Transplanting Servitude: The Strange History of Hawai'i's U.S.-Inspired Contract Labor Law
Hu, Christopher D., Stanford Journal of International Law
In 1850, as a part of a larger program of Western-influenced legal reform, the independent Kingdom of Hawai'i passed a contract labor statute adapted from existing U.S. state laws to meet the perceived need for a reliable plantation labor force. For the next five decades, this statute--the Masters and Servants Act--served as the legal foundation for Hawai'i's rapidly expanding sugar industry, facilitating the arrival of roughly 150,000 immigrants throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.
Within the field of comparative law, the study of legal transplants--legal rules borrowed from one nation and adopted in another--has operated under the assumption that the transfer of those rules necessarily brings the two legal systems closer together. The case study developed in this Note suggests that convergence is not the only possible result: as it turns out, the Masters and Servants Act actually drove divergence between the U.S. and Hawaiian legal systems and conflict between the two nations' governments.
The Act incorporated legal rules that had already become obsolete in their place of origin, and it helped create a plantation labor system that was soon decried by U.S. critics as closely resembling slavery. When Hawai'i was annexed by the United States at the end of the century, repeal of the Masters and Servants Act was among the top U.S. priorities. Considering the Masters and Servants Act, and the legal regime it engendered, through the lens of legal transplantation thus provides an opportunity to rethink how legal transplants work--and what it means for a transplant to be successful
I. LEGAL TRANSPLANTS AS COMPARATIVE LAW II. HAWAI'I'S MASTERS AND SERVANTS ACT A. The Beginnings of the Sugar Industry B. Drafting the Act 1. A Period of Sweeping Legal Change 2. The Act and Its U.S. Origins 3. English and Colonial American Antecedents III. THE CONTRACT LABOR SYSTEM A. General Trends B. Interpretation and Enforcement C. Domestic Resistance and U.S. Criticism CONCLUSION
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of people emigrated to Hawai'i, British Guiana, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, and other sugar producing locales to work on sugar plantations. These migrants, mostly from South and East Asia, served as replacements for emancipated slaves or as supplements to indigenous populations unable or unwilling to meet the growing demands of the plantations. (1) By and large, these immigrants were governed by labor contracts that bound them to their employer for a fixed term of service, and were enforceable through penal sanctions. (2) In sugar cane fields throughout the tropics, free wage labor was the exception, not the rule. (3)
The independent Kingdom of Hawai'i (4) occupied a unique position within this worldwide system of contract labor. In 1850, as a part of a larger program of Western-influenced legal reform, the Hawaiian legislature passed a contract labor statute adapted from existing U.S. state laws in order to meet the perceived need for a reliable plantation labor force. For the next five decades, this statute---the Masters and Servants Act--served as the legal foundation for Hawai'i's rapidly expanding plantation labor system. The law remained in force until 1900, when it was overturned as one of the explicit conditions of Hawai'i's full integration as a U.S. territory.
Read in light of the comparative law scholarship on legal transplants, the fifty-year history of the Masters and Servants Act calls into question one of the major assumptions about how such transplants work: namely, that borrowing is invariably a source of legal convergence. Rather, as this Note demonstrates, legal transplants can actually result in conflict between the source nation and the adopting nation.
I. LEGAL TRANSPLANTS AS COMPARATIVE LAW
The legal historian Alan Watson has long argued that the study of legal transplants--the transmission of legal rules from one society to another--should lie at the center of comparative legal scholarship. …