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  • From the Pages of Social Sciences: Russian Settlers in Hawaii

    Russian Settlers in Hawaii in the Early 1900s


    By Amir Khisamutdinov, D. Sc. (History), professor at Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok.
    Originally published in Social Sciences, No. 3, 2013, pp. 28-35.

    In the early 20th century, the Hawaiian Islands were a bridge of sorts for emigrants from the Russian Far East on their way to the New World. It was mostly Finns and Poles who became Americans, but there were Russians among them as well. At first only few of them lingered for a while on the islands, but soon an inflow of Russian immigrants to Hawaii intensified. The resettlement movement swelled because the Russo-Japanese war had made America revise its policy vis- à-vis Japan, whose expansion in the Asia-Pacific region was increasingly manifest. Japanese workers were turning up at Hawaiian sugar cane plantations in increasing numbers, something that made the US Government apprehensive that the fast growing Japanese population could play a negative role in a potential war with Japan. To counter this trend, the Americans decided to bring to Hawaii, where a US naval base had been deployed by that time, white emigrant labor, who would help to “save” Hawaii from the Japanese.

    The Territorial Board of Immigration in Hawaii was tipped off by Russians coming to Honolulu from Primorye and the Amur Area that it was possible to invite workers from Russian Manchuria to the Hawaiian Islands. The TBI officials were aware, of course, that this could displease the Russian authorities, given their strenuous efforts to settle the Russian Far east and the waysides of the Chinese Eastern Railroad. For this reason, the Board did nothing about Russian emigration until 1909, when a Japanese strike forced it to revive this idea.

    An opportunity soon presented itself in the person of a Russian national, A. Perelestrous, who came to Honolulu for medical treatment and rest on Waikiki and saw a good opening for business. He introduced himself to the Secretary of the Territory of Hawaii and the Territorial Board of Immigration as a major railway contractor in Manchuria and offered his services in delivering Russian workers to local sugar cane plantations. He said that workers’ pay at the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway was much lower and the working and living conditions worse than at the plantations. He declared that he could undertake to deliver thousands of workers from the Russian Far East. A particularly attractive point in his offer was the claim that the Russians in their mass were of peasant stock and used to hard agricultural work.

    In spite of their promises, the Hawaii Board of Immigration were in no hurry to take concrete steps. it was not until Perelestrous returned to Honolulu, in August 1909, with 50 applications for resettlement to Hawaii and promised to organize relocation of another 10,000 or so that the board made up its mind to send a representative to Manchuria. This representative, A. Atkinson, former Secretary of the Territory of Hawaii and member of the Territorial Board of Immigration, who had had some experience resettling Russian Molokans to the Kauai Island, was given precise instructions on selecting 50 families, or about 300 resettlers, from Manchuria. The Governor of Hawaii provided the necessary funds. on August 30, 1909, Atkinson and Perelestrous boarded the steamer Siberia and set out for Tsuruga, Japan, whence they reached Vladivostok on board the Governor Jack. This immediately became known to the Russian authorities.

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