History of the Portuguese in America
Vasco Da Gama Society of Newport RI

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Vasco da Gama

The discover of the sea route to East Indies; born at Sines, Province of Alemtejo, Portugal, about 1469; died at Cochin, India, 24 December, 1524. Vasco da Gama was not only an explorer, but a skilled negotiator, and if that failed, a formidable opponent.

Portuguese in the Age of Exploration

Prince Henry the Navigator was a leading force behind the age of exploration, as Europeans searched for better routes for Eastern trade, preferably an all water route, as the land routes had been long, hard, risky and expensive.

The Portuguese were the leading European explorers in the fifteenth century, with pioneering advances in the techniques of ship building and sailing, navigation and cartography, and even the administration of such large efforts. It was through these efforts that many parts of the world were discovered and mapped.

By 1488, Bartholomieu Diaz advanced the prospects of finding an all water route, when he rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the Southern tip of Africa, then exploring the coast hundreds of miles further to the northeast.
Ten years later, his countryman Vasco da Gama, following his path, sailed all the way to Calcutta, India. For this, he was appointed on his return home in 1499, to the newly created post of Admiral of the Indian Ocean. In 1502 Gama was again sent out with a new fleet of twenty ships, to safeguard the interests of the commercial enterprises established in the meantime. Again in 1524, he was sent to India by the Crown, under João III, but at the end of the year he was stricken and died at Cochin.

Portuguese exploration continued further East, reaching Siam by 1511, the Moluccas (or Spice Isles) in 1512, the Chinese coast in 1513, Canton in 1517, and Timor in 1515.

In 1542 three Portuguese became the first Europeans to visit Japan, when their ship sailed off course and reached the southern tip of the Japanese Archipelago. Portuguese became the first Europeans to make contact with both China and Japan. Portugal also became the first European country that Japanese visited.

The Portuguese Empire

Portuguese traders and merchants were soon found in all parts of the known world, but there was little interest in forming colonies, and except for establishing plantations in Brazil, even less interest in the New World. Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking nation in the Americas.

Portuguese in the New World

In 1472, the Portuguese navigator João Vaz Corte-Real was granted the title "discoverer of the Land of the Codfish". It is thought from his description that he visited Newfoundland.
The region of Rhode Island was probably visited (1524) by the Portuguese navigator Verrazano, and in 1614 the area was explored by the Dutchman Adriaen Block.

Portuguese explorers, led by Pedro Álvares Cabral, disembarked in what is now Brazil in 1500. Over the next three centuries, it was resettled by the Portuguese and exploited mainly for brazilwood (Pau-Brasil) at first, and later for sugarcane (Cana-de-Açúcar) agriculture and gold mining. The colony's source of manpower was initially enslaved native Amerindians, and after 1550, mainly African slaves.

Slavery was abolished in 1888, and intensive European immigration created the basis for industrialization. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Brazil attracted over 5 million European and Japanese immigrants. A legacy of Portugal's early relations with Japan, Brazil now has the largest Japanese descended population in the world, outside of Japan, with estimated 1.5 million people.

In the following years, Spain, France and the Netherlands all began to look to the East, and also towards North America. Again, none of them were very interested in colonization, only trade. Even New Amsterdam (later to become New York under English rule) was simply a large Dutch trading post.

Portuguese only began settling in the United States several centuries later, although there were isolated Portuguese merchant communities here, beginning in the seventeenth century, and in the Sandwich Islands, now Hawaii, in the eighteenth century.

Other Possible Visitors to New England

As early as 1677, scholars such as Cotton Mather. Dean Barkeley, and Ezra Stiles have tried to decipher the messages chiseled into Dighton Rock at Berkeley, Massachusetts, on the Taunton River. Writing covers its ten foot by four foot sandstone face.

Stiles was convinced that the rock was covered with ancient Phoenician petroglyphs. Mather sent drawings of the markings to the Royal Society of London to see what they thought, but the English scientists were non-committal. In 1837, Danish scholar Carl Rafn read Roman numerals and the name "Thorfinn Karlsefni" in the stone. Thorfinn supposedly sailed to America from Greenland in the year 1010.

In the twentieth century, Brown University professor Edmund Burke Delabarre deciphered part of the inscription on the rock to read: "Miguel Cortereal by will of God, here Chief of the Indians," along with the date 1511 and a Portuguese coat-of-arms. Miguel Cortereal, a Portuguese navigator, did disappear in 1501 with his crew, sailing the Atlantic in search of his explorer brother Gaspar Cortereal, who had also disappeared with his three ship and crews the year before. Their father, Joao Vas Cortereal, traveled to "the land of the cod," thought to be Newfoundland in 1472, twenty years before Columbus' voyage.

