President David Granger: Honourable Dawn Hastings-Williams, Minister of Public Affairs; Honourable Karen Cummings, Minister in the Ministry of Public Health; Mr. Michael Correia, Honorary consul of Portugal; Bishop Alleyne Bishop of Georgetown; Members of the Diplomatic Corps; Portuguese Guyanese and Guyanese-Portuguese; members of the media; ladies and gentlemen.
I am happy to be here this afternoon for lots of reasons. One of course is that I attended the school which used to be just immediately to the north of this building and my wife, Sandra, attended the girl’s school immediately south of this building. Educationists in those days had the bizarre notion that if you put boys and girls in separate buildings they wouldn’t come together; anyhow we’re married. So we’re both graduates of Sacred Heart R.C. School; so it’s a bit of nostalgia coming although I’m seeing the yard has transformed from what I met 63 years ago.
I’m happy, too, for the other reason that the Declaration of 3rd of May as Portuguese Arrival Day is a step towards national cohesion, social cohesion and I issued a public notice proclaiming 3rd of May as Portuguese Arrival Day because I felt this observance was an opportunity for all Guyanese to understand and to respect and to pay homage to the Madeiran indentured immigrants, to their descendants and to recognise their contribution to our nation.
Portuguese Arrival Day commemorates not only a single historical event which occurred on the 3rd of May, the start of migration, but it also reminds us of the process of integration and miscegenation and nation building and more importantly, the determination of the Portuguese themselves to enjoy the rights and privileges of their adopted homeland; and this is the result of the effect of such a long period of acculturation and adaptation.
Ladies and gentlemen, last year the 30th of November, I addressed the St Joseph’s High School Graduation and I presented a trophy called the Elsa Vesta Goveia Shield for the Best Graduating student in History. Elsa Gouveia was a distinguished alumna of St Joseph’s and she was also the first female student to win the British Guiana scholarship in 1944. In those days the scholarship was awarded to one person, and she was that one person, the best secondary school student in Guyana, and she came from St Joseph’s, my wife’s alma mater.
Professor Goveia went on to be the first West Indian of any gender to win the Pollard Prize for English History, and the first professor of West Indian History, the first female to hold a chair at a University College of the West Indies. So when I presented the Elsa Goveia shield to St Joseph’s last year it was a recognition of Elsa Goveia’s work and any Guyanese would be proud of what she achieved in academia, and there is a little anecdote – you know in 1988 Guyana commemorated the 150th anniversary of African emancipation and I was passing a showcase in Walter Street. I saw this photograph of Elsa Goveia and some prominent African Guyanese. So I said “really, you know, miscegenation is forever because she was mixed.” She was a Portuguese Guyanese of African heritage. What does it matter? She is Guyanese, she is ours and we’re proud.
Similarly, the Eugene F. Correia International Airport was named in recognition of the sterling contribution of a man who pioneered the development of aviation and of course Guyana’s gold and diamond mining industry. Eugene Francis Correia was a Guyanese. Where was he born? Buxton. He’s a Buxtonian like any other Buxtonian. He was also parliamentarian and minister of government and, bar the shouting, the naming of the airport by the board, the Ogle airport board was recognition of his service to Guyana, and we must become accustomed to this sort of recognition for respect for people who built this nation. It wasn’t built by one person, by one ethnic group, but by all the persons who came to this country and those who they met in this country.
As you’ve heard from Michael, Portuguese immigration started on the 3rd of May 1835, a hundred and eighty-three years ago, when the first 40 indentured labourers came here to what they called Demerara. But this is a momentous time in local and international history and migration, which started as a trickle turned into a torrent with 30,645 Madeiran Portuguese arriving in more or less the four decades between 1841 and 1882. It was a propitious time and it was a time of a demographic transformation of Guyanese society. In 1838 over 80,000 Africans were emancipated from the system of enslavement and over the next eighty years over 340,000 Africans, Chinese, Indians Europeans and West Indians came here owing to the bizarre British colonial typification. Portuguese were not described as Europeans. That’s how we come to say Guyana is the land of six races; actually, it’s five. Of course, through hard work we become more than five.
Right now, about one fifth of the Guyanese population is mixed, and when you’re mixed, you’re mixed forever. So within this very short period of time, not only were eighty thousand Africans freed, but 340,000 people of different ethnic groups came to Guyana. Some were Africans-freed Africans, some were West Indians but the majority were Indians, and Chinese and Portuguese – as you know from your history and particularly from the works of Sister Mary Noelle Menezes, the most prolific chronicler of the history of Portuguese Guyanese. There were very severe military and political problems in Madeira during the 1830s and some of them were happy to leave Madeira as described. There was poverty and there was political and social distress but there was also turmoil in the international markets, fuelled by the demands for free trade and this turmoil, particularly in Britain and Europe, threatened the future of sugar production in the British West Indies, not for the last time. Since the 1830s sugar was in trouble and will continue to be for some time to come.
By this time of course in Britain, commodity production and commerce had been completely revolutionised as the result of the industrial revolution and the changes taking place in manufacturing and shipping and by that time of course, the European empires had penetrated into Africa and East Asia. You know there is a scramble for Africa; the Germans got a piece and the Portuguese got a piece and the Spanish got a piece and the French got a piece and the British got a piece and similarly the penetration into East Asia; into Indonesia, Hong Kong, India itself. So this was an era of massive production, massive transformation, especially among the great empires of the day: the Spanish empire, the Portuguese empire, the British empire, the French empire, Dutch empire, Belgian empire and of course the clash of the empires led to two tragic wars in the early years of the 20th century.
