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Hawai'i

Eight Hundred Years of Political and Economic Change

By Sumner La Croix
15-minute read
Audio available
Hawai'i by Sumner La Croix

Hawai’i (2019) is a detailed history of the economic forces that have shaped Hawaiian society. Author Sumner La Croix traces the arc of commerce, from traditions first established in the twelfth century by Polynesian colonists to the modern Hawaiian state. Along the way, he examines what has changed and what has stayed the same.

  • Anyone interested in the dark side of paradise
  • Students of colonialism
  • Labor historians

Sumner La Croix is a professor emeritus at the University of Hawai’i-Mānoa and a research fellow with the University of Hawai’i Economic Research Organization. He has published dozens of academic articles on the economic history of Hawaii and East Asia.

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Hawai'i

Eight Hundred Years of Political and Economic Change

By Sumner La Croix
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Hawai'i by Sumner La Croix
Synopsis

Hawai’i (2019) is a detailed history of the economic forces that have shaped Hawaiian society. Author Sumner La Croix traces the arc of commerce, from traditions first established in the twelfth century by Polynesian colonists to the modern Hawaiian state. Along the way, he examines what has changed and what has stayed the same.

Key idea 1 of 9

When humans first settled Hawaii, it offered them an agriculturally rich, politically egalitarian paradise. 

Hawaii was the last major land area on the planet to be settled. The first humans to live there were twelfth-century Polynesian settlers, who had traveled over two thousand miles in search of new land. 

Captain James Cook was the first European to set eyes on the islands, in the eighteenth century. He assumed that Polynesians had gotten to Hawaii because the wind had blown their canoes off course. But subsequent research has proved this to be statistically almost impossible. These voyages were intentional.

So why did small groups of Polynesians choose to leave their homes in canoes and set out for the great unknown? Maybe they were inspired by the potential to discover, or maybe they hoped to find opportunities they didn’t have at home. 

The key message here is: When humans first settled Hawaii, it offered them an agriculturally rich, politically egalitarian paradise. 

Setting out on a voyage of thousands of miles in an outrigger canoe is, of course, risky. All manner of accidents could happen on open water, or you might just run out of food and water. But Polynesians had been traveling like this for more than three millennia. They had learned to minimize the risks.

To navigate, they observed the stars, the sun, the wind, the tides, and seabirds. They carried hardy breadfruit paste and a single giant taro root that would last for months. A fully outfitted canoe could travel about 100 miles per day. 

Nobody lived on the islands at the time, so settling them was straightforward. For one, Polynesians didn’t have to contend with pushback from native people. Instead, the colonists devoted their time to implementing irrigation and other infrastructure. They built canoes for fishing, they made fish hooks, and – as we’ll see in the next blink – they started huge families.

Economic history teaches us that when land is sparsely inhabited, large land grants are common. The islands of O'ahu and Kaua'i, with their rain-fed, protected valleys, are well-suited to agriculture. So settlers set up huge taro farms, with intricate irrigation technology imported from Polynesia. For the most part, people worked for themselves, and there was no significant wealth differential. 

Historians believe that Hawaii’s early settlers had an egalitarian society during the first century or so of settlement. There was plenty of arable land for everyone, so no in-fighting was necessary – at first.

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