A paved road surrounded by palm trees with mountains in the distance.

The Colonial History Behind the Hawai’i Wildfires 

Over a hundred people perished in Hawai’i when the deadliest U.S. wildfire of the last century destroyed most of the city of Lāhainā on August 8. Hundreds of families have been displaced, and an estimated 850 people are still missing. Survivors are waiting for federal aid to rebuild their homes in a state already squeezed by a resource- and land-hungry tourism industry (The Oregonian). Residents are facing pressure from real estate developers to sell their properties at discount rates. To truly understand the context around the Hawai’i wildfires, we need to take a step back and ask a more basic question. Why is the 50th U.S. state a Polynesian archipelago in the middle of the Pacific? The answer is currently sitting on the shelf at your local supermarket. 

In the 19th century, Hawai’i was a constitutional monarchy with Lāhainā as its capital, though “a wealthy white American planter class” owned vast swathes of land (History). The white-owning class brought contract laborers from China, Korea, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations (Britannica). In 1877, white settlers forced King Kalakaua to sign the “Bayonet Constitution” at gunpoint, ensuring that suffrage was limited to landowners (National Geographic). The plantation owners still weren’t satisfied. Sixteen years later, “sugar and pineapple businesspeople supported by the U.S. government overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy.” Hawai’i was annexed as a U.S. colony because of its militarily strategic position in the Pacific Ocean with access to the Philippines and Guam, which became a U.S. colony in 1899 (History). Hawai’i would not become a state until 1959. 


• Donate directly to a fundraiser for a family affected by the fire or to ‘Āina Momona’s Maui relief efforts.

• Support community organizing through the Hawai’i People’s Fund.

• Discourage people you know from vacationing in Hawai’i and diverting resources from locals. 

The coup to overthrow the Hawaiian government and engineer the U.S. annexation of a sovereign nation in the central Pacific was masterminded by Sanford Dole, whose cousin founded what’s now known as the Dole Food Company after Sanford installed himself as Hawai’i’s leader. Led by plantation owners and industrialists, the coup helped white Anglo capitalists by ensuring that produce exported to the U.S. mainland would no longer be charged tariffs. The illegal colonization of Hawai’i is why there’s a domestic market for pineapples (Smithsonian). Each Dole fruit sticker in your grocery store is a reminder of how U.S. imperialism benefits corporate greed. 

Ever since U.S. business interests stole Hawai’i, corporations have exploited the region for their own profits. With plantation owners controlling the government, they exercised “absolute control” over a multi-ethnic workforce living under “feudalistic” conditions, with “living and working conditions set unilaterally” by the owners for decades (LibComUniversity of Hawai’i). 

September 1, 2023, marks the 77th anniversary of the 1946 Hawai’i sugar strike. Twenty-six thousand plantation workers refused work for 79 days and brought 33 out of 34 plantations in the state to a halt. The successful strike transformed labor relations, built a multi-ethnic working-class culture, and became “the bedrock for a new political order” (Hawai’i). However, the exploitation of the islands by outside forces continues to the present-day aftermath of the Hawai’i wildfires. Squeezed by a large U.S. military presence, the tourism industry, and wealthy mainland American businesspeople like Oprah and Mark Zuckerburg looking for another summer getaway, Hawai’i now suffers from the most expensive housing market in the United States. In 2012, tech magnate Larry Ellison purchased 98% of the Hawaiian island of Lanai (History). 

“We can’t ignore the scars of history that set the stage for this disaster,” writes Kaniela Ing. He continues: 

“American sugar barons came to exploit Hawaii’s rich resources. They disrupted Lahaina’s water supply and brought highly flammable grasses to Hawaii—the very ones that ignited with ferocity last week. Their heirs went on to monopolize land, marginalizing our indigenous population in the process. 

Their legacy and extractive way of life endures. Maui’s most dominant corporations today, like Alexander & Baldwin, embody the legacy of those same barons who once sought to profit from our fertile lands. Their ethos of extraction and destruction persists in Maui’s most dominant industries: land speculation and tourism. These industries seek to destroy much of Hawaii’s natural beauty while gatekeeping sections of it for the privileged few” (Time).

Land speculators are trying to “steal land” from residents in the aftermath of the Hawai’i wildfires, seeing the disaster as an opportunity to hoard more resources by displacing communities (Insider). Hawai’i Gov. Josh Green has even “seemed to suggest that Native Hawaiians” were to blame for “stymying efforts to divert water even during emergencies” (NBC News). In reality, it’s non-Hawaiian investors and business interests that created the conditions for the Hawai’i wildfires and are now looking to capitalize on their devastation. 


• The Hawai’i fires of August 8 were the deadliest U.S. wildfire in generations. 

• Hawai’i became a state because of a coup organized by white plantation owners. 

• The exploitation of Hawaiian workers and resources set the stage for the wildfires.

1200 801 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

All stories by : Andrew Lee
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