Special Features
February 28, 2014
Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Sylvester “Syl” DeFreitas

By Luke Browne Fri, Feb 28, 2014

Sylvester “Syl” DeFreitas of Harbour Club fame was arguably the most enterprising Portuguese man to ever set foot in St Vincent and the Grenadines. He was born on December 1, 1892 in Trinidad and Tobago, according to an account of his life that was written by John L. Chapman in 1967. The date of birth is not in dispute, but Dr Edgar Adams contends that Syl’s birthplace was really Guyana and that he only moved to Trinidad when he was young. Whatever the case, there is consensus on the fact that Mr DeFreitas left Trinidad after a fight and came to SVG sometime around 1921. He quietly landed on these shores with very little fanfare or material possessions and then proceeded to embark on the business journey of a lifetime.{{more}}

Mr DeFreitas was accompanied on his voyage to St. Vincent by his Vincentian-born wife, Mrs Leila DeFreitas née Allen, whom he met and married in Trinidad. Leila helped her husband to settle into the new environment. Syl certainly adjusted to life in his adopted homeland quite quickly and soon began to blaze a trail of pioneering achievement. The newcomer did menial and mundane low-profile jobs until he found his feet. He somehow managed to get a foothold in the capital city in no time. Syl established his principal business compound at White Chapel and carried out subsidiary commercial operations from the current site of the Income Tax Building.

In the White Chapel compound, there was the only cinema on the island, a restaurant, a motor vehicle shed, a mechanic station, a carpenter’s shop, a boatbuilding facility, a small dairy and even a boxing stadium. Syl sold lollipops and all manner of trinkets. At one point he may have been the largest wholesale supplier of rice and flour in Kingstown. Mr. DeFreitas traded in furniture, fridges, stoves and other appliances. He supplied ice to shop keepers and was the first man to bring in iceboxes. Syl was also the first to import funeral coaches and he had, much more broadly speaking, a revolutionary impact on land and sea transportation in this country.

This man of exceptional vision brought about the monumental and turbulent transition from animal-drawn carriages to heavy duty trucks for the movement of agricultural cargo. There was a very hostile resistance to this change by men and women who had a vested interest in outmoded things like donkey carts.

Sylvester DeFreitas also ushered in a new age of sea transportation. He provided an all-important ferry service between Kingstown and Chateaubelair in the days when there was no connecting road between these two points. The two motor ferries which plied this route were named after two of Syl’s daughters – Rita and Theresa. Incidentally, Mr. DeFreitas had a number of children. He had 10 of them with his wife before her early death in 1933. He never remarried but went on to father, by one count, as many as 42 additional children with several different women.

Syl also had a number of engine-propelled boats that were involved in inter-island Caribbean shipping. Among them were the Sea Queen D, the Sea Wolf D, the Sea Horse D, and the Sea Gull D (which was the largest of the lot). These boats were by and large built by a skilled shipwright whose name was Randolph Adams. The Sea Queen D was assembled at White Chapel around 1926. The others were subsequently built in a historic Kingstown zone that was known as Carpenter’s Yard and which was found on land occupied today by the Save-a-Lot supermarket. Additionally, Syl had one mighty vessel, Lady Patricia, which was imported from Canada and but was modified by the same Mr. Adams. The historical accounts show that Sea Gull D was attacked and destroyed after an evacuation order by a German submarine during World War II when it was apparently just off Union Island on its way to Aruba. Syl maintained a lifelong association with boats, fishing and the sea even though he could not swim. He even carried some of the ocean into his bedroom in the form of an aquarium.

Mr. DeFreitas also had a deep and abiding interest in the land and in animals. He operated livestock and poultry farms. He kept horses and built a horseracing track in Arnos Vale where the airport is currently located. Syl, the jockey, participated in local and regional racing events. At one time the unconventional entrepreneur brought a circus to St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Syl generally did not stick to anything for too long. The “Live Wire” (as he was called) darted from one project to the next in quick succession. He would typically start something, get it up and running, sell it (or give it to someone else to run) and move on to something else. He had a dynamically restless spirit. As a case in point, Syl handed over control of his cinema and restaurant to a Wilson couple and concentrated his energies elsewhere.

Mr. DeFreitas made an enduring mark in the areas of property development and entertainment. In the early 1930s, he swapped a Kingstown property with the government for a dilapidated Commissariat building and surrounding grounds in Edinboro. He bought a large portion of land from the Villa Estate around the same time. Mr. DeFreitas built seven bungalows in Edinboro using rubble from the scrapped Commissariat. Edinboro came alive – the bungalows were rented as holiday homes and the nearby beach emerged as the perfect spot for recreational retreats and picnics for all and sundry. Boat racing was an added attraction. Unfortunately, the Edinboro beach has since been badly disfigured by the work of nature and mankind.

Syl carried out similar work in Villa: he built eight or so beach bungalows which more or less served as weekend homes for estate owners. One of these bungalows, though, was enlarged into the Aquatic Club. Syl established a beautiful waterfront promenade with a jetty and sea plane ramp.

