The disappearance of Pineapple & Sugarcane in Hawaii


A look at the rise and fall of plantation land use.

I began this project by moving around GIS databases looking for maps and datasets that could be used in tandem. Eventually, I came upon the Hawaiian State Office of Planning’s Statewide Geospatial Data Portal. The website contains multiple data categories dedicated to geographical, economical, and population-based maps for the island.


I ended up finding data maps for sugarcane and pineapple plantation locations (described as ‘lands’ on the website) from 1900, 1920, 1937 and 2020. I also found the judicial court district maps, along with a map representing traditional Hawaiian land divisions. Looking at the various plantation maps, I was surprised by their growth and eventual disappearance. I knew a bit about Hawaiian history concerning foreigner-run plantations on the islands, but I was interested in seeing if there were any connections to the growth of plantations in Hawaii with its eventual annexation by the United States.

A screenshot of Hawaii’s Statewide Geospatial Portal.


My main resource for usable maps and datasets came from the Hawaii Statewide Geospatial Data Portal. I imported the data into QGIS, an open-source program for Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Files were downloaded as Shapefiles (.shp), which are usable in QGIS as interactive map ‘parts.’ Luckily, none of the datasets needed to be ‘cleaned’ for use. I chose a minimal color palette for the separate plantations and island map. All finalized maps were also created in QGIS and GIFS were made using iOS Keynote.

A screenshot of QGIS’s interface while viewing land division details.

I sent my visualizations to my report partner Aichen for review. In my email to Aichen, I addressed that I was worried about how small the visualizations were, since Hawaii has an ‘awkward’ shape. Aichen recommended that I “utilize the blank space on the left bottom to write about the changes that happened.” She also suggested that I change the stroke color for the plantation locations to help them stand out more against the island map. I took Aichen’s advice and adjusted my maps accordingly. At first, I had the islands colored green with a black outline, but changing the island color to pink allowed the overlaying plantation changes to pop in contrast. I also decided to combine the pineapple and sugarcane data onto the same map with details on how many plantations were present. This helped me easily compare the vast number of sugarcane farms to the newly emerging pineapple plantations.

One of the original maps. The black outline surrounding the pineapple plantations made them difficult to see.

Plantations & Overthrowing the Hawaiian Kingdom

In 1778, James Cook and his fleet of British ships came across the Hawaiian Islands. Soon after his arrival and subsequent trading with Hawaiians, sugar became a major export from the islands. In 1835, the first sugarcane plantation was established in Kauai – opened by William Hooper, an American businessman. Sugar became a cash crop for Hawaii. Many Americans who moved to Hawaii to start plantations began to challenge the Hawaiian government and sought to influence the political landscape. British naval officers occupied the Hawaiian Islands in 1843 for five months, influenced by the alleged mistreatment of British citizens living in Hawaii.

“Lord George Paulet demanded the cession of the Hawaiian Islands to Great Britain. The matter was settled five months later when Rear Admiral Richard Thomas arrived and repudiated Paulet’s actions.”

“The Charlton Land Claim — Department of Accounting and General Services,” January 9, 2009.

After the brief takeover, King Kamehameha III redefined Hawaii’s land divisions during an event called the Great Māhele of 1848.

“Guided by foreign advisors, the king divided lands that had formerly been held in common and administered by chiefs and their konohiki, or overseers. The Mahele allocated 23% of land in the Islands to the king (called crown lands); 40% comprised konohiki lands to be divided among 245 chiefs; and 37% was declared government lands, to be awarded to commoners who worked the land as active tenants.”

“Ahupua`a – Hawaii History – Ahupua`a.” Accessed November 15, 2021.
An example of how an Ahupua’a operated. Image Courtesy of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply

“Shaped by island geography, each ahupua’a was a wedge-shaped area of land running from the uplands to the sea, following the natural boundaries of the watershed. Each ahupua’a contained the resources the human community needed, from fish and salt, to fertile land for farming taro or sweet potato, to koa and other trees growing in upslope areas. Villagers from the coast traded fish for other foods or for wood to build canoes and houses. Specialized knowledge and resources peculiar to a small area were also shared among ahupua`a.”

“Ahupua`a – Hawaii History – Ahupua`a.” Accessed November 15, 2021.

Land Divisions created by The Great Māhele of 1848.
Hawaii’s current judicial district boundaries as a U.S. state.

While modern land divisions have changed from the original ahupua’a designs, some areas of the boundaries remain the same.

1893 saw the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by foreigners living in Hawaii and additional help from the United States Marines. The islands were called the Republic of Hawaii until its annexation by the United States in 1898. This leads into the first set of plantation visualizations. Two years after the annexation of Hawaii, there were 55 sugarcane plantations throughout the islands and only one single sugar plantation.

Moving forward to 1920, the number of plantations for pineapples and sugarcane have risen by a staggering amount; 43 new pineapple plantations and 27 new sugarcane plantations.

By 1937, sugarcane and pineapple plantations covered large land areas of Hawaii. Although the number of new plantations being created had started to slow down since the data’s initial year of 1900.

The progression of plantation locations using a GIF.

Unfortunately, after 1937 there’s a gap in the data available. The next provided agricultural year is 2020. Only 4 pineapple plantations remain, and all sugarcane plantations have been closed. There is one extremely small sugar farm on the Big Island that is 14 acres, however it is not considered a plantation.

“As monocrop agriculture declined, the state put its economic faith in tourism, which accelerated as jet plane travel became faster and more affordable. Plantation companies either vanished or transitioned into land-development firms.”

Lyte, Brittany. “With Pineapple and Sugar Production Gone, Hawaii Weighs Its Agricultural Future.” Washington Post, December 17, 2017, sec. National.
The last remaining pineapple plantations, all located on O’ahu.
The small sugar farm, seen at the tip of the Big Island.

This dataset also provides information for all crops grown on Hawaii currently. While the types of crops grown in Hawaii vary, the amount of land use areas has declined. Even though there’s many different agricultural industries present, only pasture lands are really visible on the map.

A closeup of the west coast of the Big Island, South Kona and a bit of North Kona. Zooming in this far gives a better look at the small, scattered agricultural lands.

Once labor could be found somewhere else in the world for a cheaper price, the plantations that brought so much attention to Hawaii left the islands.

Final Thoughts

Once I got the hang of using QGIS, I found the program to be very easy to use. I especially appreciated how simple it was to export maps with similar designs. I believe this project was successful, but I definitely would like to expand upon it. I feel that I’ve held back on doing a deep dive into the history of these plantations in Hawaii. While performing my research, I came across a lot of half-truths and propaganda regarding the history of the islands and its relationship with plantations, especially regarding Hawaii’s annexation. I’ve only scraped the surface of this topic and I’m so intrigued by how one crop (and crops later brought to the islands) influenced an entire country’s fate. I’m very interested in making this my final project for the semester.


“Ahupua`a – Hawaii History – Ahupua`a.” Accessed November 15, 2021.

“Hawaii* – Countries – Office of the Historian.” Accessed November 15, 2021.

“Hawaii Statewide GIS Program.” Accessed November 15, 2021.

“Hawaiian Kingdom – History of Land Titles.” Accessed November 15, 2021.

“History of Labor in Hawai’i.” Accessed November 15, 2021.

Lyte, Brittany. “With Pineapple and Sugar Production Gone, Hawaii Weighs Its Agricultural Future.” Washington Post, December 17, 2017, sec. National.

“The Charlton Land Claim — Department of Accounting and General Services,” January 9, 2009.