Friday, May 17, 2013

Hawaii's Masters and Servants Act of 1850

A few of my readers have written to ask what I mean when I've said that my great-grandparents, or as a matter of fact my grandfather on my dad's side, arrived in Hawaii as "contract labor".

What was "contract labor," also known as "indentured servants" in Hawaii? Well, it started with legislation enacted by the Kingdom of Hawaii. It was called The Masters and Servants Act of 1850. Just two years later, in 1852, it replaced the Kingdom's "Kauwa System" of serfdom.

The word "kauwa" is Hawaiian for "slave-class." Their slave-class, called the"kauwa", were filled with those taken as prisoners of war or their children. The kauwa were identified with a tattoo mark around the eyes, or on the forehead. They were indeed slaves, but also much more than that.

You see, though the kauwa worked for the chiefs, they were often used as human sacrifices at the luakini heiau when worshipping the gods. They were not the only human sacrifices, law-breakers of all classes, or castes, and even defeated political opponents were also acceptable as human sacrifices. Yes, that's real tough politics when the loser becomes human sacrifice.

Because of their need for cheap labor, what the Kingdom of Hawaii did in adopting the Masters and Servants Act of 1850 actually had a huge affect on their legal system, their language, their integrity, and perhaps the moral fabric of Hawaii's society at large.

Was it just Hawaii's slavery in disguise? Many believe it was just that, slavery given another name.

Although Hawaii was not the only nation to use "contract labor," it was unique. You see, other than their "Kauwa System," Hawaii had no paradigm to go by when it came to slavery. That means that they did not have circumscribing laws to guide them.

While other nations used "contract labor" to replace their European style of slavery with all of its laws and methods passed down through colonization, Hawaii was free to implement its own laws regulating slavery and the treatment of immigrants.

Hawaii's Masters and Servants Act of 1850 passed by the Kingdom's Legislature codified "contract labor" and provided the legal framework within which Hawaii would receive "indentured servants." Basically, laborers in bondage to a plantation enforced by cruel punishment from the Kingdom.

Although not officially slavery, the Hawaii's Masters and Servants Act nevertheless shared the economic goal of slave-laws to harness labor. It was very much like the slave laws in the United States at the time. In fact, it is said that much of the Masters and Servants Act was taken from slave-laws in the United States.

The manner in which the Act was implemented by the Hawaii Board of Immigration and construed by the Hawaii Supreme Court illustrates Hawaii's economic compulsion for slave-labor at the time.

From June 21st, 1850, laborers were subject to a strict law known as the Masters and Servants Law.  Under the provisions of this law, enacted just a few weeks after the founding of the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society, two different forms of labor contracts were legalized. They were apprenticeships and indentured service.

How was Hawaii's Master and Servant Law like the slavery laws in United States at that time? 

Remember, these people were supposedly not slaves. But frankly, most say they were.

For example, under Hawaii's Masters and Servants law, absenteeism or refusal to work could cause a contract laborer to be apprehended by the district magistrate or by police officers or by agents of the Kingdom and subsequently sentenced to work for the employer an extra amount of time after the contract expired, usually double the time of the absence. For those contract laborers who found conditions unbearable and had tried to run away, again the Hawaiian law permitted their employers the use of "coercive force" such as "bounty hunters" just as they did in the U.S. at the time. All to apprehend those laborers the same way as if they were runaway slaves in the United States.

It was a lot like the Fugitive Slave Act in the United States. Like slaves, indentured servants were considered property of the plantations. If such a contract laborer refused to serve, believe it or not, he could be jailed and sentenced to hard labor in prison until he gave in. Indeed, the law was outright slavery disguised as something it was not. And rebellion was put down immediately, in fact even the mildest and most benign attempts to challenge the power of the Kingdom's authority or that of the plantations were squashed.

Take for example the brutal and shameful act that was committed against another one of the first contract laborers or "imin" who dared to remain in Hawaii after his contract and try to open a small business in Honokaa. His name was Katsu Goto. He was a Japanese merchant, interpreter, and he was lynched.

