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The island communities of Madeira, The Azores and Hawaii have a surprising amount in common. Latitudinally, Hawaii is near to 20 degrees (N) while Madeira is closer to 30 but they both enjoy a subtropical to tropical climate. They are both volcanic in nature, vertiginous peaks adrift in a wide ocean hundreds of miles from the nearest landfall. The only thing that comes between the two communities is the two tiny continents of North and South America. 

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 familiar with its cultivation. Christopher Columbus was involved in transporting sugar cane to the Caribbean.

Drinking coffee and cocoa with sugar had become fashionable among Europe’s elite. It was making so much money for its traders, they called it “white gold.”

When the opportunity came to work in the new plantations of Hawaii, many Madeirans took the chance although initially, it was not an easy crossing. The first arrivals spent up to three months at sea on usually British sailing ships coming round via Cape Horn at the tip of South America. Even in later years coming by steamship the crossing took some 57 days at sea.

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 still be seen in Hawaii today.


But perhaps the main thing that Madeira 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

Hawaiians 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, Inventor 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.

The braguinha is still practiced by Madeiran youngsters today, kept alive in various schools


What’s the Scottish connection? Well, if you look at the genealogy of Scottish descendants in Hawaii, most of their ancestors hailed from the village of Kirriemuir in Angus, (where coincidentally my relatives came from also).

 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 twenty-five percent of Hawaiians of Scottish descent claim forbears from this small Angus town.

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