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  by Jo-Anne S. Ferreira

The Feature Article in OPReP1 Newsletter 8 (December 1989): 3-5

For a number of years, my family tree has been a source of considerable interest to me and its documentation has been one of my pursuits undertaken mostly in my free time. Presented with the opportunity to research "anything under the Caribbean sun" for the B.A. final year Caribbean Studies Project, I immediately chose to study the surprisingly little-known Portuguese community of Trinidad and Tobago to which my father and his forebears belong. (Much more is known to my family about the maternal side, though ironically it is far more complex - being composed of immigrants from Ireland, England, West Africa (Ibo), the Canary Islands, Cuba and Martinique and also of descendants of the native Amerindians.)

Apart from my desire to know about the history and culture of my paternal ancestors, my curiosity had been aroused because of the general unavailability of written information - apart from a few lines to a few pages in history texts - and because of my 'discovery' of the Presbyterian Portuguese three (3) years ago. Gérard Besson of Paria Publishing Co. Ltd. had asked me to collect information on the Portuguese of the Church of Scotland (Greyfriars and St. Ann's in Port-of-Spain) as part of research material for a book on Trinidad and Tobago. Prior to my visit to St. Ann's, I knew nothing about the existence of the Portuguese Protestants since all known to me were Roman Catholic and I was greatly intrigued to know more about the Presbyterians. With the help of the Reverend, I was able to garner copies of old issues of The Trinidad Presbyterian, photocopies of which I kept for my own information and future use. Those newsletters plus an old immigration certificate of my grandmother's Madeiran aunt constituted the only documentation on the Portuguese to which I had ready access.

Growing up, all I knew about the Portuguese was the Christmas garlic pork (and only vaguely about the fried bread that accompanied this dish) since it always figured on the menu of the Christmas family breakfast. I was also aware that my grandmother knew a little Portuguese, more than my grandfather who only knew the odd swear word. From history books, I knew that the first Portuguese came as labourers during the era of the abolition of slavery and emancipation but left the fields to open rum shops. I had also heard about my great-great-aunt, Titia (meaning 'Auntie'), who had migrated from Madeira earlier this century and who spoke little or no English. Only recently did I learn that the dress worn for my christening ceremony was a hand-embroidered dress, sent by Titia when she was in Madeira for the christening of my grandparents' first baby and was used for all other christenings in the family, and that hand-embroidery is still a very important industry in Madeira.

When I decided, with the prompting of my supervisor, Mrs. Helen Pyne-Timothy, to take an oral history approach, I immediately turned to my father for help since he grew up among the Portuguese. He was extremely enthusiastic and immediately proceeded to make telephone calls and prepare a list of people (Portuguese and others) knowledgeable about different aspects of Portuguese history and community life. My mother was able to offer helpful insights and close relatives immediately expressed their interest and support, since they too, knew very little about the history and culture of their ancestors.

The first person I approached was my very loquacious and interesting grandmother. She was willing to be interviewed and tape-recorded but professed to know very little about the community and its history and at first, offered scant information. I was therefore obliged to a great deal of background reading in order to gain a better understanding of Portuguese migration and settlement in the West Indies and to be able to pose very specific questions in order to solicit information from the elderly Portuguese informants. Most of the academically sound reading on the Portuguese centred on the Guyanese and Vincentian Portuguese. The only information on the Portuguese of Trinidad Trinidad and Tobago Tobago was to be found in Charles Reis' History of the Associação Portuguesa Primeiro de Dezembro (the Portuguese Association of the First of December), Alfred Mendes' novel Pitch Lake and Albert Gomes' autobiography Through a Maze of Colour and also old issues of The Trinidad Presbyterian. After reading these works as well as Caribbean Studies Projects on other ethnic groups, especially the Chinese and East Indians, I was able to formulate a number of questions based on the work experience, social life, religion and cooking practices of the Portuguese. These very direct questions jogged the memory of my grandmother and of all of my other primary informants who knew much more than they realised and first admitted.

Comprehensive interviews were conducted with five primary elderly informants, all of whom are over 73 years of age. Two of them were born in Madeira and migrated to Trinidad Trinidad and Tobago Tobago in the 1930s and three are 'Creole' or Trinidad-born Portuguese. All of the Trinidadian informants have at least one Madeira-born parent. In the case of two, their fathers were born in Madeira and their mothers were Creole Portuguese, while the parents of the third Trinidadian informant were both Madeira-born. The latter never married while the other two Trinidadian informants both married Creole Portuguese like themselves. Of the Madeirans, one is unmarried and one is the widower of a non-Portuguese Caucasian Trinidadian. All of the informants describe themselves as belonging to the middle class, ranging from lower middle to upper middle. The informants were all selected on the basis of age and ethnicity2.

