Portuguese in Trinidad
Is one or more of your family names Abreu, Affonso, d’Andrade, Cabral, Camacho, Carvalho, Coelho, Cunha, Farinha, Fernandes, de Freitas, Garanito, Gomes, Jardim, Lourenço, Luz, Mendes, Mendonça, Netto, Nunes, Pereira, Perneta, Pestana, Pinto, Quintal, Rezende, Rodrigues, Sabino, dos Santos, de Silva, de Souza, Teixeira, Vieira or Xavier, to name just some of the 100+ Portuguese surnames in Trinidad and Tobago? Then your roots are probably in the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira.
Most of the names live on but, for the most part, the language has not. What happened to the language among Luso-descendants of Trinidad and Tobago/Portuguese Trinbagonians is our question.
Portuguese groups reportedly came to both Tobago and Trinidad as early as the 17th century: a group arrived in Trinidad in the 1630s, and those who went to Tobago included Sephardic Jews in the 1660s. In the 19th century, other Portuguese were in Trinidad in 1811. Azoreans came in 1834 (the first Portuguese to come as labourers to the Caribbean), and some Madeirans left for Trinidad not long after. See a historical timeline here.
No doubt descendants of Jewish marranos (those Jews who had been forced to officially convert to Christianity centuries before) would have been among the Azoreans and Madeirans. A number of surnames, e.g, Carvalho, da Costa, Henriques, Nunes, Pereira and de Souza, are associated with a Jewish Portuguese (Sephardic) heritage, whether the families know or not. The names also belong to non-Sephardic Portuguese with no Jewish background.
The roots of the modern Portuguese community in Trinidad and Tobago are in the Madeiran migrations of the 1846-1848 period. Madeira had been suffering harsh economic and socio-religious conditions in the 19th century. The Madeirans of 1846 included separate groups of Catholics and Protestants. They fled their homeland in search of economic relief (Catholics) or a religious haven (Presbyterians) or both.
Madeirans emigrated to various locations throughout the then-British Caribbean as labourers and religious refugees, particularly to Guyana, St Vincent, Antigua and Trinidad. The 19th century Portuguese community of Guyana was 10 to 15 times bigger than Trinidad’s, and had a significant impact on that country.
Madeiran emigration to Trinidad took place over 140 years, from 1834 up to 1975, albeit in unsteady waves and in varying concentrations. For example, the main periods appear to have been 1846-1848 and then the 1920s and 1940s which saw renewed emigration from Madeira (not only to Trinidad, but via Trinidad to Aruba and Curaçao because of the refineries there). A few also came from continental Portugal, in both centuries, from areas such as Porto and Lisbon.
Madeirans continued to come after 1846 because of chain migration, joining relatives and contacts who had built a new life and a new community for themselves. Chain migration of families also took place among Portuguese descendants coming from Guyana, St Vincent, Antigua, St Kitts and other territories. Many came because of family and business connections and partnerships here. Most of these descendants were already English-speaking by the end of the 19th century and onwards.
Perhaps the best-known and most widespread aspect of the Portuguese linguistic legacy is family surnames. Some surnames also became street and other place names where the Portuguese settled, in villages and towns all over Trinidad. The largest communities were those that settled in Port-of-Spain and San Fernando, as well as Arima, Arouca and Chaguanas. Later some Portuguese went to Scarborough and other places in Tobago.
The spellings have been mostly preserved (the pronunciations vary), except in cases of anglicisation, hispanicisation, and gallicisation.
Anglicised names include versions such as da Breo for d’Abreu, and Tesheira for Teixeira, which better reflect pronunciation for English speakers (the names d’Abreu and Teixeira are still more common than the anglicised versions). Govia and Jardine are other examples of re-spellings that reflect Madeiran pronunciation as perceived by English speakers (these two are more widespread than the original Gouveia and Jardim, respectively). With regard to changes in names, pronunciation, spelling and even translation, a lot depends on when the immigrant came and under what circumstances.
Some (sur)names were translated into their English equivalents, like Francis (Francisco) and John (João). Intense anglicisation took place regularly in the USA and other Anglophone places where Portuguese immigrants settled.
