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February 28, 2012
The Madeiran Portuguese of St Vincent – Part 1

Tue, Feb 28. 2012

by Oswald Fereira

This series attempts to unravel the details surrounding the Portuguese migrants who came to St Vincent from Madeira. The Portuguese and their mulatto descendants form a significant segment of Vincentian society. My cousin, Ralph the Prime Minister, and my cousin, Mrs. Eustace, wife of the Leader of the Opposition are both descendants from the DaSantos branch of the Madeiran Portuguese. In a small island nation, you cannot get more influential than that.{{more}}

There are many theories as to why the Portuguese left Madeira during the nineteenth century. Although documentation is sparse, I will attempt to discuss each theory and see how they stack up. I do not claim to be the authority on this discourse and I hope it will encourage some debate and feedback.

Firstly, let us explore the Indentured Labourer Theory. The Madeiran Portuguese came to St Vincent largely between the 1840’s and 1860’s. It is generally claimed that they came as indentured labourers to work on the plantations. Other theories include – the Portuguese were Jews and Protestants fleeing religious persecution; the Portuguese were running from compulsory army service; the Portuguese were simply adventurous people looking to settle somewhere because of tough economic times in Madeira.

Slavery, as we know, was abolished in the British West Indies in 1838, after which time the freed population of African descent were reluctant to work on the plantations. The 1840s to 1860s was the time of indentureship. It was the same period during which the East Indians came to St Vincent as indentured labourers. It was also the time when the Madeiran Portuguese came to St Vincent, but were all Madeiran Portuguese indentured labourers? The answer must lie somewhere in the historical records, however, such records; are extremely difficult to find. They must exist in some archived sources and they hold the answers. Without access to these historical records; we are left to answer the question by inference and through stories passed down through generations.

There are indications that many of the Madeiran Portuguese worked on the estates and, like the East Indians, must have been part of the indentured labourer system. However, we do know that the Madeiran Portuguese became land owners in very quick time and they owned large tracks of land, even entire estates. The DaSantos family owned Colonarie, Belle Vue and Carapan estates. The Corea family owned San Souci and perhaps Argyle estates. The DeFreitas families owned large tracts of land that were passed down and divided among their descendants. If it were possible for the Portuguese to amass these land holdings via the wages of indentured labour, by the same token, the East Indians should have been able to do likewise. However, for whatever reasons, the East Indians did not amass land at the same rate that the Portuguese did.

History tells us that the Madeiran Portuguese also became business people in quick time after their arrival in St Vincent. Stories have passed down through several lines of the Madeiran Portuguese stating that they imported wine (probably in casks from Madeira and or Portugal) and rebottled the wine for sale, so they were wine merchants. There is a story that an old foundation in the DeFreitas compound at Colonarie Bay was an oven (bakery) and that the DeFreitas family sold bread. Stories abound of early generation Portuguese born in St Vincent who went to Australia, America, Trinidad, British Guyana and several other islands in the Caribbean, or even back to Madeira. These Portuguese seem to have had much freedom and the where-withal to travel and the necessary cash to become wine merchants, bakers and such. These practices required investment capital and inventories for which the wages from indentured labour would likely not be enough. The logical conclusion is that while some of the Portuguese were indentured labourers, others may have been free migrants who brought money with them to St Vincent and they invested that money for the betterment of their families.