Glimpses of Guyanese History

The British Guiana Centenary Year Book, 1831-1931, edited by E. Sievewright Stoby, was published in 1931 to celebrate the centenary of the unification of the colony of British Guiana in 1831.  The Year Book contained a series of essays under the title “Our Place in Guiana,” written by four prominent citizens – African, Chinese, Indian and Portuguese. Guyana Review reprints the essay on “The Portuguese” exactly as it appeared in the Yearbook seventy-seven years ago. It was written by the Honourable Francis Dias, the first Portuguese member of the Executive Council.

Our Place in Guiana:
The Portuguese

By Francis Dias

Like every other immigrant race which has made British Guiana their home, the Portuguese found it difficult, at first, to acclimatise themselves to their surroundings. They came, for the most part, from Madeira, a country whose beauteous climate must have lingered long in their memories. But, like every immigrant, they came buoyed up with hope and expectation, seeking a new living, a new outlook and, perchance, a greater future.

 Francis Dias
Francis Dias

To many, however, it was not choice which brought them to Guiana for they were the shuttelcocks of chance − just pawns on a chessboard, whereby a country teeming with possibilities desired labour to exploit and, to obtain that labour, was willing to pay a bounty of $30 per head to each enterprising colonist who induced more people to come and settle. And these colonists, finding the shortage of labour becoming more and more acute, were successful in 1835 in bringing the first boat-load of 593 Madeirans so that they might have labour for their plantations.

But, such was the effect of a lengthy journey on these Madeirans that they were not considered a success and no effort was made to bring any more until 1840 when fifteen arrived in the colony. These were, however, followed by 4,305 in the next year, and 3,530 in the year after. Still they were found sickly, so much so that government introduced an ordinance prohibiting their arrival during August, September, and October, considered the most unhealthy months.

Now, although the Portuguese were principally required to work on the plantations, their leanings soon began to be manifested. They had no desire for field work although, when they undertook it, they proved extremely willing and were paid higher wages than any other race. But, almost universally, their leanings were towards trade and, in a miraculously short space of time, Portuguese peddlers were stumping the country, Portuguese shops were springing up and Portuguese shopkeepers were chartering ships to bring from Madeira cargoes of onions, provisions, and wines. Eager and business-like in their dealings, prudent, and thrifty in their personal habits, they found their level in the community and seized their opportunities with both hands.

By 1847 the Portuguese colony was well over 12,000 and, in this year, we get the first hint of racial strife − almost inevitable in such a cosmopolitan community. In New Amsterdam a black labourer was struck by a Portuguese, seriously injured, and sent to hospital. Rumour soon said he was dead. Fiery spirits, quick to fan a spark into a flame, made play upon an unfortunate incident and by nightfall a mob of over 200 were plundering the shops with sticks and brickbats. But, whilst the disturbance was soon quelled, it had given rise to an unfortunate sentiment − how dangerous, one sees by the ‘Angel Gabriel’ riots.

John Sayers Orr, a fanatic of the worst type, was given too much rope by a tolerant government and, by invective and the use of a trumpet which earned for him the sobriquet of the ‘Angel Gabriel,’ fomented antagonism towards both the Portuguese and the Roman Catholics. Feeling reached high pitch, resulting in considerable looting and damaging of Portuguese shops.

In 1888, another incident resulted in more property damage and unfortunate rioting. A Portuguese man who had murdered his paramour was sent for trial at the sessions and subsequently reprieved. As a similar case had occurred just previously when the man was convicted, loud was the outcry against this gross discrimination. Fate, too, had a hand in the act, for a stallholder at the market, Vieira, found a black boy stealing one of his cakes and, losing his temper, knocked the boy senseless. A hue and cry arose; then, more sticks − brickbats − stones, plunder.

Now, when the Madeirans were first induced to immigrate in 1835, it was only considered as an experiment. In fact, Mr. J.H. Albuoy (from whom is derived Albuoystown) and Mr. R. G. Butts, had brought forty to work on their estates in the year previously and, as we have seen, these were followed by regular and increasing numbers. The Governor of Madeira, however, so it was reported, then warned the people not to go to Demerara where they would be branded and sold as slaves to the highest bidder. In this he was joined by the Bishop of Madeira and, naturally, as Demerara was characterised such a “barbarous country” there seemed likely to be fatal repercussions on this much needed immigration.
Eventually, a Portuguese was sent from Madeira to investigate conditions and enquire from the immigrants whether they were contented. Having assured himself by thorough investigation, his report must have been quite satisfactory, for Madeirans again began to arrive in considerable numbers.

There also arose the necessity of catering as much as possible to their native requirements. At that time, the Roman Catholic Church was not established on firm foundations in the colony and so it was eventually decided to give them more encouragement as it was considered essential to the happiness of the Madeirans. This fidelity to the Roman Catholic Church continues and is a marked feature of our social life.
There is little doubt that the Portuguese have made their place in Guiana. They have. had to undergo their “growing pains” it is true, but almost every race which has made its home in this country has had to do likewise. In their adopted country they became the nation of shopkeepers.

Through it, they have amassed not a little wealth, their share of power and, more important still, claims to the highest citizenship. Portuguese have been members of the Executive and Legislative Councils of British Guiana, Mayors of Georgetown and New Amsterdam, leading men of the Law, of Medicine, of the Church. Their wives have created happy homes and happy children; their social work has been an example of what social work should be amongst a clan.

What else is there for Portuguese to do but to love British Guiana?

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