Modern Migrants

In the early nineteenth century, entrepreneurs from Europe and the United States began to take advantage of the tropical climate of islands in Polynesia, such as Tahiti and Hawai‘i, to grow plants to be exported to overseas markets.  These cash crops, such as sugar and cotton, were grown on large, specialized plantations which were owned by upper class foreigners and staffed by lower class laborers.  At first, these workers were found among the native people of the islands, but as indigenous populations contracted European diseases and declined, immigrants from all over the world were brought in to fill the positions on the plantations during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  

The plantations in Hawai‘i and Tahiti can be described in terms of Philip Curtin’s plantation system theory: a single crop was planted over an extremely large area with the specialized product intended for overseas consumption; the exploited labor force was not sustainable, with many more deaths than births and a consequent need for continued immigration. Perhaps most importantly, the control of the plantation, and therefore its workers, was in the hands of foreign businessmen (Curtin, 10).

During and after the Civil War in the United States, cotton production decreased greatly.  Businessmen in Tahiti took advantage of the opening in the market by starting their own cotton plantations (Chang 1968).  In 1865, Scottish planter William Stewart received permission from the French Colonial government to bring Chinese workers from Hong Kong to work on his new 400-hectare plantation at Atimaono (Tung 2005).  At the time, this was the largest cotton plantation in Tahiti.  In 1865 and 1866, about 1,000 Chinese laborers arrived on three ships: the Ferdinand Brumm, the Spray of the Ocean, and the Albertine.  In 1874, after the Civil War ended and cotton production was restored in the United States, Stewart went bankrupt and the Atimaono plantation was shut down.  The loss of jobs caused the Chinese laborers to become cooks, bakers, farmers, and businessmen and many chose to leave Tahiti (Tung 2005).  However, those who stayed were joined by women and children after 1924 when a direct steamship line was established between Hong Kong and Tahiti.  As children were born to Chinese parents in Tahiti and others were brought from China, Chinese schools were established and a substantial Chinese community began to form.  At the end of World War II, about 1,000 Polynesian-born Chinese returned to China but were surprised by the regime change and were never really able to settle back into Chinese society.  Since the 1970s, many of these Polynesian-born Chinese have returned to French Polynesia with their children and beginning in 1973, French citizenship was granted to those born in French Polynesia (Tung 2005).

Today, the Chinese-Tahitian community makes up about 12% of the French Polynesian population (CIA, 2010) and is active in organizing and participating in Chinese events.  The Sinitong Association, established in the late 1800s, began as an aid group, which provided fellow immigrants with lodging, care of the sick and elderly, and assistance with burials (Tung 2005).  Sinitong built a Chinese temple and two nursing homes, and maintains the Chinese cemetery at Arue.  Sinitong also coordinates Chinese New Year celebrations, parades, and other cultural events.  Much of the Chinese community in Tahiti today are Catholic or Protestant, only visiting their traditional temple for the New Year and other celebrations. The Chinese New Year celebration has become so popular in Tahiti that guide books usually mention it and the many aspects of Chinese culture on display, including food, clothing, musical instruments, books, martial arts, folk dancing, and lion dancing (Tung 2005).  However, many of these performances are done by visiting Chinese dancers and martial artists, and do not necessarily represent the particular traditions of Tahitian Chinese. 

After the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778, the Hawaiian Islands became a popular port for many European ships because of their central location in the Pacific Ocean.  With them, the Europeans brought diseases such as syphilis, influenza, mumps, measles, whooping cough, small pox, leprosy, and tuberculosis, to which local populations had no immunity. At the time of Cook’s arrival, the native population of Hawai‘i is estimated to have been around 300,000.  Fifty years later it was around 130,000, and fifty years after that less than 60,000 (Taeaber 1962).The devastating impact of foreign diseases on the people of Hawai‘i gave Europeans and Americans an opportunity to settle and claim land, on which they established sugar plantations as early as the 1830s.  The first workers on these plantations were indigenous Hawaiians, but with the decline in the native population due to disease, there was a demand for labor which could not be filled locally (Taeaber 1962).  As a result, more than 400,000 immigrants came to Hawai‘i from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.  This mass migration included 46,000 Chinese, 17,500 Portuguese, 180,000 Japanese, and 156,000 Filipinos (Taeaber 1962). 

Fig. 1: Map from “Pacific Islands” [Geographical Handbook Series]. Great Britain. Admiralty. Naval Intelligence Division, 1943-1945.  From the University of Texas website.

In 1850, a law was established in Hawai‘i which allowed laborers to be indentured.  An indentured worker is bound by a legal contract to work for a certain amount of time in exchange for certain services such as passage to the work place from their home country.  In 1852, indentured Chinese laborers began to arrive in Hawai‘i.  These were mostly unskilled, illiterate males.  After fulfilling the requirements of their indenture, many returned to China or chose to settle on the west coast of the United States or in larger cities in Hawai‘i where they opened shops and started families (Taeaber 1962). 