While Portuguese and Spanish do have names in common (like Araújo/Araujo, (de) Castro, Franco, Garcia/García, Gregório/Gregorio, de Jesus/de Jesús, Miranda, Pacheco and Salazar, among others), some Portuguese names became hispanicised, Spanish-looking or sounding, such as Fernandez, Gomez, Marquez, Rodriguez and others. The Presbyterian Mendes (whose ancestors came in the 19th century) pronounce their name like Mendez, and some Catholics (whose forebears came in the early 20th century) pronounce their name like Menz. (Camacho also took on the Spanish pronunciation, losing the “sh” sound represented by the <ch>.)
The name Xavier became gallicised or Frenchified in pronunciation, with the <x> sounding like /z/ instead of the “sh” sound (as in Teixeira).
Portuguese surnames can be recognised and identified by the following spellings, among many others not listed here (e.g., some names beginning with <J> and <Qu>):
- <ei>, as in Caldeira, Correia, Ferreira, Figueira, de Freitas, Gouveia, Madeira, Noreiga, (d’)Oliveira, Pereira, Pinheiro, Ribeiro, Reis, Teixeira and Vieira;
- <ou>, as in Gouveia, Lourenço and de Souza/de Sousa (the Spanish equivalent, where applicable, is <o>, e.g., Sousa and Sosa);
- <ão>, as in Brazão and Serrão;
- <ç>, as in Gonçalves (which became Gonsalves, but the <s> is now pronounced as /z/ instead of /s/), Mendonça and Lourenço;
- <x>, as in Teixeira and Xavier (<x> in Portuguese has the “sh” sound in English);
- <lh>, as in Carvalho, Coelho and Magalhães;
- <nh>, as in Castanheiro, Cunha, Farinha, Pinheiro, Saldenha and Sardinha (equivalent of Spanish <ñ>);
- <al>, as in Cabral, Leal and Quintal
- <es>, as in Alves, de Caires, Chaves, Fernandes, Gomes, Gonçalves/Gonsalves, Henriques, Lopes, Marques, Mendes, Menezes, N(i)eves, Nunes, Pires, Rodrigues and Soares (where there are equivalents in Spanish, the Spanish spelling is usually <ez>, although Portuguese has had the <ez> spellings as well);
- <s>, as in Affonso, Alfonso and Dias (same comment re: Spanish above; some Portuguese names with <z> are Cruz, Ferraz and Luz, etc.)
- <d’> <da> <dos>, as in d’Abreu, d’Andrade, d’Oliveira, d’Ornellas, da Costa, da Cruz, da Silva, dos Santos and dos Ramos (da and dos both mean ‘of the’).
Some spelling differences have to do with changes in Portuguese orthography over the years. For example, Souza belongs to the older spelling system, and Sousa belongs to the newer system. Vasconcellos is the older form and Vasconcelos is the newer. The older forms survive in the Americas, including Trinidad and Tobago, and elsewhere. They tell a story of the related era of arrival.
Portuguese surnames are mentioned in various calypsos, such as those mentioning (J.J.) Ribeiro, (Eduardo) Sá Gomes and (Albert) Gomes. Sá Gomes was born in São Pedro, Madeira and was a pioneer of calypso recordings, and Gomes was a staunch defender of calypso and steelpan. Calypso, of course, was in Patois and in English.
Portuguese characters with their Portuguese names and surnames also appeared in skits and plays, for example, the 1905 “Portuguese Shop in George Street”, and the 1992 “Ah Wanna Fall”, which featured Pharoah’s “Portuguese (or Potogee) Dance”, an imitation of Portuguese speech (listen to it here).
Portuguese in the Home
Historically, the picture of Portuguese language use in Trinidad was quite different from today’s scenario. The language was in regular use both inside and outside of the home in the latter half of the 19th century up to the first half of the 20th century. In most Portuguese-descended families today, very little of the Portuguese language is remembered.
In the Trinidadian Portuguese community, especially in the second half of the 20th century, acquiring Portuguese had become difficult for children, especially where the only fluent speaker of Portuguese was an immigrant father who worked almost 12 hours each day outside of the home to support his family.
The women spent the most time with their children at home, so acquiring Portuguese was somewhat easier if mothers or other female family members were Madeiran-born and fluent Portuguese speakers.
Luso-Trinidadian or Portuguese Creole mothers themselves who spoke more English often only had partial competence in Portuguese (“semi-speakers”). In such cases, mothers were unable to pass on their parents’ language to their children, but many did pass on aspects of cuisine and other aspects of culture.
If the children did become speakers or semi-speakers themselves, this was often the result of a strong relationship with an aunt, grandmother or, in very few cases, close family servants who migrated with their employer’s families.
