The Portuguese of Guyana – A study in culture and conflict by Mary Noel Menezes, R.S.M
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Introduction by Dr Dimitar Angelov

University of Warwick

Very much in keeping with the cosmopolitanism of its subject, the idea for The Portuguese of Guyana: A Study in Culture and Conflict took shape during a visit to India, in 1992. Whilst lecturing at the University of Pune, formally Poona, the author, Mary Noel Menezes, R.S.M, a Guyanese of Portuguese descent, was asked if any research had been published on the history of the Portuguese in her country. Inspired by this question, Menezes compiled a collection of documents, Scenes from the History of the Portuguese in Guyana, which was then followed by the present work.

Mary Noel Menezes
Mary Noel Menezes

The Portuguese of Guyana: A Study in Culture and Conflict draws a fascinating social portrait of the indentured labourers who began migrating from the island of Madeira to British Guiana, shortly after the 1834 Abolition of Slavery Act had come into effect. The author is meticulous in laying the scene for her characters and begins her account with an insightful overview of the socio-cultural context from which these labourers emerged. Thus, Madeira features prominently in the book, almost acquiring the symbolic status which the Portuguese migrants bestowed on it as a country of origin. By the 1830s Madeira was inhibited by a eclectic body of mostly European settlers for nearly four hundred years, and had developed a dynamic economy of

