Who are ‘The Descendants’?

By Ed Felien    February 2012    Southside Pride

“The Descendants,” starring George Clooney, is a feel-good domestic drama about an absent dad coming to terms with a comatose wife and two young daughters. It’s also a story about who owns the land. 

Matt King (George Clooney) is a descendant of a Hawaiian princess who married a missionary. He is a Honolulu-based lawyer and the sole trustee of a family trust that controls 25,000 acres of unspoiled land on the island of Kaua’i. The trust will expire in seven years because of the rule against perpetuities, so the cousins and extended King family have decided to sell the land for development as condominiums, a resort and golf course.

The film is based on the first novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, a native Hawaiian with a mixed cultural and privileged background similar to Matt King’s. Her grandmother was from the Wilcox missionary family that came to Hawaii in 1836 on the same boat with missionaries Castle and Cooke. The children of Castle and Cooke turned native lands into pineapple plantations and then into resort communities. They were one of the original Big Five groups that eventually came to own Hawaii. 

In 1840, the first Hawaiian Constitution says the land of Hawaii belongs to the people to be ruled by the king, the chiefs and the people who lived on it—in equal shares.

In 1848, The Great Mahele, the dividing up of the land, gives ownership of 60% of the land to the king, 39% to the chiefs and 1% to the Maka’ainana, or native tenants. Very quickly Western interests begin to buy up Hawaiian land for pineapple and sugar cane plantations.

In 1893, U.S. Marines invade and occupy Hawaii and Hawaii is annexed to the U.S. in what U.S. President Cleveland called “an act of war” against a peaceful nation. One of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ ancestors leads an armed attempt to restore the monarchy that fails. Only people who owned property were allowed to vote and landless native Hawaiians and Asians were stripped of the rights of citizenship.

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Not all plantation owners supported the annexation. Henry Perrine Baldwin and Samuel Alexander, both sons of missionaries in Maui, who became A & B, one of the Big Five—and ultimately the Big One of the Big Five once Castle and Cooke joined them at the beginning of the 20th century—originally opposed the takeover because the annexation limited their powers of involuntary servitude. Prior to the invasion a plantation owner could have an indentured servant sent to a chain gang if they refused to work. The Big Five made sure annexation worked in their favor. In 1898 Hawaii was placed under military martial law and plantation owners could have the military find absent workers and bring them to work

Hubert Edson, an American engineer who worked on the A & B plantation, reported in his book “Sugar From Scarcity to Surplus”: “This partner [Baldwin], a descendant of a missionary family was a man of tremendous energy, generally directed more to the agricultural side of the business than to the factory. He was a deeply religious man and there was a general impression among employees that his favor was secured as much by going to church on Sunday as by doing your work efficiently…

However, it seemed to me that his actions, like those of many zealots, contradicted the religion in which he professed to believe. An example of this was his unrelenting attitude toward the indentured labor force … The contract contained a clause … inflicting a severe penalty—a long term on government road work—when they failed to report for work … The resident manager attended court proceedings to insist on the enforcement of this penalty, which in effect, kept the workers indefinitely in slavery. Just how his religion countenanced this attitude I couldn’t understand …”

In 1869, Alexander and Baldwin bought 12 acres in Maui for $110. The next year they bought 559 acres for $8,000. Today, A & B owns 67,335 acres in Maui. Most of that land is zoned agricultural and is used in sugar cane production. In the 19th century A & B carved tunnels through Mt. Haleakala and dug wide irrigation ditches using indentured Chinese labor. In doing so they diverted the water that fed the native pondfields necessary for growing the taro plant—the principal food of the Hawaiians. A & B owns 16,000 acres of watershed lands in East Maui. They own four water licenses to 30,000 acres owned by the State of Hawaii in East Maui, but these are revocable permits that must be renewed annually. They also have had some legal trouble for burning the sugar cane during harvest. The amount of damage that has been done to agricultural workers and the people of Hawaii in terms of asthma and respiratory diseases will still have to be calculated.

Agriculture is only one of three business interests of A & B. They also wholly own Matson Navigation Company, which began as the way to transport pineapples and sugar to California. Today (according to the Anderson and Baldwin 2010 Annual Report) Matson accounts for 78% of the revenue, 54% of the operating profit and 47% of the identifiable assets of A & B. With the planned military build-up in Guam, Matson is looking forward to major profits in the years ahead. Matson is the principal transport for Chinese goods from Hong Kong to Long Beach, Calif. But, up to now, they’ve been sending empty ships back to pick up Chinese imports. It will be much more profitable to be able to fill those ships with military hardware and supplies and carry them back to China via Guam.

The third area of business for A & B is real estate. Although it only accounted for 13% of the revenue for the corporation, it made up 43% of the operating profit and it holds 47% of identifiable assets. From the Annual Report: “A&B was the original developer of the Wailea Resort, beginning in the 1970s and continuing until A & B sold the Resort to the Shinwa Golf Group in 1989. [Shinwa Golf Group owns and operates golf resorts, hotels and golf courses. The company is based in Kyoto, Japan.]

“From 2004 to 2007, A & B sold 29 single-family homesites at Wailea’s Golf Vistas subdivision and four bulk parcels, a 3 acre business parcel and a 4.6 acre parcel. A & B continues its planning, design and permitting activities at the 13 acre parcel, planned for 75 multi-family units and a 13.7 acre parcel planned for a 65,000 square foot commercial center, single-family lots fronting the Blue Course, and a 36 unit condominium project.”

This development begins to sound a lot like the proposed development in “The Descendants”: luxury hotels, shopping centers, fancy homes and a couple of golf courses.

Spoiler Alert: 

At the last moment, Matt King decides he’s not going to sacrifice paradise for the almighty dollar. He kills the development and saves the natural environment.

But that’s revisionist history. That’s not the way the real world works. The real descendants of the missionary families that originally took the islands away from the native Hawaiians are now a bloodless corporation that only cares about profit and the bottom line. They’re not concerned about native fishing rights and burial grounds. They’re only concerned about making money. That’s their job. That’s what corporations do. 

They’re still in sugar cane because they want to hold onto the land, and agricultural zoning gives them a nice tax advantage. They also want to hold onto the water rights so they can use them for future development.

When they first proposed the Grand Wailea Resort, public opposition was so great it seemed to stop the project, but, somehow, quietly, elected officials went along with A & B and the luxury hotels and condos got built, and the fairways knocked out the only access road from South Maui to Hana.

The operating profit margin for agriculture was only 3.7% in 2010, and it was that high only because A & B was able to convince Congress to keep sugar prices artificially high. It seems inevitable that price supports for sugar won’t have a promising future.

But A & B have other plans for that land, especially the agricultural land around Kahului: 
The Kane Street Development will have 103 residential condominium units in five four story buildings with 20,000 square feet of commercial space, but the project is on hold until “market conditions improve.”

The Kahului Town Center will have a 19 acre Kahului Shopping Center block that reflects the creation of a traditional ‘town center.’ There will be 440 residential condominiums and 240,000 square feet of retail/office space. But this project is delayed because of market conditions.

The Maui Business Park II: “In 2008 A & B received final zoning approval for 179 acres in Kahului, Maui, representing the second phase of its Maui Business Park project, from agriculture to light industrial.” But this project, too, waits for improved business conditions.

This is the real legacy of “The Descendants”: a faceless greed that destroys the land, the water, the air and the people of Hawaii. George Clooney puts too handsome a face on it. 
Corporations (no matter what Mitt Romney and the Supreme Court say) are not people. And they are certainly not George Clooney.

Ed Felien is the publisher of Southside Pride.

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