The first commercially-viable sugar plantation, Ladd and Co., was started at Kōloa on Kaua‘i in 1835. It was to change the face of Hawai‘i forever, launching an entire economy, lifestyle and practice of mono-cropping that lasted for well over a century.
Hawaiʻi had the basic natural resources needed to grow sugar: land, sun and water. Hawai‘i’s economy turned toward sugar in the decades between 1860 and 1880; these twenty years were pivotal in building the plantation system.
A century after Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawaiʻi, sugar plantations started to dominate the landscape. However, 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, when the Hawaiian Legislature passed “An Act for the Governance of Masters and Servants,” a section of which provided the legal basis for contract-labor system, 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.
Then, in May 1909 on Oʻahu, 5,000 Japanese plantation workers went out on strike.
The serious problems involved in the plantation labor situation continued to occupy the center of attention of those interested in the welfare of the sugar industry in Hawaiʻi. (American Sugar Industry and Beet Sugar Gazette, February 24, 1911)
An opportunity soon presented itself in the person of a Russian national, AV Perelestrous, who came to Honolulu for medical treatment and rest on Waikiki and saw a good opening for business.
He introduced himself to the secretary of the Territory of Hawaiʻi and the Territorial board of immigration as a major railway contractor in Manchuria and offered his services in delivering Russian workers to local sugar cane plantations. (Khisamutdinov)
“The efforts to obtain Russian immigration were in the final results rather disastrous both in the object sought and financially. … the board of immigration was given to understand that the Russian Government would not look with disfavor upon an attempt to recruit from that quarter.”
“(I)t was decided to introduce approximately 50-families as a trial lot, and Mr ALC (‘Jack’) Atkinson (US District Attorney) was chosen to proceed to Harbin, accompanied by Mr AW Perelestrous, who some time previous had represented himself … as a Russian contractor familiar with the conditions in Manchuria. Mr Atkinson departed August 30, 1909, accompanied by Mr Perelestrous”. (US House Committee on Immigration, 1921)
The recruiting took place in Harbin, Manchuria, on the Siberian border, the center of the Chinese Eastern Railroad, where Atkinson opened his office. That way it was easier to draw up exit papers: emigrants left through the port of Dalny, where there was no Russian customs post. (Khisamutdinov)
They returned to the Islands on October 22, 1909 “with 108 men, 67 women, and 79 children, a total of 255. These people were to all appearances, both physically and otherwise (so far as could be determined by the board,) the most desirable lot of immigrants ever introduced.” (US House Committee on Immigration, 1921)
“The Russians are a clean, sturdy, fine appearing lot of people, apparently with the willingness to work and certainly with the physical strength to do so. They are peasants, the older men and women uneducated. This was to have been expected. The children, however, are” bright, active and healthy, such as should grow up to be helpful citizens with the advantages they will have in this country.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, October 22, 1909)
“They accepted such employment as was offered them and so highly were they spoken of by their employers that, in November of the same year the board decided to introduce some three or four hundred additional families of the same class.” (US House Committee on Immigration, 1921)
“The liner Siberia, which arrived here yesterday from the orient, landed 212 Russian immigrants at Honolulu. There were men, women and children in the party. In Russia the men had been working long hours for a monthly wage of 5 rubles and were enchanted at the prospect of a free life on the sugar plantations. That they have no intention of returning”.
“At the request of some of the passengers, one of the ship’s officers requested the Russians to sing the Russian national hymn. The quartermaster who carried the message returned shaking his head. … (They effectively told him) ‘To hell with Russia; we are learning the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’”
“After landing at Honolulu every Russian tore up his passport and threw the scraps into the Pacific ocean.” (San Francisco Call, October 29, 1910)
Later shipments weren’t as enthusiastic. “Diphtheria broke out in quarantine. Bottled up, bored, hearing stories of real plantation life, they balked. … Most new recruits refused to sign up for jobs … Saying they’d rather starve than work on plantations, the immigrants exited quarantine April 4th, many of them following the Spaniards to California.” (Elks)
Later shipments met with similar resistance; Russians refused to accept the working and living conditions. As soon as steamers with settlers began approaching the shore, shouts were heard: “Don’t go to the plantations! Better drown in the sea than go there and work!” (Khisamutdinov)
The total number of Russians introduced into the Territory amounted to 1,799, at a total cost of $139,021.59, exclusive of the quarantine expenses here of $17,735.79. Of the number introduced, only a little more than 60 per cent accepted plantation employment. (US House Committee on Immigration, 1921)
On March 21, 1910, Russian emigrants went on strike. The authorities suggested that they should elect representatives who would tour the plantations and familiarize themselves with working and living conditions there. But they refused to do so because they no longer believed any promises.
The magazine In Foreign Parts (Russians in America and Australia) wrote this about Hawaii: “At first our workers suffered numerous hardships on the Hawaiian Islands, but gradually they began to adapt.”
“Some emigrated to America, some found jobs in accordance with their skills, some bought farms of their own on time, while the majority for the time being accepted their fate and were working.” (Khisamutdinov) Complaints were spread about the misinformation given while recruiting in Russia.
On January 12, 1912, members of the Russian staff assisting in the emigration were arrested and sent to prison. This was the end of the Russian resettlement to Hawaiʻi. (Khisamutdinov)
The image shows a front page photo showing the arrival of Russian immigrants; it is labeled ‘Hawaiʻi’s New Citizens’ from the Pacific Commercial Advertiser. (October 22, 1909)