The ukulele was not invented in Hawaii but rather on the Portuguese Island of Madeira.
The actual history of the ukulele begins on an island, but not one in the Hawaiian chain, nor one in the Pacific Ocean, for that matter. Madeira, a small mountainous speck of land in the Atlantic southwest of Portugal, about a 350-mile swim from the coast of North Africa, is the actual birthplace of the beloved uke.
Not unlike the Hawaiian Islands, Madeira has a tropical climate and is part of a volcanic archipelago. The heavily forested island (Madeira means "wood" in Portuguese) once had a thriving timber industry and a long history of furniture making. But it's probably best known for Madeira wine, the fortified, sherry-like beverage that became popular because it didn't spoil on long sea voyages. Grape growing and winemaking have been a staple industry there since the 16th century.
Two centuries ago, Madeira was also a popular tourist spot for European visitors who were drawn to its picturesque landscapes and exotic flora. Visitors were often entertained by music played in the streets of Funchal, the island's bustling port city. Because there were no encased windows on the houses in this hot climate, it must have been difficult to not hear strains of music, both day and night. Local musicians strummed waltzes, mazurkas, and folk tunes on the Spanish guitar and a small, guitar-like, four-string instrument called the machête (pronounced "ma-CHET"), also known as the braguinha or the "machéte de Braga" after the city in northern Portugal where the instrument originated.
Unfortunately, by the mid-1800s, Madeira wasn't such a great place to be. Poverty, famine, and a series of natural disasters that led to the collapse of the wine industry made the island a better place to escape from than to. Scores of unemployed Madeirans sought to leave their overcrowded homeland and launch a new life elsewhere. It just so happened that as things were going wrong in Madeira, life was flourishing half a world away, in the Sandwich Islands—as the Hawaiian Islands were commonly known then—where the sugar industry was booming.
In 1874, Hawaiian planters shipped 25 tons of sugar to the mainland alone. But there was a problem: After decades of European colonization and introduced diseases, the native population was in decline, so there weren't enough workers to man the plantations and factories. Desperation led planters to a worldwide search for labor, a search that eventually reached the Portuguese islands. Madeiran officials had no trouble finding men and women who were willing to sign three-year contracts to labor in the fields. In addition to wages of $6 to $10 a month, indentured emigrants would be provided room and board, as well as sailing passage to their new Pacific, promised land.