Of these five primary informants, only one is a male and he was born in Madeira. It would have been highly desirable to interview more elderly male Trinidadian informants, but this was not possible due to their unavailability, that is, illness, absence from the country or strong reluctance to be interviewed. However, a number of third and fourth generation males willingly made themselves available. The majority of the females approached evinced willingness to share what they knew. However, one upper middle class informant was the least predisposed to be interviewed, for fear that her name would be used publicly while another bluntly refused to talk, for the same reason. I had initially assumed that the former would have been more helpful since she knew my grandmother's family fairly well. However, the lower middle class informant was far more co-operative and not at all suspicious although she did not know me and only knew of my family. It was also difficult to locate more than one Presbyterian informant. While this may appear to be a limitation in terms of collecting data for research, it is in fact a reflection of the limited number of Protestant Portuguese in the country at the present time.

Although the elderly informants claimed that they were proud of being Portuguese, they were not convinced that there was anything 'special' about their ethnic group. Those born in Trinidad Trinidad and Tobago Tobago see themselves as 'normal Trinidadians' with nothing particularly unique about their experiences, lifestyle or cuisine. They were most sensitive about being interviewed about their self-assessed linguistic competence in Portuguese, largely because of years of little or nor practice in the language, personal linguistic insecurity and also because of my own ignorance of the Portuguese language. Many of the third generation were helpful in recalling forgotten details about the Portuguese community and expressed regret at not knowing more about the history and language of their ancestors. Altogether, taped interviews totalled four hours, though other interviews were conducted without a tape recorder as some of the elderly informants indicated an aversion to being taped.

According to history texts, the very first Portuguese to arrive in Trinidad were not from Madeira but from Fayal in the Azores. Only a few of them came in 1834 to work on sugar cane plantations. Most of them, however, either died or returned to Fayal because of poor living and working conditions. Virtually nothing is known about them as they left no survivors.

The ancestors of the modern-day Portuguese of Trinidad Trinidad and Tobago Tobago came from Madeira (off the coast of Morocco) in 1846 and onwards. Two waves of Madeirans came to Trinidad for very different reasons. In a sense, both groups were refugees, one fleeing severe economic disaster, and the other fleeing extreme religious persecution. The majority of Trinidadians and Tobagonians of Portuguese origin are descendants of the first group who came to seek a better standard of living. None of the informants seems to know of the circumstances in Madeira that drove the nineteenth century Madeirans to migrate, but all, however, claimed to know the reasons for the departure of their parents and grandparents. The majority were fleeing poverty while others came to join their families who had already established themselves here. With regard to the religious refugees, not even their descendants know why they came, and others are uncertain about their origin.

The economic 'refugees' came to several territories in the West Indies, especially Trinidad and Guyana, as indentured labourers, and also as stowaways, as noted by two sources. They were welcomed by estate owners but did not stay long on the plantations but gravitated towards shop-keeping in the main. Many of their relatives, descendants and friends who followed became proprietors and store clerks of rum shops and small groceries or 'shops'.

The religious refugees were recently converted Protestants facing a great deal of hostility in traditionally Roman Catholic Madeira. Unlike their compatriots who arrived a few months before they did, they were mainly educated urban dwellers and survived initially, not as indentured labourers3, but as owners of the better dry goods stores and as market gardeners.

There has also been some twentieth century migration but on such a small scale that history texts tend to ignore this fact. There has also been significant secondary out-migration from Guyana into Trinidad Trinidad and Tobago Tobago, and to a much lesser extent from St. Kitts and Antigua. Twentieth century immigrants were often assisted by their compatriots already settled here and were often met on arrival and given jobs until they were able to open their own businesses. The Portuguese community is no longer as close-knit as before as the need for interdependence has disappeared. Members of the second and third generations know each other well, but this ethnic group is not as visible as it was before because of intermixing with other groups and a rise in social status.

Informants recall the difficulty they had in being accepted in this society. When the Portuguese first came, they were not openly welcomed by the other European groups or by the ex-slaves and were generally held in great contempt. They were often referred to as 'rash-patash' (or 'raish-patraish') 'Poteegees' or as 'low-down Poteegees' and were stigmatised as dirty, uneducated, low-class and miserly. They were not considered 'white' because of their lowly social status and because some of them were swarthier in complexion than others.

