The story of the Portuguese presence in Bermuda began in 1543 with the wreck of a Portuguese vessel off South Shore. According to the famous historian, Oviedo, the survivors found no inhabitants living on the Island. They managed to subsist on the fruits of the land, large turtles and fish. In due time, the survivors built a crude vessel made of local cedar, and sailed back to Puerto Rico.
Although Bermuda was located within the Spanish domain, there appeared to be no serious effort by Spain to populate the islands. The Spanish claim to Bermuda remained unchallenged until the wreck of the British vessel, Sea Venture, in 1609. News about the Island was received with great interest in England, particularly by the Virginia Company. Perceived as a profitable commercial venture, plans were made to settle the Island. The arrival of Richard Moore and the sixty colonists in the Plough on Saturday, July 11, 1612, marked the beginning of migrations to Bermuda from the British Isles as well as from many other countries.
In 1871, a committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science published a volume entitled, Notes and Queries in Anthropology which included a study of the people of Bermuda. It stated that Bermuda contained at least six distinctive groups: the descendants of Englishmen, and those mostly from the West of England; the descendants of natives of Africa, probably all from the west coast; the descendants of Indians of North America, chiefly from Virginia; the descendants of Indians of a different race, from the Spanish Main; the Portuguese imported from the Western Islands in about 1845; and the Swedes imported since 1873. The few individuals of French, Italian or German extraction were not counted in this particular study.
Most of the immigrants arriving from other islands were English speaking, except for one large group, the Portuguese. Although the Azorean group, in this study, were representative of the Portuguese people in Bermuda, historical research reveals that there had also been a strong Madeiran presence here since 1849.
There were a few Portuguese living in Bermuda even earlier than the mid-1800’s. The first one recorded was a servant by the name of John Martin in the year 1657. Historical records also reveal that there were several Portuguese captains and sailors who were forced to spend some time on these Bermuda shores. Between 1783 – 1814, at least sixteen Portuguese vessels, captured as prizes by privateers and the Royal Navy, were processed in the Vice Admiralty Court. Aside from the recorded deaths of Emanuel Jose De Sawza of St. George’s in 1834, Mrs. Mary Manuel of Pembroke in 1736, and Joseph Manuel in 1832, it seems that there were very few Portuguese residing in Bermuda prior to 1849.
To understand why Bermuda was to attract so many Portuguese agricultural workers, one must be aware of the current events in Bermuda and the Portuguese Islands during the mid-nineteenth century. In Bermuda, the seafaring economy was undergoing a transitional period. The glorious age of the Bermuda seaman engaged in the carrying trade between the eastern American ports and the West Indian waters was being seriously threatened with the arrival of steamships as competitors. The once thriving shipbuilding industry was also experiencing a marked decline. It was a time for the Bermudian leaders to seriously find alternatives to boost the Island’s economy.
As a result, the 1840’s became an important period in Bermuda’s history. Led by Governor Reid, new ideas on developing an agricultural economy were emerging. However, in 1847 this was no easy task. In the words of one concerned writer to The Royal Gazette, who called himself Georgics stated, “It is said, and by the Inhabitants themselves, that the people are generally averse to the toil of husbandry.”
In order to change Bermuda into an agricultural economy, there was a need for many workers in the fields. This presented a serious problem, since the abolition of slavery had already created a shortage of manpower in Bermuda. Among Governor Reid’s many important recommendations in 1845, was that of importing a limited number of agricultural labourers to the Island from Europe, which he felt would eminently promote its prosperity. Within a short time a grant of money was made available by the legislature to finance the importation of agricultural labourers to Bermuda.
This was a timely suggestion, for Bermudians were well aware of the great waves of migrations taking place in the 1840’s from Europe to North and South America. The causes of these migrations were many, but all shared one special dream, to achieve freedom and prosperity. The Portuguese, too, concerned with their constant political and economic instability at home, joined in the mass European migration of the mid-nineteenth century.
A large percentage of these Portuguese were naturally attracted to Brazil where there were strong familial ties. Others ventured to the Untied States, Hawaii, South America, and the West Indies.
When Bermuda extended an invitation to the Portuguese agricultural workers of Madeira in 1849, there was a quick positive response. The Madeirans, already accustomed to island farming, looked upon the proposed two-year contract as an economic opportunity. There were fifty-eight men, women and children who answered the Bermuda call. On November 4, 1849, after a successful voyage across the North Atlantic Ocean on Captain B.W. Watlington’s, Golden Rule, the small Portuguese group finally got their first glimpse of Bermuda. Many of their descendants still exist on the Island today.
Throughout the 1850’s the Madeiran community grew steadily. Records indicate that some fell on difficult times while others managed to survive and live in keeping with the standards of the time. There were a few, however, who made considerable progress within the first decade. The most outstanding Madeiran was George Faustin De Silva. His marriage to Maria Gouveira, also of Madeira, was one of the first two Portuguese marriages performed on the Island in 1850. On December, 4, 1856, he was the first known Portuguese to be granted a Certificate of Naturalisation in Bermuda. This intriguing Portuguese farmer was also a most astute businessman. Not only had he purchased thirty-four acres of land in Devonshire, but he also operated his own store. His was an untimely death in 1858. Unfortunately he, along with a number of other Bermudian passengers aboard the Bermuda vessel, Pearl, were all lost at sea.
