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The Portuguese

The Portuguese immigrants to Trinidad were the first to come to the West Indies and were drawn from the Portuguese Atlantic provinces of the Azores, Madeira and the Cape Verde Islands during the nineteenth century. There was also a group of Portuguese in the island as early as 1630 and Sephardim (Portuguese and Spanish Jews) were in Trinidad in the eighteenth century and some may have been numbered among the nineteenth century immigrants. By far the largest group of Portuguese, however, hailed from the Madeira Islands, a small archipelago situated off the west coast of Morocco. Madeirans or Madeirenses, who originally came to work on the cocoa and sugar estates under the scheme of indentureship, constituted the main body of ancestors of Trinidad's small Portuguese community.

In 1834, the year of the abolition of slavery (some four years prior to the full emancipation of the slaves), the first Portuguese entered Trinidad, not from Madeira, but from the Azores. At that time, planters were approaching a crisis situation as the need to locate other sources of regular labour was becoming more and more pressing since slavery was about to come to an end. Aware of the profits to be made at the expense of the increasingly desperate planters, a group of men who manned slave ships illegally solicited twenty-five Portuguese labourers from the island of Faial (or Fayal) in the Azores. Within less than two years, these labourers either died due to extreme weakness and illness or returned to the Azores because of difficult living and working conditions, leaving no trace behind.

Legitimate measures were put into place to facilitate immigration by 1838. Planters first commissioned free black labour from the United States, several Eastern Caribbean islands and later West Africa but after these attempts failed, they turned to European labour. Labourers from France and Germany, among other European countries, were attracted by the purportedly high wages on the sugar estates, but this bid too met with little success.

In the early nineteenth century, Madeira found itself in great economic and social upheaval. The Madeiran wine industry, the anchor of the islands economy, began to experience a decline. Natural disasters led to famine, neglected vineyards and widespread unemployment. These factors as well as overcrowding led to a reduced standard of living and for many, emigration was a matter of survival. The troubled situation was further intensified by religious tension that arose due to the emergence of a group of recent Presbyterian converts in traditionally Roman Catholic Madeira.

Two waves of Madeirans, therefore, came to Trinidad in 1846 and onwards for very different reasons. In a sense, both groups were refugees - one made up of mainly rural folk fleeing severe economic disaster, and the other comprising largely educated urban dwellers fleeing violent religious persecution.

In the 1830s, Madeirans had already begun to emigrate in droves to Demerara (or British Guiana) and planters and estate labourers alike found this venture successful and mutually beneficial. When Trinidadian cocoa planters requested urgent help from the Governor for their estates, the governments of England and Portugal agreed to allow Madeiran immigration to Trinidad as they recognised the relative success of the British Guianese experiment (despite an initially high mortality rate) and the probability that Madeiran peasants, who were used to viticulture and sugar cane cultivation, would prove to be suitable for the cocoa plantations.

Sugar planters, however, privately chartered the Senator, the first barque with 219 Madeiran immigrant labourers. They arrived in Trinidad on 9th of May 1846, eleven years after the arrival of the Faial Portuguese, and were put to work on the more rigorous but better-paying sugar estates, contrary to original government stipulations. The harsh conditions of tropical sugar plantations proved to be too much for the Portuguese. Deaths were not infrequent and some left for the cocoa estates while others abandoned plantation labour altogether and turned to petty shop-keeping. Other ships arrived later in 1846 and in 1847. The Portuguese were not compelled by law to indenture themselves and Madeira did not prove to be a viable source of labour. After 1847, Portuguese immigration was no longer considered a solution to the planters' predicament and the Madeirans were followed by two groups of Asian indentured labourers: the Chinese and the Indians.

