by Jean de Boissiere
Being second only to the English as slave traders, the Portuguese appeared in Trinidad at a much earlier date than is generally supposed. In the 17th and 18th century, the small Spanish colonies that settled from time to time were supplied with slaves by these Portuguese traders whose headquarters were in Brazil. The north and east coasts of Trinidad had large plantations which were also used as slaves depots.
The first Portuguese colonisation made no roots in the islands and never got beyond the fringe of coastline. They mostly traded in slaves and shipped whatever produce these slaves grew while at the coastal depots to Europe in slave trading vessels, going back across the Atlantic for another load of human cargo. With the slowing up and eventual abolishment of the slave trade, these Portuguese settlement disappeared from the island.
The second colonisation—that which is the origin of the Portuguese community of today— occurred under more credible circumstances. It was comprised of refugees who had fled the island of Madeira in the 1850s. They were Protestant, and the religious persecution begun by the Lisbon government at the instigation of the Catholic church had become alarmed at the inroads made in a former stronghold of the faith by Scottish Presbyterians.
These new Portuguese colonists, being whitesand with a tradition of slave driving behind them, were given work as drivers, overseers and, most significant of all, as shop managers on the estates. At that time, the estates ran shops from which they supplied goods to their labourers. The profits made were heavy, so that the labourer, whose wage averaged 20 cents a day, was forever in debt to the estate (This was the new freedom. Wage slavery had replaced the chattel slavery of pre-emancination days).
The practice became so abusive that the government was eventually forced to legislate against the estate owners having shops to fleece their labourers. The usual evasion of law took place and the Portuguese managers, overseers and even drivers were placed in ownership of the shops, but with a staggering mortgage at high interest which left the Portuguese in fact no more than nominal owners.
By frugal living, thrift and sometimes barefaced robbery, these hardworking emigrants from southern Europe were not long in throwing off the French and other Creole planters they were saddled with and emerged in complete control of the grocery, liquor and small shop trade of the island.
Their success was due to their present thriftiness, their Latin love of a "bodega" and most of all their facility for mixing freely and equally with their clientele, the Negro and East Indian labourers.
In three generations, the most successful amassed fortunes running into millions of dollars. This spectacular rise of the Portuguese was made out of small shops, which sold a cent saltfish and a penny butter. The only trade that must have given them huge profits to explain this phenomenal accumulation of wealth was the liquor business and possibly more than a fair share of dealing in usury.
With typical Latin instability, when out of their political and social sphere, these Portuguese made the same mistake as the French. Instead of sending their children to Madeira to learn agriculture and commerce from their peasant relatives - after the necessary English education in the schools of Trinidad - they sent them to the public schools of England to learn the academic culture of the wealthy English mercantile bourgeoisie, a people whose ways of living would have no relation to their future except in distant commercial contacts. And they learnt much that was harmful - to be ashamed of the fat, greasy, very human father who had slept beneath his dirty counter in order to accumulate wealth for them instead of being proud of his successful struggle in a foreign land.
These well-educated Portuguese returned, some to spend their money in a mad attempt to compensate the inferiority complex they had been given with their education by giving large extravagant entertainments to the society of the island (mostly composed of impecunious clerks, penniless daughters of ruined planters, openly scalping for a husband and a meal ticket for life, and visiting foreigners with a firm conviction that Trinidad was their oyster). Others attempted to clean up with the then crystalising monopoly taking place at that time, but a few years in England, while giving them a lot of high and low ideas, had been unable to remove the terrifically individualistic, careful peasant psychology of their fathers from their make-up, with the result that they either got severely mauled by their partners or got nowhere at all.
The younger generation of Portuguese who grew up and were educated (very often at the most elementary schools) in the island showed much more business acumen and common sense. They shifted their vital interest from the small shop, wholesale provision and rum business, where the even more frugal Chinese were making big inroads, to real estate in the main and own interests - in some instance. They formed their large-scale business, this time carefully backed by their own social groups, and made no attempts to form themselves into an atmosphere artificial and therefore distasteful to their natural simplicity. It is largely to these latter that the rise of the Portuguese prestige (achieved in a short two decades) was due.
To protect their real estate interests it became absolutely necessary that they go into politics - nothing shows more clearly the private property bias of politics than the predominance of real estate holders over other interest in all existing political bodies - where they conducted themselves with a dignity and propriety that was in direct contrast to a lot of their colleagues serving on public bodies.
While economic success is essential to survival, it hardly entitles people, or peoples, to any honour except a presumed one. The more distinctive honours belong to the world of art, science, literature, medicine and all the other higher fields of human endeavour. In two of these fields - art and literature - the Portuguese of Trinidad created what little there exists that is genuinely of Trinidad and not a mimeographed copy of what strictly belongs to other time, people and place, and what is universal in art and literature used in present day Trinidad in anything but a universal sense. They treat these things exactly as if they belonged to them by right of personal creation.
In summing up, the Portuguese, working the distributive sphere of Trinidad's economic life, have been the least ruthless in exploiting the uneducated masses of Trinidad at one of the highly protected, most flagrantly abused games peculiar to capitalism. They cleared the hurdle of their security in a race in which whatever rules there were, seldom were applied. They took their security, and stopped an exploitation that was so fascinating that most other people in Trinidad having started it find it as hard to give up as a habit-creating drug. And out of their security have arisen contributions to a cultural life that will be truly of the West Indies, and most of all a warm human feeling of life in a land that sometimes seems to be struggling in the grip of a fierce northern battle for commerce.