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by Timothy P. Hall

When the first humans to step from their sailing canoes arrived on the shore of Maui, the islands were covered with iliahi - sandalwood. They brought with them a number of alien species; almost all were brought on purpose. Others were hitch-hiking, hiding in the time capsule in which they traveled so far. Pigs, dogs, and chickens were introduced intentionally, whereas other animals, such as rats, geckos, and skinks were stowaways. They also brought many traditional ways of life and resource management. These first Hawaiians cleared the lower forest land for agriculture and diverted streams to artificially irrigate constructed pond fields where they cultivated the staple of their diet, taro. They also constructed rock walls in shallow reef areas and created fish ponds. This was a part of their concept of stewardship for the land - the aina.

The author, Tim Hall, and Guy Aina, donating a Kamani sapling
to the crew of the Hawaiian voyaging canoe, Hokulea, for planting
on the Big Island of Hawai'i. Photo taken during the
Taro Festival activities at Kapueokai Bay in Hana.

Most of the sandalwood sold in China was white and was imported from India and the east Indies. At the end of the 18th century, the supply of this wood was insufficient to feed China's demands. As the value of sandalwood increased, the Hawaiian islands emerged as a major source of raw material. Hawaii soon became known as "Tahn Heung Sahn", the Sandalwood mountains. A picul, a unit equal to the amount that a man can carry, is 133 1/2 pounds and sold for $8.00. In the early years, American entrepreneurs dealt with the King and chiefs, and, King Kamehameha eventually had an exclusive monopoly over the sandalwood trade. He accumulated large amounts of luxury goods, often paying inflated prices. He purchased many ships with promises of sandalwood payments. Kamehameha bought a brig, which he named Kaahumanu, and tried to enter the sandalwood trade himself. In 1817 he set sail with Captain Alexander Adams. His attempt failed to make a profit (a result of brokerage fees and port charges at the Chinese port). He came to recognize the value of charging pilot and port fees and quickly applied this practice at Honolulu Harbor. Every ship was now required to pay eighty Spanish dollars for anchorage at the inner harbor.

The common people were ordered by the King to go up the mountain to cut sandalwood and carry the iliahi harvest to the harbor. After the bark and sapwood had been adzed off, the men would tie the heavy wood bundles on their backs and carry it down trails to areas that were dug to the same dimensions as the hulls of the cargo ships that transported the sandalwood to China. The carrying of this oil-rich wood created calluses on the shoulders of the men. Hawaiians had a name for them, Kua-leho, or callous backs. Much of this sandalwood was stained with blood, and many Hawaiians died from the corroding effects of exhaustion, disease, malnutrition, and exposure to chilly wet mountain winds without adequate clothing. They would cut sandalwood by day and, with the aid of sandalwood torches, at night. All the people, chiefs and commoners, went out cutting and carrying sandalwood. Because of this the crops were neglected and famine fell like a dark cloud over the sandalwood mountains. When Kamehameha saw that his kingdom was in the grip of famine, he ordered the chiefs and commoners not to devote all their time to cutting sandalwood. He allowed them to return to their villages and placed a kapu (ban) on the cutting of small trees in an effort to conserve this resource.

In 1819, King Kamehameha died, passing the throne to his son Liholiho. The old kapu system was abolished, and he was persuaded to give the chiefs a greater share in the sandalwood trade. The 1820's was a very active time in the sandalwood trade. American ships were selling 1,400 tons of sandalwood per year in China. The King and chiefs bought ships and many expensive items, on credit from the American merchants with no regard to how much debt they owed. By 1821, the native debt had risen to 300,000 American dollars. The king and chiefs could purchase items by merely signing promissory notes. This was disastrous to the welfare of the maka'aina and the sandalwood. Soon the easily accessible stands of sandalwood had been harvested and they had to go farther up the mountain. The new King had a short life. He died in 1824, of a contagious disease he contracted on a royal visit to London.

Iliahi (santalum freycinetianum)
The endangered native sandalwood of Maui.

