What conclusion can one draw from the situation of these Norwegian families?
It is fairly safe to say that the climate was hot and humid, the work was strenuous, housing was below standard, medical care was miserable, and the attitude of the plantation owner towards his worker was quite condescending. But it is quite clear that there were significant variations.
Those who were used to heavy physical labor managed better than those who were not. Moreover, some of the immigrants were given work in the mills or other assignments, instead of the heavy field labor of harvesting the sugar cane. That gave them a much lighter work burden even though they had to work 12-hour days instead of the 10-hour days required of the field workers. And apparently, as stated previously, some of the Norwegians who had come on the ships were just not used to putting in a full day’s work.
The climate varies from island to island, not to mention the humidity. It is quite certain that it takes time to adjust to this type of weather. At the same time we know that thousands of Norwegian immigrants to USA experienced summers that were much warmer than those in Hawaii. If the Norwegians, after listening to Captain L’Orange, had expected to find paradise on Maui, then their disappointment is not surprising. The landscape was not nearly as inviting as they had thought it would be, although it was somewhat better on Oahu and Kauai.
It is quite understandable that the families, and especially the women, reacted negatively to the housing provided for them. The fact that Beta passengers had to live in unfinished houses and barracks because the ship had arrived one month early gave them a bad first impression. Norwegian housing standards at the end of the 1800’s were not so very good either, so not all the immigrants were used to high standards. Even so, it is understandable that many reacted negatively—as tired and dejected as they were after the long voyage.
As for medical care, it was not good in many other countries in 1880, either. However, it was most deplorable that neither the foreman nor the plantation owner, and not even the doctor—when they could get to him—would take their sicknesses seriously. They were brushed aside as pretending to be sick. Even pregnant women had to work hard – yes, sometimes right up until they went into labor to give birth.
This was very serious, and it reflected the prevailing mentality among employers of that time. Many, possibly the majority of those in management, met their subordinates with little or no understanding or compassion. This was the case not only in Hawaii, but also in Norway. One must not forget this when evaluating the situation in Hawaii from today’s perspective. It was not so unusual at that time.
When Norwegians had foremen who beat them with canes, then it is not surprising that they reacted with horror. Caning can never be justified. Other workers from Asia were used to it, so the foremen meant that all, including the Norwegians, should be treated the same. But the fact still remains that caning is inhumane treatment.
Several have made the allegation that the captain and agent for the Hawaiian immigration authorities, Christian L’Orange, had deceived them. This does not seem to have been proven. This is not the first time that the final reality of a situation does not coincide with what one thought was promised. The fact that the Norwegian emigrants had to sign a contract labor agreement, without having seen the situation on the plantations with their own eyes, just sets the stage for disappointment when reality closes in.
However, it does seem clear that L’Orange did not search hard enough for the most suitable workers. At the same time one must understand the problem he faced – not enough potential emigrants had applied.
Some of the persons that came to the plantations were more inclined to complain and cause disturbances more quickly than others, and that created problems. However, the majority of the Norwegian and Swedish workers did not get riled up without cause.
There was disagreement as to what the English word “lodging” meant, or Norwegian “losji”. Norwegian custom dictates that “losji” includes not only housing, but also bedding. This misunderstanding was remedied for the immigrants at least on some of the plantations.
However, a much more important disagreement had to do with whether or not non-working housewives were entitled to free board. The Norwegians insisted that this was promised to them, and the situation seems to have been resolved on most of the plantations. In this case the Bureau of Immigration conceded to reimburse the wives.
Wages were according to contract, or perhaps more like they were described by Johannes Johnson in his letter to Norway as it appears in an interview in this book. The point of contention was that other workers not bound by contract on the plantations got higher wages. The fact that they also had to pay fines for the smallest offence was understandably shocking to them.
The Norwegians staged the first labor strike, or at least one of the first, in Hawaii. But it is important to realize that Norwegians were not the only ones complaining. The governments of Japan and Portugal complained about the conditions forced upon their workers, and the British government issued a decree prohibiting emigration to Hawaii until the conditions for contract laborers on the plantations improved.
Looking back, we must also remember that Hawaii was not the only place where Norwegians went on strike. Already in the 1600’s Norwegian miners went on strike in their own country. Up through the centuries there has been strike after strike because of unworthy working conditions and inhumane treatment. So we must see the Norwegian immigrants to Hawaii in this context.
Progress was slow because law enforcement and the courts were sympathetic to the employers. Not only did they sympathize with the employers, but some were also directly engaged in the interests of the sugar plantations themselves, or profited economically from them. This explains why the Norwegian workers were not treated fairly by the authorities.
The Norwegian immigrants received a lot of interest in the newspapers in Hawaii, USA, and in Norway and Sweden. Newspapers on mainland USA wrote about the bad conditions for the workers on Hawaiian plantations because those Hawaiian plantations were in direct competition with their own. The mainland sugar cane growers wanted to see the Reciprocity Treaty for free raw sugar trade revoked.
The publicity led to the discussion of the Hawaiian situation in the Norwegian Parliament and Cabinet. King Oscar II sent Diplomat Grip to investigate the situation. He managed to negotiate some improvement in conditions for the workers, but in general he concluded that the complaints were unfounded.
Nonetheless, the historical event is recorded for all posterity that so many Norwegians went on strike and were sentenced, that there was not room for all of them in the prison in Hilo!
Was there any difference in the situation of the Norwegian sugar plantation workers in Hawaii from that of their countrymen working on the prairie farms in USA, where the summers were very hot?
The most important difference between these two groups was that the mainland workers were not bound to contract labor agreements for a certain number of years. Secondly, the hard working farmers in USA had the advantage of owning the land they worked on. Both of these factors contribute to understanding why the Norwegians in Hawaii reacted the way they did.
This stone monument was raised in 1981 at St. Gregor’s Point at Maalaea Bay, Maui, where Beta had anchored 100 years earlier. It is engraved with the following inscription:
THIS MONUMENT COMMEMORATES THE ARRIVAL OF THE NORWEGIAN BARQUE BETA WHICH DROPPED ANCHOR NEAR THIS SPOT ON FEBRUARY 18, 1881, AND OF HER SISTER SHIP MUSCA, WHICH ARRIVED IN HONOLULU MAY 18, 1881. THEY BROUGHT MORE THAN SIX HUNDRED NORWEGIANS, SWEDES AND DANES TO WORK IN THE SUGAR CANE FIELDS AND MILLS OF THE HAWAIIAN KINGDOM – THE FIRST AND ONLY MASS MIGRATION OF SCANDINAVIANS TO THESE ISLANDS. FOR THEIR CONTRIBUTION TO THE LIFE OF THIS LAND, AS WELL AS THOSE OF THEIR COUNTRYMEN WHO PROCEEDED OR FOLLOWED, OUR MAHALO AND ALOHA.
THE SCANDINAVIAN CENTENNIAL COMMISSION
FEBRUARY 14, 1981, THE CENTENNIAL DATE
“Aloha from Forgotten Norwegians in Hawaii”