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Ukulele Blues

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

I was intrigued to learn that the Ukulele originally came from Madeira!


The ‘Braguinha’, the forerunner of the Ukulele was developed here and made its way to the Pacific islands with Madeiran workers who emigrated to work with the burgeoning sugar cane industry on Hawaii’s islands.


Cane & Able

Sugar cane was the first cash crops to come to Madeira not long after the islands w ere discovered in 1419. By 1500, Madeira was the largest sugar exporter in the world!


Sugar was a booming industry back then, fueled by its culinary and medicinal qualities. Tabernaemontanus, the 16th century German herbalist and physician wrote, “Nice white sugar from Madeira or the Canaries, when taken moderately cleans the blood, strengthens

body and mind, especially chest, lungs and thr oat.”


Christopher Columbus also had a hand in matter s when he arrived in Madeira in 1478, entrusted with buying 2,400 ‘arrobas’ or 38 tons of sugar on behalf of his Spanish patrons. King sugar was big business!



But Madeira’s sweet success was to be short-lived! Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered Brazil around 1500, purely by accident when he was trying to sail to India via the Cape of Good Hope. Soon after sugar cane plantations were established in the new Portuguese-claimed territory. Hot on the coattails of this was the importing of coffee from South America and tea from the East. Sugar was the ideal accompaniment.


Madeira quickly lost the sweet spot.


Madeira had ideal conditions for the production of cane along with the necessary elements in its processing. Mills sprang up and by the cane fields were abundant along the island’s southern coasts. The industry only lasted for around 200 years when the new colonies in Brazil began to outcompete Madeira.


Nevertheless, Portuguese expertise was sought after in the New World for their expertise in the sugar cane industry and many of them made the long journe y to Hawaii. On those long trips which included going around the Cape of Good Hope, the Braguinha was the ideal instrument, small and easily portable to stave off the long, boring sea journey.

Dancing Flea


It doesn’t sound very flattering but the Hawaiians gave the Braguinha the name ‘ukelele’ which translates as “dancing flea” due to the frenetic fingerwork of the Madeiran players. In the late 1800s and early 1900s more than 16,000 Portuguese immigrants (mostly from Madeira and the Azores) made their way to Hawaii to work in the sugar plantations. Sugar had been a major cash crop in Madeira as far back as the 1500s and the islanders were more than familiar with its cultivation. Christopher Columbus was one of the first to transport sugar cane to the Caribbean and along the way discovered America - not technically true but hey, who are we to once again split hairs?


When the opportunity arose to work in the new plantations of Hawaii, Madeirans took the plunge. It was not an easy swim! The fir st arrivals spent almost three months at sea on mainly British sailing ships coming round Cape Horn (the tip of South America) and on northwest to Hawaii. Even in later years via steamship, the crossing took some 57 days.


The Portuguese immigrants arrive in Hawaii as families so it was clear they were here to stay! They occupied managerial roles in Hawaii’s new sugar industry and many eventually opened their own businesses or established farms, restaurants and bakeries, evidence of

which you can stilwhich l be seen in Ha waii today



Ukulele Blues

But perhaps the main thing that Madeir a gave to the Hawaii Islands was the ukulele. A sugar plantation worker, Manuel Nunes emigrated to Hawaii from Madeira in 1879, later

establishing a business converting the Madeira ‘machete’ into the soon to become quite fashionable Hawaiian ukulele.



It’s easy to appreciate how this small, 4-stringed guitar was ideal for Madeira immigrants to carry with them across the seas. There seems to be several names applied to the Portuguese instrument - the braguinha, the cavaquinho and the machete. The name ‘ukulele’ literally means jumping flee - a name the Ha waiians conjured up when watching the rapid style of playing where the left hand jumps all over the neck.



Nunes’s business thrived for over 40 years, his handcrafted instruments baring the label “M. Nunes, In ventor of the Ukulele and Taro Patch Fiddles in Honolulu in 1879.” His son Leonardo and other apprentices carried on the tradition and by the late 1800s there were several shops in Honolulu specialising in ukuleles


A Scottish Connection


I just had to get this one in…



My family hail from the Angus village of Kirriemuir. I lived there for 20 odd years, odd being the operative word and was intrigued at some point to learn that those o f Scottish descent in Hawaii, were mostly from Kirriemuir. Three brothers from the town emigrated to Hawaii in the late 1870s to work on sugar plantations and this started a steady stream of Kirriemuirians making the long voyage to a very different lifestyle in the exotic islands of Hawaii. The number of Scots emigrants was so significant that tw entyfive per cent of Hawaiians of Scottish descent claim forbears from this small Angus town.



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