White landowners in Hawaii imported Russian laborers in the early 20th century to dilute the Asian labor force on the islands.

On February 19, 1906, the mail steamer China arrived in the port of Honolulu, Hawaii. She had made the trip from San Pedro, California, many times before, but this trip was headline news. Local newspapers announced the arrival of “one hundred and ten white men, women and children, the vanguard of what promises to be an influx of settlers to the Hawaiian Islands.”

A reporter for the Hawaiian Gazette recorded that they “appeared to be sane, moral, God-fearing people.” On the contrary, in 1856 some of the first Chinese indentured laborers to work in Hawaii had been described as a “turbulent, obstinate, and reckless class” who needed “influences tending to their improvement and conversion to Christianity” so that there might be “a blessing reserved for the Chinese on the Sandwich Islands,” an old name for Hawaii.

These white Christians were originally from south-central Russia and were part of a decade-long effort by wealthy white men who owned the Hawaiian sugar plantations to find hard-working workers for little pay. But as I learned during my research on Russian migration to the US in the early 20th century, their racial background was key to their arrival in Hawaii: they were white immigrants whom supporters might compare to American colonial-era settlers. and those that expanded to the west. across the Great Plains.

Change of power on the islands

Since the 1830s, white planters had run huge sugar plantations in the Hawaiian Islands. At first they employed native Hawaiians. However, the demand for labor grew rapidly, and as part of the native population died from diseases introduced by the Europeans, there were not enough workers for the industry. Furthermore, Hawaiians began organizing against low wages and harsh working conditions as early as 1841. Faced with the possibility of large-scale riots, planters began recruiting indentured workers from Asia by the thousands, especially China.

White elites, such as those who overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, wanted Hawaii to finally become a state. But opponents, such as Humphrey Desmond, editor of the Catholic Citizen newspaper, feared that Asians living there would become American citizens and “dilute the citizenship” of the rest of the white-dominated United States.

Since the 1880s, Hawaiian elites had tried to bring in workers from Portugal and Norway. They received much higher wages than Asian workers and were promoted to skilled occupations faster. Some white farmers also made it to Hawaii on their own, but most quickly gave up, their efforts defeated by the harsh tropical climate.

In 1898, the US agreed to annex Hawaii, whose population was just over one-fifth of European or American ethnicity. But that meant that the plantations could no longer import Asian workers. They were outlawed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which now applies to Hawaii as a US territory.

In addition, the planters were now under pressure from the growing power of the Asian laborers already on the islands. In 1904 and 1905, Japanese workers led strikes on several plantations in Hawaii, in some cases winning wage increases and other concessions, such as the firing of negligent supervisors.

Enter the Russians.

People of different ages look over the railings of a ship.
The arrival of the Molokans was widely hailed as an opportunity for Hawaii, as well as for them.
The Pacific Commercial Advertiser via Library of Congress

Moving from the Caucasus

Newcomers to Hawaii were known as Molokans. A Christian group that had emerged in the 18th century in south-central Russia rejected the teachings of the Orthodox Church, which was closely linked to the Russian government.

Beginning in the 1830s, they were exiled to the Caucasus region, where Russia had been expanding its empire through conquest. Although they were considered dangerous heretics in Russia itself, in the Muslim-majority border areas they became indispensable allies of the tsar’s government.

Their rejection of alcohol, their strong work ethic, and their considerable skill as farmers earned them the admiration of officials, travelers, and scholars. But in the 1880s they were subjected to conscription for the first time. They opposed it and in 1900 began a campaign to leave for North America, where they were once again seen as the ideal settlers, once they began arriving in 1904-1905. The Molokans found a temporary home in Los Angeles.

But then, as I have learned by studying contemporary press accounts and primary sources from the Hawaii State Archives, they came to the attention of Hawaiian planters.

One of its champions, Peter Demens, a California lumber merchant with Russian roots, described his life in the Caucasus to Hawaiian planters and media audiences as a never-ending triumph of industry over nature: “In every place they had to do the work of the primitives. pioneers; to acclimatize, to acquire knowledge of local conditions, customs, uses and local agricultural methods. From the fertile black earth steppes of central Russia they were transported to the dry and salty deserts of the Crimea, which they quickly transformed into flourishing gardens.

Comparing them to European settlers in the early United States, Demens further highlighted their moral qualities, such as prohibitions on liquor, tobacco, and divorce. He exhorted them as “the only part of the masses that knows how to think and that thinks.”

In January 1906, the archives reveal, the territorial government and Molokan leaders signed a land agreement. He allowed the Molokans to come to Hawaii to work on a plantation in a land subdivision called Kapa’a on the island of Kauai, learning to grow sugarcane and bringing their relatives to join them. When the current plantation company’s lease expired in 1907, the agreement promised that the Molokans would be able to take over, not as wage laborers, but as settlers with their own rights to lease 5,000 acres on which to live and work.

Starting to work the land

Within hours of landing in Honolulu in February 1906, the advance party of 39 families of Molokan settlers set out for Kauai. Once there, they began to build houses. Files show the Kapa’a plantation manager was hopeful, calling his effort “a good omen.”

But once they started learning how to grow sugar cane, problems arose. The hundreds of former Japanese, Hawaiian and Portuguese employees were angry that these strangers, fresh off the ship, were lining up to receive a lease on the entire plantation. Long-time workers began to find employment elsewhere, leaving the plantation without a workforce.

For the Japanese workers, in particular, being displaced by the Russians stung: they had won the Russo-Japanese War only months before. Some Japanese workers refused to work with the Russians, citing the recent conflict as the reason for talks with the plantation manager. Others reported being subjected to Russian aggression, even saying they had been told: “You Japanese drove us out of Manchuria, but now we will drive you out of Kapa’a.”

As indicated in letters from the plantation manager, George Fairchild, to the settlement’s main supporter, James B. Castle, the Russian settlers began to act as if they already owned the lease on the Kapa’a lands. They even told other workers that the other workers would soon be working for the Russians and tried to sublet local rice paddies to small farmers.

To make matters worse, the Molokans were used to the cold, arid mountains of the Caucasus, not the hot, humid foothills of Hawaii. Archival records show that they also resented the strict labor discipline demanded by sugarcane plantation managers and refused to work more than 10 hours a day, earning derision from locals, who were used to days from 12 to 14 hours. And they tried to plan their eventual takeover of the lease, proposing to the manager that each family work a separate section of cane.

A short-lived effort

Hoping for a peaceful and prosperous settlement, the Molokans faced open resentment from other plantation workers, who likely feared displacement as more Molokans arrived, and constant complaints from managers about the quality of their work.

Most of them left Kauai, and even Hawaii, in early July 1906, less than six months after their much-announced arrival. The failed experiment exposed the misconception of Americanizing the islands by increasing the white population. While other labor immigrants, such as the Portuguese, earned a better reputation among planters and remained in sufficient numbers to establish a significant cultural presence on the islands, the islands’ demographic composition would change little over the next few decades.

Plantations relied on labor from people already in Hawaii, as well as people arriving from the Philippines, which had recently become a US colony.

But for a brief moment, thanks to widely shared notions of white supremacy and colonization as a force for good, even people as different as Russian Molokans could be compared to the Pilgrim Fathers of American settler myth: people who simply by virtue of of its appearance and background symbolized civilization, progress, and a powerful connection to an imagined past.


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