PoWI Archives - Ferreira - OPReP Article

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The Feature Article in OPReP1 Newsletter, 2002
Preceded by an interview with German Clement Govia on pages 5-7 (former owner of Govia's Roti Shop on Picton Street, Newtown), b. 1912, d. 26 August 1993

by Jo-Anne S. Ferreira

Throughout the over 114 years of Madeiran Portuguese migration to Trinidad, the Portuguese of Trinidad & Tobago have remained a minority group within the local Euro-Creole community and within the wider host society, always accounting for less than one per cent of the national population. In spite of lower numbers than other ethnolinguistic groups, the Madeirans constituted perhaps the only significant post-emancipation European group, significant both in relative size and in their socio-economic contributions to their host society. The fact that the national census accorded this group a separate census category up to 1960, indicates that they were not numerically insignificant (at their peak, they numbered in the thousands); nor were they ethnically and socio-culturally unimportant, Portuguese and Luso-Trinbagonians having contributed to every sphere of national life, including religion, business, politics, the arts (music, literature, Carnival, film), and cuisine.

Out of such a small community have come many notable individuals who have contributed to local culture, and include prominent persons such as George Cabral and J.B. Fernandes, and Sir Errol dos Santos and Gerry Gomez, eminent figures in the world of sports. Other important Portuguese cultural contributions include cultural establishments, and individual creative and academic productions, such as:

  • the ‘Portuguese church’ (the St. Ann’s Church of Scotland on Charlotte Street, built in 1854, still in existence, but now ethnically diversified since the 19th century)
  • a Portuguese brass band (1899-1902)
  • Portuguese socio-cultural groups, including the Associação Portuguesa Primeiro de Dezembro and the Portuguese Club (both still active to limited and varying degrees),
  • two novels about the Portuguese community (Pitch Lake by Alfred Mendes, 1934 and All Papa’s Children by Albert Gomes, 1974),
  • a trilogy of films (starting with Angel in a Cage by Canada-based Mary Jane Gomes, 1998), and
  • articles, books, a dissertation, and a web site, all produced in the late 20th century

The eyes of the wider community, both local and foreign, have also focused on this small community. Local historians, artists, and calypsonians have recorded the Portuguese presence in this country in writing, on canvas, and in song.

The typical ‘Portuguese shop’ of yesteryear has inspired at least six paintings by artists such as Codâllo, Hinkson, Louison and Newel-Lewis, and features in works by Adrian Camps-Campins and Watterson. Portagee Joe’s “El Toro” rum shop takes centre stage in much of Errol Hill’s 1965 play “Man Better Man.” The 1992 Canboulay Productions Carnival musical, “Ah Wanna Fall” was set in the 1940s to 1950s, and had as part of its stage setting a Mr. Ribeiro and his rum-shop. A typical Portuguese rum-shop named “Vasco da Gama Rum Shop” has also formed part of the background setting of Hotel Normandie’s Carnival Village “Under the Trees” (1993 and 1994).

At least five calypsos of the 1930s to 1940s have focused on the Portuguese in general, such as Pharaoh’s Portuguese Dance (1947), or a specific Portuguese in particular, such as Eddie (Eduardo) Sá Gomes, an important pioneer in local calypso recordings who inspired 3 calypsoes, and Albert Gomes, an important figure in politics and culture.

Of interest is the fact that the Portuguese community of Trinidad & Tobago has recently awakened the interest of five Portuguese writers - academics and journalists - in Europe, and has been the focus of an anthropology paper and book, a book in preparation on the pan-Caribbean Madeiran diaspora, and a book and documentary on the Portuguese Presbyterian diaspora from Madeira to Trinidad to the U.S.A.

Although the Portuguese and their descendants have contributed in varied ways to national life, very little is left or known of their own cultural heritage at either an intra-group or extra-group level. Like many small immigrant groups, they have managed to quietly, privately and unobtrusively preserve a few cultural emblems for the sake of nostalgia, examples of which are garlic pork, the lapinha (the Madeiran Christmas crèche), and the Portuguese national anthem. Having lost or given up their ancestral language and other identity markers, the Portuguese in Trinidad have turned to one favourite Christmas dish, the Madeiran garlic pork, or calvinadage as the characteristic symbol of Portuguese ethnicity in Trinidad and Tobago. It is therefore mainly at Christmas time that any vestige of Portuguese identity temporarily but enthusiastically resurfaces and manifests itself. During the preparation and sharing of garlic pork, many Luso-Trinidadians reminisce about yesteryear, and often focus on this dish as the remaining relic of their ancestral culture. For many, part of being a Portuguese Trinidadian means to have a long continuity of an almost ritualistic preparation of this dish, a tradition spanning all generations. This is a fact that surprises many continental Portuguese, most of whom who are unfamiliar with this Madeiran dish. Among other Trinidadians and Tobagonians, only a small percentage knows of this dish, unlike in Guyana. Because of the full sociolinguistic and cultural adaptation of the group, little else is left that resembles Portuguese culture in Portugal and in overseas Portuguese communities world-wide.

This apparent neglect of Portuguese culture is partly explained by the fact that the group was a small group, but more importantly by the fact that its members have been almost fully integrated into the wider society on all levels, as has happened among other Portuguese immigrant communities in the Caribbean and beyond. Since socio-economic survival and betterment were at the heart of the short-term and long-term objectives of the 19th century immigrants and refugees in Trinidad, many Portuguese parents did not encourage their Creole children to preserve those aspects of their ancestral culture that would have posed a barrier to assimilation, especially the language, a vital and visible part of any group’s culture. Like other immigrant languages in Trinidad, Portuguese was often viewed by both outsiders and insiders as one with little social value or educational merit. Many Portuguese Creoles appeared to ultimately abandon much, if not all of their ancestral culture, in favour of their own local culture, partly because they were exposed to the Portuguese language and culture only in a very limited way. First generation Creoles often experienced a sort of double alienation: physical isolation and therefore cultural and linguistic alienation from their ancestral homeland, as well as the potential risk of social alienation from their own society, and assimilatory pressures both from the outside as well as the inside. While language maintenance would have threatened effective integration, the preservation of private cultural elements and culinary symbols did not interfere with social progress. The result is that today the language and culture of the local Portuguese community in Trinidad is practically forgotten by descendants of 19th century immigrants, and are quickly being forgotten by those of 20th century immigrants, except for surnames, local family and social networks, and for some, ongoing ties with Madeira.

In the early 20th century, because of continuing trickles of migration and because of entirely different circumstances of migration, the appearance of two Portuguese social clubs seemed to indicate either group attempts at cultural revival or quiet cultural resistance to assimilatory demands, or both. The Associação Portuguesa was formed in 1905, and the Portuguese Club in 1927, by immigrants and Portuguese Creoles, respectively. The former made contributions to local culture and to local Portuguese culture, through its hosting of plays, concerts, recitals, bazaars and other cultural events. The latter played its role in local social and community life, especially in the area of sports, with little to distinguish it from other social clubs except for the Portuguese names of its members.

The Portuguese and their descendants have added few new and original dimensions to the national cultural landscape, but have chosen instead to support and enhance already existing cultural structures, especially calypso, the steelband and Carnival, and other areas of the arts, arenas to which they continue to make significant and lasting contributions. Among Luso-descendants, the Portuguese legacy may seem to remain strangely limited to garlic pork, but the real impact of the Portuguese community has been its quiet and steady contribution of its people to the development and improvement of national life in every imaginable sphere.



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


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