The Pokiki: Portuguese Traditions

  The Portuguese have given Hawai`i many traditions. In music - they created the `ukulele and slack-key guitar. They enriched Hawai`i's cooking with the malasadas (light doughnuts), paodoce (sweet bread), beef and fish marinated in vin d'alhos, bean soup and tasty sausages. They are honored with street names on O`ahu, like Lusitana, Funchal, Lisbon, Madeira, Correa and Enos. In rural areas, they are famous for ranching, homesteading thousands of acres. But perhaps the most noticeable contribution across the Islands is their kindly and humorous approach to life, with a large body of jokes and a reputation for non-stop chattering.

The Portuguese in Hawai`i, however, possess a rich history that is largely overlooked. Their seafaring heritage predates European discovery of America. Seafarers from Portugal settled the Azore and Madeira islands in the Atlantic leading the way to Brazil and possibly pre-dating the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Western Hemisphere. Columbus was from Genoa, Italy, but applied a nautical knowledge gained from the Portuguese to sail his tiny ships across the Atlantic. Columbus' father-in-law, Bartholomew Perestrello, was the governor of Porto Santo, in the Madeira Islands.

The first Portuguese nationals to live in the Hawaiian kingdom sailed through here as early as 1794 and jumped ship. The first recorded Portuguese visitor was John Elliot de Castro, who sailed to Hawai`i in 1814. De Castro was a rover seeking easy fortune across the globe. During his sojourn in Hawai`i he became a retainer of King Kamehameha I, serving as his personal physician and as member of the royal court. Kamehameha awarded large tracts of land to de Castro, but after a year he sailed off to the island of Sitka, Alaska. De Castro joined the Russian-American Company under Alexander Baranov, who hired him to guard a shipment heading to California. In October of 1816 de Castro joined forces with Otto von Kotzebue, the German explorer, who became Kamehameha's foreign minister.

The next record of Portuguese immigration occurred in 1827, with the baptism of two Portuguese children in Honolulu. In 1828 Antonio Silva arrived, planting one of the first commercial sugar crops. For 50 years after these early visitors arrived, Portuguese sailors came ashore alone or in small groups, jumping ship to enjoy Hawaiian life and turning their backs on the rough life aboard whalers and other vessels.

Eventually several hundred Portuguese made the Islands their home, keeping in communication with growing Portuguese colonies in San Francisco and New England. Many of the sailors were from Fayal, Graciosa, and Sao Jorge in the western Azores, and from the Cape Verde Islands off Africa. Many of the settlers came from Madeira Islands, off the coast of Africa, and about half the size of O`ahu. They also came from the Azores, nine islands half-way between Portugal and the United States, and about 1.5 times the size of O`ahu.

Population records show that in 1853 the 86 Portuguese on O`ahu had became known as Pokiki to Hawaiian language speakers. Jacintho Pereira, a Portuguese citizen of Hawai`i and owner of a dry goods store in Honolulu, suggested in 1876 that Hawai`i's government look for sugar labor to Madeira where farmers were succumbing to a severe economic depression fostered by a blight that decimated vineyards and the wine industry. A German botanist named Hildebrand toured Madeira in the late 1860s to survey its plant life. Instead he discovered a hard-working people who tilled island farm lands similar to Hawai`i. Hilldebrand enthusiastically told his Hawaiian contacts that Madeira might be a source of plantation labor.

Sao Miguel in the eastern Azores was also chosen as a source of labor. In 1878, 114 Madeirans, including a number of wives and children, arrived aboard the ship Priscilla. In 1881, King David Kalakaua visited Portugal and was entertained in royal fashion by Portugal's King Dom Luis. The same year two ships delivered over 800 men, women and children from Sao Miguel. The next year a treaty of immigration and friendship was signed between Portugal and the Hawaiian Kingdom. Migration to Hawai`i became popular to escape poverty and a cruel military system. The dream of settling in islands that looked like home drew workers away from offers to labor in the fields of Brazil and urban seaports of the U.S. Mass immigration of the Portuguese to Hawai`i also came from New England and California as Portuguese laborers joined Chinese and Japanese workers in the sugar fields. They came to replace Chinese workers who left plantations for to Honolulu and Hilo to open stores and work in the trades. The reciprocity treaty in 1876 between the Kingdom of Hawai`i and the United States opened the U.S. sugar market to Hawai`i and greatly increased the demand for workers.

