ne morning Edward Purvis awoke from a bad dream to find himself transformed into a diminutive, verminous insect. That’s the story, anyway: an article by Lorin Tarr Gill entitled “Portuguese Were First To Introduce Ukulele In Hawaii Says Miss Roberts” published in the magazine section of the Honolulu Advertiser on August 10, 1924. Forty-five years after the arrival of Madeiran cabinet makers who would craft and market the first ‘ukulele in Hawaii, the cultural memory of those remote times was rapidly fading. None of the principals involved in the story were alive in 1924, not the trio of cabinet makers cum luthiers, Dias, Santo and Nunes; not João Fernandes who claimed to be the first to play the machete in Hawai‘i in 1879 after disembarking from the Ravenscrag following a four-month voyage from Madeira; not Edward Purvis.
“Miss Roberts,” who was Helen Roberts, a Yale University researcher hired to collect and publish the ancient meles and olis still extant in the once-kingdom of Hawaii, got the story from “Mrs. Dorothea Emerson, wife of the late well known Hawaiian scholar, Joseph S. Emerson …”
Coming of Purvis
Mrs. Emerson, an Englishwoman, came to Hawaii in 1882. In Europe she had known as close friends a family by the name of Purvis, one of whose sons, Edward Purvis, had been an army officer in India. His health having failed, they sought to regain it by moving to the Sandwich Islands and were followed by Edward Purvis in August, 1879 [!], after a home had been selected.
Mr. Purvis lived for some time on the island of Kauai, readily learned the language, and became interested both in the Hawaiians and the Portuguese. Being gifted musically, he noted the new instruments and soon played the smallest with skill. His extensive travels, education, and life in India very well fitted him for the appointment to the post of vice-chamberlain to the court of King Kalakaua and his popularity with the Hawaiians amply justified it.
A Thing That Jumps
He was slight of stature, agile, and light on his feet, in which respect he was rather a contrast to the large-bodied and slow-moving Hawaiians and for that reason his agility became the occasion of affectionate humor. The nickname ‘ukulele’ or ‘little thing that jumps’ (present common term for flea) which someone aptly applied to him, remained with him, and by association, with the little instrument with which he was often seen.
While Roberts didn’t include the story of how the ‘ukulele got its name in her book Ancient Hawaiian Music she did recount it in an article for Thrum’s Hawaiian Annual for 1926—albeit in truncated form without revealing the identity of Purvis. She also published the full account in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1931. Samuel Elbert and Edgar Knowlton used the Purvis story as the basis of their article “Ukulele” (American Speech, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, December 1957) which is arguably the first attempt at scholarly research into the history of the instrument. It was Elbert and Knowlton’s intention to simply recite the story in order to justify characterizing “ukulele” as a particular type of speech: a name morphed into a word. And to that end they did an admirable job, assuming the Purvis story is true.
In Hawaiian Music and Musicians George Kanahele cites no fewer than five hypotheses on how the ukulele was named, but the Purvis story is presented first and foremost. Kanahele points to the source of the name (the Purvis story) and that it can be found in the definitive and highly regarded Hawaiian Dictionary of Mary Kawena Pukui and (the above-mentioned) Samuel Elbert. Consequently, nearly every article, monograph and book about the instrument published since HMM gives pride of place to the Purvis story—from The ‘Ukulele: A Portuguese Gift to Hawaii (Honolulu, 1980) to Jim Beloff’s latest edition of The Ukulele: A Visual History (San Francisco, 2003).
I had a problem with the Purvis story the very first time I read it. Something didn’t ring true. My skepticism has grown since then and developed along a couple of different fronts, one being the late date at which the tale was first told—after the ‘ukulele became an international craze (the same can be said about the timing of all such stories about the instrument)—and the other regarding some historical truths about Purvis and the nature of his tenure as Kalakaua’s vice-chamberlain. My initial balk had nothing to do with either of those, and everything to do with this: I’ve had a lot of experience living with the common domestic flea, Ctenocephalides felis. When you first feel the bite, close observation reveals a tiny, dark pinpoint upon your skin. This is the flea. Move quickly and you may capture it under a finger tip; move with less alacrity and the pinpoint will simply vanish. There is no visual input, no perceived leaping; just now you see it, now you don’t.