The kingdom was passed on to Kamehameha III along with a huge debt of $500,000 owed to the American traders. The pressure on the king was great. In December 1826, the kingdom's first written law, a sandalwood tax, stated that every man was required to deliver one-half picul of sandalwood to the governor of the district to which he belonged, or to pay, in lieu thereof, four Spanish dollars, on or before September 1, 1827. Every woman 13 years and older was required to hand weave a 12 foot by 6 foot mat, or a quantity of tapa cloth of equal value. All the taxes collected were applied to the kingdom's sandalwood debts. Again commoners were forced to abandon their crops, and food shortages plagued the islands. The accessible sandalwood was all gone, making it more difficult to locate trees with adequate heartwood to meet the new tax requirements.

Unjust demands caused so much toil for the commoners, carrying the heavy wood down the mountain trail, that they pulled up the young sandalwood trees, so that their children would not be forced to live the same life. By 1840, the Hawaiian sandalwood trade had come to a halt because of the low quality of the remaining heartwood in the islands. The Americans introduced cattle and goats and grasses into the native forest. This did not provide the ecological conditions conducive to regenerating native vegetation. For many years the trade fell dormant, and sandalwood was widely assumed to be extinct.

The earliest recorded attempt to grow Hawaiian sandalwood was by Dr. William Hillebrand, an avid botanist and horticulturist, between 1851 and 1871 on his Honolulu homestead. His efforts were a total failure with sandalwoods, and he attributed the problem to the parasitic nature of the species and indicated "all attempts to propagate them in his garden failed". The Territorial Division of Forestry was formed in 1903, and the first modern forest reserve system was established in the islands. The major objective was to improve watershed conditions by removing alien cattle and replanting large areas of uplands that had been cut, burned, and overgrazed. The division also began the development of commercial forestry and some native plant propagation and protection. As a result, some populations of native sandalwoods made a small comeback in the first three decades.

In 1930, Indian sandalwood was selling for $500 a ton in New York. "Pound for pound this wood was the most valuable in the world". The forest service had begun importation of seeds from India in 1930 and started an experimental grove of over 1,500 plants.This was finally a success, they paid attention to sandalwood's need for a host plant, without which the seedling perished before reaching a year old. The host plant used was Acacia Koa, a very fast growing Hawaiian hardwood. Headlines in the Honolulu Star Bulletin read "Sandalwood, Once the Gold Mine of Hawaii is Coming Back". They also tried a few native sandalwood - freycinetianum - but they never germinated. The trees were very slow growing, taking 40 years to reach reproductive maturity. Most all the trees died, and one that survived attained a trunk diameter of less than 6 inches after a quarter-century. The interest in growing sandalwood by the forest service faded fast.

Indigenous species of Ohia Lehua
growing in what remains of Maui's
native forests.

In 1992, a man named Mark Hanson had a vision. The island of Kaho'olawe off the south of Maui was crying out to him. She told him to go to the mountain and pick the native seeds and grow the trees and plant them with the youth of today for their tomorrow. He hiked the mountain and gathered many native seeds from sandalwood and any other natives species he could find. In March of the next year the first sandalwoods sprouted in his nursery.

By August 1994, 41 sandalwoods and 30 other native trees were planted on one acre of Kaonoulu ranch land. November of that year saw the first planting of native trees in the Kula Forest Reserve. The "Earth Guardians", a youth group concerned with native environment, planted 50 sandalwoods and 25 native mamane trees. At this time, the "Earth Guardians" nicknamed Mark, "The Sandalwood man", a modern day Johnny Appleseed. He can grow sandalwoods with or without a host plant, for as he has said, "with love and time the seeds will grow".

What was once a vision is now a reality. He grew thousands of sandalwoods and other native species in his nursery. He started giving away sandalwoods on Earth Day, April 22, 1994 at Maui Community College. This started something he called, Free Tree Giveaway. He would fill his truck with native trees and park on the side of the road with a sign that said "free trees". At the time, this was the only way to get more than 5,000 sandalwoods planted on Maui.