Dr Dimitar Angelov
Dr Dimitar Angelov

agriculture and trade. However, due to periodically failing sugar and wine crops, as well as political instability in Portugal between 1823 and 1834, the economic fortunes of the Madeirans, especially of its agriculture workers, were in rapid decline. It was precisely these workers that formed the overwhelming majority of indentured labourers who set off the British Guiana in search of South American “El Dorado”.
On May 3, 1835, the first group of forty Portuguese arrived in Demerara, after a seventy-eight -day’ journey via London. Twenty of them were contracted by James Albuoy of La Penitence and Liliendaal, and the other twenty by R.G. Butts of Pln. Thomas. At the beginning, it was the planters who covered the transport cost for the workers, but between 1841 and 1842 immigration from Madeira was funded by the colonial government.
As Menezes observes, the rural population of Madeira was perfectly suited to the type of work which was available for them in the British colony, as they were “well-versed in agriculture with sparse means.” But they were also perfectly suited to secure the dominant position of the planter elite in the new political and economic situation post-abolition. In the strictly regimented society of nineteenth-century British Guiana, where class boundaries were perceived to coincide with those associated with the position of the African slave. The very idea of daily toil in the fields was held in contempt by both the Black and Amerindian population of the colony, whose feelings were particularly vehement in the wake of the 1834 reform. Faced with the prospect of their land going fallow and their capital rapidly depleting, the planters had to find an immediate solution to the labour shortage. And for this they turned to Europe first.
Given that the vast majority of indentured labourers who were to arrive in British Guiana in the course of the nineteenth century were of East Indian origin, the choice of Portugal as a source Mary-cover1of labour may strike the contemporary reader as unusual. The rationale behind this decision was the realpolitik of interracial relations in the colony, which Menezes reveals in all its intricate complexity. By importing workers who were white in appearance, the planter elite were hoping to raise the profile of agriculture work and persuade the locals to return to the fields. The Portuguese were thus far more than simply cheap labour; they were to be deployed as an ideological weapon in the post-abolition race relations which was to help the European elite regain some of the power they enjoyed prior to the 1834 Act.
Much as they wanted to employ token white workers in the fields, the Guianese planters, themselves, were not in the least taken by the new comers’ appearance. Although European in origin, the Portuguese laboureres were relegated to a “racial” category of their own, very much like the East Indian and the Chinese migrants who would arrive in British Guiana later in the century. Clearly, the association between occupation and race was holding strong in the minds of the colonial elite, although their action seemed to indicate otherwise.
Upon their arrival in British Guiana, the Portuguese found themselves confined to a detached, at times even segregated life, and it is amongst the chief merits of the present book that their complex social predicament is analyzed in depth. For it was the peculiarity of their place in the colony, as the author so persuasively argues, that bred antagonism and even outright conflict between the migrants and the locals. The Black population, in particular, responded with predictable dislike to the favouritism with which the colonial; administration received the Portuguese. The planters’ efforts to set up these new arrivals as model labourers reflected poorly on the Creoles’ work ethic and did little to promote good relations between the two ethnic groups.
Quite apart from the miscalculated reaction of the Blacks, the plans for hiring Portuguese workers backfired on another important account. In accepting their indenturship, the majority of the Portuguese were motivated by the prospect of fast profit with which to return to their native Madeira. In pursuit of a good life back home, they threw themselves hard into work, often to the detriment of their own health. Yet the Portuguese ambitions to better their financial lot were not confined to agricultural labour alone: “After completing their indenture (in some cases they left the estates before so doing) the Portuguese used their capital and that of their families to establish rural shops”. The speed with which this transition took place can only be described as remarkable. Out of the 15,704Portuguese labourers who were engaged in Guianese plantations between 1841 and 1849, only 5,206 remained working on the cane fields by the end of 1849. If in 1841 there was only one Portuguese-owned shop, by July 1952 the Portuguese held 312 out of 423 rural shop licenses in Demerara and Essequibo.
Such unexpected social ascendance created frictions in the colony, especially because, as seen above, some Portuguese were not particularly scrupulous about observing the letter of their indenture contracts. This, in addition to the inability, even unwillingness of the colonial administration to enforce the terms of indentureship, was a constant source of irritation for planters and Creoles alike. The former were losing valuable labour force and the capital they had invested in it, whereas the latter felt marginalized even further by this rather unexpected change of fortune for the new arrivals. What galled the Creoles beyond endurance was the preferential treatment that the Portuguese received in obtaining credit to move into commerce.
The Portuguese community thus found itself increasingly isolated in the colony, a position vividly summed up by Menezes’s description of “oil in water.” Their distinct cultural identity and the strong patriotic feeling they had for their native Madeira added even further to their image of irredeemable otherness in Guianese society. To begin with, they spoke little English. The commercial and personal links they maintained with their country of origin confirmed the primacy of the Portuguese language in the migrant community. Even though they were born in Guiana, the sons and daughter of the Portuguese shopkeepers had to maintain the business contacts of their parents, order goods from Madeira and make the occasional trip across the Atlantic. Another important factor that slowed down the integration of the Portuguese into the colonial society was their religion. As Catholics they were a minority in an overwhelming Protestant British Guiana, but even amongst their fellow Catholics they suffered discrimination. According to Menezes, the British Catholics found it difficult to relate to what they saw as excessive devotion in the Portuguese and found the not infrequent extramarital affairs of their men shocking. Finally, their refusal to become British citizens coupled with their devotion to the Portuguese King caused them to be viewed as suspicious by both the colonial administration and subjects. In truth, the Guianese authorities offered little incentive to the Portuguese to adopt British nationality, yet the negligible number of those who did so – only ten were nationalized for the period between 1858 and 1888 – is symptomatic for the deep-seated lines of division which kept the Portuguese community apart.
