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March 6, 2012
The Madeiran Portuguese – Part 2

by Oswald Fereira Tue, Mar 6. 2012

This segment explores the theory that the Madeiran Portuguese were Jews or Protestants who were fleeing religious persecution.

Were there Jewish and Protestant (Presbyterian) connections to the Madeiran Portuguese of St Vincent? History indicates that there were Jews in Spain, Portugal and Madeira. During the era of the Spanish Inquisition, beginning in the 1480s, many Jews were required to convert to Roman Catholicism or they were expelled from Spain.{{more}} Many fled to Holland and to Portugal, but in 1496, when the Royal Families of Portugal and Spain became related through marriage, the Jews were also expelled from Portugal. The Portuguese Sephardic Jews fled to the Portuguese colonies of the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde Islands, Sao Thome, Principe and Brazil. Those in Holland further migrated to Recife in Brazil, as the Dutch had invaded that area of Brazil, and from there they migrated to Curacao, Surinam and the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, later New York and to other parts of America.

There is evidence of a Jewish presence in some islands of the Caribbean. Some Jews, perhaps even Portuguese Jews, ended up in Barbados, Nevis and Jamaica. There is a Jewish Synagogue in Bridgetown, Barbados, dating from the 1650s. There is a Jewish synagogue and cemetery in Nevis dating also from the 1650s. A Jewish synagogue in Jamaica dated from the 1660s. A Jewish synagogue and cemetery in Curacao dated from the 1630s.

By inference, what are the characteristics of the Madeiran Portuguese in St Vincent? They were nearly, if not all, Roman Catholic. They all prayed the rosary. They all worshipped on Sunday; they never observed the Sabbath on Saturday. Their children were named mainly Mary, Mary Magdalen, Joachim, Joseph, Manuel, John over and over again, but never Levi, Reuben, Simon, Benjamin, David, Solomon, Ariel, Golda. They all ate pork as a staple. In fact, when I was a boy growing up in St Vincent, most Portuguese yards had a pig or two and the pigs were butchered and the meat salted for daily use. There is also the well documented Portuguese dish of Garlic Pork at Christmas time. These are not Jewish traits or customs. And if the Madeira Portuguese were Jews, why did not a smidgen of Hebrew survive in St Vincent? Not even the common greeting of “Shalom”. There is no history of a Vincentian Rabbi, no Vincentian synagogue or Jewish cemetery. In fact, wherever the Madeiran Portuguese settled in St Vincent became the sites of Roman Catholic churches – Belle Vue, Mesopotamia, Argyle (Escape) and Kingstown. One would not expect such a Roman Catholic legacy from a Jewish community.

It appears that wherever there were Jews, they kept their religion and customs and we have no evidence of that in St Vincent. Despite stories among some Vincentians of Madeiran descent that their ancestors were of Jewish extract, it appears that the migration of the Sephardic Jews was complete before the Madeiran migration to St Vincent.

Another theory is that the Madeiran Portuguese were Protestants (Presbyterians) who were fleeing persecution in Madeira, supposedly from a largely Roman Catholic society. Again, there were very few, if any, of the early Madeiran Portuguese who belonged to churches other than the Roman Catholic Church. When the Madeiran Portuguese arrived in St Vincent, the Anglican and Wesleyan (Methodist) churches were well established. If the Madeiran Portuguese were Protestants (Presbyterians) who were fleeing persecution from Roman Catholics in Madeira, why did they not find a home in the Anglican and Wesleyan churches? Why would they all flock to the Roman Catholic Church from whence their presumed persecution ensued?

On the surface, it makes little sense except to believe that the Madeiran Portuguese who came to St Vincent were almost, if not all, Roman Catholic and they brought and established their Roman Catholic traditions and customs. If they had any Jewish ancestry, or if they may have at some earlier time been Protestants, they must have converted to Roman Catholicism decades or centuries before, in order to avoid persecution. We may never know.