In 1994 he started the "Hawaiian Reforestation Program" and drafted The first "Forest Recovery Act Bill". To successfully stop the destruction of the Hawaiian forests, all seeds of all endangered or rare plants would be collected from the forest. Nurseries would be created to grow these rare plants, and the state and federal nurseries would be used for propagating native plants only, until the forest is no longer threatened. When native plants are deemed ready for planting, the youth of Hawaii's schools will take care of the planting. The purpose and objective of this act was to create and maintain a balanced environment, and preserve the natural wealth of our aina. In May 1995, the Hawaiian Reforestation Program submitted a proposal to the Department of Land and Natural Resources, to use the land in Kanaio to grow a diverse, community-stewarded, forest. The response from DLNR was no response! The Hawaiian Reforestation Program rolled along planting native trees at Maui schools, parks and the Kula forest reserve. That's where I entered the picture. One day I was driving home and saw the "Free Trees" sign. I pulled over and met the Sandalwood Man. We became friends and, very soon, I was totally into his ideas. As a sculptor for a few years on Maui, I had heard of sandalwood, but never seen it. I told him I would like to help with the Hawaiian Reforestation Program, and In January 1996, we moved the nursery from Kanaio to Haiku, because he lost his lease and because of the high cost of water for the plants. We moved over 5,000 native plants in just one month's time.

A local land owner, Anthony Ranken, gave his permission for the Hawaiian Reforestation Program to create a neighborhood forest to promote self-sufficiency and permaculture. This is a sustainable way to develop Maui's economy. In 1996, we started growing native trees on Jim & Susan Bendon's land in Kahakuloa, an area in West Maui, where a few native species cling to life, while Christmas berry encroaches. We put up new fences, moved the cattle off the land, and collected seeds from trees nearby. Within three months we saw dramatic changes on the land. To date, over 400 trees survive along with a few sandalwoods and koa trees in protected areas. In November 1996, The Hawaiian Reforestation Program, with the youth of Maui, planted 1,000 sandalwoods in Kula Forest Reserve.

Ka Pueo O Ke Kai - The Owl of the Sea - an Opelu canoe
made by Tim Hall from a log of Cigarbox Mahogany he found
washed up on the shore of Lanai island.

We were invited to the Hana Taro Festival that year by the local Hawaiians to give away trees and paddle my canoe around Kapueokai Bay. We traveled in what Mark calls, "The Cosmic Canoe". This turned out to be a spiritual awakening for us. As of May 6, 1997, working with the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, we now have permission to plant sandalwoods, koa and ohia from an elevation of 4,000 feet, up to the 8,500 foot tree line. The trees will be interplanted among the native scrub where good sites occur. We now have land to plant the native sandalwood trees and other native trees and plants.

Part of our mission is complete, but there is still more hard work to save Hawaii's rare forests. The Hawaiian Reforestation Program is going to plant 5,200 native plants in the next three years adding 1,000 to 2,000 sandalwoods to the Kula Forest Reserve. I'm glad that Mark Hanson, The Sandalwood Man, had his vision, because I have the same vision - of a better tomorrow for our children, and our children's children.


  • Daehler, R.E., 1989, TAHN HEONG SAHN -The Sandalwood Mountains
  • Gast, R.H., 1976, Contentious Consul
  • Hillebrand, W.F., 1965, Flora of the Hawaiian Islands
  • Hirano, R.T., 1977. Propagation of Santalum.
  • Judd, C.A., 1926, The Natural Resources of the Hawaiian Forest Regions and their Conservation.
  • Judd, C.A., 1933., The Parasitic Habit of the Sandalwood Tree.
  • Kepler, A.K., 1983, Hawaiian Heritage Plants.
  • Kirch, P.V., 1992, Transported Landscapes.
  • Kotzebue, O., 1830, New Voyage Round the World.
  • Kuykendall, R.S., 1938, Hawaiian Kingdom.
  • Lydgate, J.M., 1916, Sandalwood Days.
  • Tan, P., 1951, A Historical Survey of Sino-Hawaiian Trade.
  • Daws, G., 1968, The Shoal of Time.








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