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The Big Five: Hawaii's Oligarchic Power Players and How We are Dealing with it.

Updated: May 29

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Hawaii's history is rich with unique cultural heritage, stunning landscapes, and a complex socioeconomic tapestry. In the early 20th century, a group of Sugarcane processing corporations emerged and came to be known as the Big Five, or "Nā Hui Nui ʻElima" in Hawaiian. These powerful entities, consisting of Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors (now Amfac), and Theo H. Davies & Co., held immense political sway in the Territory of Hawaii. This blog delves into the origins, influence, and controversies surrounding the Big Five, shedding light on their oligarchic power.

The Big Five's rise to prominence can be traced back to the sugarcane industry which was the backbone of Hawaii's economy during this era. These corporations, initially established as sugarcane processing companies, rapidly expanded their operations acquiring vast land holdings, establishing plantations, and controlling various aspects of the sugar production cycle. As their wealth and influence grew, so did their political clout. The Big Five's consolidation of economic power translated into significant political influence aligning closely with the Hawaii Republican Party. Their collective dominance extended beyond the business realm permeating the political landscape of the Territory of Hawaii. Critics argued that the Big Five's control over key industries and close ties to politicians created an oligarchic system concentrating power in the hands of a few.

The extent of the Big Five's control drew criticism from those who believed it hindered Democratic processes and stifled competition. Attorney General of Hawaii Edmund Pearson Dole (No relation to Sanford B. Dole of the Dole Plantation) expressed concern in 1903 stating that the Territory's government was centralized to an unprecedented level. Some likened the influence of the Big Five to that of an oligarchy that raised questions about the fairness and transparency of decision-making processes. While the Big Five's dominance was controversial, it also played a significant role in shaping Hawaii's economic landscape. Their investments and business ventures contributed to the development of infrastructure, transportation networks, and commercial sectors. Over time, these corporations expanded beyond the sugarcane industry, diversifying their interests into real estate, tourism, shipping, and other sectors.

As Hawaii underwent significant political and socioeconomic transformations, the influence of the Big Five gradually waned. The decline of the sugarcane industry, statehood for Hawaii in 1959, and evolving political dynamics, contributed to a shift in power structures. However, the legacy of the Big Five continues to resonate in Hawaii's history and collective memory, that serves as a reminder of the complexities and challenges faced by the islands during this period. The Big Five, the powerful group of sugarcane processing corporations, left an indelible mark on Hawaii's history. Their economic dominance and political influence gave rise to debates about centralized power and potential oligarchy. While their control over key industries has diminished over time, the Big Five's legacy remains a significant chapter in the story of Hawaii's struggle for economic and political autonomy. Understanding the impact of the Big Five provides valuable insights into the historical dynamics that have shaped the unique character of the Hawaiian Islands.


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