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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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When friends of the young men realized they were missing, they reported them to the Kauai sheriffs. Deputy Sheriff William Crowell went to the headquarters that evening and demanded to see the two. Strikers produced the two men, who, it is believed, were coerced into saying they wanted to be there. Crowell tried to convince the strikers to let him take the two but they refused. He left and went to the county attorney, where he was given an arrest warrant—not for the strikers, but for the captives, as a way to free them. He returned the following morning with approximately 40 other men, many of whom were hunters and recently deputized sharpshooters, their weapons and training paid for by the HSPA.

Crowell went to the strikers’ headquarters with about three sheriffs, plus an interpreter to explain the arrest warrant. The other 37 sheriffs remained at their cars on the dusty Hanapēpē Road up from the strikers’ headquarters. Some were even waiting on a small hill from which they could see the school in the distance.

The following is from an official account given by one of Crowell’s sheriffs who was present at the schoolhouse: Crowell went in, showed the warrant and demanded that the strikers turn over their captives. The two men were released and were leaving the school grounds with Crowell when some strikers began following and taunting them, waving their cane knives in the air threateningly. The sharpshooters fired upon the strikers when they saw the men try to attack Crowell. The men shot dead 16 strikers in self-defense, while four sheriffs suffered casualties as a result of stab wounds. Crowell himself was injured, but survived. 

Sulpicio Venyan, a striker who participated in the 1979 oral-history project, concedes that some strikers beat up the two Ilocano workers and forced them into the schoolhouse, where they remained overnight. Crowell returned the next morning with a warrant. “He was going to rescue the two and grabbed ahold of them and began to run. When they were chased by strikers—that’s when the shooting started. They just started killing the Filipinos.”

Venyan—who said he wasn’t a part of the violence—ran with others into a nearby banana patch to escape flying bullets. He stayed there until “the war was over,” but was soon caught. Crowell’s men rounded up Venyan and 100 of his comrades and they were transported to the main prison in Līhu‘e. The injured and dead were taken to a nearby hospital. Soon after, National Guard soldiers arrived to Kauai via an inter-island steamer.

A funeral took place in the days following the massacre, one for the fallen sheriffs and another for the strikers. It is unknown where the strikers are buried; their graves were left unmarked. The newspaper The Garden Island reported, “1[6] rough board caskets … were transported to Hanapepe on trucks where they were placed in one long trench.” The HSPA gave each of the four sheriffs’ families $500 ($6,300 in 2009 dollars), while the families of the 16 strikers had to split about $75 ($947 in 2009 dollars), barely $5 per dead striker.

National guard soldiers watched over 130 strikers awaiting trial for riot charges outside the Lihue district court.

Photo: Courtesy of the Garden Island Archives

The Aftermath

The Hanapepe Massacre derailed the Filipino labor movement. Though it may seem strange to us in 2010, there was no public outcry after the massacre, nor did it inspire any greater worker solidarity. “The violence reinforced a stereotype prevalent in Hawaii already about Filipinos as being prone to violence, prone to crime and emotionally volatile, especially the young male Filipinos,” says Okamura. “For Japanese, it was another reason for them not to cooperate with Filipinos in labor organizing.”

Most of the strikers were arrested, including the Kapaa strike leaders. Bushnell says that 57 strikers received 13 months in jail, and returned to work afterward. Seventy-six were indicted on riot charges—16 were acquitted, including Venyan—and two were charged with assault and battery for beating the two Ilocanos; nobody was charged with murder. Most received four-year prison sentences, and some were deported back to the Philippines. The two Ilocano captives continued to work on the plantations. The Kauai sheriffs, however, were not reprimanded for their role in the violence.

During this time, Manlapit, who had become the face of Filipino labor organizing—and the Hanapepe Massacre itself—was on trial in Honolulu for conspiracy charges in an unrelated case, presenting yet another hurdle for Filipino labor.

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Honolulu Magazine July 2019
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