Those Cotton Fields Back Home….on Maui

 By Wayne Smith

  It 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.

Earliest 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.

Hawaiian 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.

Some 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.

Both 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.

The 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 States.

For 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.

Cotton 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.

It 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.

Is 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.

As 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.

 

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