Regular readers of this blog and those interested in labor history should not be surprised by yet another tale of rampaging police and massacred strikers. From the Great Railway Strike of 1877 on for the next five or six decades such scenes repeated themselves with variations outside besieged steel mills, in mining towns stretching from West Virginia to Colorado, and on gritty urban streets. It was open class warfare and the victims of the depredations by the hirelings of the bosses, gun thugs, vigilantes, Pinkertons, cops, and troops became martyrs, their stories preserved in song and legend.
We don’t think of such things happening in paradise, but it did. On September 9, 1924 16 workers and four Sherriff’s officers were killed in what became known as the Hanapepe Massacre. And the victims and their story have been largely forgotten even by their own people.
Of course what is now paradise of mainland tourists was something different for the thousands of Filipino laborers who had been recruited for the sugar industry in the Hawaiian Islands. They cut cane and worked in sugar processing, notoriously dangerous and exhausting work, on the massive plantations that were a mainstay of the Territory of Hawaii’s economy. Moreover, they were at the bottom of an ethnic pecking order in the industry.
The Filipinos were the latest of three groups imported by growers to work the fields after native Hawaiians proved unsuitable and unwilling to do the back breaking labor. First were the Chinese, but the Oriental Exclusion Act which came into force on the islands when they were annexed to the United States in 1898 cut off the source of coolies. Growers turned to the Japanese who arrived mostly in family groups and had well developed cultural ties and institutions. By 1909 they were conducting their first strikes for better wages and conditions and in 1920 organized the Federation of Japanese Labor, which carried out another big strike on Oahu that year.
With the Japanese increasingly restless, employers turned to the U.S. colony of The Philippines to recruit more plaint labor. Workers were recruited from three distinct ethnic groups from the islands, Visayans, Ilocanos, and, in much smaller numbers, Tagalogs, each group speaking a different language. Unlike the Japanese, most of the recruits were young single men and illiterate. Both the bosses and the Japanese regarded them as rustic primitives.
The first waves arrived during or just after the 1909 strike and their numbers swelled each year. By 1924 there were an estimated 37,000 Filipinos out of a total population of 323,600 in the Territory, scattered over the sugar producing islands of Oahu, the Big Island of Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. On arrival they were given the hardest, lowest status jobs, housed in the worst conditions, and given hardly enough basic rations to survive on. Anything additional and services like laundry had to be paid for at company stores at inflated prices.
Despite their outcast status and the fact that the Japanese ethnic based union refused to enlist them, many Filipino workers walked off their jobs during the 1920 strike as well.
Well meaning but inexperienced Pablo Manlapit, Filipino labor leader.
Pablo Manlapit young Honolulu attorney, one of the few Filipinos who had worked his way out of the cane fields of the Big Island to professional status, organized the Filipino Labor Union, which was essentially confined to Oahu, unlike the territory-wide Japanese union. Manlapit, a minority Tagalog, had helped organize the Filipino walk out in 1920. By 1924 he felt his union was ready for a push for High Wage Movement in support of demands he had made of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA), beginning two years earlier. The ambitious agenda included doubling the minimum wage from $1 a day to $2, an eight-hour workday—down from 10 to 12 hours—and overtime pay, equal pay between men and women, and collective bargaining rights.
For their part, growers, who controlled the Territorial Government, had responded to increased militancy by both Japanese and Filipino by following the mainland in enacting draconian anti-labor laws during the post-World War I Red Scare period. The Territorial Legislature passed the Criminal Syndicalism Law of 1919, Anarchistic Publications Law of 1921, and the Anti-Picketing Law of 1923. Despite penalties of up to ten years in prison, the severity of the reaction only fueled worker discontent.
In April of 1924 Manlapit called an all-island strike against the growers.
The Japanese Union also struck, but did not coordinate its activity with the Filipinos. By this time the Filipinos were the majority of the work force and the Japanese were concentrated in the more skilled jobs. On their part, the Japanese with their well-established system of union branches on all of the Islands and at most of the major plantations and sense of communal solidarity were able to effectively bring most of their work force out.
Manlapit’s Filipino Union did not fare so well. Barely organized outside of Oahu, the union chief contented himself with making speeches and holding rallies on the other islands calling on the workers to join the walk out. Although the rallies were well attended and he received an enthusiastic welcome, he did not provide local workers with organizers, structural support, or even much of a plan. The result was predictably disastrous. On Kauai only 575 Filipino laborers out of more than 5,500 employed at the Koloa, Makaweli, Kekaha, Lihue and McBryde Sugar Co. plantations actually walked out.
