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The Mystery of Maria Loriana de Cunha
by Melody Lassalle

Much is known about the many Portuguese men who made their way to Hawaii. Whalers, plantation laborers, etc. who later made their way into society. But little is known of the early Portuguese women. Finding their stories is like trying to find a needle in a haystack even if they were pioneers.

Who was Maria Loriana Goncalves Cunha? Maria Loriana is credited as being the first Portuguese woman to arrive on Hawaiian shores. Beyond that distinction, who was she? Why did she go to Hawaii? There are very few clues in historical records to tell Maria Loriana's story.

In Edgar Knowlton's "Portuguese Immigrants to Hawaii", there is brief mention of Maria Loriana in the entry for her husband, Antonio Jorge Cunha. It states that she was from Pico and that she received a passport in 1864. She married Antonio Jorge Cunha on 11 Jan 1865. It doesn't say that they were were married in Hawaii, but given the fact that Antonio was from the island of Sao Jorge, we have to assume the marriage took place in Hawaii. She died 18 Jul 1887 at the age of 56. She is also mentioned in J.F. Freitas' "Portuguese Hawaiian Memories", but we learn nothing else from the information. You will also find mention of her on web sites on the Internet, but they only state her status as first Portuguese woman to arrive in Hawaii nothing more.

How could so little be recorded about such a pioneer? We don't know her parent's names or where she was born. She is 34 or so by the time she marries Antonio. Was she perhaps a widow?

And, what of the circumstances of her arrival in Hawaii? What ship did she travel on? When did that ship come to Hawaii? Did she travel with others or alone? Although today, the idea of any adult traveling anywhere is very much acceptable, it was not common practice in 1864 especially for women. In 1864, a woman almost never traveled locally
without an escort, let alone to an island half way around the world. With the social rules of the day, it seems impossible to even suggest that Maria Loriana traveled to Hawaii by herself.

Once she got to Hawaii, we know nothing of her life. She did have at least one child who is listed in "Portuguese Hawaiian Memories". But, what was her life really like? You have to imagine Hawaii in 1864. The major wave of Portuguese immigration was yet to begin. You have to wait until 1878 before the contract laborers begin filtering in. Maria Loriana arrived 14 years before this migration. She was the ONLY Portuguese female in Hawaii in 1864. Others would follow, but how soon afterward did she wait before one showed up?

There were most likely Portuguese men around. Given the conventions of the day, would her husband have allowed her to speak with them or even be around them? He may have been protective and kept her from such influences. Would she have had the freedom to mingle with other Portuguese men or would she be hidden away for fear of someone taking advantage of her?

What of her contact with other women? Did she speak Hawaiian? Was she able to make friends with the Hawaiian woman? There were woman of other nationalities on Hawaii. Missionaries of various backgrounds had been arriving since the mid-1800s.Was she able to make contact with them or was language a barrier that isolated her from other people? If she didn't speak other languages, her days may have been very lonely. Until she had children, her only means of conversation would have been with her husband. She would have been very isolated in a world very different from the one she grew up in.

Of course, all this is supposition. It's possible that Maria Loriana was a strong person, a survivor. She may have been completely different from the isolated individual surmised in the beginning of this article. For instance, being of the mature age of 34, she may have been given privileges that a younger, more protected woman would not have had. Perhaps Maria Loriana was well educated or well off financially. She may have even paid her own way to Hawaii. Women of this era were becoming more adventurous. Then again, it may just be that she had a relative in the islands who arranged the marriage and she went to fulfill her duty.

The descendants of Maria Loriana probably know the real story. But, the official documentation leaves much to be desired. Such is the case with most of our early female ancestry. Those who went to Hawaii didn't forge more prominent trails like their male counterparts, but when they arrived, they formed the foundations of their families. They worked hard in the fields, took care of the household duties, raised their children, and survived. Yet, most of their stories have faded from history as their lives were not viewed as important as others with grander achievements. As genealogists, it's our job to uncover what we can. Then we must figure out what is not there as well as what is. Only in this way can our grandmothers, great grandmothers, and so forth be given back their rightful identities in our family trees.


1. Portuguese-Hawaiian Memories: 1930. By J.F. Freitas. Newark, CA : Communications Concepts, c1992. Entry for Antonio George Cunha, page 162.
2. Portuguese Immigrants to Hawaii. Compiled by Edgar C. Knowlton, Jr. Hawaii : Maui Portuguese Cultural Club, c1993. Entry for Antonio Jorge Cunha, page 20.
3. Portuguese Immigrants in the United States: Chronology, 1770-1869. Library of Congress website, posted 31 Jul 1998. Chronology
© 2002 Melody Lassalle
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