Hawaii became a US territory in 1898. The federal government considered the islands’ demographic makeup as a problem -it was “too Asian.” At the time, the big five sugarcane plantations were importing workers from Japan, China, and the Philippines. But the horrid conditions caused the workers to organize, spelling trouble for their overlords.
When Hawaii officially annexed the islands in 1900, the contract system was abolished and the sugarcane workers rebelled, whipping the underlying racism of the white ruling class into a kind of paranoiac madness. Newpaper editorials warned of a dystopian future under Asian rule. Ministers raved about the threat of Buddhist missionaries. In 1905, President Roosevelt himself issued a strongly worded pronouncement that Hawaiian immigration must proceed under “traditional American lines.”
Importing Siberian labor was part of a desperate, last-ditch effort to turn the demographic tide in Hawaii, orchestrated by the sugarcane planters, the island elite, and a U.S. congress that feared Hawaii would do the unthinkable and send an Asian senator to Congress. But the weirdest immigration scheme ever proposed by a U.S. territory, also turned out to be the most disastrous. The Russians never provided anticipated relief from Asian workers, because they refused to work at all.
The Siberian immigrants weren’t lazy, not at all. But the desires of the plantation owners, the federal government, and the immigrants didn’t mesh. Read about the failed scheme to transplant Siberians into Hawaii at Atlas Obscura.
(Image source: Russian Collection, Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii at Manoa)