The Protestant converts, led by Dr. Robert Reid Kalley, a medical missionary of the Free Church of Scotland, encountered a great deal of hostility and intolerance in Roman Catholic Madeira and were eventually forced to seek asylum abroad. The first group of 197 refugees sailed on the barque William into Trinidad on 16th of September 1846, just four months after the arrival of the first Madeiran immigrants. In Trinidad, where freedom of worship and religious tolerance were decreed in the final year of the reign of George III, they were welcomed by the already established but small Church of Scotland, but were again brought face to face with their countrymen who harboured the very same prejudices that the refugees had sought to escape in their flight from Madeira.

Like their impoverished Catholic compatriots who came to better their fortunes, many of the Presbyterian refugees arrived in Trinidad destitute. After some initial difficulty in finding employment, some being forced to indenture themselves to the estates, they too managed to embark on small-scale entrepreneurship. The first Portuguese shop (the ownership of which is uncertain) opened in 1846, the year of the arrival of both Catholic immigrants and Protestant refugees. In general, it seems that the Protestants opened the better dry goods stores, mainly in Port-of-Spain and Arouca (where there was another Scottish Presbyterian community), while the Catholics found work on the estates as shop managers and opened the typical rum shops and adjoining shops or groceries, dispersed all over the island. Established Portuguese shop owners readily hired newly arrived Madeirans, who could speak no English and therefore could not easily secure jobs elsewhere, as shop clerks, and joint Portuguese ownership of rum shops was not uncommon. Several Portuguese were also employed as gardeners and housekeepers and the community gained a reputation for being industrious and enterprising.

After being accommodated by the Scottish community of Greyfriars Church on Frederick Street in Port-of-Spain, the refugees built their own church in 1854 under the leadership of Reverend Henrique Vieira. It was named the St. Ann's Church of Scotland (because of its location on the corner of St. Ann's Road, now Charlotte Street, and Oxford Street) but was once more commonly identified as the Portuguese Church. The Portuguese language and Portuguese Bibles and hymnals were in regular use up to twenty-seven years after the arrival of the first refugees and Scottish ministers even endeavoured to learn Portuguese before taking up a term of office at St. Ann's in order to effectively minister to the largely Lusophone congregation. The very religious Catholic Portuguese, with their love of and strong adherence to their festas (feast days), especially that of their patron saint Nossa Senhora do Monte (Our Lady of the Mount), jeeringly referred to the Presbyterian Portuguese as "Kalleyistas" or "Calvinistas". Relations between these two denominations were so strained at the outset that intermarriage as well as business relationships were not only frowned upon but often strictly forbidden by both factions.

After the first two waves of Madeiran Portuguese in 1846, Catholic Madeirans continued to emigrate in trickles well after the end of the nineteenth century and by the turn of the twentieth, it was estimated that the entire Portuguese community was some two thousand strong. Although emigration was no longer necessitated by economic woes and misfortunes, Madeirans continued to migrate voluntarily to Trinidad to seek improved living conditions and stories are told of immigrants who travelled as stowaways on the long journey from Madeira to Trinidad. Family emigration was not unusual and Madeirans often emigrated to join family members who had settled in Trinidad before them, sometimes accompanied by cherished family servants.

At this point, it is worth mentioning that emigration from the Cape Verde Islands was allowed by the local authorities, because of a critical food shortage there in 1856, and was welcomed by West Indian planters. Less than a hundred immigrants reached Trinidad, immigration having ceased by 1858, and the emigrants seem to have been of Negroid origin rather than Caucasian.

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, the Presbyterian Portuguese community, which had once numbered well over one thousand, had dwindled greatly as close to two-thirds of them chose to emigrate to Brazil and the United States, where other Portuguese Protestant communities were thriving, leaving behind just a few hundred who opted to remain in Trinidad. With the passage of time and a weakened Portuguese Presbyterian community, a breakdown of religious barriers through contact in the social, business and educational arenas resulted in several mixed marriages. The two groups eventually merged, so undeniably strong were their ancestral, cultural and linguistic bonds, and the outnumbered Presbyterians became absorbed by the wider Roman Catholic community, comprising not just Portuguese but French, Spanish, Irish and English settlers.