There are tales about Syl pounding stones all through the night for use by his workmen the next day to ensure that construction proceeded apace. On many occasions he worked around the clock and hardly slept even when he was not busy chipping away at boulders. Syl watched many late night movies and sometimes got architectural ideas from films. Mr. DeFreitas harvested coral and operated a lime kiln next to the Mariner’s Hotel site. Syl made very durable blocks from the dust of crushed stones. These blocks had to pass the “dumping test.” They were dumped from a truck and the ones which broke, if any, were discarded.

Notwithstanding his block making exploits, Syl built mainly wooden structures and obtained most of the lumber for his construction programme on credit. The debt spiraled out of control because of the rapid pace of expansion. Syl stretched himself too thin and there were disastrous consequences on his physical health and state of mind. He had to seek medical treatment abroad and sign away his interests in Edinboro and Villa. The resilient entrepreneur hit rock bottom but bounced back with the help of a lifeline in the form of a contract for the transportation of sugar and molasses from the Mt. Bentick Estate to Kingstown. In a matter of weeks, he was in every sense on the road again.

Sylvester DeFreitas was less concerned with making money and more concerned about transforming the way of life in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. He was, in the words of Biographer John Chapman, an amazingly hardworking man who allowed himself no Sabbaths. Syl got along well with his employees and led them by example. He helped his workers and his workers helped him. It went both ways. He was described by a former employee as “a good man to deal with” and a man who knew how to get things done.

Syl lowered the entry barriers to property ownership, supported farming development and contributed to the livelihood of Vincentians in many other ways. He was, however, bruisingly firm in the defence of his property rights and in the application or imposition of access restrictions. Neither would he take any attempt to rip him off lying down.

The Harbour Club and Hotel was at one time a Syl DeFreitas showpiece. It was built around the time of World War II near to the current cruise ship berth. Harbour Club was a top quality centre of entertainment with some fascinating features. There was a white sand strip, a spring board, a turtle pond, and a majestic dance floor and ballroom. Syl had a penchant for dancing and very often rocked the dance floor with the Fox Trot and other dance routines. He was the life of the party. There is even a suggestion that Syl got into the construction of Clubs at first so that he would have a place to use his considerable dancing skills. American soldiers who were stationed at View Fort in St. Lucia during the war years regularly came across to St. Vincent on weekends and visited the Harbour Club. It must have been the perfect place for a weekend escape from grueling duty. Syl cherished the Harbour Club and Hotel but he nonetheless sold it off to Curtis Wallace of Bequia and moved on in typical fashion.

Syl bought the Indian Bay Estate at a public auction. This auction took place in 1939 and Syl paid £7,000 for the Estate. There was a down payment of just £5 upfront and the balance was paid in installments. Syl was a fixture at auctions and generally had his way because of effective bidding techniques.

Syl turned Indian Bay into a seaside paradise. He set up the Coronation Club with about 18 mostly female employees just beyond the shoreline. The Club had a choc-ice and ice cream factory. The ice-cream factory was subsequently sold to Fred DeNobriga. Coronation Club was just as well known for its structural characteristics as it was for its delightful treats. It had the largest free-standing roof anywhere in St. Vincent. Syl’s buildings generally had hip roofs and distinctive architectural designs. The Villa-Indian Bay district is now a well developed multi-million dollar hotel and residential belt.

Sylvester DeFreitas campaigned hard in the 1945 bye-election for the Grenadines seat on the Legislative Council only to find out at the last minute that he was not eligible for candidacy since he was not a registered voter. This fact was revealed on Nomination Day by Syl’s opponent when it was too late for Mr. DeFreitas to do anything about his voting status. However, Syl contested a subsequent election for the same seat as a legitimate candidate and won. He had no flair for public speaking, but he was in his element when it came to closed door Committee deliberations on the nitty-gritty of legislation. Syl served for one term (1948-1951) on the Council and did not seek re-election.

Syl purchased 50 acres of land in 1956 from J. M. Richards and began the Dorsetshire Hill Housing Scheme. This was a profitable investment, but Syl didn’t live to see it through to completion. Papa, as he was affectionately called, died from cancer on February 22, 1967. No one was surprised by the cause of death because Syl was an unrepentant chain smoker for many years. He went from one cigarette to the next, just like he went from one project to the next. Mr DeFreitas ran through an average of over 200 cigarettes per day. As a former employee put it: “Syl smoked like a coal pit.”

Sylvester DeFreitas made elaborate preparations for his death. His coffin was built by one of his carpenters many years before he passed on. Syl tried out the coffin, found that it was too uncomfortable and asked the carpenter to insert additional padding until he was satisfied. Syl also obtained a lease for Dove Island, a rock just off the coast of the Indian Bay Beach, for 99 years and secured special permission to be buried there. Mr DeFreitas was able to reconcile longstanding differences with the Catholic Church and Christ, which dated back to his early St Vincent days, before he entered the arms of death. When Vincentians from all walks of life heard about Syl’s imminent death, they flocked to his bedside and kept a vigil for several days. They remained with him up to his final hour out of deep respect for a man who did almost everything that was ever done but refused to accept recognition from Queen Elizabeth II.

St Vincent and the Grenadines is better off because Sylvester DeFreitas got into a fight in Trinidad. This outstanding businessman was buried on Dove Island in a standing position within a huge white cross. From there, he still overlooks his estate.