The Coolie System and the Yellow Press: Criticism of the Spreckels Sugar Plantations

November 12, 1881/82

In the fall of 1881, the San Francisco Chronicle, an early adopter of the so-called “yellow press” style of journalism, cast a harsh spotlight on Claus Spreckels’ Hawaiian plantation system. The article drew attention to the unacceptable labor conditions on Spreckels’ plantations and highlighted the hardships faced by Portuguese, Norwegian, and German immigrant workers. The Chronicle’s purported humanitarian reporting, however, was underwritten by Eastern sugar refiners, who used arbitrary complaints about Spreckels’ business practices in the islands to undermine the extension of the U.S.-Hawaii reciprocity treaty and to fight Spreckels’ influential position in the U.S. sugar industry in the early 1880s. The San Francisco Chronicle’s reporting on the Spreckels family became so heated that Adolph B. Spreckels shot the Chronicle’s editor, Michael de Young, in 1884. Thus, the document not only gives insights into the emerging yellow press of the era but also the tensions between publishers and exposé subjects.

From: “Spreckels and Sugar Interest,” San Francisco News Letter 32 (November 12, 1881/82): 2.

“No public spirited man, in developing his beneficial views, is safe from the attacks of unprincipled scoundrels who control a newspaper.… It matters not that we have vindicated Claus Spreckels so unanswerably that the Chronicle and its myrmidons remain utterly silent to our charges. It apparently matters not that all other leading newspapers have refuted assertions that were founded only in the brain of some boozy Bohemian. It matters not that the Chronicle itself admitted its charges against Spreckels, of serfdom and peonage, to have been baseless. Foiled at every point when it attacked that gentleman, it fell back upon the Chinese stinkpot system of warfare. It charged wholesale and remorseless slavery upon the Island planters (which, by the way, the planters here represented proved entirely false), and, from such a silly standpoint, argued that the Reciprocity Treaty was responsible for all the evils that afflict Hawaii! There is logic with a vengeance! If a volcanic eruption occurs, what is the cause? Mr. Spreckels and the Treaty! If leprosy and smallpox prevail, whose fault is it? Mr. Spreckels and the Treaty! If laborers get drunk and are jailed, what is the reason? Spreckels and the Treaty! If crops fail and Kanakas decrease, who is to blame? Claus Spreckels and the Treaty! This is the Chronicle’s argument condensed.… The reality is ‘in hand received’ from the New York refiners, who would willingly spend fifty or a hundred thousand dollars in purchasing Press opinions for use in Congress.”