Mark Twain wrote eloquently of the mosquitoes in Hawaii; other authors had plenty to say about the fleas there. My encounters with the little buggers have been similar to the following (beginning with a quasi-mythological retelling of the introduction of the flea into Hawaii), taken from Scenes and Scenery in the Sandwich Islands … during the years 1837-1842 by James J. Jarves (Boston, 1844):
First Introduction of Fleas, page 130
Waimea [Kauai], according to native tradition, claims the honor of being the first landing-place of—fleas. Their introduction was after the following manner. A woman, as was customary then, having gone off to a vessel at anchor in the roads, received from her lover, upon her return, a bottle tightly corked, which he told her contained valuable waiwai, (property,) and that she must not open it until she reached the shore. She obeyed his instructions, and overjoyed with her acquisition, hastened to show it to her friends. Having assembled them all, the bottle was uncorked with the greatest care, and looking in, they beheld nothing. The nimble prisoners had all hopped out, and soon gave being to a countless progeny, that have gone on ever since, hopping and biting with undiminished zeal. The man should have been flayed alive for his mischief, or tied, Mazeppa like, to the back of one of his own fleas.
The voyager’s thoughts wander from his neat and well furnished room, to a mother, or wife, in his native land, and he involuntarily ejaculates, ‘My country-women the same everywhere—God bless them,’ as he contrasts the snow-white counterpane, the comfortable mattress, and drawn musquito-net, with the suspicious mat, the stone pillow, and the agonies of fleas which he endured in some wild hut the night previous.
However, it being too late to retrace our steps, we devoured a young pig, begged a mat, and fatigue (having walked twenty-five miles) soon wrapped us in a slumber, which neither the furious attacks of fleas, or swinish noises around us, could break.
I have been flea-victimized on the cold mountains of Hawaii, and the scorched plains of Kauai …
The key phrases—as any hardened flea wrangler would tell you—are these: “…biting with undiminished zeal…the agonies of fleas…furious attacks of fleas…I have been flea-victimized.” Fleas nimble and quick? Aye. Bloodsucking, damnable, ectoparasites? Aye, aye! But there’s no need for supporting documentation; you can take this straight from the gospel of John, the ukulele-ist, chapter and verse: fleas—‘ukulele—are an abomination.
To Steal a Kingdom
Stipulating that Edward Purvis was indeed nicknamed Ukulele, and taking in to account the pestilential nature of fleas, I speculated Purvis might have been so-christened because … he was not a nice guy. So I decided to learn something about the turbulent times in which he lived—the days when the ‘ukulele was born—during the decline and fall of the Hawaiian Kingdom. And bingo, there it was, in the surviving diaries of Walter Murray Gibson, Kalakaua’s prime minister:
Sun., Aug. 8  — At Mr. Neumann’s house, He intimated that he could prove the authorship of hostile articles in Gazette — Purvis. The King at my house — will remove Purvis & Judd too, if he has proof.
Charles H. Judd, the chamberlain and commissioner of crown lands, resigned “for certain improper conduct” on August 30, 1886, and Purvis resigned shortly after. Both were suspected of “feeding derogatory information about the government to the anti-Kalakaua newspaper, the Gazette.” Additionally, Purvis was probably the author or coauthor of two notorious burlesques on the Kalakaua monarchy: Grand Duke of Gynbergdrinkentstein and Gynberg Ballads. The caricature of Kalakaua shown here is attributed to Purvis and is from the Gynberg Ballads. The king is depicted holding a giant corkscrew—his left hand resting on an enormous gin bottle—and dressed in an Hawaiian postage stamp malo (bearing his likeness), spurs, garters, collar and cuffs. The illustration accompanies a parody entitled “The Order of the Bar.”1
Fortunately, Purvis’ own account of his resignation survives in a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law, Jules Ratard, dated October 2, 1886:2
I bearded Rex [Kalakaua] in his library next his bedroom in the Palace, where he had been in seclusion all the morning, afraid apparently to come down stairs. I marched in there, Rex standing up and placing the table between us. Smiling all over I told him that I had had a very pleasant time in the Palace, thanked him for his kindness, but told him that owing to the sudden dismissal of my chief [Judd] I took this occasion for resigning all my appointments. He stood there ashy pale and never uttered a word the whole time. I went in to the interview gay as a lark. I knew from his hiding that Rex was ashamed, his placing the table between us, as if I were a nihilist, and his color and expression all gave me the feeling that I was complete master of the situation. I returned to the office, gave up my keys, and have not been near the place since.
