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29 May 2020

Immigrant Sugar Plantation Workers in Hawaii: A History

As we observe Asian Pacific American Heritage month, we are pleased to share this post by CGS volunteer Cindy Thomson.

The first sugar plantation workers in Hawaii were Native Hawaiians.  Given their aversion to the regimented, arduous labor required in the cane fields and the widespread view (at least at that time) that disease was driving the Hawaiians to extinction, the sugar planters, mostly American businessmen, began looking elsewhere for labor.  Between 1852 and 1946, over 375,000 workers were recruited from around the world.  Immigrants who began arriving before 1900 included the Chinese, Portuguese, Germans, Norwegians, Galicians, and mainland (naichi) Japanese. Those who began arriving in 1900 or later included Okinawans, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, Filipinos, African Americans from the U.S. South, Spaniards, and Russians from Manchuria. The multi-ethnic nature of the workforce reflected early efforts to offset the numerous Chinese with Portuguese and other Europeans, and later efforts to offset the increasingly militant Japanese with recruits from elsewhere in the world. Europeans often brought their families, while most other groups consisted largely of males who arrived alone.

Contract between Japanese worker and McBryde Sugar Company, Kauai.
(Source: Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association Plantation Archives,
Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii at Manoa)

The duration of labor contracts was five years for the Chinese, later shortened to three years. A contract typically required a work commitment of six days per week, ten hours per day in exchange for housing, food, water, firewood and medical care. Some of the Europeans were also offered homestead land. The ethnic hierarchy on the plantations dictated both living conditions and employment opportunities. Caucasians (other than Portuguese) were at the top of the hierarchy, then the Portuguese, followed by East Asians, with Filipinos (who were the last non-Europeans to arrive) at the bottom.

Low pay kept field and mill workers at the poverty level, and housing, sanitation and medical care were often substandard. On some plantations, grueling work conditions and sometimes harsh treatment by field overseers (“lunas”) led to resistance by the workers. This included work slowdowns, strikes, desertions, feigned illness to avoid work, violence against lunas, and property destruction – including arson in the cane fields and sugar mills.  The plantation workforce was up to 70 percent Japanese in the early 1900s and about 70 percent Filipino by the 1930s. Japanese and Filipino strikes were the most disruptive – typically lasting for months and involving large numbers of workers on multiple plantations. Strikers were evicted from plantation housing and other ethnic groups were brought in as strikebreakers. The Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA) often made wage or other concessions months after a strike ended, so as to not associate the concessions with the strike.

A record card for Filipino Esteban Fernandez indicates he was fired
by the Oahu Sugar Company after taking part in a strike in April 1924.
(Source: Filipino Laborers Collection, Joseph F. Smith Library, BYU-Hawaii)

Most workers left the plantations as soon as their contracts expired and found work elsewhere in Hawaii or on the U.S. mainland.  Some Asians returned home, due to the proximity of their homelands to Hawaii.  The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which took effect in Hawaii when it became a U.S. Territory in 1900, terminated Chinese immigration to the islands.  When Korea became a Japanese protectorate in 1905, Japan stopped Korean immigration to reduce competition for their own workers in Hawaii. Under the 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between the U.S. and Japan, Japanese immigration was also restricted. Even after these dates, however, some Asians already in Hawaii were allowed to bring family members, including “picture brides,” to Hawaii.

The HSPA gradually mechanized operations in the fields and mills – providing their workforce with more skilled, blue-collar jobs and some advancement for those who were at the bottom of the plantation hierarchy.  Improved living and working conditions motivated multiple generations of the same family to stay on the plantations.  These laborers lived, worked and recreated together, enjoyed each others’ foods, intermarried, and sent their children to the same schools.  Plantation acres in cultivation began to decline noticeably in the 1970s and the last plantation closed in 2016.  Some families still have reunions to “talk story” about the tight-knit communities where they once lived and perhaps recall the ancestors who came to Hawaii so long ago.

CIndy Thomson photo
Cindy Thomson’s interest in genealogy began with family stories about her immigrant ancestors in Hawaii and evolved into an obsession over the past 15 years. She is a CGS member and teaches a class on “Immigrant Sugar Plantation Workers in Hawaii: A Multi-ethnic Approach to Genealogy.” For more information, contact her at [email protected]

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