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Return to the year 1878

Portuguese workers arrive

Although a number of Portuguese individuals had arrived in the Islands during the first half of the 19th century - the first being Dr. Jaoa de Castro who was part of the Russian expedition under Kotzebue - it wasn't until 1878 that larger groups came to work on the sugar plantations. Always on the lookout for new sources of labor, the Hawaiian government and sugar planters followed the advice of Honolulu businessman Jacintho Pereira and began recruiting in Portugal. Dr. William Hillebrand, a doctor living at the time in Madeira, promoted Hawai'i jobs and coordinated the first boatloads of immigrants. By the time the heaviest migrations ended in 1913, over 20,000 Portuguese had come to live in the Islands.

The 19th century was a rough time economically for Portugal and many left their home country looking for better futures in Brazil, New England, California and Hawai'i. In the 1850s, conditions worsened when a fungus blight hit the vineyards of Medeira. The greatest numbers of immigrants to Hawai'i originated from Medeira and the Azores, Portuguese islands that boasted terrain and climate somewhat similar to Hawaii's and where agriculture was the main industry. Most immigrants to Hawai'i had been farmers and nearly 100 per cent of them were Catholic.

Whereas Chinese and Japanese workers had come as single men, the Portuguese - almost without exception - brought their families and came to stay. The Hawai'i Board of Immigration paid the passage for workers and their families and arranged employment for one year. Ships still traveled around Cape Horn and the voyage could last six months.

As Europeans, the Portuguese were treated differently than Asian workers - they were offered an acre of land, a house and improved working conditions - but remained below haole owners in the plantation hierarchy. As Europeans, they became eligible for U.S. citizenship (after 1898 when Hawai'i became a U.S. Territory), unlike Chinese and Japanese laborers. Portuguese were often employed as middlemen between owners and Asian workers, becoming lunas or supervisors. They also worked as strikebreakers during labor disputes. While Portuguese proved themselves good workers, few renewed their contracts, preferring instead to buy their own land and work their own farms.

As the Portuguese community grew, it strengthened the Catholic Church in Hawai'i and loaned many of its traditions to local island culture. Portuguese foods like malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts), pao doce (sweet bread) and Portuguese sausage remain popular.

Perhaps the most visible (and audible) Portuguese contribution is the 'ukulele. Adapted from a Portuguese stringed instrument called the braguinha (from Madeira) or cavaquinho (from mainland Portugal), the 'ukulele was played by King Kalakaua and by 1900 it had become an accompaniment for the hula. The first instruments arrived in 1879 with immigrants aboard the Ravenscrag. By 1884, three instrument makers - Augusto Dias, Jose do Espirito Santo and Manuel Nunes - opened their shops for business to meet musicians' demands for 'ukulele. They used Hawaiian koa and kou woods for their Island-made instruments. The four-string instrument is still most common, but 'ukulele also come in six, eight and 10-string variations.

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