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Portuguese in Trinidad

Originally published at Language Blag 23 Feb 2015 and on Trinlingual

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.

Madeira is an island chain in the north Atlantic off the coast of Morocco,

and 1,076 km from Portugal to the north-east, and 5,168 km from Trinidad to the south-west

(click on photo for original source and copyright)

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.

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.

Onomastic Legacy

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.

George Cabral and de Freitas Streets, St James, Port-of-Spain © Jo-Anne S. Ferreira 2012

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, Gregorio/Gregório, 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 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 , 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 ( in Portuguese <x> and <ch> have the “sh” [ʃ] sound in English);

  • <lh>, as in Carvalho, Coelho and Magalhães;

  • <nh>, as in Castanheiro, Cunha, Farinha, Pinheiro, Saldenha and Sardinha (equivalent of Spanish);

  • <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 , although Portuguese has had the spellings as well);

  • <s>, as in Affonso, Alfonso and Dias (same comment re: Spanish above; some Portuguese names with are Cruz, Ferraz and Luz, etc.)

  • <d’>, and , 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 (like Rezende ~ Resende, and Menezes ~ Meneses). Vasconcellos is the older form and Vasconcelos is the newer (like Ornellas ~ Ornelas). 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 Gomeswas 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 employers’ 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 “sugar cane syrup” or “molasses,” itself 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.

Christmas Bolo de Mel (Madeiran Molasses Cake)

(click on photo for original source and copyright)

Carne Vinha d'alhos and Cebolas de Escabeche (Christmas Garlic Pork and Pickled Onions)

Courtesy and Copyright J. Wayne Quintal 2012

Carnival (pre-Lenten) Malassadas (click on photo for original source and copyright)

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” (or “dregs”) 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, especially by Dermot (Govia) Louison and John Newel-Lewis. Portuguese was spoken by and among shop owners and clerks for many years.

Empire Bar, corner of Prince and Henry Streets, Port-of-Spain.

This bar was one of three establishments owned by Manuel Augusto da Silva,

a Madeiran merchant from São Roque who manufactured Mimosa Madeira Wine, his award-winning Aromatic Bitters, and more

Copyright NALIS 2009

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 the Assumption in honour of Nossa Senhora do Monte, Madeira’s patron saint (origins of the Laventille Devotions - see also page 98 in Collens’ 1888 book). 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