Planter’s Paradise: Nature and Culture on Hawaiʻi’s Sugarcane Plantations

Lawrence Kessler is a recent Ph.D. graduate of the Department of History at Temple University. In 2015-16, he was a Dissertation Fellow of the Consortium.

As a 2015-16 Dissertation Writing Fellow at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, I enjoyed access to a vibrant scholarly community that helped me explore previously unexpected questions, expand the focus of my work, and ultimately defend a stronger dissertation. During my fellowship, I completed my Ph.D., presented papers at several national conferences, and prepared an article manuscript and book review. As a result of the opportunities presented by the Consortium, my dissertation was also honored with an award from my university.

I study the intersection of agriculture, science, and U.S. settler colonialism in the history of the Hawaiian Islands. My work uses Hawaiʻi’s natural environment as a site of transnational cultural encounters that shaped the ways people perceived and interacted with their surroundings. My dissertation, “Planter’s Paradise: Nature and Culture on Hawaiʻi’s Sugarcane Plantations,” examines the rise of what I call the Hawaiian sugarcane plantation system: an economy, environment, and culture almost singularly devoted to the cultivation of sugarcane for commercial export. I explore how sugarcane came to dominate Hawaiʻi’s economy and environment; how, in the span of half a century, Hawaiʻi’s sugar industry rose from economic insignificance to become a world leader in sugar production; and how sugarcane planting changed Hawaiʻi’s place in world affairs. These questions all point to the importance of environmental science in understanding the point where ideas about nature, methods of converting nature into commodities for consumption in distant markets, and nature itself influence each other

Hawaiʻi’s earliest Euro-American visitors were enthralled with collecting scientific data about the islands. These visitors categorized Hawaiʻi’s unique biomes in preexisting Western scientific models of environments, climates, and human populations, and eagerly envisioned Hawaiʻi as a Pacific analog to the sugar islands of the Atlantic. Scientific infatuation with Hawaiʻi reflected U.S. preconceptions of what the islands should be: lush and agriculturally hyper-productive. U.S. explorers such as Charles Wilkes, leader of the 1838-1842 U.S. Exploring Expedition, spent six months of his circumnavigating expedition in Hawaiʻi, with particular interest in investigating the islands’ natural resources and opportunities for agricultural production. Wilkes’s and others’ representations of Hawaiʻi in U.S. print media contributed to a popular image as a place naturally suited for sugar production. 

Despite U.S. assumptions, sugarcane planting did not come easily to Hawaiʻi. Agricultural science and technological innovation were essential to the rise of Hawaiʻi’s plantation system. I explore how Hawaiʻi’s cane planters adopted cutting-edge practices that not only promoted sugar production but also increased their social and political power. Planters in Hawaiʻi were leaders in agricultural entomology and pest control, cane milling technology, and sugarcane breeding. Their heavy investment in scientific research led had dramatic consequences for the islands’ environment. Cane planters’ efforts at pest control were particularly transformative. They pioneered the practice of biological pest control—the use of insects and parasites rather than chemical insecticides—to control crop pests. Biological pest control brought countless new animal species to Hawaiʻi, disrupting its remote island biogeography and agricultural landscape. Advances in milling technology also led to complex changes for the islands. Technologies such as centrifugal mills and advanced mill rollers increased mill capacity and demanded increasing acreage of cane, which in turn decreased biodiversity and consolidated environmental control into the hands of a smaller number of planters. Sugarcane breeding programs developed hardier and sweeter varieties of cane, which also increased mill output. All of these scientific and technological innovations created a simpler, more homogeneous monoculture plantation system at the expense of Hawaiʻi’s biodiversity and diversified agriculture. They also helped achieve U.S. visitors’ early vision of Hawaiʻi as a planter’s paradise—a place that was naturally suited to a sugarcane plantation system.

The Consortium placed me in the midst of a group of scholars who left an indelible mark on my work. The Consortium’s fellows work on a wide array of projects—from discard studies to the science of advertising to epidemic disease to the transnational commodification of medicine and much, much more—but they are nonetheless united through their interest in historicizing the production of knowledge, thorough intellectual curiosity, and a spirit of collaboration. The regular working groups, brown-bag lunches, and public events at the Consortium helped me engage a variety of historical subfields and broaden the scope of my project. Not only did I receive the opportunity to have to a large group of scholars read and offer their insight on my work, I also benefited from the stimulation of informal interactions with my colleagues at the Consortium. The dynamic environment of the Consortium was a catalyst for many new ideas and an incubator for effective lines of argument. As I continue my affiliation with the Consortium as a postdoctoral fellow here, I look forward to another productive, exciting, and rewarding year.