Fig. 2:  Hawaii State Archives.  19th-century Chinese contract laborers on a sugar plantation in Hawaii.  

As Chinese laborers left plantations, they were replaced by Portuguese immigrants from the Azores and Madeira Islands.  People from Portugal may have settled in Hawai‘i as early as 1794 after jumping ship from American voyages (Castro 2006). However, mass migration of Portuguese did not occur until after the Reciprocity Treaty in 1876 which allowed Hawai‘i to sell sugar on the US market.  This increased the demand for workers and opened up an opportunity for more immigration.  Jacintho Pereira, a Portuguese merchant already settled in Hawai‘i, suggested bringing laborers from the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal.  The islands were experiencing an economic slump because of a blight that decimated vineyards and the wine industry.  In 1878, a treaty of immigration and friendship between Portugal and the Hawaiian Kingdom allowed for easier immigration.  The same year, 114 Madeirans and 800 Azoreans, including women and children, arrived in Hawai‘i.  As you can tell from the fact that women and children were among the immigrants, the Portuguese came to Hawai‘i with the intention of settling.   Migration to Hawai‘i became a popular escape from poverty and a strict military system.  In 1913, several thousand Portuguese immigrants arrived in Hawai‘i the last large migration from Portugal to Hawai‘i.  Many immigrants from this final group became Hawaiian cowboys, otherwise known as paniolo.  After leaving the sugar plantations, the Portuguese established small independent farms and dairies.  Their presence in Hawai‘i has left lasting cultural influences including various types of food such as breads and sausage, the celebration of the Holy Ghost Festival, and the ukulele which was based on an Azorean Portuguese instrument, the braguinha (Castro 2006).

In 1885, Japanese immigrants began to arrive in Hawai‘i to work on sugar plantations. Like the Chinese, only males migrated at first.  However, there was a shortage of Hawaiian women for them to marry so they began to import Japanese brides.  In 1924, the United States (of which Hawai‘i was now a part) introduced the Immigration Act, which halted further immigration because of increasing hostility between the United States and other nations, especially Japan, prior to World War II (Taeaber 1962).   

After the establishment of the Federal Exclusion Act, the Philippines seemed to be the perfect place to find laborers since the Philippine Islands were under US control at the time, making Filipinos US nationals.  A few immigrants had come to Hawai‘i before the Act but many resisted coming because of the man-eating beasts, which they had heard inhabited the Hawaiian Islands.  After several successful groups migrated, with no reports of ferocious animals, and the implementation of the new Immigration Act, Filipinos were more willing to migrate to Hawai‘i. Filipinos were paid the lowest wage and were used as leverage against Japanese laborers who were striking for higher wages.  This group of immigrants was also ideal because they had experience growing sugarcane and were generally uneducated.  The Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association preferred to hire uneducated workers who knew nothing about their legal rights (Labor Migration in Hawai‘i, 1999-2001).  

Since immigrants to Hawai‘i were predominantly male, intermarriage between ethnic groups was common and children born in Hawai‘i were often taught in English (Taeber 1962).  As a result, much of the modern Hawaiian population, although they may be of Asian or Portuguese descent, do not speak their ancestral languages or identify themselves with any single ethnic group.  According to the US Census Bureau 2005-2009 American Community Survey, 4.1% of Hawaiians today identify themselves as being of Chinese descent, 14.7% of Japanese descent, and 13.6% of Filipino descent.  Only 5.8% consider themselves to be native Hawaiian (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005-2009).

Immigrants from China, Japan, Portugal, and the Philippines have shaped the modern cultures and societies of Hawai‘i and Tahiti, and the contemporary inhabitants represent a uniquely diverse ethnic and cultural heritage.

Ariane LeClerq, Carleton College


Works Cited

Castro, Robert.  “Portuguese in Hawai‘i”. 2006.  Brazilian Cultural Center of Hawai‘i.  January 11, 2011.

Chang, Sen-Dou.  “The Distribution and Occupations of Overseas Chinese”.  Geographical Review Vol. 58, No. 1 (Jan. 1968): pp. 89-107.

Curtin, Philip. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Labor Migration in Hawai‘i.  Grace Mateo.  1999-2001. The Philippine History Site- The Office of Multicultural Student Services, University of Hawai‘i.  January 11, 2011. http://opmanong.ssc.Hawai‘

Taeaber, Irene B. “Hawai‘i”.  Population Index Vol. 28, No. 2 ( Apr. 1962) pp. 97-125.

The World Fact Book. December 29, 2010.  Central Intelligence Agency.  January 9, 2011.

Tung, Yuan-chao.  “Chinese in Tahiti”.  Encyclopedia of Diasporas Part III (2005): pp. 742-750.

U.S. Census Bureau. “Hawai‘i- Fact Sheet”. 2005-2009. American Fact Finder. January 11, 2011.