Hawaii’s last working sugar mill, in Puunene, Maui, produced its last harvest last month. The last truck, piled high with newly cut cane stalks, blew its horn as it circled the mill yard. People cheered and held high their phones; a priest led a prayer. The cane was later put on a ship for processing in California, and 375 employees of the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company became the last of the last to be laid off.
And that was it — as 2016 ended, so did an industry that has shaped Hawaii for almost 200 years. So much of the islands’ modern history and character, in all its color and complexity, can be traced to one export crop.
Mark Twain, visiting as a newspaper reporter in 1866, marveled at Hawaii’s sugar trade. “This country is the king of the sugar world,” he wrote, suggesting America should grab a piece of the action. It did. A treaty in 1875 gave Hawaiian sugar duty-free access to the United States; in return the United States took Pearl Harbor. Soon enough it took the rest: American planters engineered the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893. American annexation followed in 1898 and statehood in 1959.