Leo Pap's book, The Portuguese Americans, describes life in Hawai`i for early Portuguese immigrants to Kaua`i. In 1887, Madeiran-born M.F. Olival, at age 15, stowed away on a Hawai`i-bound English bark calling at Funcha, Madeira's capital. "Together with 11 other stowaways, he was soon put to work by the captain. After a grueling voyage of over five months (including 33 days just to get around Cape Horn in a heavy storm), during which time 16 persons died and 16 were born aboard the battered sailing vessel, they arrived in Honolulu, April 1888. Olival went to work on a sugar plantation (in this instance as a free laborer, not indentured). In 1894 he married a girl from Sao Miguel. A year later he quit plantation labor to join the new army of the Republic of Hawai`i (the monarchy there having been overthrown); and upon annexation of the islands by the United States in 1898, he served as a volunteer in the American army there until 1902. Three years later he moved to California, permanently."

Several thousand more Portuguese immigrants arrived through 1913 when the last mass immigration was made. Portuguese from continental Portugal also joined their islander cousins during this era, many of them becoming paniolo, the Hawaiian cowboys. Travel and communication with Portuguese colonies in the San Francisco Bay area, Sacramento and other west coast cities allowed the Portuguese immigrants to move back and forth from Hawai`i, shifting home to make the most money, or to settle where they felt most comfortable. Geographically, the early Portuguese in Hawai`i seemed to like hillsides that reminded them of the sea cliffs of Madeira. Punchbowl in Honolulu, cattle country around Kalaheo in southwest Kaua`i and mountainous areas in the coffee growing district of Kona and cattle lands of the saddle area on the Big Island developed Portuguese communitiues. Kaka`ako, now an industrial and office area near downtown Honolulu, was once named the Portuguese Suburb. The Portuguese were also wide ranging as individuals, with one man becoming the kaliau, or governor, of isolated Ni`ihau in 1912. The Portuguese left the sugar fields to establish small independent farms outside the plantation districts. They started dairy farms, and introduced the commercial manufacture of butter and corn growing.

Life in Hawai`i was beneficial for the Portuguese immigrants. One social observer of the early 1900s wrote that the Portuguese from Madeira bore the marks of oppressive poverty, with a small stature, slender build and skin darkened from field work. However, after a generation in the Islands, their children grew in stature, becoming taller and stronger.

Home life was run along traditional Portuguese lines. A Madeiran-born woman who landed in Honolulu with her parents in 1884 recalled that her father was the boss at home, but gave his paycheck to his wife. Before departing in the morning, daughters would kiss the hands of her parents and thank them for their support. Respect for parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles was taught and practiced, she said. Her own courtship to a shop clerk took ten years to culminate in marriage.

Writers also noted that Hawai`i's Portuguese broke away from their traditional family lifestyle, molding it with the ways of Hawai`i's people, while the Portuguese in the chilly climate of San Francisco and Boston clung to the old ways somewhat in isolation. Many success stories began to come out of the Portuguese colonies in the 1920s and 1930s as second generation immigrants began to take their place in mainstream society. M.A. Silva, a native of Madeira who arrived in Hawai`i in 1884 at sixteen, became owner/editor of a Portuguese immigrant newspaper at Hilo, and for several years worked for the Territorial Board of Immigration recruiting plantation laborers in Portugal and Spain.

John Freitas Rapozo, born in the Azores in 1882, went to school in Hawai`i, worked some years on a sugar plantation, and as a cowboy, managed a hardware department, and finally set up his own general merchandise store on the island of Kaua`i, doubling at the same time as local postmaster. By the mid-1920s some 27,000 Portuguese lived in Hawai`i. Father Reginald Yzendoorn, in his History of the Catholic Mission in the Hawaiian Islands, called the Portuguese, "by far the best immigrants who have ever been brought to these shores. They are moreover a prolific race, families with a dozen children being by no means rare."

