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.

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.


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.”


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.


Four men whom The Garden Island newspaper reported as Filipino strike leaders.

Photo: Courtesy of The Garden Island Archives

After the trials, life went on for many as though the massacre had not happened. Widows of the dead strikers remarried, men and women toiled in the fields under the same harsh conditions and the small community went on with everyday business. Taniguchi surmises that this is probably because those who tried to instigate change were either dead, in jail or deported, and that Filipinos did not have a strong community upon which to lean in the face of tragedy. “I think they thought there was nothing they could do,” adds Bushnell.

The Impact

It was not until 1946 that plantations accepted unionized labor with the recognition of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU). The ILWU organized during World War II and struck the year the war ended, winning improved working conditions and higher pay. “That’s a long time later, though, a whole generation after the strike in 1924. By 1946, I’m willing to bet very few people remembered the Hanapepe Massacre,” says Bushnell.

Okamura agrees: “It goes back to the historical circumstances: striking workers being armed and killing four police, that’s not likely to generate sympathy from the larger public.” He adds that instances such as the killing of Joe Kahawaii during the Massie case or the 1938 Hilo Massacre, in which the police shot at more than 50 unarmed strikers—although none were killed—garnered more sympathy from the public and have been more widely remembered.

Even so, that September day more than 85 years ago was still an important moment in Hawaii’s labor story. “I don’t know if anyone is ever going to get the true history,” says Gonzalves.

“Every nation is as much about remembering as it is about forgetting the past acts of barbarism that were created at its foundation. The best we can do is approximate the event and get at the validity of what happened.”