Hawaii’s sugar industry created opportunities for descendants

A “cane haul” truck laden with harvested sugar cane, featured in the book "Kauai Stories. Photo courtesy Grove Farm

A “cane haul” truck laden with harvested sugar cane, featured in the book “Kauai Stories.” Photo courtesy Grove Farm

When Komakichi Ikehara immigrated to Hawaii from Japan for work in the state’s booming sugar industry, he probably never imagined that 113 years later, his grandson on Kauai would come across his labor contract with Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.

The contract dated January 11, 1900 promises Ikehara the sum of $15 per month for 10-to-12 hour days spent toiling in the sugar fields, with $2.50 per month withheld to pay for his voyage back to Japan, should he choose to return after fulfilling his contract.

Ikehara was one of 400,000 immigrant laborers who came to Hawaii beginning in the mid-1800s to work in the sugar industry, creating the cultural melting pot we enjoy in the Hawaiian islands today. Workers came from China, Japan, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Korea, Spain, Germany and the Philippines seeking new lives, opportunity and adventure.

When they arrived, they were assigned to various sugar plantations throughout the islands and given housing in “camps” named for the ethnic group originally placed there, such as Spanish Camp or Korean Camp; for the town in which they were located, such as Koloa Camp on Kauai’s south shore or for the plantation owner, such as Rice Camp, named for William Hyde Rice, who served as governor of Kauai from 1892-1893.

Imagine newly-arrived workers, most knowing only how to speak their native tongue, having to talk with people from other nations to accomplish tasks on the sugar plantations. In order to communicate, they created a language called Pidgin English, a blend of all their languages and English, spoken in the present tense, with most verbs disregarded.

Pidgin is still spoken in Hawaii today. Some of my favorite Pidgin phrases are:

Standard English:  If you can do it, please do so. But if you cannot, I understand.
Pidgin English:  If can, can. If no can, no can.

Standard English:  This is better.
Pidgin English:  Mo’ bettah.

When I look at Ikehara’s contract, I imagine him learning English and bits and pieces of other languages as he created his new home. I imagine how proud he would be to know that his grandson, Jimmy Ikehara, built upon his foundation and became a white collar professional for a salary that I am assuming is more than $15 per month. 

For 150 years, sugar plantations were an integral part of Hawaii life, eventually declining, until one by one, almost all of them closed their doors. Interestingly, the only Hawaii sugar company still operating is Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar, the very same one that Komakichi Ikehara worked for upon his arrival in the islands.

The last sugar plantation on Kauai closed in 2009. Looking around Kauai now, one can only imagine what the island looked like with tens of thousands of acres of bright green sugar cane fronds waving gently in the wind.

You can almost still hear “haul cane” trucks rumbling down the highway, bringing their cargo of newly harvested stalks of cane from the fields to the mill for processing, loose pieces falling through the heavy chain truck carriages, only to be crushed on the road by other vehicles, a faint sweet smell filling the air. I give thanks to all those who came before me, braved their fears, and with courage and pride, made Kauai and Hawaii what it is today.

Jimmy Ikehara's grandfather's labor contract w Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co 1-11-1900 for Hawaii Stories

Jimmy Ikehara’s grandfather’s labor contract w Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co 1-11-1900

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