It's true, he was the leader of a fledgling Japanese community in Honokaa. One night, after riding out to help some other "imin" with an English translation, he was assaulted, beaten, and lynched.

One plantation operation was the Kohala Sugar Company, known as "The Missionary Plantation" since it was founded by Reverend Elias Bond in 1862 to support his church and schools. After witnessing the treatment of "contract labor," he protested the slave-like conditions.

Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation. Historically, slavery was institutionally recognized by many societies. And though slavery has been outlawed in most societies, even today it continues through the practices of debt bondage and indentured servitude.

Yes, it was a form of slavery. Disguised sure, but in many ways it was no different than the American South before the Civil War.

In 1861, with the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, most of the sugar produced in the South was gone. The North wanted sugar. Demand and the price for sugar increased dramatically. Because of the Civil War, the Hawaiian sugar industry expanded to take advantage of the need that couldn't be filled in the waring states. With the increase need, the supply of plantation laborers had to be increased as well.

The Kingdom of Hawaii set up a Bureau of Immigration to assist the planters as more and more Chinese were brought in, this time for 5 year contracts at $4 a month plus food and shelter. Even the famous American novelist Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, while visiting the islands in 1866 was taken in by the planters' logic.

Normally a foe of racism and economic servitude, Mark Twain accepted  the plantation sentiment entirely. Yes, he accepted their idea that the Chinese in Hawaii were the dregs of their society. Twain commented that, "Their Former trade of cutting throats on the China seas has made them uncommonly handy at cutting cane."

Having observed the operations of plantations throughout the south, Mark Twain knew exactly how low the "coolie" wages were by comparison to those in the American South. He expected the rest of the United States to soon follow the example of the Hawaii planters.

He wrote: "You will not always go on paying $80 and $100 a month for labor which you can hire for $5. ... It cheapens no labor of man's hands save the hardest and most excruciating drudgery ---drudgery which all white men abhor and are glad to escape from."

The planters who wanted cheap labor spoke of the Chinese as good workers. But also, as their number increased and they began to leave the plantations and enter the labor market of the towns, an outcry was raised against them. An article in All About Hawaii of 1890 warned that: "Hawaii is going to lapse into a Chinese colony without making a struggle to prevent it."

Two years later, Hawaii passed a drastic law that Chinese could only engage in agricultural field work or in work actually connected with the running and operation of rice and sugar mills. When the Chinese laborer was needed, he was praised as quiet, skillful, obedient, patient and quick to learn. When he left the plantation and entered the open labor market, or went into business, he was condemned as a murderer, cutthroat, thief, selfish and cunning. These and other racist epithets were used to deride their ethnic background. It is estimated that between 1850 and 1900 about 46,000 Chinese arrived in Hawaii.

After the American Civil War, the urgent need for Hawaiian sugar became less crucial -- so the sugar industry in Hawaii dipped sharply. But in 1876, the sugar industry was again stimulated by the Sugar Reciprocity Treaty that was signed between the Kingdom of Hawaii and the United States. The treaty permitted Hawaiian sugar to be sold in the U.S. without tariff restrictions. This gave the Kingdom of Hawaii an advantage over other sugar growing nations around the world.

Once more the plantations began looking around for more plantation labor. It was during this time that they imported Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, Germans, Russians, Spaniards, Norwegians, and even more Chinese.

The Committee on Labor of the Planters' Labor and Supply Company wrote in 1883: "..the experience of sugar growing, the world over, goes to prove that cheap labor, which means in plain words, servile labor, must be employed in order to render this enterprise successful."

In order to keep labor servile, the characteristic of a slave, and to keep costs down, the Kingdom of Hawaii made a conscious decision to enact a policy to introduce a surplus of labor.

The surplus of labor kept the laborers servile and their cost cheap.   

The first contract laborers to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands arrived in 1851 from China aboard the Thetis, with 195 men and 20 boys on board. The Chinese workers were referred to by the derogatory term "Coolies." Plantations pay for the men was $3 a month plus room and board.

That's right, those Chinese workers were contracted for five years of labor in return for their transportation, housing, food and pay of $3 a month.  Chinese houseboys earned $2 a month. Yes, it was slave wages.

