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Cows and Ukuleles in Hawaii? What's the Connection?

Rodeo is not likely the first thing that comes to the visitor's mind when they conjure images of tropical Hawaii, but rodeo here is an old and popular tradition. Cows were first introduced to Hawaii in 1793 by George Vancouver and Kamehameha the Great soon imported Mexican vaqueros to teach his people how to handle them. Rodeos were an important part of early ranch life here in Kona. As such, rodeo is much older here in Hawaii than it is in much of the Continental United States; remember, three generations of Hawaiian cowboys lived, worked and died in Hawai'i before cattle were ever driven into Wyoming or Montana, states more typically associated with ranching and rodeo.

The cattle industry in Hawaii began on February 22, 1793, at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island. British Navigator George Vancouver presented to Kamehameha I four cows, two ewes and a ram he had brought from Monterrey, Mexico. In January of 1794, Vancouver landed many more cattle at Kealakekua and formally requested a kapu against killing them.

Kamehameha ordered cattle pen the first cattle pen in Hawai'i to be built at Lehu'ula. Still in use today, the paddock enclosed over 400 acres. However, many of the cattle ran wild, and with the kapu against killing wild cattle in place, the wild herds became enormous and unmanageable.

Archibald Menzies, ship's surgeon, wrote in his diary in 1793: "When they [the cattle] stampeded, they ran up and down the country to the no small dread and terror of the natives who fled from them with the utmost speed in every direction

For over thirty years the kapu against killing wild cattle was in force and the rapidly growing wild herds destroyed farmland, ate crops, often stampeded through villages destroying homes and claiming numerous lives. June 21, 1804, the first horse and mare were landed on the Kona side of the Island of Hawaii, and the days of the free ranging cattle were coming to a close as the number of mounted men increased and they began to coral and tame the wild herds.

Kamehameha recruited California Vaquero Joachin Armas to help contain the wild cattle and train local cowboys. As the years went by, more Spanish mission vaqueros from California came to work for the burgeoning cattle industry. They brought their trained horses, Spanish saddles, spurs, sombreros and Spanish traditions of cattle ranching, passing them on to the Hawai'ians they trained. They also trained the Hawaiian to work leather, jerk beef and cure hides. Soon, hides and tallow were a major Hawaiian export.

The Hawai'ians called the vaqueros "paniolos" a corruption of the Spanish word "Espanola"; which today remains the island word for Cowboy".

Kamehameha lifted the kapu on killing wild cattle in 1830; the rapid increase in whaling ship traffic about this time had caused a great rise in demand for fresh and salt beef. And soon the wild herds were being thinned to meet this demand.

Cattle born on the Island of Hawaii were often shipped live to other islands and the mainland. In the early days, cows were simply run down into the surf, swum out to longboats and secured to the boat by lashing their horns to the gunwales, then rowed out to the waiting ship. In the late 1800s, piers and docks began to be built at various shipping spots around the island and the cows were unceremoniously hoisted by crane onto the deck of the waiting ships.

Another benefit of this cultural cross-pollination that is not immediately identified with the cattle industry, is the advent of modern Hawaiian music. When the Mexican vaqueros moved to Hawaii, they also brought their guitars and their love of music. A deeply musical people themselves, the Hawaiians were intensely interested in these, the first stringed instruments they had ever seen up close. Fearing the Hawaiians would steal their guitars, the Mexicans would de-tune them after use, making it much more difficult for the curious Hawaiians to unlock their musical secrets. However the Hawaiians were more than clever musically and quickly learned to make their own tunings. Instead of the standard European tunings which require various fingerings to make chords, the Hawaiians worked out their own open chord tunings that more suited the key and style of their indigenous music. Called "slack key guitar" these unique tunings are one of the features that make the sound of Hawaiian music so distinct. The signature Hawaiian musical instrument, the ukulele, was actually introduced by Portuguese settlers. In Hawaiian, "ukulele" means "dancing flea".

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