The Portuguese presence

Portuguese indentured immigration began on 3rd May 1835 when the first forty migrants arrived in British Guiana aboard the ship “Louisa Baille” after a 78-day voyage via London, England.

Four decades of migration – from 1841 to 1882 – brought 30, 645 more migrants not only from Madeira but also from the Azores, Cape Verde and even some came from Brazil. A century after the first arrivals, the Portuguese population in British Guiana peaked at about 8, 000.
I proclaimed 3rd May ‘Portuguese Arrival Day’ by public ‘notice’ on the 27th February 2017. I didn’t do this to separate or segregate but more importantly to integrate the nation more fully by creating greater awareness of each other’s cultures and by engendering respect through knowledge. Portuguese Arrival Day therefore celebrates the contributions of the original Portuguese immigrants – called Madeirenses in earlier times. Their contributions to the nation’s economy, its multicultural character and political evolution have benefitted all of us.

Portuguese culture has permeated and enriched our diverse social tapestry. The original Madeirenses and their descendants have left a lasting legacy on our nation’s economic, intellectual, political and social development.

Portuguese immigration was phenomenal when measured by the relatively larger numbers who settled here compared with the Caribbean islands. Their emergence as a propertied, professional and commercial class and the money which they were able to repatriate to their homeland as result of their exertions were evidence of their success in what they called Demerara.

Portuguese indentured immigration starting in 1835, three years before African Emancipation in 1838, was intended to provide labour on the plantations in anticipation of an expected labour shortage as a consequence of the Emancipation of enslaved Africans. This did not happen. There was no shortage. There was no great exodus from the plantations. Most Africans continued to work and, by 1838, were to be supplemented by East Indian indentured immigrants on the plantations and day after tomorrow, 5th May, we celebrate Indian Arrival Day and National arrival day at Palmyra on the Corentyne.

The Portuguese made the most of their assured employment on the plantations. Madeira itself had been a leading sugar producer and the immigrants, despite the high mortality in the early years, eventually adapted to the ardours of tropical plantation work, Madeira itself being a sub-tropical island. They were described by contemporary sources as industrious and thrifty. They garnered their earnings which they used to finance ventures into huckstering and to establish retail shops.

African Emancipation created conditions propitious for Portuguese enterprise. The village movement, the enlarged liberated population, the introduction of wage labour, the introduction of coinage, the opening of banks and the diversification of the economy expanded opportunities for the supply of goods for household and personal use.
Enterprising Portuguese filled this demand by venturing into huckstering and by establishing retail shops in rural and urban areas. Seven years after their arrival, one in every three new shops established in Georgetown was owned by Portuguese who, through shrewd business practices, began to compete with their other European counterparts in certain aspects of the retail trade, and most prominently spirit shops. Portuguese, within the first decade of their arrival, had owned almost eight out of every ten of the colony’s spirit shops.

Portuguese made the most of the opportunities to expand and diversify their businesses. They became bakers, cobblers, brick-makers, cattle-ranchers, charcoal-dealers, coach-builders, fishers, importers, merchants, photographers, pork-knockers, saddlers, shoemakers, spirit shop owners and timber merchants.
The Portuguese promotion of kinship and social responsibility contributed to their success. Newly-arrived immigrants from Madeira were supported by those who were already resident in the colony and a strong trade developed between Madeira and Demerara. The strong communal bonds were reinforced by the transplanting of their conventions, culture, customs, cuisine, language and of course, the Catholic religious faith.

The earliest immigrants were almost exclusively Roman Catholic. The Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church was built in 1861 to allow Portuguese to practice their Catholicism. They built schools for the education of their children, produced their own newspapers and established social organizations and sports clubs.
The Portuguese founded benevolent societies, some of which are still in existence to assist the destitute, widows and orphans. They left a rich legacy in the creative arts through the founding of musical bands, the hosting of musical concerts and recitals and dramatic productions.

The Portuguese resented the way in which they were treated as second-class, and not as Europeans, by the British elite in the colony. The Portuguese nevertheless strove to add political influence to their already formidable economic power by seeking election to the Court of Policy, as the legislature was called in the early years of the 20th century.

Francis Dias and JP Santos were two of the first to be so elected with support from African voters. Peter D’ Aguiar founded the United Force party which was able to win 16.3 per cent of the vote in the general elections in 1961 again with significant Portuguese support.

Persons of Portuguese origin have excelled in all areas of national life. They produced outstanding individuals such as academics Elsa Gouveia and Sister Mary Noel Menezes; architect, Albert Rodrigues; aviators Roland da Silva and Gerald Gouveia; businessmen, John and Christopher Fernandes and Peter D’ Aguiar; attorneys Bernard De Santos and David de Caires; legislators, Eugene Correia and Francis Dias; optician Jose da Silva; priests Fr. Malcolm Rodrigues and Louis da Silva; broadcaster, Olga Lopes-Seale; sports personalities Eddie Caetano and Stephen Comacho and cane farmer Joseph Vieira and I did not forget you Kit [Nascimento] distinguished journalist and public relations consultant and many more too numerous to mention.

Their numbers have diminished over time owing to migration and miscegenation. Persons who identified themselves as Portuguese from 2012 only numbered 1,910 or 0.26 per cent of the population. The Portuguese, though a demographic minority, and by making the most of the opportunities with which they were provided, ensured that their contributions remain indelible up to this day. Guyana’s economy has been made stronger and its culture richer for their contributions.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Portuguese presence in Guyana has provided many useful lessons for the present and future generations. The experience of indigent, indentured immigrants, making the most of their opportunities, is instructive as we aim now to create a more sustainable management of our economic resources and to provide a good life for everyone.

I support Portuguese Arrival Day 2019. I have also declared Chinese Arrival Day in January, Indian Arrival Day because we have to learn more of each other. As I said earlier, it is not meant to separate but to integrate through intelligent understanding of the culture of other people. The ‘Day’ [Portuguese Arrival Day], is a reminder, most particularly, of the struggle which all migrants faced and a recognition of their role in the whole nation without which Guyana would be a very different place. Happy Portuguese Arrival Day. Congratulations. Ω
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