Colonies in New England

England was last of the major European powers to become involved in North America, with the two voyages of the Cabots, father and son, in 1497 and 1498. They explored from Newfoundland to possibly the Chesapeake Bay region, prior to claiming it for Henry VII and England. English fishermen were soon catching codfish off of the coast of New England. Almost 80 more years passed before England began its attempts to colonize North America.

England was first to see the advantages to colonization. Colonies would offer a place for excess population, especially religious and political discontents. Colonies would make better trading partners than the native population. They would not only provide new sources of raw materials, they would also become a market for finished goods from the mother country, as industrial production was just beginning.

In 1587 the English attempted to build a colony in the New World at Roanoke Island. The colony failed. Later visitors from England found remains of the settlement, but no survivors, and no clear record of what had gone wrong.

In June of 1606, King James I granted a charter to a group of London entrepreneurs, the Virginia Company, to establish a satellite English settlement in the Chesapeake region of North America. In the winter of 1607 Settlers from England, led by Captain John Smith, start the most successful American colony so far in Jamestown, Virginia. By December, 108 settlers sailed from London instructed to settle Virginia, find gold and a water route to the Orient. More followed, but disease, famine and continuing attacks of neighboring Algonquians took a tremendous toll on the population, so by 1609 only 60 of the original 214 settlers at Jamestown survived.

The Massachusetts Bay colony followed in 1620, when the Pilgrims, religious fundamentalists anxious to leave what they considered a lax and corrupt society arrived in America aboard the ship Mayflower. They too suffered huge losses, but the colony survived.

Beginning in 1630, as many as 20,000 Puritans emigrated to America from England to gain the liberty to worship God as they chose. Most settled in New England, but some went as far as the West Indies.

Roger Williams and the "Lively Experiment" of Rhode Island

Roger Williams studied at Pembroke College at Cambridge University from which he graduated in 1627. He was one of eight granted scholarships based on excellence in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. In the years after he left Cambridge, Roger Williams was Chaplain to a wealthy family. Even at this time, he became a controversial figure because of his ideas on freedom of worship. And so, in 1630, ten years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Roger thought it expedient to leave England.

Williams preached first at Salem, then at Plymouth, then back to Salem, always at odds with the structured Puritans. Banished in 1635 from the Massachusetts Bay colony, he established his first settlement in the area at Providence, on land purchased from Native Americans of the Narragansett tribe. They named this settlement Providence in thanks to God. The original deed remains in the Archives of the City of Providence.

In 1638, more Puritan exiles from Boston, followers of Anne Hutchinson, bought the island of Aquidneck (now Rhode Island) from the Narragansetts. Hutchinson's group settled at the northern end of the island, in an area then known as Pocasett, now Portsmouth.

In just over a year, however, that settlement split in two. A group lead by William Coddington and Nicholas Easton moved south to form Newport in 1639, as far removed as possible, on the southwest side of the island. It should be no surprise that Newport soon had differing religious factions of it's own, but instead of exiling them, they decided to allow every group to follow their own religious beliefs.

As history has shown, this novel idea was a great success. Newport soon grew to become a port city as important as Boston or New York, Philadelphia or Charleston. Many groups, including Jews and Quakers, were drawn to the colony by the guarantee of religious freedom, a cardinal principle with Williams, confirmed in the patent of 1644 and reaffirmed by the royal charter of 1663.

Catholic Exclusion in Rhode Island

Religious freedom in Rhode Island was not yet complete. Rhode Island was a colony of England, at a time when most of Europe was constantly at war, basically between the Protestant and Catholic countries, or groups within the countries. (The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was an attempt by English Catholics to overthrow the government, by blowing up the English Parliament, and with it King James. The plot was discovered in time to prevent it, but English Catholics were banned from voting, or holding positions in government for over two hundred years, until 1829.)

These European conflicts extended to their colonies, (most visibly in the New World in the 1754-1763 French and Indian War) and Catholics were banned from the New England colonies (except Maryland) until the Revolution.

Catholics Welcomed in Maryland

Maryland was not a Catholic colony, but did welcome Catholics. While many of the leaders were Catholic, the majority of settlers were Protestant: Anglicans, Puritans, Presbyterians, and Quakers among them.

Lord Baltimore was an English Catholic, one of the very few who managed to keep his wealth and influence, as England was torn by religious conflict. His plan was for Maryland to be a place where people of different religions could live together peacefully.

