In Hawaiʻi, Plantation Tourism Tastes Like Pineapple

Drawing of people kneeling in pineapple plantation
Hawaiian pineapple plantation, circa 1914.

This is the ninth piece in a series on the Plantationocene—an alternate name for the epoch often called the Anthropocene. The Plantationocene Series aims to create a conversation about multiple forms of plantations, both past and present, as well as the ways that plantation logics organize modern economies, environments, and social relations.

In 1927, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company published a small booklet written by Marion Mason Hale entitled The Kingdom that Grew Out of a Little Boy’s Garden, which tells the story of a boy from Maine who sowed the seeds that “blossomed into one of the most romantic stories ever known.” James Drummond Dole founded the Hawaiian Pineapple Company in 1901, and over the next 56 years built it into the world’s largest fruit cannery. Key to his success was the canning of pineapple, as it enabled the fruit to survive the long voyage to markets in the eastern United States. In the early years, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company was producing around 45,000 cans per season, an output that climbed to nearly 5 million cans of fruit and juice per day by 1957, according to Henry Arthur White’s biography of Dole. This massive growth earned Dole the title of “The King of Pineapple.”

The Pineapple Express is a two-mile narrated train tour, part of the Dole Plantation “experience.” Image by Carl Clifford, December 2007.

The depiction of Dole as a twentieth-century American success story obscures a deeper history of violence and imperialism. That past violence continues to be reified and perpetuated through the present day tourist industry. Pineapple is practically synonymous with the Hawaiian Islands, and no company looms larger in that image than Dole. Today, tourists can easily take a bus from downtown Honolulu to Wahiawa to see the Dole Plantation “experience.” The property invites visitors to spend the day exploring a maze for children, taking a garden tour, and riding a Pineapple Express train. The main building features a restaurant and a large Country Store that sells a wide variety of pineapple-themed products, underscoring how the company continues to place the utmost emphasis on maximizing profits as opposed to accurately representing its past. The story told to tourists is remarkably similar to the one in Marion Hale’s 1927 publication, one that easily misleads visitors about the history of the company and the larger fruit industry.

The Colonial Origins of Dole Plantation

James Dole was not the first in his family to settle in Hawaiʻi. His grandfather, Daniel Dole, was a member of the ninth company of Christian missionaries who, in 1840, set out to convert Native Hawaiians. Missionaries, like Dole, had a significant impact on the Hawaiian government as they increasingly imposed western notions of land and property, best exemplified by the Mãhele of 1848. These efforts resulted in a massive land grab from the Hawaiian people as stolen land was sold to Anglo-American businessmen and investors.

The influx of foreign business transformed not only the Hawaiian landscape, but also the economy and demography of the islands.  While early commerce revolved around the whaling industry and merchant trade, investors increasingly saw economic potential in commercial agriculture. The production of sugar began as a small enterprise alongside a variety of export crops, but the U.S. increasingly came to depend on it during the Civil War. In order to keep up with labor demands, particularly as the Native Hawaiian population was decimated by disease, workers were recruited from China, Japan, the Philippines, and Portugal. As a result, the plantation system developed, in which companies built (frequently segregated) schools, stores, and housing for their workers, which were designed to trap them in cycles of debt. This consolidated the wealth and influence of corporations like the Hawaiian Big Five, all of which were owned by the haole elite.

“The Dole Map of the Hawaiian Islands,” created in 1950 by Joseph Feher for the Dole Pineapple Company. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Gradually, the social and cultural imperialism that the missionaries brought to the islands developed into the exploitative commercial power that overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. One such businessman was Sanford B. Dole, grandson of Daniel Dole and cousin of James Dole, who, despite President Grover Cleveland’s declaration of the overthrow an act of war and recommendation that the provisional government step down, was declared the President of the Republic of Hawaiʻi on July 4, 1894. For decades, American politicians had debated the possibility of annexing the Hawaiian Islands because of its economic and agricultural value, in which sugar ran supreme, as well as its strategic position in the Pacific, but were faced with resistance from the Hawaiian people and anti-imperialists. However, as nationalism spiked during the Spanish-American War, Hawaiʻi was formally annexed in 1898 at the urging of President William McKinley. By this time, some began to doubt the sustainability of the sugar industry, and began instead to advocate for the commercial potential of tropical fruits like pineapple.

When James Dole arrived on the island of Oahu in 1899 with dreams making fortunes in the emerging fruit business, he did so in the wake of the destruction of the Hawaiian monarchy, the massive depopulation of the Native Hawaiians, and in the tradition of western industries extracting profit from Hawaiian soil and people.

Selling the Image of Hawaiʻi

James Dole believed that the success of the business and industry depended upon product visibility, and that marketing pineapple required the commodification of Hawaiian culture. Hawaiian Nationalist activists Mililani and Haunani-Kay Trask explain that this includes “marketing native values and practices on haole  terms. These talents, in Hawaiian terms, are the hula, the aloha—generosity and love—of our people, the u’i or youthful beauty of our men and women, and the continuing allure of our lands and waters.” These very images feature prominently in Hawaiian Pineapple Company and Dole Company’s advertisements. By selling the pineapple as distinctly Hawaiian, “a label assumed by white usurpers of the kingdom for legitimacy,” professor Gary Okihiro explains, “the pineapple tendered the comforts of sun-kissed lands, soft ocean breezes, nature’s abundance, sensuality, and the sweet scent of paradise.”

Native Hawaiian people were depicted not only as harvesters of the product, but as part of the product itself, their bodies used to lend a certain authenticity to the fruit.