Menezes places due importance on the political implication of this isolation. The fact that the Portuguese continued to live in British Guiana as foreign citizens throughout the nineteenth century prevented them from having a voice in the government of the colony. Originally, the newly arrived indentured labourers and petty traders were far too preoccupied with ensuring their immediate survival to take an interest in the political affairs of their adoptive country. This trend continued as they moved from huckstering to shop-keeping and, gradually into large-scale businesses such as hotel ownership, pawn broking, mining, woodcutting and the food industry. Yet once they secured themselves a position at the high-end of the economic hierarchy, the Portuguese began to feel the constraints of their political marginalisation.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the colonial administration had adopted a series of discriminatory practices that were more or less explicitly aimed against the business and other interests of the Portuguese. The sale of spirits, which had become a virtual monopoly of the Portuguese retailers, was subject to extremely high license fees that were bringing substantial revenue to the colony whilst at the same time helping “the white ruling authorities to restrain the independent growth of Portuguese economic power and wealth and to underline their subordinate status”. When brought to court, mostly for alleged business malpractices, the Portuguese were never assigned official interpreters, although such were provided for the newly established Chinese community. The government looked favourably at the Chinese willing to open liquor shops as they were expected to break the Portuguese monopoly in this niche market.
Such constant frictions with the colonial authorities gradually awakened the Portuguese into political consciousness and by the 1880s they had joined with other progressive social groups demanding a reform of the colony’s power structure.
However, it was not until 1901 that the first Portuguese candidates ran for public office. Although they suffered defeat, the political significance of their attempt was enormous as it highlighted the severe demographic limitations of the Portuguese vote. With a total of 12,066 people, the Portuguese community represented a small fraction of the 300,748 strong population of British Guiana at the turn of the twentieth century. Given the voting restrictions for the non-naturalised residents in the colony, introduced under the 1891 Constitution, the number of eligible Portuguese voters was merely in the hundreds.
In retrospect, the implications of the electoral defeat of 1901 were twofold. It highlighted the crucial importance of naturalisation for the Portuguese minority whilst, on the other hand, stressing the urgency of a wider political support for their candidates. The lessons of these early steps were quickly learned and in 1906 the first Guianese of Portuguese descent, property owner and merchant J.P Santos and barrister F.I Dias, took seats in the predominantly legislative Court of Policy and the executive Combined Court. The success of both Santos and Dias, who had become naturalised the same year, was only made possible after they had won over the votes of the Peoples’ Association, an organisation of Blacks and Creoles which was opposing the economic interests of the colonial plutocracy.
Menezes’s book analyses in depth the ramifications of this pivotal moment in the history of British Guiana. The political alliance between Blacks and the Portuguese, which had been bitterly opposed until the very end of the nineteenth century, heralded a new era in the government and race relations in the colony. The 1891 Constitution, which allowed for wider representation at the colony’s political helm, helped both communities, as Menezes aptly puts it-to “realise the truth of the memorable words of that famous American statesman, Benjamin Franklin, that those who do not hang together would surely hang separately.” The success of the Portuguese-Black coalition ended the seventy-odd years of social and political isolation of the Madeirans in British Guiana. By reaching out to the descendants of the former African slaves, whom they were imported to replace, the Portuguese proved they could see beyond racial and cultural prejudice and work towards a common future with their fellow countrymen: a frame of mind that would be at the heart of the building of independent Guyana sixty years later.
Quite apart from its perceptive analysis of colonial economy and politics, the book’s main strength lies in the rice and balanced account of the human dimension of the Portuguese migration to British Guiana. The author has used her insider’s perspective in the culture of her native community to recreate exuberant characters and riveting life stories. The Portuguese men cut the daunting figure of short-tempered, at times even dangerous pioneers who could, nevertheless, be overwhelmed by religious piety and a deep-felt affection for their families, often left thousands of miles away. Menezes’s description of the Portuguese woman is equally complex and vivid. Traditionally regarded as the Mistress of the Household, or “dona da casa,” the Portuguese wife was expected to confine herself to the domestic hearth and look away from her husband’s indiscretions. Yet many a Portuguese would turn their hands to more than domestic work, some proving themselves equal to the most successful businessmen in the field of commerce. One such female entrepreneur was Mrs. Carlotta Augusta Gomes who took up trading at Le Ressouvenir and later moved to Plaisance where she enjoyed a prosperous career for no less than forty-five years.
Menezes’s sympathy and understanding of the Portuguese way of life has helped her see beyond the often stereotypical image of the Portuguese shop-keeper whose only preoccupation in life was his material success. The Portuguese of Guiana reveals the rich historical contribution to culture, sports and journalism which the community made to the life in the British colony.
Perhaps in keeping with their extrovert nature, the Portuguese excelled in particular in the fields of music and drama. Having descended from the rigidly class-stratified Madeiran society, they engaged in both high and popular forms of artistic expression. Musical talents such as nineteenth century opera divas Mary Christina and Mary Amalia De Vasconcellos, were the first in a succession of classical singers of Portuguese origin that continued well into the twentieth century. In 1876, members of the community founded a philharmonic band Primeior de Dezembro, named after the Portuguese Independence Day from Spanish rule, and in 1892 a folk band, Estudiantina Restauracao de Demerara, was established. Both these bands played in the concert halls and public spaces of Georgetown to the delight of Guianese residents of all ethnic backgrounds.
Like music, the dramatic art brought together people from all wlaks of life. And, as menezes demonstrates, the Portuguese were very much the heart and soul of theatre in the Bristish colony. In particular, their flair for farcical humour and comic songs made their performances a preferred entertainment for many, although the plays were put on in the original Portuguese. When in June of 1888 the Portuguese Amateur Dramatic Club staged the comedy Os Filhos De Adao, it attracted far more attention than the scene from Richard 111 which the Georgetown Amateur Dramatic Club was presenting at the same time.
From the cane field to commerce, through the arts and, finally, into politics, the Madeiran Portuguese, who in the 1830s had found themselves disowned by the diverse people along the Demerara and Essequibo, were gradually integrated into Guianese society as the twentieth century began. Menezes’s book offers a rich and detailed account of their journey, with insight and heart-felt emotion that befits the tone of a family memoir. Her book comes to a close in the 1920s, but with British Guiana becoming a Crown Colony in 1928, and eventually gaining its independence in 1966, the Portuguese continued to play an active role in the life of their adoptive country. This role, of which her own work is ample proof, Mary Noel Menezes leaves to other historians to explore.

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