The History of the Ukulele in Hawaii

Jun 30, 2022 | General Information

Ukuleles suddenly appearing or arriving in Hawaii is a small but really interesting part of the history of the state.

A British clipper ship named the SS Ravenscrag arrived in Honolulu on Aug 23, 1879, from the island of Madeira, Portugal. As the story goes, on that ship was a Portuguese man named Manuel Nunes who, along with this boatload of other Portuguese men, came to Hawaii to work in the sugar cane fields. Nunes is given credit for later creating the ukulele based on a native Portuguese instrument called the “braguinha.”

But another story tells us that one of the other Portuguese men disembarked from that ship playing the braguinha. As this story is embellished over time, he played with such virtuosity and speed that the Hawaiians, very impressed with his jumping fingers, called the instrument the “ukulele”, meaning dancing flea. Other stories tell us that Portuguese immigrants who arrived in the Hawaiian Islands on that ship brought with them several of their native instruments, among them a small four-stringed guitar, the braguinha, that later became known as the ukulele.

What we do know is that, in the mid-19th century, Hawaii needed more workers to plant and harvest increasing amounts of sugar being shipped to the mainland. At the same time, Madeira was suffering from poverty, famine and natural disasters. Unemployed Madeirans had to leave the island to find work as contract laborers. Story very short, a long sailing journey to Hawaii provided the desperately needed solution. These immigrants left behind, or perhaps even brought with them, a small, guitar-like, four-string instrument called the machéte . Also known as the braguinha or the “machéte de Braga,” named after the city in northern Portugal where the instrument originated.

History tells us that several woodworkers were among the more than 25,000 Madeirans who came to Hawaii aboard the Ravenscrag in the late 1800s. Yes, one of them was Manuel Nunes. It is totally plausible that, after the four-month-long, 12,000-mile ocean journey, one of them, a musician named Joao Fernandes, launched into a joyous song and dance to celebrate the ship’s safe arrival. And Fernandes apparently performed on a machête borrowed from a fellow passenger. Just a couple of weeks after the Ravenscrag’s arrival, the following item ran in the Hawaiian Gazette on September 3, 1879: “…Madeira Islanders recently arrived here have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts. The musicians are fine performers on their strange instruments, which are a kind of cross between a guitar and a banjo, but which produce very sweet music in the hands of the Portuguese minstrels.”

Nunes and others with histories of woodworking skills went to work on sugar plantations on Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. Afterwards that went to Honolulu to make furniture…and musical instruments. Who actually built the first ukulele from machêtes that looked a lot like ukuleles? Who knows? For anyone who wants to know a great more, the musical historian, John King, has written a book, “The Ukulele; A History” (University of Hawaii Press, 2012).

We don’t exactly how the ukulele got its name. Here again, there are many stories. What we do know is that Hawaii actually had the word “ukulele” before they had the instrument. An 1865 dictionary defined the word as “a cat flea” — a pest that arrived in the islands decades earlier. What we do know is that ukuleles and their music spread throughout the islands thanks to support and promotion by David Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last king. Kalakaua, his Queen Emma, and the future queen Lili’uokalani (who composed “Aloha Oe,” that most sacred of Hawaiian songs) were all accomplished musicians. The ukulele was featured at royal events. Kalakaua – “The Merrie Monarch” — often included his own ukulele performances at his gatherings.