Lord Baltimore's declaration of "liberty of conscience" meant that in Maryland religion was to be a private matter and all Christians were to practice their faith in freedom. To further reduce the possibility of religious animosity destroying the colony, Lord Baltimore separated religion and government in Maryland. These concepts of religious tolerance and separation of church and state were revolutionary in the seventeenth century and made early Maryland an innovative social experiment.

This practice, in place at the beginning of settlement in 1634, was made into law in 1649 with An Act concerning Religion. The law was limited-providing toleration only for Christians, but it was the first statement of religious toleration in America. Ultimately, the great majority of people coming to Maryland were Protestants mostly poor indentured servants who would work in the colony in exchange for their passage.

Early Portuguese Settlement in the New World

In 1658, fifteen Spanish and Portuguese Jewish families were allowed to settle in Newport. Because many Newport records were destroyed during the Revolution, we do not know where they came from, but think they were exiles from the Caribbean colonies, where an earlier period of religious toleration was ending.

For a hundred years the members of the Congregation worshipped in private homes. By 1759 the Congregation had sufficiently increased to under take the building of a Synagogue, which would also incorporate provision for the religious instruction of the young. The Newport congregation is the second oldest in the United States, and the oldest Synagogue still standing. (In 1728 the Jewish colonists in New York City build the first American synagogue.)

The Coming Revolution

Rhode Island was the first Colony to vote for Revolution, and the last to agree to join the new Republic, with both decisions largely due to their effect on trade. Newport's prosperity was built on manufacturing of fine furniture and silver, processing imported materials to produce rum, candles, and other value-added goods, and the export of these goods, as well as locally produced livestock and fish. British taxes and regulations placed a growing burden on these activities.

The Molasses Act, passed by the English Parliament, imposed heavy duties on molasses, rum and sugar imported from non-British islands in the Caribbean to protect the English planters there from French and Dutch competition. Sugar processing and distilling were major components in Newport's trade.
The Iron Act is passed by the English Parliament, limiting the growth of the iron industry in the American colonies to protect the English Iron industry. This also prevented the colonies from developing their own weapons, keeping them dependant on imports for both personal firearms and cannon. (These came from England until the Revolution was clearly imminent, then from France, in violation of the their Treaty of Paris, which had ended the French and Indian War.)
The Currency Act is passed by the English Parliament, banning the issuing of paper money by the New England colonies.
Stamp Act imposes new taxes on many goods and services within the Colony, not only on imports and exports. Riots occurred in Boston, Newport, New York, and other colonies.

The First Shots of the Revolution

HMS Gaspee was sent by King George III to Rhode Island waters in March of 1772 to enforce the trade laws and prevent smuggling, which by this time was routinely practiced and routinely ignored. On June 9, 1772, the packet sloop Hannah left Newport for Providence. When the Gaspee gave chase, the Hannah's Captain Lindsey deliberately lured her across the shallows off Namquid Point (now Gaspee Point) and left the British ship hard aground on a sandbar, unable to move until the flood tide of the following day. That tide came too late.

The American midnight attack and destruction of the Gaspee was the first deliberate attack against the English. It came well before the better known 1773 Boston Tea Party, and of course destroyed an entire ship rather than cargo. England considered this an act of war.

The Decline of Newport Commerce

Newport fared badly in the Revolution. The city soon fell to the English forces, who occupied it for several years, until they left for New York, where they were more urgently needed.
The English had not forgotten Newport's role in starting the Revolution, and the occupation was not gentle. By the time the war of Revolution ended in 1783, Newport's population had fallen by half, from over 9,000 to less than 4,000. Also, the war destroyed Newport's economic wealth, as years of military occupation closed the city to any form of trade. Hundreds of abandoned buildings were torn down in the 1780s. Most of the Newport merchants moved away, some to Providence, others to Boston and New York. This exodus included the entire Portuguese Jewish community. Touro Synagogue stood empty for an entire generation.

Beginning of Catholic Settlement

In 1780, the French under Rochembeau landed in Newport, and for the rest of the war, Newport was the base of the French forces in the United States. The Rhode Island General Assembly repealed an old law banning Catholics from living in Rhode Island. The first Mass celebrated publicly in Rhode Island was the funeral of a French Admiral, the Chevalier de Ternay, which occurred shortly after the French fleet supporting the American Revolution arrived in Newport.

There still were few Catholics in the state, until several hundred Irish workmen were drawn to Providence by the rise of industry occasioned by President Jefferson's foreign trade embargo and the War of 1812 with England, sometimes known as The Second War of Independence. When the war ended and foreign trade was resumed, the new local industries could not compete, and declined, and most of the new population moved elsewhere. Construction at Fort Adams in 1824 brought several hundred Irish workers back to Newport. In 1828 they purchased an old schoolhouse on Barney Street in Newport, and celebrated Mass for the first time in what would become St. Mary Parish.

