Portuguese Emigration to Hawaii

In search of a better life

Poor economic conditions forced emigration from the Azores and Madeira

Years:  1878 — 1913

Large scale production of sugar required many workers and the Hawaiian population, which had been decimated by Western diseases, didn’t provide sufficient manpower. The plantations brought in Chinese men in the 1860s and 1870s but they didn’t bring their families. When they had completed their contracts many left the islands for California, returned home, or moved to Honolulu.

By 1870 there were already approximately 400 Portuguese in Hawaii who had left whaling ships to establish a life primarily in agriculture. One of them, Jacinto Pereira, a well-respected owner of a dry goods store, recommended that the Hawaiian government bring Portuguese workers and their families from Madeira.

At that time a Dr. Hildebrand, a citizen of Germany and a former resident of Hawaii, was living in Madeira and was contacted for his opinion. He replied, “In my opinion your islands could not possibly get a more desirable class of immigrants than the population of Madeira and the Azores Islands. Sober, honest, industrious, and peaceable, they combine all the qualities of a good settler.” He then agreed to recruit workers and arrange for their transportation, and Jacinto Pereira agreed to represent the Portuguese when they landed in Hawaii. While the plantation owners were pleased with the Portuguese workers, they thought the cost of passage was too high. They stopped the program in 1913 and started obtaining workers from Japan.

Madeira had a one crop economy, the production of Madeira wine. A blight that severely damaged the vineyards had weakened the economy and resulted in unemployment. Poor economic conditions also existed in the Azores and mainland Portugal. Many had emigrated to Brazil, a former Portuguese colony. However, many who considered emigration selected Hawaii over Brazil due to the existence of the deadly yellow fever in Brazil.

In addition, many poor believed the lack of public education had hindered their possibility of improving their lives in Portugal. This may have been the main reason for emigrating to Hawaii because the Hawaiian monarchy and the plantations committed to providing public education through the 8th grade. (Portugal instituted public education in 1907.) Young men also saw emigration as an opportunity to avoid conscription into the military. Another reason was that the standard contract accepted by the Portuguese representatives appeared reasonable to support a family. The contractual terms were eventually approved by the Portuguese government and King Kalakaua in 1882.

The standard contract called for: free passage to Hawaii, including food, for the entire family; 36 months of service; 26 working days per month; 10 hour workdays; $10 monthly wages with “suitable” lodging, daily food rations and garden space; and free medical care and medicine.

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