawaii celebrates Labor Day, much of its laboring past is not evident to the casual observer.
Gone are the days when vast fields of taro thrived on the lush windward sides of the major Hawaiian Islands, tended to by thousands of Native Hawaiians.
Gone are most of the fields of sugar cane and pineapples that once carpeted Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Maui, Lanai and Hawaii Island, fields that meant backbreaking labor for immigrant plantation workers.
Gone are the giant cane trucks, stirring up mountains of red dust as they hauled their loads to processing plants, identifiable from miles away by their towering smokestacks.
Yet, some reminders remain, including the steel skeletons of closed mills at Kahuku and Waipahu on Oahu, Puunene and Paia on Maui, Kekaha on Kauai and Hamakua on Hawaii Island. With the resurgence of pride in its native roots, the Hawaiian Renaissance has seen the revival of hundreds of taro patches and coastal fishing ponds across the islands. We live in a modern age dominated by international air travel and tourism, but pockets of the past remind us of the path that brought us here, when putting food on the family dining table meant more than a quick trip to the nearest supermarket.
People are literally getting back to their roots. You may hear or see “Malama I ka aina”—take care of the land. The taro patches— na lo‘i—are once again filled with kalo—wetland taro. The barren fields left in the wake of sugar and pineapple’s demise are coming to life again with farms that grow coffee, macadamia nuts, papaya, watermelon, corn and other staples that feed the people of Hawaii.
The modern-day farmers will be the first to tell onlookers: This is no easy task. This is rugged labor, sustained often by the fact that it’s a labor of love. It’s the kind of labor that reminds us of the past, while keeping an eye on the future.
The farmers who work in the modern lo‘i in places like Oahu’s Olomana Valley, Kauai’s Hanalei Valley, Maui’s Keanae Peninsula and the Big Island’s Waipio Valley are often descendants of Hawaiians who worked their own lo‘i hundreds of years ago. A direct line can be drawn from the past to the present, and much of the labor techniques have remained unchanged over the centuries. It’s really all about mucking about in the mud, bent over planting sprouts and again bent over harvesting the full-grown kale .
In ancient Hawaii, the common people—known as maka‘āinana—worked on an ahupua’a, a specific division of an island, which ran from the mountains to the sea, providing the bounty of both the land and the ocean. Labor on the land brought forth taro, bananas, sweet potatoes and sugar cane. Kalo was pounded into poi, the staple of the Hawaiian diet. The sea provided a rich variety of foods, from the rocky shoreline to the deep ocean. Pigs, dogs and—by the early 1800s—imported cattle provided additional sources of protein.
For several hundred years, Hawaiians lived in complete isolation in an almost idyllic state of balance. All that ended abruptly with contact from the outside world when British Capt. James Cook landed on these shores in 1778. Change came rapidly and the sources of economic wealth changed just as quickly. First there was the sandalwood trade, which ran its course as the nation’s currency till the forests were depleted of the precious wood. That economy was replaced with the whaling industry, an equally short-lived venture.
Longer lasting and still showing its influence today, the world of sugar and pineapple plantations revolutionized life in the Islands. Because the Hawaiian population had been decimated by the diseases foreigners carried on their ships, the monarchy agreed to import labor from China, Japan, the Philippines, Portugal and Spain. Hawaii became a melting pot of races, a rich stew of people from all over the world. This was the new face of labor in Hawaii.
These first indentured servants came to serve a set number of years in the hope they would save a great deal of money and return home rich. Working in the tropical sun from the earliest light of day till pau hana (end of the work day) was brutal. As hot as it was, workers had to wear special clothes and hats that protected them from the sun and from the hazards of working with these two crops, whose sharp leaves could shred unprotected skin.
For even the toughest of laborers, this was fieldwork meant only for the short term. It was a nasty daily business that only enriched the men at the top. Nobody was going home wealthy doing this sort of work. With one day off each week, laborers found some solace in team sports, boxing, gambling and liquor.
Plantation life dominated Hawaii from the bottom to the top. The profits of sugar and pineapple led to the emergence of Hawaii’s top companies—known as the Big Five: Alexander & Baldwin, American Factors, Castle & Cooke, C. Brewer & Co. and Theo. H. Davies Co. The world was clearly divided between the haves and the have nots and the haves held control well into the 1950s.
Only when Hawaii’s political powers shifted and labor began to organize did conditions get better. It was a long battle that started almost from sugar’s outset, with a walkout by Hawaiian laborers at Koloa, Kauai, in 1841, culminating in the infamous 1949 longshore workers’ strike that lasted six months and crippled the territory’s economy.
Labor disputes and organized strikes—sometimes violent on both sides—eventually led to improved wages and living conditions. In its final years, plantation life was at least tolerable, so when this routine but simple way of life died off, it was not without some sadness, especially for the mostly immigrant Filipino families who now populated the towns of Kahuku, Puunene, Paia, Lanai City, Hamakua and the other plantations around the Islands.
Today, Hawaii’s economy is driven primarily by tourism (with another major contribution coming from the defense industry). It’s debatable which was a better way of life—the simple but tough plantation life or the modern world of tourism—but certainly labor now shares in more of the profits.
Meanwhile, the land continues to provide. All over the Hawaiian Islands there are pockets of agricultural endeavors that provide fresh produce, connecting the farm to the table. Evidence of the bounty is seen at the numerous farmers’ markets that have cropped up from Kapaa on Kauai and Kailua, on Windward Oahu, to Wailuku, Maui, and Hilo on the Big Island. Customers come every week for papayas, mangoes, bananas, macadamia nuts, coffee, taro, breadfruit—even sugar cane and pineapples—now grown on small private plots of land.
Local guides take you on a journey back to the early 1900s where you can experience more than 25 authentic plantation homes and structures featuring personal artifacts, clothing, furniture and art placed in their original settings. Unusual plants brought from China, Portugal, Japan, Puerto Rico, Korea, Okinawa, Polynesia and the Philippines by immigrants from their native lands provide delicious fruit samples during the tour.
Photos by Brett Uprichard; Julie Yaste