Hawaii: The Big Five

Essay by Edward ChoyJunior High, 9th gradeC, March 1997

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Prologue of History

Until statehood, Hawaii was ruled economically by a consortium of corporations known as the 'Big Five': C. Brewer and Co., sugar, ranching, and chemicals, founded in 1826; Theo. H. Davies & Co., sugar, investments, insurance, and transportation, founded in 1845; Amfac Inc. (originally H. Hackfield Inc.-a German firm that changed its name and ownership during the anti-German sentiment of WW I to American Factors), sugar, insurance, and land development, founded in 1849; Castle and Cooke Inc., (Dole) pineapple, food packing, and land development, founded 1851; and Alexander and Baldwin Inc., shipping, sugar, and pineapple, founded in 1895. This economic oligarchy ruled Hawaii with a velvet glove and a steel grip. With members on all important corporate boards, they controlled all major commerce, including banking, shipping, insurance, hotel development, agriculture, utilities, and wholesale and retail merchandising. Anyone trying to buck the system was ground to dust, finding it suddenly impossible to do business in the islands.

The Big Five were made up of the islands' oldest and most well-established haole families; all included bloodlines from Hawaii's own nobility and ali'i. They looked among themselves for suitable husbands and wives, so breaking in from the outside even through marriage was hardly possible. The only time they were successfully challenged prior to statehood was when Sears, Roebuck and Co. opened a store on Oahu. Closing ranks, the Big Five decreed that their steamships would not carry Sears's freight. When Sears threatened to buy its own steamship line, the Big Five relented. In the end, statehood, and more to the point, tourism, broke their oligarchy. After 1960 too much money was at stake for Mainland-based corporations to ignore. Eventually the grip of the Big Five was loosened, but they are still enormously powerful and richer than ever, though these...