From Kona Coffee to Racial Harmony

For those of you who love coffee, and even those who don’t, the Kona version is a globally known brand. But how many readers know the connection of Kona Coffee to racial harmony and reconciliation? Read on.

A few weeks ago I was in Kailua-Kona, a small city on the big island of Hawaii. I was there for meetings of the mission I work with, and they took place in a beautiful building called “King’s Mansion”. Here is what is written in a folder on the table as you walk in. “The majestic, Hawaiian plantation-style structure on six acres of land now known as ‘King’s Mansion’ was given that name to honor the King of Kings. It was originally built in 1903 as the family residence of the Greenwells, well-known leaders in the late 19th and early 20th century development of West Hawaii.”

Now most of you reading my blog know my love for history, and reading this about the Greenwells naturally made me want to know more. My curiosity was even more piqued when I noticed a memorial stone pillar for William Henry Greenwell at the bottom of the property. On the front of the slab (see above) was the birth and death dates of the eldest son of the first Greenwell in Hawaii, Henry Nicholas Greenwell (d.1891). But then I went around to the back! Along the bottom of the memorial and in the back are many lines of Japanese language (still trying to find out what it all meant). On the back face in English are words inscribed by the Japanese workers of Greenwell: “As an eternal remembrance to his friendship, this monument is created by his Japanese friends. TO HIM ALL PEOPLE ALIKE.” (reproduced below but hard to make out.)

So what is the connection between Kona Coffee and the memorial above set up by Greenwell’s workers/friends? The elder Greenwell was an English merchant who came to California in 1849 to cash in on the Gold Rush going on there. He was injured in an accident in San Francisco unloading cargo, and went to the Hawaiian islands to recover in 1850. A few months later, he moved from Honolulu to Kailua-Kona to open a small retail store and explore opportunities in the islands. Ironically in light of his son’s future racial relations, he was accused of mistreating his Chinese workers when one of them died in his service. But in the ensuing trial he was acquitted of all charges and witnesses actually spoke of how fairly he did treat those who worked for him.

Greenwell began to diversify his business and sold oranges to California, but in 1866 his crop was destroyed. The search for new kinds of oranges led him to Brazil, where he also brought back to Hawaii seeds for trees bearing coffee “beans”. Coffee had actually been introduced to Hawaii in Kona by missionaries in the 1820’s, but the various tries had not been successful. Greenwell was to change all that, and developed a brand known for its consistency and flavor. Thus the “Kona Coffee” global brand was born!

But his oldest son, William Henry Greenwell (d. 1927), became known not only for managing the family’s various products, including coffee, but also for the way he related to other races. He died of appendicitis in 1927, and it was then that his Japanese workers erected the monument in his honor. It was said that these Japanese who worked on the family farm and store would also spend time at the mansion itself, treated like members of the family. Greenwell seemed to have treated them as friends, as evidenced by the inscription, capitalized on the back of the monument, TO HIM ALL PEOPLE ALIKE. 

Unfortunately, in the larger events of the time, seemingly harmonious relations  in Kona between races were only a small part of the story. Just 14 years after this monument was erected, Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor in Honolulu and the two nations would be at war. Many of the Japanese workers/friends of William Greenwell were kept in camps not only in Hawaii but also in the Western Region of the mainland United States. But it is exciting that in the very mansion of the Greenwell family in the 21st century there is this vision: “To serve as a gathering place for global leaders to relate and network around kingdom purposes in an environment of scriptural enrichment and spiritual renewal.”

Next time you enjoy a cup of Kona coffee, or even a Brazilian variety, pause to remember the Greenwell family. Remember the “eternal remembrance to his friendship” memorial erected by his Japanese  friends in 1927. Pray for our world today, where the need for racial harmony and reconciliation is crucially important. Where politicians bloviating about erecting walls, both physical and emotional, only serves to damage further the fragile relationships required for peace, not to mention global survival. 

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