Marriage to a spouse who spoke English, whether of Portuguese or other ethnolinguistic background(s), usually swung the household language in the direction of English.
If the Portuguese-speaking spouse was the wife, it was possible for the children to learn Portuguese, as did happen. In these cases, the surnames were not Portuguese, since naming practices and customs in English-speaking contexts are normally patrilineal (except where hyphenated in some cases). Since mothers often pass on their culture, the family linguo-culture would indeed be Portuguese-influenced, so the Portuguese influence in Trinidad and Tobago actually extends far beyond a mere count of Portuguese surnames.
What is remembered by families today mostly falls into the general domains of food, religion and taboo words. Some individuals recall some greetings, proverbs and song fragments (including the Portuguese national anthem for those whose ancestors emigrated after 1890).
Food and drink names include (there were at least three restaurants that featured one or more of the following):
- bacalhau (“cod” or “saltfish” or “salted fish”);
- bolo de mel (a well-known Madeiran molasses cake) – the name is often mistranslated into English as “honey cake”. “Honey” is mel or mel de abelha, literally “bee honey.” Bolo de mel is made from mel de cana (literally “cane honey”) which is “molasses”, a word derived from Portuguese melaço. Broas de mel are also made with molasses. Madeira has played a very important role in sugar cane production since 1425 and has its own rum;
- carne vinha d’alhos (“garlic pork” – click for J. Wayne Quintal’s article on garlic pork);
- cebolas de escabeche (“pickled onions”; escabeche meaning “pickle” also gave us ceviche and Jamaican escoveitch);
- malassadas (Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras pancakes or donut holes);
- Madeira wine;
- and more.
Both taboo words and religious references are remembered by relatively few. One taboo word, which is a curse, raios te partam (meaning “damn you”), is probably the origin of rash-patash (or raish-patraish), the pejorative name for Portuguese in Trinidad at one time (not all agree that it was a pejorative name, however). Another theory has it that raspa o tacho “scrape the pan” is the origin of this name.
Portuguese Outside the Home
Outside of the home, Portuguese was used in religious circles, cultural activities and business. Portuguese shops and rum shops were on every corner of Trinidad and later, Tobago. The Portuguese shop has been depicted by a number of artists. Portuguese was spoken by and among shop owners and clerks for many years.
The last Madeiran-owned shop was probably Luis de Sousa’s shop on the NW Cor. Edward and Queen Streets in Port-of-Spain, which closed in 1994. (Subway now stands there, and has preserved the exterior of the building.)
Portuguese in the Churches
For the Catholics as a religious group, very little about language use has been recorded. It appears that the language was hardly used in public worship, except in the following instances.
Writing of 1882 to 1884, the French Dominican missionary priest, Fr Bertrand Cothonay, noted that there were two inscriptions in Portuguese above the principal altar in the Our Lady of Fatima at Laventille church. This was one of the churches where the Portuguese celebrated the feast of Assumption in honour of Nossa Senhora do Monte, Madeira’s patron saint (origins of the Laventille Devotions). The language was heard during the visit of the Portuguese Princess Aldegonda and her husband, the Count de Bardi, in 1886, who attended the laying of the cornerstone of the Laventille church. Catholic Portuguese with links to Madeira still remember Nossa Senhora do Monte.
The barrister Charles Reis tells us that a priest, Rev. P. McAlinney, who spoke Portuguese fluently, delivered a sermon in Portuguese at a High Mass in 1906. It is not known if this occurred more than once. There are no available or accessible records of Catholic priests in Trinidad undertaking to learn Portuguese nor any known cases of Portuguese priests being sent from Portugal for the Portuguese community in the 19th century. As we shall see, below, this was very different for the Presbyterians who received a few Portuguese-speaking ministers, native speakers and second language learners.
Despite the size of the small Portuguese group and of the even smaller Portuguese Presbyterian group, Portuguese was one of the few of Trinidad’s many languages to be regularly used in public worship in the 19th century, at first in Greyfriars and then in St Ann’s.  In the case of the Portuguese Protestants, the Scottish keenly understood the importance of being able to relate to the newly arrived Portuguese refugee congregation in their own language. In this, they followed the example of the Scottish and Portuguese-speaking medical missionary to the Madeirans, Dr Robert Reid Kalley.
The first three ministers (and associate ministers) of the Portuguese Presbyterian congregation in Trinidad were all speakers of Portuguese – a Scotsman, Rev W.H. Hewitson, who learned the language and two native Madeiran-born speakers, A.N. da Silva and H. Vieira. The latter two were specifically chosen and ordained as ministers “for the special purpose of ministering to [their] fellow countrymen” according to Rev Gilbert Earle of the St Ann’s Church of Scotland (minister from 1917 to 1929).