Hawaii's King David Kalakaua visited Japan in March of 1881 and asked Emperor Meiji to allow workers to come to the Hawaiian Islands where there was a shortage of laborers to work on the sugar plantations. The two leaders signed a treaty in 1885 permitting the large-scale immigration of Japanese laborers.

While the first mass emigration of Japanese workers coming to the Hawaiian Islands to work on sugar plantations included 142 men and six women who arrived aboard the Scioto in 1868, the first official Hawaiian government sponsored Japanese contract workers was 676 Japanese men and 158 Japanese women who arrived in Honolulu aboard the City of Tokio on February 8, 1885.

The initial migrants in 1868 were mostly tradesmen and craftsmen, and did not have contracts or government permission, and were called "gannenmono" (first year men), referring to the first year of Japan’s Meiji era. Between 1852 and 1896, the number of Chinese and Japanese grew from 364 to 46,023, 3 or from 4.5% to 56.5% of the total population.

In 1879, another 3,500 workers arrived from China. In 1881, Norwegian and German workers began arriving. Because of the flood of Chinese into California, which was the place in the U.S. with the most immigrant workers from China, the Chinese Exclusion Act became a United States federal law when it was signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6th, 1882.

It was one of the most significant restrictions on free immigration in U.S. history, as it prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. The act was initially intended to last for 10 years, but was renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902. It was finally repealed by the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943.

By 1885, it is said that the Chinese population in Hawaii amounted to 22% of the population -- and they held 49% of the plantation field jobs. It is believed that by the 1880s, more then 20% of the Kingdom of Hawaii's entire population was actually Chinese who were working on Hawaii's sugar plantations.

And yes, like others, when their five-year labor contracts expired, they took jobs as clerks or domestic servants or to form their own businesses. And because of that, there was a growing anti-Chinese immigration movements in Hawaii. The result was that in 1886, following the example made in the United States, the importation of Chinese laborers was halted by the passage of the Hawaiian Kingdom Chinese Exclusion Act.

Laborers employed on Hawaiian plantations totaled 25,881 in 1898.

Most Portuguese came from the Madeira and Azores Islands.

According to some accounts, the first Europeans to discover the Hawaiian Islands may have actually been a sea captain from Portugal who was sailing under the flag of Spain, about 200 years before British Captain Cook did so.

Portuguese contract laborers arrived in Hawaii from the Azores and the Madeira Islands. The first Portuguese workers arrived aboard a German ship Priscilla from the Madeira Islands in 1877. That began an influx of Portuguese laborers that totaled more than 20,000 by 1913.

For my readers who have asked, yes my great-great-grandparents were from the Azores. Most of my family arrived in Hawaii after 1877.  My maternal great-great-grandfather is said to have arrived in Maui aboard a Whaling Ship, and decided to stay. That was in the late 1840s. My paternal grandfather, John Correa, my dad's dad, was born in Madeira and arrived in Hawaii in 1909 at 13 years of age. Other than the whaler, all were brought to Hawaii as "contract labor." 

Being Europeans, Portuguese men were given land. And unlike Asian workers, the Portuguese were often, but not always, hired as "lunas" (overseers). They supervised Asian workers for European (caucasian) planters, the owners.

I remember, as a boy, listening to my grandfather talk about his job with the plantation. He was a "luna", an "overseer", in charge of the mule gangs for the sugar plantation. It was well known that he carried a whip and .38 caliber pistol on the job. I remember him telling me, "the whip was used on the mules, the pistol was in case the workers acted up."

The Portuguese workers were virtually all Catholics, and this strengthened the presence of the Catholic Church in the Hawaiian Islands. And yes, the Catholic Church was something that the Protestant Missionaries had worked to keep out of Hawaii for generations.

Plantation owners worked hard to keep in place a hierarchical caste system that prevented worker organization and divided the camps based on ethnic identity. One interesting outcome of this multi-cultural workforce of plantation workers was the emergence of a common language.

