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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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Sulpicio Venyan (right) participated in the 1924 strike.

Photo: Courtesy of Chad Taniguchi

The Strike

In 1924, Filipinos made up about half of the Kauai plantation workforce, or 5,576 laborers, but only an estimated 575 went on strike. The 1924 sugar workers’ strike began on Oahu and then spread to the Big Island, followed by Maui, and a few months later, the Garden Isle. “On the Big Island the strike was the most effective and there you got a greater percentage of the Filipinos to go out. On Maui and Oahu it was less effective than the Big Island and the island in which it was least effective was on Kauai,” says Bushnell.

The majority of the Filipino strikers on Kauai were Visayans. Bushnell explains that before the 1924 strike started, Cayetano Ligot, a resident labor commissioner from the Philippines and popular former governor of Ilocos Norte, came to the island to assure the HSPA that Filipino workers would not strike. He was most successful in persuading Ilocano workers not to do so.

The strikers from the Koloa and Makaweli plantations set up two strike headquarters. Approximately 150 Visayans rented out a Japanese language school in Hanapepe in late July or early August, while the more than 400 remaining strikers stationed themselves in the Hee Fat rice warehouse building in Kapaa (which stills stands today). These two towns were chosen because they were the only two on Kauai that were not plantation towns controlled by the HSPA.

Many had no concept of what it would take for the strike to succeed, or for how long they should strike, according to transcripts of a 1979 UH Ethnic Studies oral-history project of the massacre—spearheaded by Chad Taniguchi and Ed Gerlock—in which a handful of Filipino men from the 1924 strike were interviewed. They didn’t have a strike fund and the men—some of whom had families at the headquarters—fished in the Hanapepe River and relied on the kindness of the small business community for food. Taniguchi, who grew up on Kauai’s west side, discovered that his grandfather, who owned a small bakery in Hanapepe, donated food to the strikers.

During the 1920s, labor organizations were based on nationality, so the Japanese and Filipino laborers on Kauai did not collaborate closely, even though they were organizing for the same changes. “People [were kept] apart so the bosses could sow discontent and create divisions, and that prevents a workforce from being able to recognize its own common interest,” says Theo Gonzalves, a UH associate professor of American Studies, who has been working on a Web site for the past three years that will post audio recordings from the oral-history project.
Hawaii is not unique in violence resulting from labor organizing efforts. One U.S. Mainland example is the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in Colorado. The Colorado National Guard killed 20 people—including 11 children—in a tent colony housing 1,200 striking coal miners and their families.

The workers in Hanapepe were on strike for about a month and a half before what started as a skirmish between Visayan and Ilocano Filipinos escalated into a deadly situation.

Photo: Courtesy of The Garden Island Archives

The Massacre

On Sept. 8, 1924, two Ilocano Filipinos (from the Makaweli plantation)—each about 18 years old—rode into Hanapepe on their bicycles to buy a pair of $4 shoes. Filipino laborers earned approximately $20 to $25 a month, and would spend about one-fourth of their wages on food and an additional $2 to wash their clothes. They sent much of the remaining money to relatives in the Philippines.  

On their way back to the plantation, the two passed the strike headquarters, where they were apparently attacked by Visayan strikers and held inside the schoolhouse against their will. Bushnell speculates that the men could have taken them hostage because they were non-striking Ilocanos. “The strikers are really frustrated by this time because they’re not shutting down anything,” he says. “They don’t have a lot to eat, they don’t have a great deal to do and the sugar industry is going right on producing sugar and it doesn’t look like anybody [else] is joining them.”

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