“…such of the old Portuguese Bibles as remain are kept as mementos of a half-forgotten romance.”
Besides the ministers, there were also supply ministers, elders and deacons who were Portuguese-speaking, most of whom had come as refugees from Madeira. Earle also tells us the former practice of bilingual services was discontinued within two or three generations and “such of the old Portuguese Bibles as remain are kept as mementos of a half-forgotten romance.” In addition to the Presbyterian ministers themselves, a Baptist minister reportedly learned the language in an effort to communicate with the Portuguese, as Rev William H. Gamble tells us in 1866.
It was clearly difficult for the language to survive in the church. This is because of decreasing numbers of speakers in an English-speaking church, whose children went to English language schools in an English-official territory.
Portuguese in the Clubs
The Associação Portuguesa Primeiro de Dezembro (Portuguese Association) on Richmond Street, was founded in 1905, as the Grupo Dramático Portuguêz. There, the Portuguese language was used for official purposes, such as Association rules, minutes of meetings, magazines and notices. It was also used in cultural activities such as drama, the purpose for which it was originally founded.
The language was proudly used during some public occasions, such as the visit of the Dom Carlos in 1910 which was cause for great celebration among the Portuguese, and the visit of the Princess Aldegonda mentioned above.
Reis attributed the demise of the language mainly to the growing influence of the English-speaking Portuguese Creoles (Luso-Trinidadians), but noted that the language still maintained some of its former position at the written level at the Association.
The Association did its best to sustain and promote various aspects of Portuguese culture, not the least of which was the language. In 1926, Reis tells us that one of its aims was “to establish schools for the instruction of members and their children and by degrees to enrich the library.” In 1927, Eduardo Sá Gomes of the Portuguese Association wrote two letters in Portuguese (with English translations) to the Editor of the Port-of-Spain Gazette.
The Portuguese Club was founded later in 1927. This was due to the numbers of English-speaking and English-educated Portuguese Creole children of Madeirans who did not speak Portuguese. Many felt less and less connected to Madeira, and were no longer comfortable at the Association.
In 1931, the then newly arrived Portuguese Consul, A. Lino Franco, approached the Portuguese Club with the suggestion of the formation of a Portuguese school. The matter was discussed by the Club’s Board and questionnaires were distributed to various members of the community. However, such a project was not considered feasible and the school never materialised. (The Portuguese Magnolias Hockey Club, now Shandy Carib Magnolias, came out of this Club, and is referred to as the Portuguese Club.)
Writers of Portuguese Descent
There are many writers, composers and singers of Portuguese descent, but they all use English. A Portuguese immigrant, Maria Monica Reis Pestana (1902-1996), also wrote her memoirs entirely in English.
In the area of literature, Jean de Boissière, writing around 1945, claimed that the Portuguese of Trinidad created what little there existed that was genuinely of Trinidad in the Trinidadian literary scene of the time. This, of course, was a big claim. He was referring to Portuguese Trinidadians such as Albert M. Gomes and Alfred H. Mendes (D Litt UWI Honoris Causa 1972), members of the famous Beacon group. Gomes and Mendes produced their works in English, not in Portuguese, which was the language of their parents and grandparents. Both Gomes and Mendes tried to depict Portuguese characters by reproducing English and English Creole as spoken with a Portuguese accent.
The language died as a group marker and as a natural, spontaneous means of in-group communication. Adaptation and assimilation are normal for minority immigrant groups. A few individuals and families, mostly children and grandchildren of 20th century immigrants have managed to perpetuate the language to varying degrees to this day. Those who did not come in poverty may have had the time to focus on language preservation.
Many of those who come from families that were unable to or did not preserve the language are now willing to learn – a personal language and culture reclamation venture. They are doing so whether it be via Brazilian Portuguese courses and programmes in Trinidad, or by going to intensive courses in Madeira, or both.
