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This Day in Labor History: October 29, 1889

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On October 29, 1889, whites in Hawaii lynched the Japanese organizer and merchant Katsu Goto in Hawaii after opening a store to compete with the plantation company store and advocating for labor organizing. This event would demonstrate how planters and other white migrants to Hawaii would use white supremacy and violence to establish control over the diverse labor force of those islands.

Nearly as soon as white missionaries arrived in Hawaii before the Civil War, they wrote back home about all the investment possibilities there. Soon, whites arrived to establish sugar plantations, wresting control of the islands away from the native Hawaiians and putting increasing pressure on the Hawaiian government to capitulate to planters’ demands. Sugar is a labor intensive crop and there was no way that Hawaiian natives could supply it, especially as disease was decimating that population. So the planters very quickly looked overseas. Japan was a major target. At the same time, many Japanese were migrating to the United States for a better economic life. Many of them came to Hawaii. There, they were treated like dirt, much like agricultural laborers of color in the South.

Katsu Goto was one of the first laborers to come over. Born in 1862 in Kokufu-mura, Naka District, Kanagawa Prefecture, he worked for the government and learned English. In the early 1880s, the Japanese government worked out with the Hawaiian planters a migration plan. The Kanyaku Imin were these people, 29,000 contract laborers sent by the Japanese government, a plan that lasted from 1885 until 1894. Goto, wanting a different life than what he had in his government, job, was on the first ship to arrive. He was a laborer under a three-year contract on the Big Island. After those three years, Goto decided to open a store to serve the Japanese community in Honoka’a, the second largest city on the island. This made the white merchants serving the community angry. Of course, he did a better job of getting the products they wanted; moreover, he treated them like humans. He soon became an advocate for the heavily exploited Japanese laborers. The planters and their overseers routinely whipped the Japanese workers. Goto was disgusted. And because he spoke such good English, he also became the court representative for Japanese charged with crimes or for those trying to resist crimes against them by their employer. He also started to organize these workers to improve their working conditions.

When he started to organize workers, the planters struck back. Five men, including the overseer of one of the plantations, ambushed Goto after an organizer meeting. It was more than likely that plantation owner who ordered his death. The next time anyone saw him, he was hanging from a telephone pole (or so it is reported today; I wonder if it wasn’t actually a telegraph pole, but whatever), strangled to death.

Somewhat surprising, the five men were charged. There was widespread outrage at such an outright awful murder, including in Japan. Two turned state’s witness and had their charges dropped. The other three were charged and found guilty of manslaughter. Two escaped from prison, one to Australia and the other to California. Most felt they help from the planters to get out. The third served his four year sentence and then was pardoned by the new governor in 1894, after the planters had actually overthrown the Hawaiian governor, anticipating an annexation by the United States that would have to wait until after the anti-imperialist Grover Cleveland left power. Yes, this is probably the only good thing one can say about Cleveland.

The Hawaiian planters would continue treating their workers like slaves for decades–Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Filipino, and whoever else they could get in the fields. Finally, in 1920, a cross-racial strike between the Japanese and Filipino workers would lead to a major victory for the field workers.

This is the 285th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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