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The Bango Number System
By Melody Lassalle

Many people from many nations were employed by the sugar plantations of Hawaii. The different languages and unusual names created problems from the get go. 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 Hawaiian plantation used the bango system.

Laborers were required to wear their bango during working hours. Plantation accounts were kept by bango number not employee name. Pay, deductions for infractions, store purchases, laundry services, and so forth were all kept in account books under the bango number system. On pay day, workers presented their bango at the payroll desk. They could not get paid without their bango.

Plantation owners claimed the bango number made life easier. It was difficult for the plantation officials to learn the various spellings involved in the names of laborers from around the world. It saved them time and that made it essential.

On the plantation, the bango became another way for one group of people to belittle another. Overseers and Lunas would refer to the laborers by bango number rather than by name. By refusing to use an individual's first name, it made it easier to treat them punitatively. This created tension on the plantation. Management saw laborers as a sub-class. Laborers felt their identity had been stripped from them.

The bango may have solved some problems for the plantation owners. By using a number rather than name system for accounts, they could easily look things up. As researchers, we know how mangled foreign names get when recorded by someone not familiar with them. However, the system made it too easy for management to look down upon the laboring class. By referring to them by number rather than name, they added to the animosity that already existed between the overseers and lunas and the laborers. The system was too easy to corrupt by those who wanted to feel superior.

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