Yesterday Guyana observed “Portuguese Arrival Day”. It may not be a public holiday, but President David Granger so designated this day in 2017 and we would be remis if we did not reflect on the presence of the Portuguese in the history of our country.
It is noteworthy that even though Brazil next door had been a Portuguese colony since the 16th Century, the Portuguese of Guyana did not actually originate from Portugal, but from the tiny island of Madeira off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic Ocean.
Slavery had been abolished in the British colonies in 1834 and the sugar planters were convinced the freed slaves would not remain on the plantations after the “apprenticeship” period of six years – later reduced to four. The planters learnt of the extreme poverty and turmoil in Madeira and arranged for 40 individuals to sail on the ship Louisa Baille to find their fortune in British Guiana. A total of 429 were to arrive in that year and even though conditions were horrendous, those that returned after their period of service to Madeira, encouraged others to follow in 1841 when there was a terrible famine on the island. In that year, a total of 4297 arrived and most of those who survived decided to make British Guiana their home. By 1881, when the last Portuguese from Madeira arrived, a total of 30,685 had emigrated.
In the meantime, immigration from the West Indies (WI) was also encouraged since wages there was far lower than in British Guiana, and the local freed slaves were beginning to leave the plantations in droves after 1838. By then, 5000 workers came from the WI. In that year, immigration from India had also commenced but was discontinued until 1845. The Portuguese, however, unlike the Indians, after their period of indentureship, did not re-indenture but left the plantations to establish themselves in trading with Madeira for foodstuff, becoming tradesmen and craftsmen and establishing retail shops in which the goods were sold.
The British importers had confined themselves to dealing with the planters directly in a wholesale fashion but with the establishment of the Village Movement and the increase of the urban population by the freed Africans, the Portuguese pioneered the retail trade and soon dominated it. Resentment however broke out between them and their African customers and the first inter-ethnic riot in the colony – the Angel Gabriel Riot – occurred in 1856 in Georgetown. There was another serious one in 1888.
The Portuguese, however, persevered and soon in every village across the country, there was at least one Portuguese retail establishment – including rum shops. In Georgetown, they soon expanded their businesses and challenged the British merchants. In many instances they became the agents for the British exporters. But the Portuguese did not just bring their business acumen and industriousness to Guyana – they brought their religion and their culture.
While the British were Protestants, the Portuguese were fervent Roman Catholics and with them having the wherewithal on account of their businesses, soon established churches across the country and eventually Cathedrals in Georgetown to conduct their worship. Sociologically, even though the Portuguese were phenotypically Europeans, they were not accepted as such by the British ruling strata. As such, they worked diligently to create their own institutions such as schools and hospitals to address their own quest for status and respectability.
By the turn of the 19th Century – just two decades after their immigration had ceased – the Portuguese were occupying the rung on par with the Coloured elite, just below the whites at the apex of society. They had entered the professions of medicine and law and soon after the turn of the century became members of the Legislature, which had been recently expanded to address their demands for political representation.
The struggle for independence after WWII unfortunately led to most Portuguese leaving the country because of fear of communism. By 1960, the population of 8000 in 1946 had shrunken to 3000 and now stands just under 2000.