Later Portuguese Settlement

There were generally 2 large "waves" of emigration by Portuguese.

The 1st wave came at the tail end of the 19th century, and lasted into about the 1920s. The largest segment of the people who came over were fishermen, or people who worked in the fishing industry. They tended to migrate to areas where the fishing industry was booming - i.e. Southeast New England (New Bedford, Fall River, Provincetown), Hawaii and California (San Fran). The majority of these people were Azorean. By the 1910-20s, more and more people came looking for non-fishing jobs. Most of these people came from the mainland and were in search of construction or unskilled work that would provide a better life for their families than they were getting in Portugal. These people tended to concentrate in industrial areas in the Northeast US (Boston, Lowell, NYC, Newark, Providence).

By the beginning of the American Civil War, over half of the crew lists aboard the Yankee whalers would be filled by Cape Verdeans. New Bedford became the focus of Portuguese immigration as the town became the leading whaling port. From New Bedford, the Portuguese spread to other New England coastal ports. Sizeable Portuguese communities developed in Newport, Rhode Island, the ports on Nantucket and Marthas Vineyard Islands, Provincetown on Cape Cod, the Boston metropolitan area, and Gloucester to the northeast. In these towns, they engaged in whaling, as well as other maritime activities, including cod fishing.

During the last two to three decades of the nineteenth century, as the whaling industry diminished and industrialization became a more important component of urban growth, Portuguese immigration increased significantly. New immigrants were attracted by employment in the textile factories in the industrial towns of southeastern New England. New Bedford provided substantial industrial employment, but other large Portuguese communities developed around the textile factories in nearby Fall River and Providence, as well as in the industrial towns around Boston, including Cambridge, Somerville, and Lowell.

The onset of the Great Depression and tightened US immigration laws led to significant decline in Portuguese immigration. the US government instituted a "quota system" that proportionally allocated entry visas to various countries. However, the system was weighted in such a way that Southern Europeans received very few visas compared with, say, Ireland or UK. Case in point, my grandfather first applied for a visa in 1945 and didn't receive one until 1959!

The second wave of Portuguese immigrants was triggered by a Volcanic explosion and a series of earthquakes in the Azores in the 1950s and 1960s. Spearheaded by then Senator John F. Kennedy, Congress passed the Azorean Refugee Act of 1958 which opened the door for many Portuguese, both Azorean and from the mainland, to enter the US. The majority of these people joined family members who were already here or settled in Industrial areas that had significant Portuguese populations. Most of these immigrants settled in areas like Newark or greater Boston where they could work in the industrial factories.

By the late 1970s, immigration started to tail off and further diminished once Portugal entered the EU in 1986.

The Golden Door Shuts

Between 1820 and 1920, approximately 34 million persons immigrated to the United States, three-fourths of them staying permanently. For many of these newcomers, their first glimpse of America was the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

the closing line from “The New Colossus” by American poet Emma Lazarus. In 1903, sixteen years after her death, Lazarus' sonnet was engraved on a plaque and placed in the pedestal as a memorial.

The United States of America, a nation great in all things, is ours today. To whom will it belong tomorrow? . . . The United States is our land. If it was not the land of our fathers, at least it may be, and it should be, the land of our children. We intend to maintain it so. The day of unalloyed welcome to all people, the day of indiscriminate acceptance of all races, has definitely ended. —Representative Albert W. Johnson

The Emergency Quota Act, also known as the Johnson Quota Act, of May 19, 1921 limited the annual number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 3% of the number of persons from that country living in the United States in 1910, according to United States Census figures. The Immigration Act of 1924 brought it down to 2%.

Then Opens Again

The 1948 Displaced Persons Act - United States accepts more than 395,000 refugees from war torn European nations.

1952 Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (McCarran-Walter Act) under which quotas are placed on immigration. The total quota for Asia is 2,990, compared with 149,667 for Europe and 1,400 for Africa.

In 1958 the island of Faial, Azores experienced earthquakes and volcanic eruptions so intense that a new island came into being, only to be swallowed up by the sea again.

A 1958 bill, co-sponsored by Senators John Kennedy of Massachusetts and John Pastore of Rhode Island, was passed, authorizing non-quota visas for displaced Portuguese citizens. Under the Azorean refugees acts, which were extended through June 1962, almost 5,000 Portuguese came to the United States.

In 1965 the Immigration and Nationality Act eliminated the previous quota system and set a 20,000-person limit for the immigration of citizens of each nation.

In 1978, the United States government set a single annual world quota of 290,000, and this ceiling was raised again in 1990 to 700,000.


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