The Azoreans and Madeirans who came to Hawaii were looking for a better life for themselves and their children. There were more opportunities in Hawaii than they could find at home. This was a risky proposition and it took courage to undertake this journey.
The Sugar Plantation Migration
The birth of the sugar industry of the Sandwich Islands (a.k.a. Hawaii) provided a new lease on life for Madeirans and Azoreans.
In 1878, Madeirans were given the opportunity to leave home as 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 went back to their homeland.
A Dangerous Migration
Hawaii was a long way from the Atlantic islands. The journey could take a couple of weeks or several months depending on the weather, food rations, and illness.
Because of the dangerous, long journey, people were afraid for the survival of their family. Many families left one child behind with a close relative…just in case. If the ship sank 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. 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 and Caucasian, 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 plantation luna. Also, the widespread illiteracy made it more difficult for the Portuguese immigrants to gain a voice on plantation conditions. Organizing and unions were a couple decades away. 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.
Life was harsh for the immigrants who came to Hawaii. In comparison to life back home, it was mostly an improvement. Although, how much of an improvement depended on the plantation and the philosophy of the owners.
Some were more cruel towards their workers than others. Some devised systems whereby the laborers were always in financial debt to them.
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.
Did you ancestors find a better life in Hawaii? Tell us their story in the comments.