Crossing Seas and Labels: Hawaiian Contracts, British Passenger Vessels, and Portuguese Labor Migrants, 1878–1911


  • Nicholas B. Miller


During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, over 13,000 European men, women, and children, predominantly from Madeira and the Açores, emigrated to the Kingdom of Hawai‘i on contracts of government indenture. Their modality of migration was a contemporary anomaly, as it was restricted in other global contexts at this time to peoples racialized as non-European. This atypical conjuncture of white bonded labor and a government headed by a Polynesian monarch not only upset the contemporary racial geo-politics of the age of New Imperialism, but likewise has long complicated attempts to locate this migration trajectory in comparative histories of migration and indenture. Through a close study of the vessels used to transport European indentured laborers to Hawai‘i and the conditions of transhipment they endured aboard, this article probes a boundary case between the two commonly identified global historical migration patterns of the late nineteenth century: (i) European “voluntary” migration to the Americas and Australia and (ii) Asian “indentured” immigration to Euro-American dominated plantation colonies in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, the Mascarene Islands, and the South Pacific. By tracking the diverse passages made by the same ship, sail and steam, in-between different migrant commissions, this article suggests that a strict delineation of the onboard experience between indentured and voluntary migration is untenable. Further, this article considers the potential and limits of the study of the onboard passenger experience to study racialization processes in migration history, including for the complex context of pre-annexation Hawai‘i.