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A Massacre Forgotten

Decades of harsh treatment toward plantation workers resulted in several riotous strikes beginning in the 20th century. One turned deadly. It has since been all but forgotten.


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On Sept. 9, 1924, what began as a simple arrest by Kauai sheriffs at the Filipino strike headquarters in Hanapepe quickly turned deadly. Sheriffs had been sent to retrieve two Filipino laborers being held captive by strikers in a Japanese-language school. A struggle broke out between the strikers and the authorities and, minutes later, 16 strikers were shot and killed, many by deputized sharpshooters hiding on a nearby hill. No one knows who made the first move in the incident that has become known as the Hanapepe Massacre.

Hardly anyone remembers the massacre now. Even our best plantation memories are quickly fading as the industry shrinks. Sugar processing came to a halt on Kauai last October when Gay & Robinson closed, leaving only one sugar plantation, on Maui. But the story is worth remembering; it tells us how far we’ve come as a culture and a people. As much as it is a part of Hawaii’s labor history, it is also specific to the Filipino plantation experience, which was different from that of the Chinese or Japanese laborers before them. Its relative obscurity could be because there were no clear-cut victims or villains—neither side was completely innocent—and there were no real aftereffects of the strike; strikers did not win concessions until decades later and the massacre did not spur further strikes, or even a public outcry. That we remember the massacre at all is due to the diligence, if not obsession, of a handful of historians, for whom the story is personal, appreciable and intriguing. “It [is] important for the Filipino community and the community at large to acknowledge this pivotal moment in labor history,” says Emme Tomimbang, who included a segment of the massacre in her documentary on Filipinos in Hawaii.

The Laborers

Filipino labor organizer Pablo Manlapit.

Photo: Courtesy Chad Taniguchi

To understand how sheriffs and workers ended up killing each other on Kauai in 1924, we have to step into the shoes of Filipino plantation workers. Filipinos were the last group of immigrant laborers to arrive to the Islands. The victims of the massacre were among the 37,019 Filipinos who immigrated to Hawaii between 1907 and 1924. According to HONOLULU’s predecessor, Paradise of the Pacific, in 1925, the territory of Hawaii had a population of 323,645 and Kauai had a population of 32,000. More than half of the total population weren’t considered citizens, or even residents, only laborers toiling away on the sugar plantations.

Filipinos working on sugar plantations were given the worst housing and the lowest paying jobs. On Kauai, Filipino laborers worked and lived on the Koloa, Makaweli, Kekaha, Lihue and McBryde Sugar Co. plantations. The majority of the workers were young men, single and uneducated. They came from three regions of the Philippines: Visayans arrived first, followed by Ilocanos and, in much smaller numbers, Tagalogs, each group speaking a different language. In addition, there were significantly fewer Filipino women than men. “A lack of women in the Filipino community meant many fewer families, a totally different view of life and really no sense of community,” says Andy Bushnell, a retired Kauai Community College history professor who gives talks on the Hanapēpē Massacre.

The Japanese laborers were the first to strike in 1909, paving the way for labor unions in Hawaii. In 1920, they formed the Federation of Japanese Labor, which carried out another big strike on Oahu that year. Although the striking members were primarily Japanese, Filipino workers—led by a labor organizer named Pablo Manlapit—also joined.

Manlapit was a former Big Island plantation worker who had moved to Honolulu and become an attorney. In 1918, Manlapit formed the Filipino Labor Union, which was essentially confined to Oahu, unlike the territorywide Japanese union. “In this capacity he took on this advocacy role on behalf of Filipino plantation workers in the 1920 and 1924 strikes,” says Jon Okamura, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Hawai‘i, who specializes in Hawai‘i labor history. Manlapit started the High Wage Movement in 1922, and made demands of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA), which spoke for the Islands’ sugar plantations. The most important objective was doubling the minimum wage from $1 a day to $2 (almost $13 to $25 in 2009 dollars). They also wanted an eight-hour workday—down from 10 to 12 hours—and overtime pay.  Lastly, they advocated for equal pay between men and women and collective bargaining rights. These demands were also being sought by the Japanese labor organization.

The strikers who participated in the Hanapēpē strike supported these demands, even though Manlapit didn’t travel to Kauai plantations until 1924. While historians applaud his efforts, they are also critical of his organizing skills. He would bring interpreters with him to the plantations so they could translate his Tagalog into Visayan and Ilocano. However, he focused on Oahu more than the other islands. “The difference between Manlapit’s union and the Federation of Japanese Labor is that Manlapit didn’t have branches at the plantation level,” says Okamura. “The Japanese labor union did have these kinds of branches to represent workers … so they were much better organized.”

John Reinecke, a linguistics scholar who conducted research for his book The Filipino Piecemeal Sugar Strike of 1924-1925—published after his death in 1996—also criticized Manlapit. “No other major strike was so haphazardly planned and conducted or failed so completely,” he wrote. Thousands of Filipino workers attended Manlapit’s meetings across the Islands, but on Kaua‘i only a few hundred actually went on strike.

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