The Big Five (Hawaiian: Nā Hui Nui ʻElima) was the name given to a group of what started as sugarcane processing corporations that wielded considerable political power in the Territory of Hawaii during the early 20th century and leaned heavily towards the Hawaii Republican Party. The Big Five were Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors (now Amfac), and Theo H. Davies & Co. The extent of the power that the Big Five had was considered by some as equivalent to an oligarchy. Attorney General of Hawaii Edmund Pearson Dole, referring to the Big Five, said in 1903, "There is a government in this Territory which is centralized to an extent unknown in the United States, and probably almost as centralized as it was in France under Louis XIV."
Sugar plantations in Hawaii had a slow start, although the plant had been cultivated for hundreds of years. When Hawaii was annexed by the United States, change came rapidly as sugarcane plantations gained a new infusion of investment. By eliminating tariffs imposed on sugarcane producers by the United States, planters had more money to spend on equipment, land and labor. Increased capital resulted in increased production. Five kingdom-era corporations benefited from annexation, becoming multimillion-dollar conglomerations that controlled 90% of the sugar business. The companies colluded to keep the prices on their goods and services high. Their profits skyrocketed even more. Soon, the executives of the Big Five sat on each other's boards of directors. With economic power came political power, and the families usually favored the Republican Party of Hawaii.
During the Democratic Revolution of 1954, the unions inflicted a decisive blow against the giants and the sugar industry declined after Hawaii became a state in 1959; so did each of the Big Five companies. The greatest post-statehood challenge came as the U.S. Department of Justice challenged the ownership of Matson Navigation Company by four of the five companies (all except Theo H. Davies). The lawsuit was settled when the four companies agreed not to share officers, executives, and directors. Alexander and Baldwin eventually bought out the other three stakes in Matson in 1964.
In the 1970s, as sugar plantations closed, many of the Big Five companies themselves were bought out. Where the companies are now:
The domination of Hawaii by the Big Five forms much of the background for the book The Revolt of Mamie Stover, describing the life of a prostitute in Hawaii in the 1940s.
James Michener's fictionalized account of Hawaiian history, Hawaii included references to the Big Five, which he called "the Fort".
The Big Five are mentioned in Kaye Starbird's THE LION IN THE LEI SHOP (p. 43).
The Great Māhele ("to divide or portion") or just the Māhele was the Hawaiian land redistribution proposed by King Kamehameha III.
The Great Māhele was one of the most important episodes of Hawaiian history, second only to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. While intended to provide secure title to Hawaiians, it would eventually end up separating many of them from their land.