Commencing from 1864 there were several unsuccessful attempts by the Bermuda Government to import agricultural labourers from the Azores, Germany, England and Sweden. Finally, in 1872, forty immigrants were successfully imported to Bermuda from Sweden.
During the 1860’s, a few Azoreans also appeared to be working on Bermuda farms. This is substantiated by a report in The Royal Gazette of the accidental death of twenty-six-year-old Ambeline Vitanco, a Portuguese, of Graciosa, Azores. The size of the Azorean community on the Island at that time is not known, but there were unclaimed letters at the Post Office from the Azores addressed to persons whose names later appeared in Immigration applications. Among the very first Portuguese immigrants migrating from the Azores were those from Faial, Sao Jorge, Santa Maria, and Sao Miguel. About this same time, Portuguese immigrants from the Cape Verde Islands were also making their way to Bermuda.
Throughout the 1880’s, and particularly in the 1890’s, the number of Portuguese immigrants arriving in Bermuda was considerable. With few immigration restrictions, and no immigration officer at either port, the Portuguese literally came and went at will. Some arrived on steamers from New York, but most of them arrived on small vessels from the New England states and the Azores. Although the majority of the immigrants were farmers by profession, not all the arrivals were skilled in the art of husbandry. Among their numbers were young whalers and stowaways, some avoiding military service, who, seeing Bermuda as a good alternative, jumped ship and joined relatives and friends already engaged in farming.
It was the Portuguese planters who worked the Bermuda farms in the late 1870’s and 1880’s that were largely responsible for the unprecedented influx of Azoreans to the Island in the 1890’s and early 1900’s. A total of sixty-nine applications for Portuguese workers was submitted to the Immigration Board, under the bonus or passage-assisted policy, between 1883 – 1894. Of the sixty-nine applications fifty-nine were submitted by the Portuguese themselves requesting permission for relatives and friends to come to Bermuda. It is interesting to note that thirty-five to forty percent of the applicants never claimed their bonus, yet the numbers of Portuguese labourers kept increasing. It became apparent to the Government that the Portuguese already established in Bermuda were independently sponsoring their own relatives and friends, and had been doing so successfully since the 1870’s.
The arrival of foreign immigrants into a country is often looked upon as a threat to the established community. To some degree, this was the case with the Portuguese, particularly regarding their work ethics. Generally speaking, though, the earlier immigrants from Madeira, Cape Verde, and the Azores were perceived as well mannered, unlettered, hard working agricultural workers, who appeared to have no political or mercantile aspirations other than agriculture-related small businesses.
Only a relatively small percentage of Portuguese settlers owned their own property prior to 1908, but the amount of acreage leased by the Portuguese planters was considerable. The farming business was ideally suited to their accustomed way of life, as it usually involved the whole family. The strict control over the Portuguese family by the parents was reinforced by the family business. This resulted in the continuation of at least some of the Portuguese culture and traditions, as well as the passing on of their language in many cases. For a large number of the early immigrants, the agricultural way of life continued well into the 1920’s.
Records also indicate that a considerable number of the aforesaid Portuguese were employed by other Portuguese, with or without contracts. Neither they, nor their Azorean or Bermuda-born children were restricted or confined to farming alone. As a result, by the 1870′, a few of the Portuguese applied their talents to other occupations. Such was the case of Nicholas De Grella, a clothes renovator, who opened his own business on Queen Street in 1878. Within a few years, John Gonsalves Cabral, generally known as John Silver, placed an advertisement in the 1880 Almanac which listed his Wines and Spirit Retail Shop located on Queen Street, Hamilton. In 1885 the Devonshire Parish Register recorded that J. N. De Silva, the appointed hearse keeper for the vestry, was paid £1.9.2.
Portuguese involvement in community affairs relating to farming is traced to the early 1880’s. Concerns about a reliable steady steam communication between Bermuda and New York in 1882, were expressed in a petition containing the names of John De Silva and James A. De Grilla. That same year three Azoreans, Antonio Cabral of Santa Maria, Antone Gomez of Flores, and Samuel Simoes of Sao Miguel, all signed an important petition, regarding the possibility of reduced rates paid to the subsidised steamer on Bermuda produce.
The Madeirans were the first Portuguese to participate in Agricultural shows, as early as 1859. Antonio De Martin, one of the original Madeirans who came on the Golden Rule, won three prizes which amounted to £17/6. Other successful Portuguese participants were to follow in later Agricultural Shows, particularly, P. De Silva, Profirio Gomez and Jose Louis.
