Life on a Hawaiian Plantation

Ten hours a day, six days a week

Working on a plantation was difficult and demanding, with conditions varying from one plantation to another.

Years:  1878 — 1913

The work on the plantation consisted of working ten hours a day, six days a week, in the hot sun. It was very demanding, and those who had not worked in jobs requiring hard manual labor suffered. Eventually, they were able to handle their jobs, though. There is a story of one immigrant whose job was exhausting handling a team of oxen. He came home each day and hung up the whip he used and said, “I am not going back to work tomorrow.” This frightened his wife because they had no other source of income. The next day, he always returned to work.

The treatment of workers varied from one plantation to another and was sometimes abusive. Workers were prodded to work harder and faster. Rules established were very restrictive and the breaking of rules represented a violation of Hawaiian law. Workers initially had no right to transfer to another plantation until their three year contract was up.

In 1900 after the Territory of Hawaii was annexed by the United States, the courts abolished the contract system and workers from then on were permitted to transfer to other plantations or to leave at any time. In order to keep workers, conditions improved.

The housing provided to the immigrant workers varied from one plantation to another. Facilities for single men were dormitories and were generally poor. The facilities for families were better, though there were situations where they were provided quarters with only dirt floors that became muddy when it rained. Each ethnic group was housed together in camps, and there was an effort to provide food that the group liked. The Portuguese were given flour to bake bread, while the Chinese were given rice. A communal oven for the bread baking was provided or built by the Portuguese for their camp.

The schooling system also varied, with both the kingdom and plantation owners sharing the cost. Boys who didn’t want to attend school found jobs at the plantations and were paid very low wages that were added to their families’ income. Women also earned money by either washing and sewing clothes for the single men or by working in the fields.

There was at least one incident of a plantation setting up a two-school system - one for the managers’ children and one for the children of other workers. Because of the disparity of the quality, the workers threatened to strike. The plantation owner conceded to the demand and the schools were combined.

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