Early Hawaiian Norwegians honored by a nearly invisible memorial on Maui
By Gary G. Erickson
“For now we see through a glass dimly, then face to face.” A clause, written by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, could be interpreted to apply metaphorically to an obscure passage in the saga of Norwegian immigration to America: On the Hawaiian island of Maui stands a small, obscure monument to Norwegian immigrants arriving there in 1882. The obscurity of this immigration is eclipsed only by the obscurity of the memorialization itself.
Clarity, focus and knowledge began to come to light when a native Hawaiian car rental clerk was overheard this spring to remark to an arriving mainland traveler: “Norwegians came here early on and worked in our sugar cane fields years and years ago. There is a monument to them, too, somewhere on Maui.” It was a stunning off-hand revelation.
Just as stunning as the statement was the clarity brought by another simple fact: The actual, obscure monument stood in full, diminutive, unconscious view of all those who looked westward, at beautiful Maui sunsets, from anywhere along the southwest Makena to Kihei coastline. Visible, yet so invisible.
A visit was made to the Pacific Whale Foundation’s facility in Ma’alaea Harbor, and this led to another conversation with a local. The site of the monument was described as lying less than a mile and a half away, along the western coast of Ma’alaea Bay and the Honoapiilani Highway to Lahaina.
The distance from the highway was short, but the access leading to an old light house was difficult to discern. The monument was sighted and a bronze, cast metal plaque, embedded in a large, natural rock base of about one meter in height, made up its form.
The plaque quickly provided many answers. It read: “This monument commemorates the arrival of the Norwegian barque Beta which dropped anchor near this spot on February 18, 1881, and of her sister ship Musca, which arrived in Honolulu May 13, 1881. They brought more than six hundred Norwegian, Swedes and Danes to work in the sugar cane fields and mills of the Hawaiian kingdom – the first and only mass migration of Scandinavians to these islands. For their contribution to the life of this land, as well as those of their countrymen who proceeded or followed, our mahalo and aloha.” It stood about 40 feet from the light house, but high above the Pacific Ocean. Its vantage point afforded an expansive view of the harbor in which the Beta dropped anchor. Its position captured the harbor and all the sea that lay beyond it, stretching to Tahiti. The harbor, now populated by migrating Humpback Whales engaged in massive physical displays of graceful breaching prowess, just the same as Scandinavians would have seen it at this same time of the year..
Additional conversation with local residents revealed some controversy within the story of Norwegian immigration. It was thought of the Norwegians at that time that they were difficult workers; they worked hard, but were found to be not as compliant as workers of other ethnicities. They resisted physical forms of intimidation by management and owners. They formed and took part in organized labor strikes. Residents recommended that the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum near Kahului, Maui, be visited for more information.
At the museum, Ms. Roslyn Lightfoot, Museum Director, provided a gracious and spontaneous interview. “No,” she said, “the Norwegians were not, as has been said by some, treated like slaves. Slavery did not exist in the Hawaiian kingdom; it existed on the mainland.” She explained that the Scandinavian workers had been recruited by other Norwegians [near Drammen, Norway], and that they came to Maui with the protection of three year labor contracts written in two forms, one in English and the other in the mother tongue of the laborers; they also had a return trip ticket to their homeland. These contracts, she said, were very specific in language; they described responsibilities on the part of both parties, as well as the consequences for performance that didn’t match the contract requirements. Lightfoot further pointed out that the health care received by the Norwegians and their family members was the best in that part of the world for that time, and was better than that generally available on the mainland. “They were the highest paid workers in the world. They held a return ticket home as part of the contract.” But, they did not return to Norway, she continued. What did they do, where did they go at the end of their three years, she was asked. “Most of them continued on to the mainland, to the Midwest, to Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin,” she said, “although some didn’t and their descendents remain in Hawaii to this day.”
Readers having the opportunity to visit Maui should consider a visit to the monument and the museum. One can learn about a lesser-known component that makes up the story of Norwegian immigration to America. Homage can be paid to a small group of Norwegians who experienced more than we may ever know in their unique path to an improved life apart from Norway.
This article originally appeared in the May 4, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.