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37 C hap t e r 3 The National Instrument of Hawaii A musical instrument is more than wood, wires and glue; the essence of the object lies in the meanings the culture has assigned to it. —Karen Linn, That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture On a warm August Saturday in 1879, a British bark out of Liverpool slipped into Honolulu Harbor, carrying the second shipload of Madeiran contract workers brought to the Islands. It had been a grueling fourmonth voyage of twelve thousand miles, during which the 427 passengers aboard the Ravenscrag endured eight straight days of winter gales off Cape Horn and the deaths of three small children. As the relieved emigrants piled their luggage on the ship’s deck, João Fernandes, a happy-go-lucky twenty-five-year-old plumber from Funchal, borrowed a machete from a bashful bachelor, João Gomes da Silva, and left his baby daughter with his wife Carolina as he sang and played in celebration of the ship’s safe arrival. This was the moment, it is widely believed, when the Islands were introduced to what within less than a decade would become known as the ‘ukulele, the national instrument of Hawaii.1 Although small numbers of Portuguese—primarily from the Azores—had been present in Hawaii for generations, no evidence has come to light that they had introduced the machete prior to 1879.2 Impromptu musical celebrations like Fernandes’ had been seen elsewhere: In 1841, Madeiran emigrants landing in what is now Guyana “were so delighted to have reached the ‘El Dorado’ of their dreams that they danced and sang and embraced the sailors on their arrival.”3 But Fernandes was not the only musician aboard the Ravenscrag, nor was his borrowed machete unique. Less than two weeks later, a reporter for the Hawaiian Gazette spotted the new arrivals on the streets of Honolulu: During the past week a band of Portuguese musicians, composed of Madeira Islanders recently arrived here, have been delighting the people with nightly street Chapter 3 38 concerts. The musicians are fine performers on their strange instruments, which are a kind of cross between a guitar and banjo, but which produce very sweet music in the hands of the Portuguese minstrels. We confess to having enjoyed the music ourselves and hope to hear more of it. “Music hath charms to sooth the savage breast,” it is said, and although not savage ourselves, we plead guilty to the soothing influences of the Portuguese music.4 Among the Ravenscrag’s passengers were three men who would play central roles in the development of the ‘ukulele: cabinetmakers Manuel Nunes (1843–1922), Jose do Espirito Santo (1850–1905), and Augusto Dias (1842–1915).5 Like most of the men aboard, Nunes, Santo, and Dias had signed contracts as plantation workers and were officially listed as trabalhadores, or laborers.6 But they and more than half of their traveling companions were natives of the city of Funchal and likely had never worked on a farm in their lives.7 Although charged with bringing plantation labor to the Islands, the Hawaiian Board of Immigration appears to have sought to recruit a wider range of skills. In its recruiting pamphlet Breve Noticia, the board claimed that “craftsmen like cabinetmakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, tilelayers, etc. never receive less than 1,500 reis per day, and can sometimes earn 2,500 reis or more”—several times the average wage for skilled workers in Funchal.8 Little more than a month after the Ravenscrag’s arrival, the Pacific Commercial Advertiser reported that word was circulating of a new shipment of Azorean immigrants “said to be agriculturalists almost exclusively, and therefore Within six years of their arrival in Hawaii, Manuel Nunes, Jose do Espirito Santo, and Augusto Dias all had set up shop in Honolulu as cabinetmakers and guitar makers—the first ‘ukulele makers in the Islands. Santo portrait courtesy of Ronnie French. The National Instrument of Hawaii 39 more to be desired than the mixed lot of mechanics—cobblers, tinkers, and all sorts—who came by the Ravenscrag.”9 Regardless of their actual professions, most of the passengers on the Ravenscrag were shipped off to the plantations—Nunes to the island of Hawaii, Santo to Maui, and Dias to Hawaii and then to Kauai. Where Fernandes lived during his first years in the Islands is unclear.10 Like many other Portuguese contract workers, Nunes, Santo, and Dias left the plantations as soon as...


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