In Hawaii, females were employed right from the start of the sugar plantation era. They may have worked for the plantation or they might have sought work within the community. Whatever work they did, it was important for their family’s survival.
My 2nd Great Grandmother Worked on a Sugar Plantation
If you think your female ancestors did not work, think again! Females made up an important part of Hawaii’s work force from the early years of immigration.
Although many may believe that their mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers never worked, this was not the reality at the turn of the century except for the middle and upper class. In Hawaii, you would find women working in the fields along side men as well as in other positions. The work and hours were equal, but the pay and promotional opportunities were not.
I’m fortunate that my cousin had the original sugar plantation contracts for our ancestors. This is how I know my great great grandmother, Maria da Conceicao (de Mello) de Braga, was contracted to work before she left the Azores…right along with her husband, Jozimas de Braga.
She worked long hours out in the sun. I wonder if this contributed to her early death in 1903 at the age of 58.
Females Worked in the Fields and Other Places On A Plantation
On a typical plantation, females worked in many capacities, but they were mostly field laborers. They could be found hoeing rows, stripping leaves from cane stalks, cutting cane, and loading cane into carts.
Their work outside the fields might have included sewing the bags that held sugar cane. Though they were not allowed in the mills, they did contribute to the mill work force. Females dealt with the sugar cane refuse–piling it up so it could be carted away.
The birth of a baby did not stop women from work duties. They would go back to work in the fields with the baby tied to their back–sometimes within days of childbirth.
Other Work a Woman Might Do That Was Within The Plantation Community
Beyond field labor, females did other jobs that added to the family income. Some were able to find domestic work for the plantation families. They worked as maids, cooks, and in other servant positions.
It was also common for females to fill the “housewife” role for single males on a plantation. They prepared meals, operated baths, washed laundry, did house cleaning, and ran boarding houses for bachelors.
Some did this work in addition to their time spent working in the fields.
It is important to note that it was not only widows or single women who worked. It is true that widows had to take over the role of bread winner for their families. And,
single women sometimes had to contribute to the family budget. If they were on their own, they had to take care of themselves.
But, many married women had to work in order to keep the family afloat. Families were large in this era and struggled to survive on one income. While the plantation provided housing, there were still expenses that had to be paid.
Even Without Work Their Days Were Busy
That image you have of the Victorian woman sitting in her parlor having tea with the ladies? Erase it. Women on plantations had a heck of a lot of work to do whether they worked outside the home or not.
They still had to take care of their own households and families.
Women got up at 3 or 4 am to light the stove so breakfast would be ready before the work whistle blew. Workers were called to work by 6:30am. Children were tended to, the house was cleaned, and laundry was washed.
If she worked for the plantation, she did all this around her work schedule which usually included at 8pm lights out curfew. If she was fortunate, she had older children or other relatives who could chipped in.
So much for being held up on a pedestal!
Laundry, Alone, Was a Major Operation
To give you an idea of just how difficult housework was, let’s look at how the laundry was done.
Pre-1900 laundry was done without the benefit of washer, dryer, or electricity. The clothes were first boiled in a pot over a wood fire. Each item was scrubbed on a washboard.
The clothes were rinsed with another pot of water. They hand wrung them. Then, the clothes were hung out on a clothesline to dry.
When the clothes were dried, they were taken down to be pressed. Flour and water was used to starch clothes. The clothes were pressed with a charcoal-heated iron.
Now think about how much more laundry she had if she was also doing it for bachelors on the plantation!
Do you know what the average charge was per bachelor for laundry service in the 1880s? About $1 a month!
You May Never Know What Work Your Female Ancestor Did
Keep in my mind that some records may not tell the truth about the work that women did on the plantations. In some families, it was considered a failure if women worked.
Just because they weren’t recorded, didn’t mean they didn’t work. Listen to family stories for clues.
Pau Hana is an excellent book for understanding the role of male and female laborers on Hawaii’s plantations.
The jobs women did weren’t always considered “real” work. Thus, this information was left off rēcords like the census.
My great aunt was the family doctor, midwife, and seamstress. Not once is her occupation listed in the census.
You may have to rely on family stories rather than official records to figure out what work your female ancestors did in a Hawaiian.
Did your female ancestors work in Hawaii? If so, what work did they do?
1 thought on “Female Workers on Hawaii’s Sugar Plantations”
PS: I did not properly comment on teh post itself. Yes, indeed, women worked from the very beginning, and some children too. They were paid less, and less of them worked in the cane fields, but they are definitely art of the payrolls at early plantations. I studied the records for the Lihue plantation in Kauai, and as soon as i process the data will let you know more.
many thanks for your work