Early advertisements from the Hawaiian Pineapple Company in the 1910s and 1920s featured images of the fruit itself, emphasizing its ripeness and its exotic and other-worldly flavors by asking, “But have you tasted this most delicious fruit?” before proclaiming “It’s so different.” These same advertisements frequently emphasized domesticity, with scenes of mothers and children at the dinner table, and increasingly emphasized the palm trees and cliffs of the Hawaiian landscape, before eventually coopting Hawaiian bodies themselves.

By the 1930s, Native Hawaiian people were depicted not only as harvesters of the product, but as part of the product itself, their bodies used to lend a certain authenticity to the fruit. One advertisement declared that Dole pineapple is “Truly Hawaiian,” depicting a muscular and shirtless Native Hawaiian man kneeling and holding a pineapple. Behind him, a Native woman sits with flowers in her hair and a bowl of pineapples in her lap. The caption tells the reader to “Grab pleasure in full measure,” and declared that Dole’s Pineapple juice is “Pure—unsweetened—natural!” Another Dole Pineapple ad from 1941 shows a group of white people dressed in evening attire, with leis around their necks, drinking pineapple juice while metaphorically consuming a figurative Hawaiʻi. At the center, a woman sits in recline on top of a globe. The ad reads “I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” while in the background a waterfall cascades between green foliage. Two faceless brown women wearing little clothing become part of the scenery, as the white foreigners very literally act out an imperialist attitude claiming the globe as their own. These trends, of the white consumer in the foreground with “natural,” sometimes subservient, and oftentimes faceless or indistinguishable Hawaiians in the background, are replicated countless times in the decades that follow. Dole’s advertisements not only reinforce stereotypes of racial inferiority by exoticizing (and often sexualizing) Hawaiian people, they also appropriate Hawaiian traditions for white amusement and consumption. At the time these images of “paradise” were painted, Native Hawaiians were being pushed from the land the pineapple came from.

This 1927 advertisement emphasizes the “cleanliness” of the Dole Pineapple Plant by explaining how its “thousands of workerslike a host of dainty cookswear snowy caps and aprons.” Image from Stuart Woodfin.

Despite the image of Hawaiʻi as a labor-less and carefree paradise, the operation of the pineapple industry required demanding physical labor, frequently performed by women, as the pineapple industry has historically been one of the largest employers of women on the islands. Much of the labor was part time or seasonal, advantageous for students, but unstable for those who needed to provide for their families. These workers often lived in company housing—modeled after sugar plantation communities—where they were subject to “sometimes heavy-handed paternalistic supervision” under the plantation managers.

Although mild improvements followed unionization and mechanical advancements that aided in the production and harvesting of pineapple by the 1950s, much of the wrenching field labor continued to be performed manually. The implementation of modern chemicals, particularly pesticides and herbicides, actually had adverse effects on workers. Some treated plants developed longer stalks which made harvesting the fruit and plant more laborious, and exposure to chemicals was hazardous to both laborers and local community members. Additionally, while non-white people had made gains in climbing the company ladder, haoles occupied most of the highest ranks and supervisory roles. The predominance of the English language amongst company superiors further underscores the erasure of Hawaiian voices within the company.

Dole’s success came from his capitalizing on Hawaiian bodies and a Hawaiian aesthetic to appeal to white American consumers who were led to believe that Hawaiʻi was a far-off and exotic place. During the second half of the twentieth century, Americans would transition from consuming Hawaiian products to consuming a manufactured experience of the islands themselves.

Pineapple, Plantations, and Tourism

Just as the Hawaiian pineapple industry grew out of imperialist impulses, it has given way to new ones. After WWII, the pineapple industry began to shift to places like the Philippines and Thailand, and Hawaiʻi lost its market superiority. Between 1950 and 1960, the annual growth rate of the Hawaiian pineapple industry stagnated at about 1.6 percent, while the growth rate of tourism increased to 18.4 percent. By the 1980s, canned pineapple had dropped in market value, causing the company to return to the sale of fresh pineapple in local markets. In 1989, just two years before the closure of the last Dole cannery in Honolulu, the plantation opened its doors to the public as the “Hawaii’s Complete Pineapple Experience.” Today, it is the second most visited attraction on Oahu. The “experience” makes only passing references on informational placards to the difficult work of harvesting pineapple, and almost no reference to the displacement of Native Hawaiians.

Dole’s success came from his capitalizing on Hawaiian bodies and a Hawaiian aesthetic to appeal to white American consumers who were led to believe that Hawaiʻi was a far-off and exotic place.

Despite the economic significance of tourism in Hawaiʻi, the industry has led to environmental destruction and continues to displace Native Hawaiians as they are forced from neighborhoods as real estate prices climb. At statehood, Hawaiians outnumbered tourists two to one; today, tourists outnumber Native Hawaiians thirty to one. Prominent Native Hawaiian activist and nationalist Haunani-Kay Trask staunchly opposes tourism in the islands. She writes, “On the ancient burial grounds of our ancestors, glass and steel shopping malls with layered parking lots stretch over what were once the most ingeniously irrigated taro lands, lands that fed millions of our people over thousands of years.” Plantation tourism is the latest iteration of the anguish that has plagued Hawaiian people for over two centuries since the arrival of European explorers in 1778.

Featured image: Illustration titled “Workers in Pineapple Plantation” from the Hawaiian Pineapple Packers’ Association’s 1914 publication How We Serve Hawaiian Canned Pineapple. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Mallory Huard is a fifth year dual-title Ph.D. Candidate in U.S. History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Her dissertation examines the role of women in American trade and imperialism in mid-19th century Hawaiʻi. Contact.