Purvis’ resignation was undoubtedly hastily arranged to avoid the sacking he was due, if we can believe Gibson’s diary, which doesn’t seem unreasonable. His loyalty to his “chief” (Judd) rather than the moi (Kalakaua) arguably places Purvis among that group of haoles—both Hawai‘i and foreign-born—who were practitioners of social-Darwinism and believers in the Spencerian tenet of “survival of the fittest.” To such men, Kalakaua and other native Hawaiians could never be more than barbarians decorated with a veneer of civilization. Purvis’ letter to Ratard is full of the condescension and superiority typical of the white oligarchy who would eventually overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy. To that end, while he was alive and residing in Hawaii, Purvis appears to have been an active participant.
“The large-bodied and slow-moving Hawaiians”
If you read that line without flinching (or even questioning the supposition) don’t feel too bad; it’s that old white magic, institutionalized racism. Mmm. Large-bodied slow-moving Hawaiians? Like the Kahanamoku brothers? Right. Here’s another take on the typical Hawaiian, from The Travel Diary of a Philospher by Count Hermann Keyserling:
Life in Hawaii involuntarily assumes the nature of a myth. The European, the essentially historical being, seems out of place here like a crawling fly on a water-colour drawing. The Hawaiian, however, who fits into the picture, appears strangely unreal; or real, rather, in the sense of dream-experience. There is hardly a difference between that which I see with my eyes and what I read in the old heroic sagas. These men resemble exactly those who live only in mythology: warm-hearted and careless, light-minded and good, frittering away their life from feast to feast; and at the same time terrible in war, cruel and merciless, once it comes to fighting. The gods of Olympus were not different.
Are these handsome brown men, who feel as much at home in the ocean as fishes do, men like ourselves? Probably not quite; each element develops special beings. Among men living upon the water I have so far only known its conqueror, that is to say, the land animal which has subjugated water through cunning; the genuinely amphibious human being can be found today only in the South Seas. But here he is so perfect in his way that he seems superhuman for this very reason. The Hawaiian who acts as my guide on the oceans is fair as a god, of gigantic stature, and a famous shark fighter; he is said to have put out with his spear the eyes of every shark whom he has met. At the same time, he is gentle and mild, and in the evening, when the coco palms sigh in the wind, he sings melancholy tunes to himself. Once more my thoughts roam over to distant Greece. With what marvellous certainty did the Greek imagination create! What nature has manifested in the South Seas is the mirrored reflection of the Greek ideal.
Haina ia mai ana kapuana
ne morning Edward Purvis awoke from a bad dream to find himself transformed into a diminutive, verminous insect. Or did he? Helen Roberts felt the Purvis story “came from such a reliable source, and yet is so little known, that it seemed worthy of being published as it was. After I had put it in shape I submitted it for approval to Mrs. Emerson and to one of the surviving members of the family of the man for whom the ukulele was named, who gave his confimation of its truth and permission to have it published.” Has any contemporary confirmation of this story ever come to light? Unfortunately, no.
Those who were intimates of Kalakaua’s when Purvis was in his employ and later wrote of their experiences say nothing of the vice-chamberlain. Of the man who “…was always in demand among the Hawaiians to add his music to their fun” and was “…so devoted…to his little “guitar” that he was seldom seen without it under his arm I have found nothing. Isobel Strong, the step-daughter of Robert Louis Stevenson, and an Iolani Palace regular during this period mentions only the king playing the guitar and ukulele. She writes about plenty of other interesting people as well. Seems like Purvis was a real stand-out. And yet he didn’t make the final edit of Strong’s autobiography, This Life I’ve Loved. And, according to Kanahele, Lili‘uokalani had a completely different interpretation of the meaning of ‘ukulele. Was she revising history because of Purvis’ betrayal of her brother, the king?
Who knows. Until something more substantial turns up about Purvis and the ‘ukulele—something from the time in which it is alleged to have happened—I’m throwing it on the stack of apocryphal stories about the instrument. In her article about Purvis in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, Roberts writes that the nickname “uku-lele” stayed with Purvis “until his death and…became associated with his beloved little instrument in the minds of all his friends, and has perpetuated his memory.” Purvis died of tuberculosis in Colorado in 1888, only two years (almost to the day) after he resigned as Kalakaua’s vice-chamberlain. Curiously, the use of the word ‘ukulele in association with the little, four-string guitar has yet to surface in the written record before 1889 and did not become commonplace until the 1890s, several years after Purvis’ death.
- See The Diaries of Walter Murray Gibson, 1886, 1887 edited by Jacob Adler and Gwynn Barrett, p. 65; also see The Hawaiian Kingdom, 1874-1893 by R. S. Kuykendall, pp. 346-347. ♠
- Hawaii State Archives, Series M-205, Box 1-1. ♠
Text and images © 2007 by John King