Sr. Mary Noel Menezes, a Sister of Mercy and an emeritus professor at the University of Guyana, gives a historical account of Portuguese migration to Guyana. She begins with May 3, 1835, when, after a voyage of 78 days, the Louisa Baillie docked in Demerara with 40 Madeiran immigrants. To explain why emigrants from a 286-mile island, Madeira, off the coast of Morocco, traveled to a continental British colony on the northern coast of South America, she gives three main reasons: the approaching abolition of slavery throughout the British possessions created a labor gap; there was a long-standing alliance between Portugal and England; and there were political, military and economic problems in Madeira in the 1830s that influenced this departure.
Menezes begins with the experience of Madeirans with sugar cultivation in Madeira since 1452 which determined the first employment choices upon their arrival, their gradual move to the huckster and retail trade, and their subsequent profitable monopoly in the rum trade. She writes, “By 1852 79% of the retail rum shops were owned by the Portuguese and they retained that monopoly well into the twentieth century. The end of the 1860s and the 1870s saw the Portuguese well entrenched in business.” By that time, most Portuguese entrepreneurs were property owners and they had diversified into many types of business: “they were provision and commission merchants, spirit shop owners, importers, iron mongers, ship chandlers, leather merchants, boot and shoe makers, saddlers, coachbuilders, woodcutters, timber merchants, brick makers, cattle owners, pork-knockers, charcoal dealers, bakers, and photographers.”
The article also offers information about the socio-historical development of the Catholic Church with the Portuguese community. Through the continuation of their faith in their new home the Portuguese established many religious customs that are still alive in Guyana, such as the Christmas Novena, and the founding of confraternities, guilds, and societies for the relief of widows, orphans, the sick, unemployed, the elderly, and the imprisoned, as well as for the education of children. They also kept their language alive through church, through the establishment of new schools, and several newspapers published in Portuguese. Menezes points out many other achievements in music, dance, drama, and the world of sports.
The rise of the Portuguese in this colony from a state of most abject poverty to one of comparative affluence created tensions between them and the Black population to such an extent that several violent riots resulted. Although the Portuguese were not wholeheartedly accepted either by Black society or by white European society (although they were also Europeans) through the nineteenth or twentieth century, they were finally able to enter into the political field beginning in 1906.
Menezes ends the article explaining that after the Portuguese suffered even more discrimination in the 1960s and 1970s, “many crossed the ocean in search of another EI Dorado in the north.”
Photo of Demerara, Guyana, from http://www.traveladventures.org/continents/southamerica/west-demerara-landscape04.shtml