Now, no longer distinct as an ethnic group, the Portuguese Creoles have been completely assimilated into the wider society. Their forebears must have formed a curious sight on disembarking in Port-of-Spain, some of the men bedecked in their workman's woolly caps with pom-poms and earflaps and their traditional island footwear of plain knee-high boots worn rolled down to the ankle. They became well-known for their rum shops and retail groceries, which later gave way to larger scale commercial enterprises, for their predilection for salted cod, soups, their liberal use of olive oil and for the garlic pork ("carne de vinho e de alhos1" or "calvinadage", to give it its evolved local pronunciation) prepared at Christmas time, which has become virtually the only lasting symbol of Trinidadian Portuguese ethnicity. Their love of music and dancing is as much Trinidadian as it is Portuguese and their two clubs in Port-of-Spain, A Associação Portuguesa Primeiro de Dezembro and The Portuguese Club, stand as silent testimony to a formerly vibrant and close-knit Portuguese community.

Little else is left to recall the presence of the Portuguese in Trinidad, with the exception of a preponderance of surnames which continue to adorn business places, dot the pages of the nation's history and which are borne by their descendants whether they full-blooded Portuguese or not. Names like Camacho, Coelho, Correia, Fernandes, Pereira, Querino, Ribeiro and Sá Gomes are not only among the more notable in the business sector past and present, but speak of the Portuguese community's bewilderingly rapid yet unheralded rise to prominence out of the bosom of an impoverished immigrant group, no doubt harking back to an unerring combination of ambition, diligence and perseverance.

The lasting economic transformation of the Portuguese more or less coincides with their influential though fleeting political and literary ascendancy. The names of Cabral, dos Santos, Gomes, Mendes and Netto once figured regularly in the nation's dailies. Two of these, Albert Maria Gomes and Alfred Hubert Mendes, were among the literary pioneers of the Caribbean and flourished in the 1930s, a crucial decade in Trinidad's recent political history. As a Portuguese Creole who began as a radical, left-wing champion of the social, economic, political, religious and cultural underdog, Gomes loomed large on the political scene. He made his mark in politics to the extent that that political era was referred to as "Gomesocracy" and he was undoubtedly one of Trinidad's more colourful and controversial federalist politicians. The magniloquent editor of The Beacon, the monthly magazine which acted as a forum for multifarious political views and literary expression, Gomes was a close associate of another outstanding product of the Portuguese community, Alfred Mendes, who was the leader of the pluridisciplinary and multiracial liberal socialist group of early Trinidadian writers know as the Beacon group and was also a successful civil servant.

In a remarkably short space of time, the Portuguese community has quietly spawned a number of eminent sons and daughters of the soil, far out of proportion to its relatively small size and against all odds, and has contributed more than its fair share to the progress of its adopted land. They remain small in numbers but great in influence and occupational status and the vast majority of Portuguese descendants have become inseparably interwoven with other ethnic groups, to form the total picture that is unmistakably and irrevocably Trinidadian.

1   More correctly, carne vinha-d'alhos. On the 24th of November, 1783, the King of Spain signed The Royal Cedula of Population. This decree opened up the island of Trinidad to Catholics from any country that would swear fealty to the Spanish Crown. The effect on Trinidad was drastic and immediate. In 1773, the population was approximately 1,000 people of all races. By 1797, the population had swelled to 18,627. What had been an underdeveloped and backwater settlement, became a significant colony in the West Indies.

(From The Portuguese of Trinidad by Jo-Anne S. Ferreira, as published in The Book of Trinidad, edited by Gérard Besson and Bridget Brereton, 263-269. Port-of-Spain: Paria Publishing Co. Ltd., 1991, reprinted with permission. This article was revised by the author, and translated by Miguel Vale de Almeida. It appeared as "Do Atlântico às Antilhas: O Caso da Trinidad" in the Madeiran magazine Islenha 19 (June to December 1996: 95-107). Appendix 4 of the Portuguese translation, however, does not appear in this earlier article.)


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This page was last updated on Friday, 04-Apr-2008 07:10:40 MDT