Within the community itself, there were divisions, mostly because of the religious differences between the Roman Catholics and Protestants. The St. Ann's Church of Scotland (so named because of its location on St. Ann's Road, now Charlotte Street) was also called the 'Portuguese Church' as it was built by the Portuguese Presbyterians and as services were once conducted in Portuguese. The church was maligned by the Catholics who called it the 'donkey church' and 'that church on Charlotte Street'. Intermarrying was strictly forbidden at first although friendships were allowed. After some time, many of the Presbyterians migrated to the U.S.A. and Brazil (where other Protestant Portuguese communities had been established) and they dwindled greatly in number. The few remaining Presbyterian Portuguese eventually married Catholics and raised their children as Catholics and they number no more than a mere handful today.

The Roman Catholic Portuguese were very religious and their religious feasts ('festas') were always a cause for great celebration and family reunions, especially Christmas midnight mass, christenings, and a pilgrimage to Mt. St. Benedict in honour of the patron saint of Madeira 'Nossa Senhora do Monte' ('Our Lady of the Mount'). Certain foods were associated with certain festivities, such as the Christmas garlic pork ('carne do vinho e alhos,4 locally known by a few as 'calvinadage') and 'malassados' (malassadas), a type of pancake eaten at Carnival. The Portuguese were well-known for their predilection for cabbage, salted cod (or saltfish), soups and pork and for their use of olive oil and pepper. The cake 'bolo do mel' and some Portuguese biscuits were very popular and those who returned to Madeira on visits often brought back these two specialities for family and friends.

Portuguese men used to work long, hard hours every day while the women stayed at home tending to the needs of their many children. The women were not allowed to socialise much and in the case of the Catholics, they would be seen at early morning mass only and would sometimes be glimpsed looking out of their windows. The men normally began as shop clerks in Portuguese shops and later established small businesses - rum shops, groceries, dry goods stores and barber saloons - all over the country. As their children became educated, they tended to abandon the rum shops and shops of their parents which were not considered 'respectable' and rose upward in society to become owners of varying types of commercial enterprises.

Little is left to remind us of the Portuguese today, except for their surnames, the buildings of the Associação Portuguesa (on Richmond Street) and the Portuguese Club (now Players Club on Queen's Park East), and Madeiran dry stone walls on Lady Chancellor Hill. The Portuguese Association and the Club were once the hub of the social activities of the Portuguese and the centres of dances, banquets and Carnival celebrations. The national anthem of Portugal was played at many gatherings of the Portuguese and members of the second generation remember the tune and some of the words, as it was often played in homes on the piano. During the years of early migration, feelings of patriotism towards Portugal ran high. Madeiran men would gather to sing Portuguese songs and play their guitars and their children recall the names given to Madeira, 'the Garden of the World', and 'the Pearl of the Atlantic'. Other popular forms of relaxation and entertainment included 'bisca', a card game, and billiards. Several sports such as lawn tennis, cricket and hockey were regularly played among the Creole Portuguese.

There is much more to be learned about the Portuguese in this country. There is no longer an abundance of informants and the time to research and document information on this minority group is now. Other areas such as their socio-economic contribution to the country, race relations and geographical distribution in the late nineteenth century to date remain to be investigated.

Since the writing of the Project, two important events have occurred within the Portuguese community. They are the Republic of Portugal National Day hosted by the Consulado de Portugal and the occasion of the presentation of the credentials of Dr. Duarte Vaz Pinto, Ambassador of Portugal, with the celebration of the appointment of Bishop John Mendes, also hosted by the Portuguese community. Anthony Milne, a writer with The Trinidad Express has also written recently about the Portuguese and there is a general trend in the country at present to examine the socio-economic and cultural contributions of each ethnic group represented here. It is hoped that this small oral history work will stimulate much needed research into this group that makes up part of the medley of races of Trinidad and Tobago.

(See also OPReP Newsletter No. 6 (June 1989), Co-ordinator's Report, p. 2 and "Notes and Queries" column, p. 4.)


1OPReP is the Oral and Pictorial Records Programme of the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine.

2And availability.

3Author's note. After further research, it appears that this is not altogether accurate. Some refugees were forced to indenture themselves to cocoa estates.

4More correctly, carne vinha-d'alhos. Vinha-d'alhos is the name of the preparation or marinade.


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