Shortly before nine o’ clock on the morning of Thursday, November 10, 1853, knots of weather beaten men hurried along the streets and alleys of Honolulu’ waterfront.
They were masters of whalers and merchantmen riding out in the harbor. Their destination: the new court house on Queen Street. Their purpose: to set pay scales for sailors and dock workers.
Inside the court house Captain Israel West took the chair, and the discussion began. The skippers hammered out a resolution:
Whereas, in the opinion of the ship masters at this port a uniform price to be paid f or wages of laborers by ship masters in this harbor, and of lays and wages from this port, would be of equal advantage to laborers, owners, and shipmasters. …
Therefore, merchants and shipmasters should establish:
(1) a standard wage of $1 .50 found, and $2 .25 for those keeping themselves, for a day’s labor of ten hours;
(2) a standard rate of $12.00 a month for sailors shipping for monthly wages, either on a short season’s cruising or on a return home passage;
(3) a limit of $25.00 for any and all advances to seamen, and
(4) a rule that shipmasters not pay crews for discharging vessels in Honolulu.
This was the captains’ answer to seamen and Hawaiian laborers, who were pressing for more pay. On the night of Saturday the twelfth the seamen held their meeting.
The result was that on Monday morning they were “… early in commotion about the wharves …” – striking.
The strikers boarded one or two vessels where men continued to work and drove them from their jobs.
In the afternoon more than 1,000 sailors paraded the streets with fife and drum. Many native laborers joined them, but by Wednesday most of these had agreed to work f or the $1.50 offered.
Some of the seamen tried to stop them, but they could not get solid backing from their shipmates.
This doomed the strike.
Honolulu police were ab le to protect the workers. Most of the strikers held out, and seemed likely to do so until they had spent all their money – a short process, in the US Commissioner’s view He predicted that “… the grog shops and the native women will soon empty their pockets.”
And such, apparently, proved to be the case.
But the strike may not have been fruitless. At the end of the month sailors’ wages in merchant vessels were $25.00 monthly, and laborers’ hire ran from $2.00 to $3.00 a day.
Gains came hard in the Honolulu of 1853, however.
The great smallpox epidemic stagnated retail business. Sailors were in plentiful supply. And organized labor was a thing of the future.
The above is all from Richard Greer’s article on the 1853 strike at Honolulu Harbor for more pay to sailors (Trouble on the Waterfront) in the April 1963 Hawaiian Historical Review.
This is only a summary; click the following link to get to Greer’s initial article:
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