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Why Did They Leave?
Part 2: Risks and Rewards for the Madeirans and Azoreans Migrating to Hawaii

By Melody Lassalle

The Sugar Plantation Migration
The birth of the sugar industry of the Sandwich Islands (a.k.a. Hawaii), provided a new on life for Madeirans and Azoreans. In 1878, Madeirans were given the opportunity to leave Madeira sugar plantation contract laborers in Hawaii. The Azorean migration started the following year. Signing a labor contract provided the family with regular wages, a place to stay, medical care, and schooling for their children. The majority had never heard of Hawaii before, but they were willing to take the chance. Most of those who left for Hawaii would never return.

Because of the dangerous long journey, people were afraid for the survival of their family. Many families left one child behind. The child was usually left with a close relative. In the event that the ship sunk or the family did not survive some calamity in Hawaii, this lone child would carry on the family name. This must have been a tremendous hardship for parents and child alike. To leave a child behind must have been excruciatingly painful--as it would be to be suddenly parentless. Remember that most of these people were illiterate. The chance that communication existed between parent and child was probably very slim. There are some cases where the parent or other family member earned enough money to send for the child. It's unclear how often this happened.

No Easy Road

Make no mistake! Life on a sugar plantation wasn't easy. The work was backbreaking and the workdays were long. While work was steady, the Azoreans and Madeirans faced issues they never came up against before. They were subjected to prejudice because of their darker complexions. Until the 1940s, they were viewed as European but not White. This affected their chances for promotion and determined their pay scale. For the first few decades, they could rise no further than the Luna (Overseer) class. Also, the widespread illiteracy made it more difficult for the Portuguese immigrants to gain a voice on plantation conditions. They were an easy people to keep down in those early years.

Once they completed their contracts they were free to live and work anywhere. They saved their money for the future (they were paid in gold in the early years). Some stayed in the plantation system. Others found jobs elsewhere. Some started businesses of their own while others left for California.

Increased Opportunities
Life was harsh for the immigrants who came to Hawaii. In comparison to life back home, it was a definite improvement. The Azoreans and Madeirans gave up quite a lot for their new life including leaving children behind. Once their contracts were fulfilled, they could continue employment on the same plantation or elsewhere. They could stay in the same town or leave the islands entirely. Life in Hawaii offered more choices. Opportunities opened up for them and life was better for the next generation.

© Melody Lassalle 2003 -----
1. Azorean Migration, by Robert L. Santos.

2. Hawaii, a History: From Polynesian Kingdon to American State, by Ralph S. Kykendall and A. Grove Day. Prentice Hall : New Jersey, revised edition, c1976.

3. Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835-1920, by Ronald Takaki. University of Hawaii Press : Honolulu, HI, c1983.

4. Azorean Migration, by Robert L. Santos. Read this book at:

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