By the 1960s most Portuguese and part-Portuguese had lost their ethnic distinctiveness and had settled mostly in Honolulu and Hilo. On Maui and the Big Island some were still working at sugar plantations and pineapple fields. Portuguese could still be heard spoken at Honoka`a on the Big Island, at Makawao and Kula in up-country Maui, and at Lihu`e and Kalaheo on Kaua`i in areas where Portuguese farmed and ranched. Rancher, Jack Ramos, of Honoka`a, has become the most famous and successful Portuguese cattleman in Hawai`i.

One of the most famous descendents of Hawai`i's Portuguese, was the fiery baseball player and manager Billy Martin.

Today, the most visible remnant of the early days of Hawai`i's Portuguese is the annual Holy Ghost Festival (Fiestade Espirito Santo). This colorful social and religious event features a dress parade, singing and dancing. A crown of honor is placed on the head of a featured young girl or other chosen person, and special breads and soups are served. The festival has been transformed in the course of the centuries, and is traced back to Queen Isabel of Aragon, wife of Portugal's poet king Dom Diniz in the 13th century. Isabel lives in Portuguese tradition as the prototype of the pious and charitable woman, and legends have been woven around her since her death.

Isabel built a church dedicated to the Holy Ghost, and when this divinely inspired work was completed she instituted a tradition called "Coronation of the Emperor." Out of this tradition the present Holy Ghost Festival is derived. During the festival, ties to Portugal are maintained through honoring the Blessed Virgin, the Holy Spirit, the rulers of old Portugal and by giving food to the poor. It is also said that Isabel placed the crown, now prominent in the festival, upon the head of the sick and healed them. For Azorians, the festival has links to times of healing during plagues and deadly volcanic eruptions that occurred hundreds of years ago.

Perhaps the Portuguese contribution best known outside of Hawai`i is the `ukulele and Hawaiian steel guitar. Though many think the `ukulele is a native Hawaiian instrument, the small guitar-like instrument is actually the product of Portuguese immigrants. Some Madeiran men in the 1870s played their six-stringed viola, five-stringed rajczo, and a four-stringed little guitar known as a braguinha, or machete in Madeira, and as a cavaquinho in the Azores and continental Portugal. Hawaiians took a liking to the rajczo, which was easier to handle than the bass viola brought decades earlier to Hawai`i by whalers and missionaries. The instrument took on the nickname of "taro patch fiddle." However, the most popular instrument was the Madeiran braguinha, which became the `ukulele. King Kalakaua liked its gentle sound, and popularized the instrument, starting a fad of sorts among the musicians of Hawai`i, and leading to the development of a more modern hula with a different beat. To capitalize on the newly-popular instrument, three Madeirans, Augusto Dias, Jose de Espirito Santo (or Santos), and Manuel Nunes, set up shop in Honolulu. Two had been instrument makers at home in Funchal and their product sold well, becoming widely known as the `ukulele, or "jumping flea" for the fast movement of fretting fingers on the short neck of the wooden instrument. The `ukulele became popular throughout the U.S. following a musical display at the Panama Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco in 1915.

The Hawaiian steel guitar sound came about when a young student at The Kamehameha Schools, in Honolulu, strummed a Portuguese guitar with a pocket knife for special effect, producing the distinctive twangy sound. In culinary treats, the Portuguese have made Hawai`i a better place by bringing the doughy, sugar donut malasadas, the golden yellow Portuguese sweet bread, and by stuffing spicy Portuguese sausage, better known to the Portuguese as linguica and chourico.

The gregarious Portuguese do have much to be proud of, and thankfully the sense of humor to laugh along with everyone else at the jokes of Frank de Lima and other local comedians who perhaps too often target the friendly Portuguese. The Portuguese have added a special spice to life in Hawai`i, and will hopefully continue to provide the energy, soul and musical talent Hawai`i needs for a prosperous future.

Some of the prominent Portuguese of modern times include: comedian Frank DeLima, `ukulele player Troy Fernadez, singer Glenn Medeiros, record producer John De Mello, Honolulu Councilman John Henry Felix, Kaua`i's Mayor Maryann Kusaka, former Maui Mayor Elmer Carvalho and Hannibal Tavares, Kaua`i legislators Billy Fernandes and his daughter Luhua Fernandes-Salling, Hawai`i's late Catholic leader Bishop Stephen Alencastre, contractor Henry Freitas, and Sgt. LeRoy Mendonca of Pauoa who died in the Korean conflict at age 19, becoming the youngest soldier awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.



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