Those Cotton Fields Back Home….on Maui
sits beside the Piilani Highway in north Kihei, at once a wild remnant of
a long-gone chapter of Hawaii's post-contact history and a relic of the
islands' pre-contact distant past. Each day, thousands pass it in their
cars rushing about south Maui, but few take notice and far, far fewer
recognize it for what it is: a solitary clumped bush of Hawaiian cotton or
ma’o in the Hawaiian language
Hawaii cotton is thought to have been a native plant of the Islands
before the first Polynesian and Micronesian explorers and settlers
arrived. Since all of the islands of Hawaii are of volcanic origin, built
over millennia from lava rising out of the deep sea from "hot
spots" in the earth's crust, all of the "native" vegetation
and animals came here from someplace else. Everything here was borne to
the islands either by the winds and birds, by the currents or by people as
they discovered and began to inhabit the islands nearly 2,000 years ago.
settlers who came here from many islands through out the South Pacific
brought with them their own customs, languages and cultures. They also
brought with them the plants and animals they knew they would need to
survive in so remote a place. As more disparate groups came they began to
blend their cultures through both friendly and unfriendly means into what
eventually became the distinctive Hawaiian culture found by Captain Cook
when he stumbled onto the island kingdom in 1778.
cotton is a not-so-distant cousin to the more familiar imported cotton
plants that played an important role in Hawaii's territorial history. In
the heady days of the mid-1800s, when the Kingdom of Hawaii was attempting
to bring its mid-Pacific isolation to an end, cotton briefly vied with
sugarcane to become Hawaii's chief cash crop.
farmers cultivated wild Hawaiian cotton as early as 1815, particularly on
small subsistence plots. Most big acreage growers, who several years later
sought to make cotton a major crop in the islands, preferred the imported
sea island variety from the Carolinas and Georgia on the mainland.
Although the ma’o was in some
ways a superior fiber and more adapted to the Hawaiian climate, it was
felt to be of lower quality by the mainland planters because it was an
unknown, and because it was Hawaiian. New comers typically held a
prejudice that all things Hawaiian were inferior.
sugarcane and cotton had been cultivated since early in the nineteenth
century on small acreage and without the infrastructure of mills,
refineries and gins needed to make the crops moneymakers.
King of the sovereign nation of Hawaii was persuaded to give up royal
ownership of all lands and allow both Hawaiians and foreigners to own land
in the Great Mahele of 1848. Non-native Hawaiian entrepreneurs shrewdly
amassed huge tracts of land and began looking for crops to grow that would
create their fortunes. Many of those entrepreneurs were the enterprising
sons of the missionaries – dubbed “the mission boys” - who had
arrived in Hawaii in 1825, Because of their parents’ influence over the
native Hawaiians and their ali’i or royalty, they generally had considerable power which they
skillfully wielded to amass significant fortunes. There is an old but
apropos saying in Hawaii that the missionaries came to Hawaii to do good,
and they did very, very well.
Along came the Civil War decade
(1863 to 1874) and the North lost access to sugar and cotton from the
Southern states and the Caribbean. This created a window of opportunity
for the new landowners and opportunists in Hawaii. The Union army was
desperate for cotton for uniforms and bandages and the North in general
needed cotton to keep its population happy. Hawaii was the nearest and
friendliest source for both cotton and sugar, and fortunes were made in
the war years. This situation also set in motion the intrigue that
eventually lead to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the
annexation in 1898 of the Hawaiian Kingdom as a territory of the United
a brief time the crops struggled for superiority - was it to be King Sugar
or King Cotton? Sugarcane proved to be far easier to grow in the island
climate, and cotton, particularly the imported varieties, was more
susceptible to the many tropical insect pests that plagued it,
particularly the voracious pink boll worm. Sugarcane won and shortly
thereafter serious cotton production went into steep decline and
eventually near extinction as a viable agricultural crop in Hawaii. Where
there had once been several thousand acres planted in cotton, only 80
acres remained by 1910.
has for thousands of years been the planet's most important fiber derived
from vegetation - a renewable resource in today's lexicon. The fiber of a
thousand faces and almost as many uses, cotton is noted for its
versatility, its appearance, its performance and–above all–its natural
comfort. From all types of apparel...to sheets and towels...tarpaulins and
tents...cotton in today's fast-moving world is still nature's wonder
fiber, providing thousands of useful products and supporting millions of
jobs as it moves year after year from field to fabric.
is grown in over sixty countries worldwide and is used in a range of
products from cloth and clothing to mattress stuffing. Its seed, when
crushed and purified, produces still more useful products including
cooking oils with hundreds of uses.
cotton a potential replacement crop for Maui’s thousands of acres of
sugarcane fields left fallow by the declining sugar industry? Probably
not. Where cotton goes, so do the insects which feed on it, and the amount
of insecticides used to control the pests on lands so near the ocean,
would hardly be acceptable. And on Maui, as in much of Hawaii, having
enough water in the right places is always an issue.
the lone ma’o plant on Piilani
Highway struggles to survive the vicissitudes of Maui's leeward side
weather, encroaching land development, automobile residue and fumes, and
neglect because it no longer has economic value, it still produces
hundreds of bolls which burst open to reveal its long, soft cotton fibers.
Although the likelihood of those fibers ever stuffing a mattress again or
being woven into fine fabrics is slim, it stands as a reminder of past
enterprise and one of the island's early attempts at economic survival.