According to the records, the first Azorean to be granted a Certificate of Naturalisation was Emmanuel Marshall, a native of the Island of Sao Jorge, Azores, in the year 1882. Among the thirteen persons granted naturalisation during 1887 / 8 were four Portuguese immigrants from three different island groups: Antonio Gomez of Cooper’s Island, native of Flores; Jose Ferreira Carolo of Long Bird Island, native of Sao Miguel, Emmanuel Dallas, native of one of the Cape Verde Islands. By 1949 hundreds of Portuguese and their families, some who had resided here as long as forty years, were granted Certificates of Naturalisation.
The result of continued large Portuguese waves of migration to Bermuda during the late 1880’s and 1890’s resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of Portuguese living on the Island. But, despite these migrations, there was still a shortage of agricultural workers in the 1920’s. In order to alleviate this problem, arrangements were made by the Bermuda Immigrant Labour Board to import ninety-six workers from the Azores, all of whom arrived on March 30, 1923. The Agricultural Department’s report for the year ending December, 1924, stated, that 409 Portuguese, mostly farm workers, had arrived since 1923.
The Tucker’s Town project was directly responsible for hundreds of Portuguese being brought to Bermuda in the late 1920’s. As many as 530 Azoreans worked, under con-tract, clearing the land in connection with that enterprise. Unlike the many hundreds who had preceded them, upon the completion of their contracts they were not encouraged to remain on the Island.
One-hundred-and-forty-two years later the Portuguese Nationals are still being brought to Bermuda under contract, either for government or for the private sector. Contrary to the earlier immigrants today’s Portuguese nationals are less likely to obtain naturalisation for themselves or for their children. This holds true even for those who have spent most of their adult lives working in Bermuda. It is a difficult situation, but one that the Bermuda Government, of necessity, has had to enforce to protect its own native population, both in jobs and in living space. Aware that they must someday return to their homeland, the Portuguese nationals live very industrious lives, preparing for their future while contributing to Bermuda a valuable service.
It was during the 1920’s and 1930’s that a marked change took place in the family of the early immigrant. Up to this time, the selection of spouses usually took place within the Portuguese community, as was the custom. By the end of the 1930’s, however, the children of the immigrants, already assimilated into the Bermudian way of life, moved away from this tradition, and selected spouses from the English-speaking Bermudian community. This became so widespread that of the 177 marriages in the 1930’s, involving persons of Portuguese descent, only fifty percent married within the Portuguese community.
It was natural, therefore, that during the 1930’s there would also be a change in the occupations of the settled Portuguese immigrants and their families. Of the 989 births during the 1930’s, only thirty-five percent of the fathers were recorded as being engaged in farming. Opportunities increased even more so, as many were gradually acquiring a good formal education. By the 1940’s some students continued their education abroad to return successfully with their degrees in the 1950’s.
Participation in the Bermuda military forces also greatly increased in the 1930’s and 1940’s with almost 200 Bermudians of Portuguese descent being enlisted by the end of World War II. Although there were fewer enlistments prior to the 1930’s, several patriotic individuals served their country in the 1920’s and earlier, beginning with Sgt. Frank Madeiros, who enlisted in 1915.
As for the Portuguese customs, many were lost, not because of a lack of interest, but rather because of the different cultural environment in which they found themselves. For instance, the absence of a resident Portuguese priest in Bermuda, for almost a century, meant that the Portuguese community would not experience many of the religious customs that they had formerly known in their native land. There the church had always served as the centre of activity for the community, providing an opportunity for relatives and friends to express themselves through their own festive activities, music and folk dance. In this manner, the Portuguese customs and traditions had been preserved and strengthened from a time dating all the way back to the 1500’s.
Another contributing cause for the loss of some of their native customs was the shortage of good Portuguese books in the homes which could have exposed them to the great classics of Portuguese literature, art, and music. One reason for the shortage of books was perhaps the fact that many of the early Portuguese immigrants themselves lacked a good formal education.
In the realm of sports, the Portuguese have always experienced great enjoyment, both as spectators and participants. Their contribution in this field has been consistent throughout the years resulting in many outstanding players, and officials, in football, golf, cricket, running, and sailing.
There were also those special moments of bravery which manifested exceptional courage within the Portuguese community. Such an occasion took place on September 8, 1915 at Elbow Beach. Antonio Marshall, Sr., originally from Faial, and a former helmsman for the New Bedford whaling fleet, came to the rescue of a sinking German ship, the S.S. Pollockshields, which had been captured, and was being brought to Bermuda. Despite stormy conditions, Antonio Marshall took his whaling gig by horse and cart from the Waterlot Inn at Jews Bay to Elbow Beach. After three attempts, at the risk of their own lives, he and two other men rescued thirty-six members of the crew by using a breeches buoy. Antonio Marshall was presented with a silver watch from the Government of Bermuda in recognition of this most heroic act.
The decision of the Bermuda Government to import Portuguese agricultural workers over 142 years ago has proven to be a sound investment for the Island, and a good economic opportunity for the Portuguese immigrants. Comprising approximately twenty to twenty-five percent of Bermuda’s population, Bermudians of Portuguese descent have become an integral part of the community as it is known today. Their contribution has undeniably extended to nearly every facet of this Island’s way of life.
Photographs courtesy of Bermuda Archives