How Hawaiian Life Changed After the Arrival Of Settlers

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Hawaiian life changed tremendously after the settlers from the western world arrived. They introduced diseases that decimated the native Hawaiian population, as well as crops we nowadays believe are native to Hawai'i, when in fact they're not. Find out which plants were introduced by the Polynesians as well as the European settlers. I'm sure you'll be surprised by the origin of at least one plant. And, did you know that Hawai'i is also producing one of the world's best coffees?



When the first early explorers and missionaries arrived on the islands, they did not only bring about tremendous changes in culture and everyday life of the Hawaiians, but they also brought deadly diseases such as syphilis, other venereal diseases, tuberculosis, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox and polio. And, as a result, the Hawaiians' death rate increased dramatically after their first contact with the western foreigners. Before the western people came to the islands, Hawaiians lived an isolated life, very far away from other civilizations and, thus, were very susceptible and not immune to new diseases. By 1840, there were only about 100.000 native Hawaiians left. To put this into a perspective for you, you have to know how many Hawaiians there were before the settlers came. By 1778, upon the arrival of James Cook, about 600.000-700.000 thousand people lived on the Hawaiian Islands. Only 100 years later, in 1880 to 1920, only about 25.000 Hawaiians survived.


Another disease which plagued the (native) Hawaiian population was Hansen‘s disease, also known as leprosy. It caused the death of many Hawaiians, leaving only 24.000 native Hawaiians alive by 1920.

Leprosy-sick Hawaiians were deported to Kalaupapa, the small, isolated, hard-to-reach, peninsula on the Island of Moloka‘i. Imagine this: They were forced to leave their friends and family behind to live the rest of their lives in isolation. The first 12 people were dropped off on January 3rd 1866. In total, 8.000 people spent their lives in seclusion.

This is especially horrific since they were expected to live completely on their own, even though the disease has advanced and deteriorated their well-being. There were no medical facilities or doctors whatsoever. They literally vegetated.

In 1973, Father Damian De Veuster, a Belgian doctor and catholic priest, decided to take care of the abandoned sick and to stay with them in Kalaupapa until the rest of his life. He built wooden shacks, brought clothes and drugs, took care of their wounds, build gardens and fields and he even built a church.

In 1889, two years after he was diagnosed with leprosy himself, he died in Moloka'i at the age of 49. He spent the last 16 years of his life with leprosy-infected people.

On October 11th 2009, Father Damian was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI.

Sugarcane (kō)

However, the early settlers did not only bring death and devastation, but also crops. Sugarcane, known as kō in the Hawaii language, was brought by the early Polynesian settlers and therefore already grew on the islands upon Cook‘s arrival. Sugar was enjoyed just like it is today, as a food or a sweetener. The most popular method of eating cane was simply to chew on the raw stalk, extracting the juice by crushing the fibers with one's teeth.

The further processing from sugarcane to sugar occurred much later, in 1825. 10 years later, the first successful sugar cane company Ladd & Company was founded in Koloa on Kaua’i. The first commercial harvest in 1837 produced 2 tons of sugar. The market grew rapidly and one year later, already 20 companies existed.

Demand for labor increased, but the native Hawaiians refused to work on the plantations. And, as we just discussed, the majority of Hawaiians died from infectious diseases and the population shrank devastatingly. To solve the problem, businessmen hired cheap labor from abroad. From now on, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino immigrants worked the fields and mingled with the local native Hawaiian population.

This is the cause of the melting pot, the mix of many cultures and diversity, we nowadays find in Hawai'i.

Today, sugar is not produced anymore. The last sugarcane plantation was closed on Maui in 2016. Nevertheless, you can taste sugar cane juice yourself (and you should – it is SO good!). You can go to local farmers markets or search for local stores. 

Pineapple (hala kahiki)

The pineapple, the hala kahiki, is associated easily with Hawai'i, meaning: when you think of Hawai'i, you think of pineapple!

You could almost think that it is a native plant, or introduced by the Polynesians such as the sugarcane and taro plants are. Neither is true! It is not really known when pineapples were first introduced to the islands. Some historians believe that a Spanish shipwreck in 1527 on the South Kona Coast on the Big Island brought pineapples amongst other things. Three centuries later, in the 1800s, a Spaniard planted and cultivated the first pineapples in Hawai'i. His name was Francisco de Paula Marin.

The production of pineapple was initiated out of fear to be dependent on one single crop (which is sugarcane). Hawai'i needed to diversify its crops and agriculture.

