That Time Hawaii Turned to Russia For Plantation Workers

Illustration for article titled That Time Hawaii Turned to Russia For Plantation Workers

There is an absolutely fascinating story by Alina Simone on PRI about a time in the early 20th century when the Hawaiian Board of Immigration let in 1,500 Russians to solve a labor dispute. And of the resulting attempt by the brand new communist government to bring them back.


Image credit: A Family Portrait From the Russian Passport Application Album/Russian Collection, Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii at Manoa/flickr/CC-BY-ND-NC 2.0

Plantation owners in Hawaii originally relied on Chinese and Japanese workers, but when several thousand Japanese workers went on strike in 1909, another work force was sought after. Specifically, they wanted white labor. A report from the Hawaiian Commissioner of Labor said that the owners were "willing without reserve to employ all the Caucasian workers the government can bring to the islands, at a wage one-third larger" than the wages offered to Asian laborers.

A man named Perelstrous in Honolulu drew up a brochure with a usual set of lies attracting Russian immigrants to Hawaii. Patricia Polansky, the Russian bibliographer at the University of Hawaii's Hamilton Library told PRI:

"There were all kinds of things in there," Polansky adds. "They would be given a little house, how many hours they had to work, what their wages would be."

That, and one extra thing: The brochure also suggested the Russians would be given their own land.

"That actually didn't turn out to be true, of course," Polansky says. "They were coming just to work on the plantations. So that was part of what caused a lot of the trouble after the Russians got here."

Like the Japanese workers, the Russians went on strike. And, faced with a place totally alien to them, many left for California, New York, and home to Russia.

Seven years after they arrived, the Russian Revolution took place and the new government wanted to repatriate the Hawaiian Russians. Polansky says:

So Moscow sent a man here whose name was Trautshold. He had money. He was to pay their passage back to Russia. And he was to fill out their passport applications and everything. And that's what this album is that we have, we have the passport application album.


Few wanted to go back, but this remains a bizarre little blip in the history of Hawaii.

Listen to the whole PRI story below, including what the descendants of those Hawaiian Russians who went home have done now, or read it at PRI.


h/t Devon Grandy




Not to be pedantic, but wouldnt 1909 be the early 20th century?