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The Portuguese in the Caribbean

An overall historical perspective
Published: 
Tuesday, June 14, 2011

This article is not only about the Portuguese of the island of Madeira who settled in Trinidad from May 1846, but also about the Portuguese who over the centuries for several reasons settled in the West Indies and, as such, contributed to the history of the region in one way or another. In other words, it is about the overall historical presence of the Portuguese in the Caribbean. In fact, historians tell us that the Portuguese have been part of the life, economy and social culture of the Caribbean since the 15th century. History has it that the first Portuguese to set foot in the West Indies were the sailors on board Christopher Columbus’ three ships—the Santa María, the Pinta and the Nina—which landed on the small island of San Salvador (or Guanahani) in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. Columbus learnt to become a skilled sailor and map-maker in Portugal, the most important seafaring country in Europe at that time. There he met many experienced sailors, some of whom accompanied him on his maiden voyage to the New World, although he was at the time at the service of the Spanish Crown and not at Portugal’s service.  Since the days of Columbus, the Portuguese have emigrated over the centuries in large numbers to the Caribbean for a variety of reasons, mainly religious, political and economic.

The two most important waves of migration to the Caribbean were (i) those of the Portuguese Jews, who immigrated from the 15th to the 19th centuries for religious reasons and (ii) those of the Portuguese from the island of Madeira, who came to the Carib-bean in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, also for religious but mainly for economic reasons. These two waves of Portuguese immigrants have greatly im-pacted on the economic and social development of the West Indies. Their influence can still be felt today. The first group of immigrants were Sephardic Jews who left Portugal to escape from persecution by the Catholic Inquisition in that country. It is difficult to give exact numbers of the Portuguese Jews that settled in the Caribbean because they are said to have come between the 15th and 19th centuries, but they certainly came in large numbers (several thousand). They settled from Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) in the south to the Bahamas and Ber-muda in the north. Important communities settled in Curacao and Aruba (where they left the Papiamento language), Barbados and Jamaica.

They made their influence felt not only in the academic world, but also in politics, trade, agriculture (sugar plantation industry) and the arts. They built Portu-guese synagogues and cemeteries in all the countries they settled, some of which can still be found today: Suriname, Barbados, Curacao, Jamaica and the Bahamas, among others. The second large group of Portuguese settlers came to the West Indies in the 19th century and  also the first part of the 20th century. They originated from the Azores, the Cape Verde Islands and also from Madeira. By far the largest group came from Madei-ra. In fact, with the end of slavery in the West Indies as a result of the Slavery Abolition Act published in London in 1833 (effective from 1834), many farmers in the region were left without their traditional labour force and were therefore forced to import indentured and contract workers from several parts of the world, including the Portuguese islands of the Atlantic, to work on Caribbean farms (especially sugar plantations). At that time, the island of Madeira was suffering from serious economic problems and the Protestant community there was the object of religious harassment by the Catholic clergy of Funchal. The conditions were set for Ma-deira to become a major supplier of agricultural workers to the plantations of the West Indies in the 19th century.

Practically all countries of the region—from Guyana (then Demerara, British Guiana) to Cuba—received agricultural workers from Madeira. The great majority settled in Demerara and Trinidad (including, in the latter case, the persecuted Protestants of Funchal, who received the protection and assistance of the Greyfriars Presbyterian Church of Port-of-Spain). The rest is history and is well documented in the works of many distinguished descendants of Madeirans, for example, the scholars Sister M Noel de Menezes of Guyana and Dr Jo-Anne S Ferreira of T&T. From their writings, we learn that the Madeiran people moved from the agricultural fields, soon after their arrival in the Carib-bean, to enter not only shop-keeping but also other professions and trades. Today, they are in all walks of life, fully integrated into the political, economic and social life of the West Indies, with their important social contribution being felt everywhere in the region. Among them, I would like to mention Dr Ralph Gonsalves, the current Prime Minister of St Vincent & the Grenadines. Not to be forgotten are those who joined the British armed forces of the West Indies and fought bravely during the First and Second World Wars, thus contributing to the present freedom of the Western Hemisphere.

Dr Luis Ritto, a university professor and academic director at the International School of Protocol and Diplomacy in Brussels, and former EU ambassador to the UN organisations, the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta, lived and worked in Madeira for some ten years, and as EU ambassador travelled throughout the Caribbean, visiting both Trinidad and Guyana several times

(This article appeared in Portuguese in the Diário de Notícias on May 8)

Dr Luis Ritto

Via e-mail

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