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The State of Aloha

Many years ago, a friend came to visit me. It was his first time to the islands. After seeing Iao Valley and Kepaniwai Park, walking along Lahaina’s streets, it was time to show him the north shore.

We drove out to Paia and the old mill.

Over drinks at Cafe Mambo on Baldwin Avenue, I explained that Paia is a good example of a new industry — tourism — celebrating the plantation days of the islands. He stopped me right then and there.

For my friend, a Black man hailing from northern Louisiana, the word plantation brings images of a dominant manor surrounded by orderly rows of trees or next to a large gnarled oak tree with Spanish moss hanging from thick branches and perfectly manicured lawns.

Don’t be fooled. The plantation was hell on earth. Most slaves were relegated to rudimentary cabins far from the main house. They ate and slept in simple rooms lacking plumbing, decent light which discouraged reading and writing, and ventilation. Others lived in the house and waited on their white masters hand and foot. They worked without pay and without hope and endured physical, mental, and sexual abuse from overseers and masters.

The antebellum South was run on a slave-based economy. And the plantation, with its manicured and clean lawns covering up the graves of slaves who lived, worked, and died, was the hub of this bloody business.

In the South today, some plantations are kept in pristine condition. Tourists visit, snap pictures and tour the grounds. They are sometimes used as a popular wedding site. Not only that, the word “plantation” is attached to well-to-do subdivisions, shopping malls and golf courses. For my friend, this was evidence of the South’s inability to confront its past head on.

At first, my reaction was defensive. The word has a different connotation in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Kingdom in the 19th century was ruled by a monarchy of indigenous people. On top of that, they were heavily influenced by advisers from Great Britain and particularly New England, which had abolished slavery long before the South.

In fact, while plantations and the slave-economy thrived on the Mainland, King Kamehameha III declared in 1839 that everyone had the right to “life, limb, liberty, freedom from oppression; the earnings of his hands and the products of his mind, not however to those who act in violation of the laws.”

The constitution of 1852 was unambiguous.

“Slavery shall, under no circumstances whatever, be tolerated in the Hawaiian Islands: whenever a slave shall enter Hawaiian territory he shall be free[.]”

That was 13 years before the United States abolished slavery; no civil war required.

So did this make the Hawaiian plantation a worker’s paradise? Far from it. The sugar and pineapple industries contracted thousands of laborers from Asia and Europe and subjected them to grueling work in the fields and mills. It was so bad that many ran away.

If they ran, they were hunted down as fugitives and dragged into court. In 1850, we had a law penalizing workers who refused to work by extended the terms of their work contract. If they still refused, they would be imprisoned.

Did this law square with the lofty language in the Hawai’i Constitution? In 1891, a Japanese contract laborer refused to go back to his employer in Hilo wanted to find out. He went to court and argued his contract was an unconstitutional form of slavery.

He lost. The Hawai’i Supreme Court found nothing objectionable in the terms of the contract and said it did no such thing.

One justice, however, disagreed. Judge Sanford Dole, the scion of missionaries who would later take part in the overthrow and rule the islands after annexation, wrote that “the fact that the laborer receives proper wages for his work does not take the case out of that condition of involuntary servitude or semi-slavery which is inconsistent with our Constitution and laws.”

But Dole’s view was in the minority and the plantation prevailed. It resulted in the creation of a different sort of plantation with shanties housing contract workers and overseers and owners living far away from them. Ironically, Justice Dole won in the end when the law was repealed after annexation.

These days, like the South, Hawaii still uses the word plantation to invoke simpler, idyllic times. And like the South, old mills host weddings and tours. We fondly recall our “plantation days,” and with it a labor system that kept people very close to, as Dole called it, “semi-slavery.”

Make no mistake though. The stains of slavery across the American South will always be darker and more sinister than the island-style paternalism that controlled most islanders. But perhaps my friend is right, and we should come up with another word when christening luxury subdivisions and golf courses.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”

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