Fragrant sandalwood trees, or ‘iliahi, whose heartwood was used for incense and medicines, had long been abundant in the Hawaiian Islands. In about 1790, foreign seamen opened up trade between Kamehameha I and the sandalwood markets in Canton, China. The commercial trade exploded between 1821 and 1823 during Liholiho’s reign, with American ships selling an average of 21,000 piculs (1,400 tons) of Hawaiian sandalwood per year to Canton at $8 per picul.1 But the Kingdom’s profits were eaten by debts that Liholiho and other ali‘i incurred to purchase luxury goods at inflated prices, often paid for with promises to deliver more sandalwood in the future. And the human toll on the maka‘āinana was immense, as people were forced to gather and transport sandalwood on their backs, often neglecting the crops needed to survive. By 1840, the once plentiful sandalwood forests were stripped and the Chinese market had collapsed.
“We were roused by vast multitudes of people passing through the district from Waimea with sandal-wood, which had been cut in the adjacent mountains for Karaimoke, by the people of Waimea, and which the people of Kohala, as far as the north point, had been ordered to bring down to the storehouse on the beach, for the purpose of being shipped to Oahu. There were between two and three thousand men, carrying each from one to six pieces of sandal-wood, according to their size and weight. It was generally tied on their backs by bands make of ti leaves.” — Rev. William Ellis, Polynesian Researches: Hawaii, p. 397
“The wide open market in Hawai‘i therefore proved an irresistible attraction to the New England traders, and they descended upon the islands in a swarm, bringing with them everything from pins, scissors, clothing, and kitchen utensils to carriages, billiard tables, house frames, and sailing ships, and doing their utmost to keep the speculating spirit at fever heat among the Hawaiian chiefs. And the chiefs were not slow about buying; if they had no sandalwood at hand to pay for the goods, they gave promissory notes. Even after sandalwood had become scarce they still kept buying, led on by a species of salesmanship at which these Yankee traders were adept.” — Ralph S. Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom, Vol. 1, 1778-1854, p. 89
1 Mark Merlin and Dan VanRavenswaay, “The History of Human Impact on the Genus Santalum in Hawai‘i,” USDA Forest Services Gen. Tech. Report PSW-122, 1990.