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Episode 33: ‘Iliahi and capitalism with Dr. Sam Gon

With the arrival of foreigners in Hawai‘i came new goods; with those goods came debt; with debt came the need for money; and from that need came the first commodification of a creature in the Hawaiian ecosystem: ‘iliahi or sandalwood. Sandalwood trees grew in lowland mesic forests across the Islands and their fragrant heartwood was much prized in China. Ali‘i trading for weapons or other goods would sign promissory notes with visiting ships’ captains, committing to deliver a certain amount of sandalwood. Very quickly debt rose; by the 1820s, sandalwood was being harvested to near extinction. As Dr. Sam Gon notes, it wasn’t just the trees that suffered, it was also the sanctity of the relationship with the land.

“Toward the end, when sandalwood was getting harder and harder to identify as an individual tree in the forest, there were accounts that sections of forest would be put to the torch. People would walk through and by the smell of the smoldering trees identify which ones were sandalwood. Can you think of a less sustainable way to find sandalwood? Certainly, it was the kind of thing that would never have been allowed to occur in ancient times. To go after one thing at the expense of all the other living things of a place—each of which would have been a representative of your family and a physical manifestation of a god—that just wouldn’t have happened.”

researcher, writter, and narrator of Aloha Aina. She is currently an editor at Hawai‘i’s largest magazine, Hana Hou!, where she has written and edited numerous award-winning articles about Hawai‘i. She was the founding editor of Honolulu Weekly. She holds a BA in Pacific history and journalism from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and a JD from Stanford Law School.
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