Remembering Our Hard Working Ancestors on Labor Day
By Melody Lassalle
Labor Day...Three days to kick back and relax. While out frolicking, take a moment to think about your ancestors and the work that they've done. Perhaps they came to Hawaii to work the plantations. Though they may not have been well known or notorious, the contract laborers of Hawaii paved the way for future generations. Let's pay homage to those contract laborers now!
Most people want a famous ancestor in their tree. Although it would be nice to link to someone well known (and with a long pedigree already completed), most of us fill in our tree with a long history of laborers and peasants. The truth is these "common laborers" are far more important to history than they get credit for! Their sweat and hard work is the back bone of any nation.
Our ancestors were a group of poor laborers living on Sao Miguel Island in the Azores Island chain. Mostly they were uneducated peasants who farmed the land of another. Their lives and those of their ancestors were unchanged for generations.
A series of events occurring half way around the world would change the course of their lives forever. You see, in 1835 the first commercial sugar cane plantation began in Koloa, Kauai, HI. The plantations' success in the early 1840s opened the flood gates. As more plantations sprung up, the need for cheap labor became apparent. After researching various ethnic groups, officials found the recommendations of Jason Perry very appealing. He described the people of the Azores and Madeira Islands as hard working and uncomplaining--a group the plantation owners thought they could easily keep down.
A plan was devised between the Board of Immigration of Hawaii and the Portuguese government to sign up contract laborers. After negotiations, these were the terms that were agreed upon:
1. Cost of passage to Hawaii paid by the Hawaiian Board of Immigration (at a cost of $75 per adult)
2. 36 month contract
3. 26 work days a month (10 hours a day) with the wage of $10 a month for men and $6.50 a month for women paid in US gold or silver
4. Daily rations
5. Lodging with a place for a garden
6. Medical services
7. Education for their children
In 1878, the first ship, the Priscilla, carried the first Madeiran contract laborers to Hawaii. My great great grandparents would follow in 1882. Ana (de Melo) Pacheco, a widow, brought 6 of her children on the SS Hansa. Jozimas and Maria (de Mello) de Braga brought 3 of their 4 children on the SS Monarch. The de Braga's signed a contract with the Kealia Sugar Plantation (a contract which was completed 19 Jun 1885). By 1900, both the de Braga's and the Pacheco's ended up on the Kilauea Sugar Plantation.
Although the plantation owners fulfilled the items above, life on the plantation was not easy. Men and women working in the fields spent 10 hours a day stooped over cutting sugar cane, hoeing weeds, sewing bags to hold the sugar cane, and other strenuous work. Children were put to work hunting rodents in the fields--getting paid per rodent turned in. Advancement was based on race. Because the Portuguese were of the white race, they could end up in higher positions such as Overseers (Lunas). However, only American-born men held positions at the top of ladder.
Some plantation owners took on a fatherly role with their workers. Others kept their workers poor by docking pay for broken tools and machinery or charging fees for such things as baths. Because pay was handed out monthly, once the creditors were paid, a worker would have little money to save for life after the contract was fulfilled.
In the beginning, ethnic groups were kept separate to keep each group in order. (It was felt that fraternization would spread to unionization.) Later groups were mixed to prevent the same problem. Daily life was scheduled by the plantation. This included when the workers woke up, worked, ate meals, and went to sleep. All workers had to be in bed by 8pm. No socialization could occur after that curfew. Plantation workers had little time outside of their 10 hour day, 6 day work week for anything else.
Most owners stayed out of the day to day dealings and left the dirty work to the Foreman and Overseers (Lunas). Overseers were assigned to each work group to make sure that each worker was doing his/her share. They were usually seen as mean and unfeeling bosses who had no tolerance for any laborer not working to capacity. To further demean people, the Oversees referred to them by their bango or worker number rather than by name.
Despite providing medical services to all workers under contract, illness was not a reason for not completing a day's work. The plantation doctor could authorize sick days. However, the doctor more often than not sent sick laborers back into the field regardless of the ailment.
You may wonder why the Portuguese would leave their ancestral homes for Hawaii. Hawaii was so far away--just the prospect of dying aboard ship should have been a deterrent. (It's obvious many thought of this as they left a child behind "just in case".) The reasons they left are many, though not very different from others who have left their home land. Poverty was widespread throughout the Azores and Madeira. They had little chance of improving their station in life--or that of their children. They were uneducated and poor with no way out.
Their life on the plantation was assuredly hard. Not only was the work grueling, but diseases such as Hansen's disease (AKA Leprosy) and tuberculosis cut down many workers' lives. Women also died while giving birth. Many children didn't make it to adulthood. My great grandfather, Theodoro Pacheco, died at 38 of leprosy, his brother, Joao, died at 36 of emphysema, and another brother, Jose, died at 51, of tuberculosis. His sister-in-law, Francisca (Bonita) Pacheco died while giving birth at the age of 30 (the baby died a few days later). One spouse was often left to raise a whole brood of children.
Despite all the downsides, contract labor on a plantation in Hawaii gave them something they never had--hope. This is why they worked the long hours so many days a year. Those who could save their gold were able to make a life for themselves after the contract was fulfilled. Their children, the next generation, would have a chance. Their grandchildren would be of the generation to not only go to school, but to go to college. And, that was all they hoped for.
© Sep 2001 Melody Lassalle
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