Monday, July 12, 1999

Courtesy Hawaii State Archives
The earliest laborers were male, but women and families
were soon contracted for stability. Conditions initially
were rugged, as shown above in this home in the fields.

Workers find fields
tough road to hoe

But the demand for laborers
to meet the agricultural boom
quickly extends the search
beyond China and Japan

By Richard Borreca


Planted fields of green surround the iron-roofed factory building. The billowing smoke stack is the highest point in the picture. In the foreground, heavily clothed brown and yellow men and women wield machetes.

It is the picture of old Hawaii, shaped not in cities but in the sugar fields.

Nothing else meant so much to the history of modern Hawaii as the life created by the children and grandchildren of American missionaries who founded the sugar plantations.

And today, Hawaii is multi-ethnic because no one immigrant group could feed the always-hungry fields.

Unlike immigrants teeming to America's East Coast, fleeing wars and famine in Europe, Hawaii was actively seeking field workers. Laborers would be gathered by brokers in Asia, bounty hunters contracted by the plantations to bring men to harvest cane.

The system of contract labor, controlled by the Masters and Servants Act, was like a form of bondage, reports Gary Okihiro, author of "Cane Fires."

A 1904 editorial in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser bolsters that point in a discussion of the psychology of "the plantation coolie":

"Yield to his demands and he thinks he is the master and makes new demands; use the strong hand and he recognizes the power to which, from immemorial times, he has abjectly bowed.

"There is one word which holds the lower classes of every nation in check and that is Authority," the newspaper directed.

That authority extended over a work day of 10 hours for field workers, 12 hours for those in the mill. Living quarters were sparse barracks.

Courtesy Hawaii State Archives
Conditions for the workers eventually improved,
which included schools like the one shown here.

"It was hard work in the cane fields," Lucy Robello, born in Waialua in 1905, recalled in an interview given in 1976.

"Was mostly Japanese men with their wives -- they would take the little babies with them out to the fields. They would build little huts out of cane stalks, and the children were sheltered there.

"Poor thing. That was dangerous for the poor babies, all day long in the hot fields with flies on top of them, insects and all."

Robello, who died in 1980, remembered the plantation era 90 years ago as a time of little material possessions -- but of close community.

"Even though we worked harder and all, I think we were much happier before," she said. "Everybody would share the good and bad of the next person."

'Picture brides' bring stability

First came the Chinese men, then the Japanese. Later the women followed - "picture brides" brokered by parents or go-betweens as arranged wives for the immigrant males.

The prospective couple exchanged photographs and letters. If both sides agreed to the marriage, it was legalized by adding the woman's name to the man's family register.

Records show 14,276 picture brides arrived in Honolulu between 1907 and 1923 -- before the practice was halted by the federal Immigration Act of 1924, which barred the immigration of all aliens ineligible for citizenship. The original federal immigration building, built over mud flats where the facility now stands on Ala Moana, included a special "matrimonial room" where couples would meet for the first time.

Hawaii State Archives
The caligraphy words are part of a cover of an early Japanese labor contract.

At the start of this century, Chinese and Japanese in Hawaii totaled almost 33 percent of the population. Hawaii's much-praised cultural mix happened because those people were the only ones early sugar planters could get to work in the hot, isolated fields and crude camps.

An early inspection by one-time Japanese consul Miki Saito revealed alarmingly poor housing.

At one plantation, he reported, men and women were housed in a room 40 feet long, sleeping on shelves four stories high. Six to eight rooms of such shelves "constitute the sleeping apartments of several hundred laborers in a single room," he said.

Health conditions were no better. Pigpens were frequently put next to living quarters, irrigation ditch water was used for drinking, and wells were beside outhouses, the health board noted.

Attempts were made to bring laborers from other parts of the world: Swedish, Russian, Italian and African-American workers. Of these,only the Portuguese proved successful, but the plantations noted they were costly because they tended to come with entire families.

Also, unlike European immigrants to the United States who stayed, Asian and Portuguese immigrants to Hawaii returned after their contracts ran out. For instance, a total of 180,000 Japanese came to Hawaii, but more than half returned to Japan.

Territorial Gov. Charles McCarthy in 1921 wrote a special message to Congress about "Hawaii's labor problem": "The white man cannot stand up under tropical field labor conditions and any idea of obtaining the unemployed of the mainland to fill out needs is folly."

Conditions ripe for strikes

In his labor history "Working Hawaii," historian Ed Beechert wrote that conditions varied greatly among the plantations, noting that successful operations such as Grove Farm used primarily free labor and never had a strike.

But across the territory, labor groups were growing discontented.

In January 1906, Oahu plantations went through a general strike by "malcontent Japanese," wrote Thomas Thrum in his 1907 edition of the "Hawai ian Annual."

"The usual intercession of their consul had no effect. They demanded the discharge of the doctor, nurses, an overseer and luna . . . first 175 loaders went out, then 200 cutters struck.

"The following day the Chinese and Koreans were compelled to join them and a day or two later the strike became general.

"A police squad was sent to the scene in case of emergency, for they would neither work themselves nor permit anyone else."

Then in 1907, 7,000 workers from all major Oahu plantations struck for four months. The Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association tried to break the strike by evicting strikers at the Ewa, Kahuku and Waialua plantations. Labor leaders were arrested on charges of "conspiring to harm industry."

High Sheriff William Henry banned mass meetings and public speeches by the strikers. The uprising was forcefully put down.

In all the dealings, despite the harsh working conditions, some felt appreciative of the plantation system.

"My entire family is grateful to my master for his generosity," wrote Yonematsu Sakuma in 1917.

"Now that I am aged and can no longer work, he built us this comfortable home and is giving us a generous pension of $25 a month. He put my oldest son through college and my daughter through normal school. He is also paying for the education of all my other children."

But others felt differently and began seeking solutions in solidarity, based on the belief that there should be more. "Based," as Beechert said, "on the American proposition that 'all men are created equal.' "

About this Series

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin is counting down to year 2000 with this special series. Each month through December, we'll chronicle important eras in Hawaii's history, featuring a timeline of that particular period. Next month's installment: August 9.

Millennium Series Archive

Project Editor: Lucy Young-Oda
Chief Photographer: Dean Sensui

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