ISO language code: [por]
(Approximate) date of arrival: 1630; the Madeirans left for Trinidad in November 1834 onwards
Main locations: Nationwide
Approximate number of users (Madeiran Portuguese descendants): Unknown
Current status (linguistic vitality/health): Varying levels of proficiency; only alive among a few with Madeiran parents or those born in Madeira, but of increasing interest to 3rd and 4th generation Luso-Trinbagonians
1) Jo-Anne S. Ferreira, The Portuguese of Trinidad and Tobago: Portrait of an Ethnic Minority, St Augustine: ISER, 1994;
2) Jo-Anne S. Ferreira, “The Portuguese Language in Trinidad and Tobago: A Study of Language Shift and Language Death” (PhD thesis, UWI, St Augustine, 1999);
3) Miguel Vale de Almeida, “Ser português na Trinidad: Etnicidade, subjectividade e poder,” Etnográfica 1.1 (1997):9-31), and also An Earth-Colored Sea: ‘Race’, Culture and the Politics of the Post-Colonial Portuguese-speaking World (New York: Bergahn Books, 2004), translation of Um Mar da Cor da Terra.
Work in progress: Oral history project
Novels, Short Stories and More:
- Alfred Mendes’ 1934 novel, Pitch Lake and his 2002 autobiography (edited by Michele Levy),
- Albert Gomes’ 1978 novel, All Papa’s Children and his 1974 autobiography Though a Maze of Colour,
- Charles Reis’ two books on the Associação Portuguesa Primeiro de Dezembro (the Portuguese Association) (1926 and 1945),
- Maria Monica Reis Pestana’s Travelling Memories with Tips and Jokes from 1910 to 1984 (1988, published as Monica M.P. Ries),
- Writings by Anthony (Camacho) Milne,
- José Ferreira Fernandes’ Madeirenses Errantes (2004), about the Presbyterian Portuguese, and accompanying documentary (in Portuguese, with some interviews in English),
- Trinidad and Tobago Readers Book Three: Where We All Came From, a primary school book which includes the fictional story of Pedro, a Madeiran boy who migrated to Trinidad with his family,
- and numerous 19th and 20th century accounts and writings.
- The Portuguese of the West Indies (PoWI) website
- Calvinadage – The Portuguese of the West Indies, a Facebook group and
- The Portuguese of T&T, a Facebook page
- Guest blogger for the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago (Portugal Day 2015)
Other media: Angel in a Cage, set in 1929, the first of a planned trilogy of films by Canada-based Mary Jane Gomes (1998)
Selected vocabulary and other contributions to T&T language and our dictionary:
Both are related to Christmas festivities. (Bacalhau is Portuguese, but in Trinidad, the better known version of bacalao came from Spanish.)
Other Portuguese-origin words: As Jean de Boissière noted, the mid-19th century Madeiran Portuguese immigrants in Trinidad were not from the same era or community of those continental Portuguese slave traders who had started to come to the Americas centuries before.
This distinction is important since the Madeirans who came as labourers and refugees were not the contributors of most Portuguese words to Caribbean languages. Those slave traders had had the monopoly on trafficking between Africa and the Americas between the 15th to the 17th centuries, and had contributed a number of well-known and widespread words found in Caribbean languages, including words such as the following:
- pickney, and
(Others, such as bagasse, balangene, caca, creole and mulatto, also have French and Spanish roots. All three languages belong to the Romance or Italic branch of the Indo-European family tree.)
Did you know? Lusophone, the word for ‘Portuguese-speaking’, is based on Lusitania, the old name for Portugal.
There are Portuguese descendants and communities throughout the English-speaking and Dutch-speaking Caribbean and Guyanas.
Venezuela currently has 400,000 Portuguese emigrants, and an active and vibrant community of Luso-Venezuelans and Portuguese with almost 70 Portuguese associations nationwide. There is also the Federação Americana de Luso-Descendentes (FEDEAMELUDE), for Luso-descendants of the Americas, based in Venezuela. The Embassy and Consulate of Portugal are based in Caracas, and Trinidad and Tobago has an honorary consulate, with Ignatius Ferreira as Honorary Consul.
In Madeira, there is the Centro das Comunidades Madeirenses, with its own Facebook page, serving Madeiran communities around the world. Their newsletter is full of exciting and up-to-date information about Madeira and happenings there, including intensive summer courses for Madeiran descendants (history, language, linguistics, literature and culture).
 Other known ‘religious’ languages of the 19th century included Latin, Spanish, French, Hindi, Arabic, Yoruba, and probably Tamil and Telugu. In the 20th century, if not before, the list grows to include Chinese languages, Korean, and Trinidad & Tobago Sign Language and other sign languages.
Special thanks to J. Wayne Quintal, researcher and writer on the Portuguese of San Fernando, for his insightful and helpful comments.