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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 14, 2006

Hawai'i's sandalwood empire is long gone

By Duane Choy

This small sandalwood tree at Maui's Sandalwood Golf Course is one of the few examples still growing in the Islands.

Advertiser library photo

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History is brimming with stories of the destruction of once abundant natural resources. In Hawai'i, human greed was particularly devastating for sandalwood.

Hawai'i was once known as Tahn Heung Sahn Sandalwood Mountains to the Chinese, because of the proliferation of this fragrant tree.

Hawaiians called sandalwood 'iliahi and sometimes la'au'ala.

In 1790, Capt. John Kendrick of the Lady Washington set out from Boston for the northwest coast of America to acquire seal and sea-otter furs for trade with China.

Kendrick made a stop in Hawai'i to replenish his ship with wood, water and salt. Sailing from Kaua'i, his adrenaline was sent racing by a familiar odor emanating from a cooking fire. Was it sandalwood the very item that was escalating in world prices as India's stands of trees disappeared?

Hawaiians, who used sandalwood mainly for minor medicinal treatments and to scent kapa, could not comprehend foreigners' singular obsession with the tree, which was so revered and precious in Asia.

It was because of sandalwood that foreigners introduced Hawaiians to the concept of credit. Merchants used simple to extravagant items (military uniforms, liquor, guns, silks, leather, silver mirrors, brass cannon) to barter for sandalwood.

Pricing was based on a "picul," 133.3 pounds of 'iliahi heartwood, at $8 to $10 dollars per picul.

Kamehameha I attempted to cash in on the lucrative sandalwood trade. He purchased a brig, which he named the Ka'ahumanu, and in 1817, with Capt. Alexander Adams, he sailed to China. But because of China's brokerage charges and port fees, he failed to make a profit. Returning to Hawai'i, Kamehameha capitalized on his lesson, imposing an anchorage fee of 80 Spanish dollars for every ship sailing into Honolulu harbor.

When Kamehameha died in 1819, the monopoly on 'iliahi that passed on to lesser chiefs took a downward plunge. Credit debt extended on promised sandalwood reached a stunning $300,000 by 1821.

In December 1826, the kingdom of Hawai'i enacted its first written law a sandalwood tax. Every man was ordered to deliver to the government a half picul of 'iliahi, or pay four Spanish dollars, by Sept. 1, 1827. Every woman older than 13 was obligated to make a 12-by-6-foot kapa cloth. The taxes were collected to reduce the staggering promissory-note debt.

This period saw two major famines as 'iliahi was harvested to the point of commercial extinction in Hawai'i forests. The common people were displaced from their agricultural and fishing duties, and all labor was diverted to harvesting sandalwood.

Hawaiians were nicknamed "kua leho" (callous back) because of the shoulder callouses they developed hauling 'iliahi logs. On the road to Waikolu lookout on Moloka'i is a "lua moku 'iliahi" (sandalwood pit), dug out to be the same size as a ship's hold. When logs filled the pit, only then would a waiting vessel transport the cargo.

Trails into the forests were sometimes nonexistent, and work continued into the night. 'Iliahi was tarnished by blood as Hawaiians suffered famine, disease, exposure, malnourishment and exhaustion. As agriculture declined from neglect, imported goods gained dominance.

'Iliahi rapidly disappeared from the Hawaiian forest, and the trade disappeared with the felling of the last treese.

Today, there isn't a single untouched natural sandalwood forest left on the planet. Hawai'i is no exception, with only isolated 'iliahi scattered in our forests.

Aloha, Tahn Heung Sahn!

Duane Choy is a consultant for nonprofit organizations involved primarily with environmental missions, and is a Hawai'i native-plant specialist. Reach him at HanaHou@EcologyFund.net.