Tough Life in the Sugar Fields (Book Excerpt)

After arriving in Hawaii, the Norwegian immigrants experienced their first negative reaction when they saw the lodgings that were provided for them. The houses and barracks were not up to their expectations. Part of the reason for this was that the Beta had arrived at least a month ahead of schedule. The homes had no glass windows, only shutters to open and close as needed. None of the Norwegians had lived under such Spartan conditions before. They were also not used to having open gables on the houses, but were told that this was the norm in warm climates.

The bachelors were placed in small rooms in the barracks. When they asked for straw to fill their mattresses, they were told that they had to pay for it.

The workers who were assigned to the Hitchcock plantation on Papaikou, 8-9 kilometers north of Hilo, were greeted by the owner himself. A welcome feast was prepared for them, but soon after that the luxury ended. The Norwegians felt that they had good reason to complain about the amount and quality of the food that was provided for them.

Other complaints dealt with harsh treatment from the foremen and that they were docked in pay and punished for the smallest offence.

They also drew attention to certain points in the contracts that needed clarification:

There was disagreement as to what the word “lodging” meant. “Losji” in Norwegian meant that one was also provided with bedding, while lodging in English did not include bedding. This was remedied on some of the plantations.

However, there was a more important disagreement concerning whether or not the non-working wives were to receive free meals. The Norwegians insisted that this had been promised to them. On the Hitchcock plantation, this situation was not resolved until the Norwegian government sent its representative, Johan Anton Wolff Grip, to Hawaii in the fall of 1882.

The Norwegian contract laborers had also heard that a skilled worker could easily get a job making from 60 to 100 dollars a month in other places. Their salary was about 25 dollars a month. Since the voyage had only cost around $130 for each Norwegian, it was quite clear that this free passage had cost them dearly.

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“Aloha from Forgotten Norwegians in Hawaii”

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