It became known as Pidgin English. It became a language that was a sort of hybrid primarily of Hawaiian, English, Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese. It allowed plantation workers to communicate effectively with one another and promoted a transfer of knowledge and traditions amongst the groups.

Was Hawaii's Masters and Servants Act ever challenged in court? Well, as a matter of fact it was.

In 1891, a Japanese contract laborer in Hilo tried to get the courts to rule that his labor contract should be illegal since he was unwilling to work for Hilo Sugar Company, and such involuntary servitude was supposed to be prohibited by the Hawaiian Constitution. The Hawaiian court upheld the "Masters and Servant's Act" and the harsh labor contracts (Hilo Sugar vs. Mioshi 1891).

In 1898, the Hawaiian Islands were annexed to the United States via the Newlands Resolution, which stated, "There shall be no further immigration of Chinese into the Hawaiian Islands, except upon such conditions as are now or may hereafter be allowed by the laws of the United States; no Chinese, by reason of anything herein contained, shall be allowed to enter the United States from the Hawaiian Islands."

On April 30, 1900, United States President McKinley signed the Organic Act establishing a Territorial government in the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii's Masters and Servants Act made it virtually impossible for the workers to organize labor unions or to participate in strikes. Remember that while laborers were protected as property under these contracts, if they refused to work they could be put in prison at hard labor until they consented to serve and court costs would be added to their contract.

When the United States passed the Organic Act, and it went into effect, "contract labor" in Hawaii was no longer legal. And yes, it did not take long before things started changing. In fact. within a month of the Organic Act, 8,000 Japanese laborers went on strike demanding higher wages and better working conditions.

The hierarchical caste system plantation managers had worked so hard to maintain began to break down, with greater racial integrations as a result. Workers began to discover they had rights, and in 1920 they waged the first multi-cultural strike.

Though some say that Hawaii's "indentured servant" law, contract labor, was outlawed in 1900 when Hawaii became a territory of the United States. But the fact is that contract labor kept going in Hawaii for some time after that.

Between 1903 and 1910, 7,300 Koreans arrived in Hawaii on contracts. In 1906, Filipinos first arrived in Hawaii as contract labor. Between 1909 and 1930, 112,800 Filipinos arrived in Hawaii as contract labor. Hawaii's "contract labor" really didn't end until the 1930s. In fact, by 1932, the Chinese contract labor had mostly left plantation work.

So why did it stop in the late 1930s?

Well, Hawaii was not spared from feeling the effect of the Great Depression. The economy in Hawaii, like that of everywhere in the United States and the world, was in the dumps. Starting in the 1920s, many of those who landed in Hawaii from far off lands, those who worked out their contracts, left to relocate in California and the West Coast of the United States looking for work and better lives.

The Great Depression played a huge role in convincing a lot of families to relocate to the "Mainland" where there was more opportunity and land was more available to be had. Along with the Great Depression, changing global politics played a large role in the downfall of Hawaiian sugar.

With shifting political alliances and the need for cheap labor, between 1902 and into the 1930s, Cuba took more and more of a larger share of the United States sugar market. In fact, Cuba held 45% of the U.S. domestic quota, all while Hawaii, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and Southern sugar producing states in the U.S., shared a mere 25% among themselves.

Yes, the reason that contract labor ended was that the need for contract labor ended. Fact is within a relatively short period of time former plantation lands would be used by conglomerates to build hotels and develop Hawaii into a tourist-based economy.

Hawaii's tourist based economy has dominated Hawaiian economics for well over fifty years. And no, there is no substitute in sight to replace tourism as Hawaii's number one cash crop.

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. Wait a minute? Slavery in Hawaii? That's messed up! And besides, we already have Maui with an owie after those wildfires. I was dreaming of ukuleles and grass skirts until you mentioned this. Oh well. But hey, I still have a song I was planning on writing for this special occasion to lighten the mood. Here it is it's called, "Daily Ukulele". I play my daily ukulele. And I play the whole day long. And with my daily ukulele I never can go wrong. That sweet Hawaiian rhythm never fails me. That's probably cause I like to play it daily. On my daily ukulele that I play the whole day long. Thank you, good night!


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