So this was a time of tremendous upheaval and in a way British Guiana, which was unified only in 1831, we used to be three colonies: Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice; only in 1831 were we unified and in 1814 were we transferred from The Netherlands to Britain, something which I tried to convince President Maduro about.
But Guyana was more or less an oasis of tranquillity. The first thing we have to understand about the Portuguese is that they were a European people. They came from Madeira, it’s true; it was an island but that island had a three-hundred-year history of sugar production. So these were not people who were coming into the sugar plantation for the first time in their lives. These were not people who were drinking rum for the first time in their lives; they had rum for a long time and of course when they came here they pioneered the rum industry; the wine industry as well or what we used to call wine in the 60s, which those who consumed it would, when they recovered from the headache would call ‘pack-pack’; but their migration coincided with the birth of the village movement so up to now you still find significant remnants of Portuguese commerce in the villages. I think in a place like Plaisance; one of the largest Portuguese churches on the east coast is in Plaisance which is a village which was bought by the Africans originally.
There was also an expansion of wage labour because once the Africans were emancipated they came off the plantations. Even though those who remained on the plantations, once Indians and Chinese and Portuguese started coming in the country they had to be paid with money. Under slavery you didn’t need luxuries like money, you just go to work. So the introduction of coinage led to the birth of the banking system. The creation of this huge, free population led to a demand for goods for personal and household use. So Portuguese coming from a European country called Portugal, with infrastructure, manufacturing, agricultural infrastructure, were able to move very quickly into the retail trade. There were some adjustment problems, as you know in the late 19th century, but within a very short period after their arrival they quit the cane fields forever and they established themselves in commerce and industry.
Again, like Mr Correia, I turn to the works of Sister Noel Menezes who wrote, “The end of the 1860s and 1870s saw the Portuguese well entrenched in business, the roster of Portuguese entrepreneurs was extensive. Apart from being property owners, they were provision and commission merchants, spirit shop owners” – this is the liquid spirit, not the other spirit – “…importers, ironmongers, ship chandlers, leather merchants, boot and shoemakers, saddlers, coach builders, woodcutters, timber merchants, brick makers, cattle owners, pork-Knockers, charcoal dealers, bakers and photographers.” A wide range of skills. Growing up in Queenstown too, I always remember the enterprise called the Queenstown Livery Stables owned by one Sebastiani and it was a joy to see the horse-drawn hearses with the grooms in black coats and top hats. You almost wished you were dead; it looked so good, quite a way to go.
The Portuguese are a Christian people. I hope I’m not exaggerating. They shared a common religion, Roman Catholicism, and for a long time after immigration started they spoke their own language and had their own culture – their own foods. They published their own newspaper in Portuguese and they established their own clubs and civic organisations. They were responsible, of course, for the spread of Roman Catholicism, starting with this very church here in 1861. They established schools which catered for their children’s education and three Saints – I see Chris Fernandes here, you would recall I paid tribute to those three saints: St Joseph’s, St Stanislaus and St Roses, which last over a hundred years; all three of them are over a hundred years old and remain among the top secondary schools in this country- quite an achievement.
The Portuguese quest for integration involved a good dose of social responsibility. They established benevolent societies, charities and fraternities to help the needy. They established clubs to promote the development of sport and I am sure Kit Nascimento would ask for his contribution to motor racing and rugby to probably be recognised in this regard. I have never seen him on a motorcycle but that is one of the hallmarks of Portuguese sport fifty years ago or so. The Portuguese were also a political people, not always with the results they anticipated but we recall Frances Dias and J.P. Santos. These names used to be well known and well respected fifty or sixty years ago. They were the first or among the first to run for public office, winning seats in what was then called the Court of Policy and the Combined Court which was the forerunner of our National Assembly.
Frances Dias himself wrote and I quote, “Portuguese have been members of the executive and legislative councils of British Guiana, mayors of Georgetown and New Amsterdam, leading men of the law of medicine and of the church.” End of quotation. Ladies and gentlemen, Portuguese enterprise and their establishment of institutions to advance social development and social responsibility ensured their integration, not segregation, but their integration into the Guyanese society. Migration and miscegenation have reduced their numbers but their contributions to the establishment of a plural society remain ineradicable. The Portuguese, within decades of their arrival, had moved from immigrants to citizenship in this plural nation of ours, Guyana.
So today, ladies and gentlemen, we celebrate Portuguese Arrival Day in the shadow of what used to be one of the most majestic wooden buildings in the city and a monument to the Portuguese presence, Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church – beloved of generations of Portuguese and non-Portuguese who attended this school and worshipped in this church. I took the initiative after 2015, to designate days which celebrate the plural character of our nation, not to divide, but to unite; to support the objects of social cohesion. When we speak of social cohesion we recognise the reality that always is and always will be multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural. As I said before, miscegenation is forever.
Our diversity is an asset, not a liability. We are proud of belonging to a society of many faiths and many ethnicities. We’re proud of the tapestry of ethnicity in our country. Social cohesion respects the differences between various social groups. It acknowledges however, that if left unattended, those differences can threaten mutual trust and can weaken people’s sense of belonging. Today we celebrate that sense of belonging in this shared land of Guyana. The Cooperative Republic of Guyana acknowledges the Portuguese contribution and achievements in nation building – Portuguese Arrival Day is celebrated to pay homage to the people from Madeira and to their descendants, to the continuing role in Guyana’s development.
Happy Portuguese Arrival Day!
May God bless you all.