It is the 140 year anniversary of the first Portuguese contract laborers arriving in Hawaii to work on sugar plantations. After reading Portuguese celebrate 140 years since first immigrants arrive I realized that there’s a couple of things that they got wrong. In fact, these misrepresentations are things many people believe about their Portuguese immigrant ancestors experience in Hawaii during the sugar plantation era. But, that doesn’t make them true.
No, They Did Not Start Out as Lunas and Overseers
There is one quote in the article that kind of got my hackles up. It stated that the Portuguese were skilled laborers before they left, therefore, they did not work in the fields. That’s wrong.
While it is true that some of the Portuguese were lunas and overseers, they did not start there. They started in the fields just like everyone else.
Just so you know, lunas and overseers, were the supervisors of the field workers. The lunas were on foot, the overseers on horseback.
What is true is Portuguese men had the opportunity to promote up to luna and overseer. However, that was the highest position they could hold in the plantation system for the first couple of decades. (See my article “Caucasian But Not White” for the reasons why.) It was possible for the Portuguese to hold different positions up to luna and overseer, but, most started as field laborers.
The photograph above represents some of those Portuguese men. Each one of them started as a field laborer on the Kilauea Sugar Plantation. Only one was promoted to luna. Antonio Pacheco, second from the left standing, held that position in 1903, but he didn’t in 1900.
What About The Women? They Worked in the Fields, Too.
Yeah, what about the women? They aren’t mentioned in the article outside of being noted as passengers on the Priscilla. Many signed sugar plantation contracts and worked in the fields like their husbands, brothers, and fathers.
My great great grandmother, Maria da Conceicao (Mello) de Braga, was one of those women. She signed a sugar plantation contract at the same time as her husband before leaving for Hawaii.
The women worked just as hard sometimes caring for babies and small children as they did so. Let’s not forget them, okay?
Read Up on the History
There are several books out there that go over Hawaii’s history. If you’re interesting in learning more about the sugar plantation era, then pick up a copy of Pau Hana by Ronald Takaki.
Takaki tells the story of first plantations through the turn of the century. The book also goes into great detail about how the plantation system was set up, what it was like working on a plantation, and the cultural divisions within Hawaii’s society at the time. I consider it a must read for anyone who wants to better understand what their immigrant ancestor’s world was like.
Do We Want Our Ancestors to be More Than They Were?
It seems we have a desire to build up immigrant ancestors into being different, better. They had skills the other immigrants didn’t have, right? But, when we do this, we diminish their sacrifices, their hard work, their struggle–and we change their story.
The Portuguese immigrants who came to Hawaii as contract laborers worked in the fields. They were no more special than the Filipinos, Germans, Japanese, Scottish, and other men and women who were under contract in Hawaii. And, that’s okay.
They worked hard. They had some promotional opportunities unlike the Asian immigrants. They had fewer opportunities than the other European immigrants who were considered White. That’s just the way it was during the sugar plantation era.
It’s a Remarkable Story. Let’s Not Diminish It.
They were poor, illiterate, and came half way across the world for a chance at a better life. Don’t you think that it is a remarkable story?
Most of these people were peasants who owned nothing. They came to Hawaii with the clothes on their backs and some keepsakes from home. They toiled in the fields 10 hours a day, six days a week, so their children might have things they never did.
Most adapted to their new world. They saw their children go to school. Their grandchildren did even better. They graduated from high school and college. Those grandchildren had professional and economic arenas open to them that their grandparents couldn’t imagine.
That is the immigrant story. Sacrificing so the next generation can do better. That truly is a remarkable story!
2 thoughts on “What We Get Wrong About the Portuguese Immigrants to Hawaii 140 Years After The First Contract Laborers Arrived”
My GGPs came to Hawaii 1880 to 1884. Four were from Sao Miguel, Azores, two from Funchal, Madeira, and the other two were from Germany. All of the men started in the fields. I do not believe any of the women worked the fields. Some of the sons also worked the fields. My German GGF was a civil engineer by training, so he quickly moved up to work on the trains. Two GGF were a mason and a painter, but still worked the fields for a considerable time before moving up to luna. The other GGF was a laborer and soldier in Sao Miquel and worked the fields as well. Yes, they all worked their way up to luna (the Germans moved higher, as was expected in those days) but no higher. The only Portuguese exception was Manuel J Teves (son) who became chief bookkeeper for the Koloa Plantation after working in the clerk’s office for many years.
So, Yes … the Portuguese did not start as lunas or overseers, at least in my family.
Most of the Azoreans and Madeirans who came to Hawaii and the USA were illiterate and skilled at working hard and surviving .If they were educated and well off, they did not immigrate.Those early pioneers worked hard and made a better life for their families. The wives and daughters worked harder then the men.