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

October 11, 1881

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: “Slave or Starve,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 11, 1881, 2.

“A Chronicle reporter last night interviewed Antonio Mideivas de Ascension, an invalid at present in this city and under medical treatment. From the length and the magnificence of the invalid’s nomenclature it would probably be instinctively inferred that Senor Antonio Mideivas de Ascension could not be but little lower that a President of a South American Republic. Ascension, in fact, however, was born on St. Michaels, one of the southeastern group of the Azores or Western Islands, and the largest and most popolous of the group. The islands were originally not very fertile in the multiplication of anything except the Dutch and the Portuguese by which they were successively settled, but when the earthquakes set in to annually destroy the towns of the islands, the bugs to eat the grapevines and the orange trees and the sugarcanes, and the constant humidity to dissolve everything else, the population looked favorably upon any mode of egress from the islands to any other portion of the earth’s or sea’s surface that might be suggested.… It was because of this emigration boom, Mr. Ascension alleges, that when about a year ago three large ships went to St. Michaels, and another large one to Fayal, another to the islands, to obtain emigrants for the Sandwich Islands, and for work in the sugarcane fields there, they were all soon loaded to the gunwales with passengers eager to get away from the Azores that the did not demand very accurate information of what disposoton was to be made of them in the far-off Pacific. Mr. Ascension says that the emigrants very mistakenly believed that nowhere could they fare worse than on the Western Islands. He says the people were landed at Hilo, where they first ascertained that the ships had been chartered by Sir Claus Spreckels, Knight of the Kanaka Garter, and that the passengers, none of whom had been able to pay the passage money in advance, would be required to work in Sir Claus Spreckels’ sugarcane fields in the vivinity of Hilo to cancel their indebtedness.… The wages were fixed at $8 a month. Mr. Ascension does not know what the passage money from the Azores to the Sandwich Islands was to be, and, in fact, the Azoreans appear to have been so eager to leave the one set of islands and so indendently poor that they did not care what the charge should be. Their importer also appears to have accepted their free and easy view of the case, for the invalid solemnly avers that it would take the labor of five continuous years of the most practicable of weather to pay for this extensive ‘dead horse.’ But round about Hilo the weather never is practicable. There is never a day that does not rain and there is never a rain that the time of its continuance is not scrupulously deducted from the time of labor. At that rate it would require about an average natural lifetime to work our of debt, and then the worker would be ready for the final voyage to the next set of islands, to wit: The islands of the blessed. There was no help for this. The Azoreans were at Hilo and couldn’t get away. Sir Claus Spreckels had the game in his own hand. In fact he had Hilo and the game, and quite probably Jack also, though of this Mr. Ascension could not testify ‘of his own knowledge.’… The smallness of the wages was more than equaled by the smallness of the rations, and this again was more than equaled by their quality, so execrable and frequently nauseating that hunger even to the verge of starvation could not compel their consumption. The sick man solemnly alleges that every man of the four shiploads of unfortunate islanders were landed at Hilo into a slavery from which escape was more hopeless than from the Southern States of America, and which is so much worse than the current coolie slavery imported from China that the Azoreans are probably the first of European people who would gladly exchange conditions with the lowest classes of the despised Mongolians. All the other necessities of life are on exact par with the alleged food furnished. But Senor Antonio Midievas de Ascension finally beat the game, although to do so he had to so nearly do what one has to do to beat the Life Assurance game that he became utterly unable to work. He was in the door of death, and from starvation. Ascension is a man of only about 22 years, is fully six feet high, and of mighty bones, which if covered with only the minimum of the average amount of flesh would make him a mon certainly of two hundred pounds weight. He now actually weighs only a frifle over one hundred pounds.… Having been starved into utter uselessness as a laborer, a pass to leave the island was finally granted him, and he succeeded in obtaining passage to San Francisco and to a relative here, a Mr. Oakes. Mr. Oakes immediately put the dying young man under the professional care of John J. Clark, M.D., ex-police surgeon. This was on the 28th of September last, and the patient is only now in a condition in which hopes of his final recovery may be entertained. A Chronicle reporter called on the physician last night, and was told by him that the patient was suffering from starvation, pure and simple, and from no other ailment whatever. The process of starvation had been so nearly complete that the stomach’s power of assimilation had been almost destroyed.”