“I want (my children) to remember that the parents, grandparents were part of that company, the sugar company. The parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, you know, down the line, the older generation.”
“I want (my children) to think about the older generation, what they gone through for make you possible, as a young generation coming up, eh? That the sugar made you a family, too.” (John Mendes, former Hāmākua Sugar Company worker; UH Center for Oral History)
A century after Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawaiʻi, sugar plantations started to dominate the Hawaiian landscape. A shortage of laborers to work in the growing (in size and number) sugar plantations became a challenge. The only answer was imported labor.
Starting in the 1850s, labor shortages were eased by bringing in contract workers from Asia, Europe and North America. There were three big waves of workforce immigration: Chinese 1852; Japanese 1885 and Filipinos 1905.
Several smaller, but substantial, migrations also occurred: Portuguese 1877; Norwegians 1880; Germans 1881; Puerto Ricans 1900; Koreans 1902 and Spanish 1907.
The different languages and unusual names created problems; because of this, sugar plantation owners devised an identification system to keep workers sorted out. Upon each laborer’s arrival, a plantation official gave them a metal tag called a bango.
The bango was made of brass or aluminum and had a number printed on one side. It was usually worn on a chain around their neck. Bangos came in different shapes. The shape you wore was determined by your race. Every plantation used bangos. (Lassalle) “They never call a man by his name. Always by his bango, 7209 or 6508 in that manner.” (Takaki)
Plantation camps, developed to house workers and their families, were once scattered among the cane fields. The plantation camps were segregated by ethnicity as well as by occupational rank. Most had the “Japanese camp,” “the Puerto Rican camp,” “the Filipino camp.” (Merry) “There was one called ‘Alabama Camp.’ “Alabama?” “Yeah; we used to have Negroes working on the plantation.” (Takaki)
Supervisors, called lunas, were generally haole (white,) native Hawaiian or Portuguese until the early twentieth century, or Japanese by midcentury. They lived in special parts of the plantation housing, divided from those of other backgrounds by roads and by rules not to play with the children across the street.
The plantation manager typically lived in the “big house” across the street, and although his children might sneak out to play with the workers, his social life revolved around visits with other haole manager families. (Merry)
After cane railroads came into use, field camps were discontinued almost entirely and everyone lived close to the mill. (MacDonald)
While the emigration of Japanese women during the picture bride era changed the composition of the plantation camps there still remained a large community of single male laborers. In 1910 men outnumbered adult women 2-to-1 in the Territory and in some communities, the sex ratio was even more skewed. (Bill)
The canefields were a social space as well as worksite. With families to care for, women had little free time and fieldwork offered daily contact with other women. The companionship of others is what women most often remember about their field work days. (Bill)
The camps were self-sufficient and resources, hours, and pay were tightly controlled by the plantation management. As their contracts expired, members of these ethnic groups either moved back to their home countries, or moved to “plantation towns” and began mercantile business, boarding houses bars, restaurants, billiard halls, dance halls and movie theaters. (Historic Honokaa Project)
Company towns with schools, churches, businesses, hospitals, and recreational facilities emerged as workers raised families on the plantations. (Bill)
“We bought most of our food and clothing from the plantation stores and, if our families were short of cash, credit would be provided. Some children were born at home, but most of us were born in and treated for our illnesses at the plantation hospital.”
“We were entertained (in a) recreational building provided by the plantation. Our young people, especially the males, enjoyed the ballparks provided – again – by the plantations. … (W)e worshiped in church building provided by plantation management for the large groups who worshiped and conducted religious instruction in the language of their members.” (Nagtalon-Miller)
While the public schools in the rural areas of Hawaii were not under direct control of plantation management, they were looked upon as an extension of the plantation because virtually every child had parents who worked on the plantation.
School principal and teachers were often included in the social milieu of the plantations hierarchy, and school program tended to represent middle-class American values of hard work and upward mobility, which have motivated second generation children from the early 1930s to the present.
Although immigrants did not own their own homes or lots (everything was owned by the plantations, which provided for most of their needs), our families were largely content with this economic support system. In any case, for most people there was no alternative.
Most laborers had little or no schooling. We lived in groups where language and cultural values were shared. While wages were meager, women took in laundry, made and sold ethnic foods, and did sewing to supplement their husbands’ pay, and many people were able to send money regularly to parents, siblings, or wives and children who remained in the Philippines, enabling them to buy property or finance an education. (Nagtalon-Miller)
“The plantation took care of us. The plantation was everybody’s mom over here. They held us. I mean, you had plantation life, and then you get the real world. And we were so sheltered.” (Dardenella Gamayo, Pa‘auhau resident; UH Center for Oral History)
Make no mistake; life on the plantation was hard.