Many entrepreneurs tried to build up a thriving pineapple business, but all of them failed – but one man. James Dole, Harvard graduate, came to Hawai'i around 1900. In 1901, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company was established, and 75.000 pineapples were planted near Wahiawa on O’ahu. In 1903, the first cannery was opened and in the following year the company achieved high sales numbers. More plantations were opened. In 1922 the Hawaiian Pineapple Company bought more land on O’ahu as well as the entire Island of Lāna’i to extend acreage. Lānai City was founded. At peak times, roughly 75% of worldwide pineapple production was harvested on Lāna’i. The Palawai Basin was covered with pineapple fields. Pineapple was also grown on Moloka’i and Kaua’i.

In the 1960s, after the peak year 1957, the production of pineapple cans was outsourced to the Philippines, to Thailand, Costa Rica and Brazil due to cheaper labor costs. This led to a decline in pineapple production in Hawai'i.

1992 the now Dole Food Company (former: Hawaiian Pineapple Company) closed all plantations on Lāna’i. The last cannery was closed in 2007. 2009 the company Maui Land & Pineapple Inc. ceased production and closed all facilities, leaving Dole Food Co. as the sole pineapple producer on O’ahu.

Coconut (niu)

Next, we’re gonna talk about another exotic plant you might have thought was native to Hawai'i. The delicious, fleshy, juicy coconut, or niu.

However though, the ubiquitous coconut is also not native to Hawai'i, but was brought by the early Polynesian settlers. The coconut was used to produce tools and rope out of the husk and fibers, respectively. Coconut is found in some foods, such as haupia, a coconut pudding oftentimes served at luaus.

Taro or Kalo

Taro or kalo or (which is the same thing), was also introduced by the Polynesians. The taro is a crop and widely used in traditional Hawaiian cuisine. For example, Hawaiian poi is made out the corm, the root. Other parts of the plant, such as leaves, stalks and sprouts are also edible. For example, you can find taro fields in the Hanalei Valley on Kaua'i.


Have you ever associated the Big Island with something different than volcanoes? There is one other thing the Big Island is known for: Kona coffee, supposedly one of the best coffees in the entire world.

But what does Kona coffee mean and why is it so special?

To be called coffee “100% Kona coffee”, the coffee plant has to grow in a very specific region – the Kona Coffee Belt. It is located on the western side of the Big Island, on the slopes of Mauna Loa and Hualalai Volcanoes. The strip is 3,6 km (2,2 miles) long and located at an elevation of 180-900m (or 600-3000 ft). Several hundreds of small coffee farms are located within the coffee belt.

The first coffee bean came to Hawai'i with a person we already know: the Spaniard Don Francisco de Paula Marin, who also cultivated the first pineapple crop. However, his plant died. Later, another man, Samuel Ruggles, introduced a new plant in 1828. Unfortunately, bad weather conditions, diseases and labor shortage almost lead to the end of coffee farming on Hawai'i in the mid of the 19th century. At the end of the same century, in 1892, a bean from Guatemala was introduced, now known today as “Kona Typica”.

Why is Kona coffee so good? Three key factors make the difference:

  1. Elevation
  2. Temperature
  3. Precipitation

In the Kona Coffee Belt Region, all of these factors are perfectly combined.

The higher elevation keeps the temperature cool and more pleasant than at sea level. The lower temperature allows the beans to grow and ripen slower, resulting in a more dense and more intensely flavoured bean. Shade due to overcast skies protects the plants from drought and intense sunshine.

When it comes to rain, the Kona Coffee Belt is perfect as well. Annualy, it receives 1.524mm of rain. Germany received 590mm in 2018 (l/m² = mm).

The gentle lopes of the volcanoes provide ideal moisture: they collect water from rainfall, without drowing the plant and while flowing at a moderate pace.

Last but not least, the Hawaiian volcanic soil is packed with nutrients and minerals, supporting the plants growth.

If you are a coffee lover, you have to try Kona coffee for sure. There are other kinds of coffee grown on the Big Island, for example in Ka’ū, Puna and Hāmākua.

If you find the 100% Kona Coffee too expensive, you can try a blend! Per law, it has to contain at least 10% Kona coffee.

I really hope you liked today's blog. Where you surprised that neither the coconut nor the pineapple are native to Hawai'i? Tell me in the comments or send me an email with one thing you learned from this blog! Can't wait to hear from you. 

Be kind and love nature, 


PS: If you haven't hear it yet: You can have all this information as video online classes with animated slides and beautiful photographs for free. Learn more about Hawaiian life in the MĀLAMA (care for) Hawai'i Pre-Travel Class. 😊



About the author

Daniela is convinced that by gaining deep insights into planet Earth and travel destinations you’ll create meaningful, grounding and memorable life and travel experiences. She explains fundamental geological processes that form and shape landscapes and combines these insights with philosophical and philanthropical views in her online courses, articles, newsletter. She holds two bachelor's degrees in geosciences (B.Sc.) and business administration with tourism (B.A.). She is the owner and founder of EarthyMe, EarthyUniversity and the Science of Travel blog and the Stories of Earth newsletter.



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