Strikers on the island set up headquarters in the only two towns not on plantation property or controlled by the growers. At Hanapepe about 124 active strikers set up a strike headquarters in a Japanese school building which they rented.
The strike dragged on through the spring and summer with most of the action on Oahu. Without leadership or a clear plan militant workers on Kauai grew increasingly frustrated—and hungry. They had to rely on fishing and modest charity by local merchants to survive. Meanwhile most of their fellow Filipinos stayed on the job and production at the plantations was hardly effected.
For their part plantation owners responded predictably with armed thugs, the National Guard, and strike breakers paid a higher wage than the strikers demanded. Strikers were turned out of their homes. Propaganda was distributed to whip up racist reaction among white and native Hawaiian populations and to further divide Filipino from Japanese workers.
Tensions boiled over on September 7 when two non-striking workers, both 18 year-old ethnic Ilocanos bicycled into Hanapepe looking to buy shoes. They were captured by strikers from the school building almost all ethnic Visayans, held against their will and beaten.
Deputy Sheriff William Crowell went to the headquarters when he heard reports of the incident and demanded the release of the two young men. The strikers produced them, but under compulsion the men said that they were there voluntarily. Crowell left unconvinced and went to the county attorney. Arrest warrants were sworn not for the strikers, but for the captives, as a way to free them.
Crowell returned the following morning with other officers and a posse of about 40 men, many of them company guards or employees armed with hunting rifles paid for by the HSPA. Crowell and three or for regular deputies approached the school and served the warrant. The rest of the posse was positioned behind a line of automobiles on the road and high on a hill overlooking the school.
Strikers surrendered the two young men. But as Crowell and his men began to leave with them, strikers poured from the school cursing and following the men. Many had their cane cutting bolo knives, a kind of Filipino machete. At this point accounts of what happened vary widely. According to authorities, Crowell and his men came under attack and sharpshooters on the hill and behind the automobiles let loose and intense fusillade of rifle fire that lasted several minutes.
Surviving unionists insisted that although they were pressing on the Sherriff’s men, no one was assaulted until firing began. This view as been somewhat corroborated by non-striking local residents who witnessed the shooting, but their account has been challenged because they were thought to be sympathetic to the strikers. At least one of the members of the posse later testified that he and others opened fire when they thought that Crowell would come under attack.
No one will ever know for sure.
But after about 15 minutes of confused fighting, 16 strikers lay dead, dozens were wounded, and four deputies were stabbed to death. Crowell and others were wounded but survived. The posse and National Guard troops arrested all of the strikers they could find.
In Honolulu, where strike leader Manlapit was already in custody for unrelated strike charges, the victims of the shooting got no sympathy. The rest of the Hawaiian labor movement, mostly concentrated on the docks, did not respond with sympathy or solidarity. And after a day or two of screaming headlines on the Mainland, the incident was quickly forgotten there, too.
The Filipino dead were packed in cardboard caskets and buried together in an unmarked slit trench, the location of which has been lost. The Sheriff’s men were buried with the pomp reserved for military heroes.
Of course the strike was broken and the Filipino union was smashed. 101 strikers from Hanapepe were brought to trial. According to Tiffany Hill in an article on the massacre in Honolulu Magazine, “57 strikers received 13 months in jail, and returned to work afterward. Seventy-six were indicted on riot charges—16 were acquitted—and two were charged with assault and battery for beating the two Ilocanos; nobody was charged with murder. Most received four-year prison sentences, and some were deported back to the Philippines.”
Manlapit was also deported to the Philippines after a prison sentence, but returned in 1932. He tried to organize a new multi-ethnic sugar worker’s union with little success. Small scale local strikes in 1933 failed to attract many non-Filipino workers and the new attempt petered out before any wide spread strike was again attempted.
Sugar workers on the islands were not organized until the post-World War II when the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU) finally was recognized as the collective bargaining agent and won many of the demands of the High Wage Movement and the Filipino Union.
It wasn't until 2006 that the Hanapepe Massacre was commemorated by ethnic Filipino groups and the Hawaiian labor movement.
Today the sugar industry has all but vanished from the islands and the Hanapepe Massacre is largely forgotten. Even among Filipinos, it was not until the 1970s that ethnic writers and historians began to investigate this buried part of their heritage.