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Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Portuguese In British Columbia... and Canada

by mlopesazevedo
(present version is slightly altered)

     Portuguese people have been coming to Canada for centuries. In 2003 Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp celebrating the 300th anniversary of Canada's first letter carrier, Pedro da Silva, likely a Portuguese New Christian who arrived in New France via La Rochelle, a popular French destination for secret Jews fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition.
     It is well known that Portuguese sailors have fished off the Grand Banks since the 15th century. They called it "Terra Nova". Portugal Cove in Newfoundland is ostensibly the place where the Portuguese explorers, the Corte Real brothers from the Azores  buried two men. Some historians assert that they visited Canada in the early 1400's, before Cartier and some even go so far as to say that the very name Canada is derived from the Portuguese "canada", (a narrow trail) which divided the land in the upper St. Lawrence between the Portuguese and New France. Apart from Portuguese Cove in Nova Scotia, this writer is unaware of any other Portuguese place names on the east coast.
     Although the majority of present day Portuguese Canadians derive from post 1950's immigration, as professor Jean Barman's book, The Remarkable Adventures of Portuguese Joe Silvey (Harbour Publishing, 2004), shows, there was a small community of Portuguese pioneers in British Columbia before Confederation. This group of virtually unknown early pioneers were mostly ex-whalers who deserted the ships of the Pacific whaling fleet for the California gold rush of 1849 and subsequently the British Columbia Fraser river gold rush of 1858 and later the Cariboo in 1860. They generally married Aboriginal women and had large families. They left small footprints but big shoes in the history of British Columbia, albeit the full story is yet to be told.
    There are a few geographical names on the west coast derived from Portuguese pioneers. There are none named after the most famous of those pioneers, Portuguese Joe Silvey who married Khaltinaht, Chief Kiapilano's granddaughter. A contemporary of Gassy Jack, he built the first non-aboriginal house in Stanley Park, ran a saloon in Gastown and in 1868 attempted to lease 20 acres at Brockton Point. He died on Reid Island where a second family of 10 children was raised following the death of his first wife.
    Two other pioneers have left their mark on the geography of British Columbia. Silva Bay on Gabriola Island is named after John Silva who came to B.C. in 1859, likely from the Azores although Cape Verde is sometimes mentioned. In 1863 he operated a fruit and vegetable store at 27 John Street in Victoria. In 1873 he and his wife, "Louisa", daughter of a Cowichan Indian chief, purchased 237 acres on Maine Island. He started BC’s first apple orchard there. The couple had ten children but when two of their children drowned in Plumper Pass, they moved to Gabriola Island. Three of their children served in the First World War, one was killed and one badly injured. On Gabriola, the family donated land for the Catholic Church and a public school. John died in 1929. Although some family members claim his real name was Jacques Almeida, born in Lisbon, the 1881 census states the Azores as his birthplace.
    Enos Lake and Enos Creek in Nannose Bay are named after the first European settler there, John Enos (Joao Ignacio), a native of the island of Santa Maria in the Azores. He settled there in 1862 after seeking his fortune in the gold rush. He almost drowned at Yale in 1859, when his raft overturned. In 1890 he sold his farm and returned to the Azores, the only one of the pioneers to do so. However, he returned two years later after being rejected by his childhood sweetheart.  He retired in 1894 to a ward in St Joseph's Hospital in Victoria but did not die until 1921 at the age of 87. He rode his bicycle around Victoria and played the guitar for the nuns of St. Ann's who looked after him.
   Saltspring Island has two roads named after early Portuguese pioneers, Bittancourt and Norton Roads. The Bittancourt brothers, Estalon and Manuel Antonio probably arrived on the island in 1859 from the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores. Although Manuel vanished after 1881, Estalon went on to become a prosperous and prominent resident with large real estate holdings and powerful friend in the Legislature.
He built the Vesuvius Bay Lodge and operated a store and post office there. The hotel burned down in 1975. He also mined coal and operated extensive quarries which supplied stone to the legislative buildings in Victoria, churches, the inner harbour and dry docks in Victoria and Esquimalt and the San Francisco mint.. Today, the Bittancourt museum is named after this industrious pioneer.
    The Norton brothers, John and Delarvo left the island of Flores, Azores at a very young age and were "adopted" by a whaling captain named Norton in Boston Massachusetts. They settled in Saltspring in 1858 or 1859. In 1903 John Norton established the Northwest Creamery which became the leading dairy in Victoria until its sale in the 1990s.
     Many other Portuguese pioneers contributed to the building of British Columbia. Joe Goncalves who arrived in Gastown in 1874 to look after his uncle Gregory Fernandes, the first storekeeper in Vancouver, eventually settled in Madeira Park, which is named after him although he lived many years in Stanley Park with other Portuguese pioneers like Peter Smith (aka Portuguese Pete), one of the founders of the whaling industry in B.C. Their children married and died in Stanley Park until being evicted by the City of Vancouver in a court case that went all the way to Supreme Court of Canada which, in the author's opinion,  rendered an unjust decision against the settlers.
     The earliest Portuguese presence in B.C. dates to the fur trading wars of the Spanish and English, which almost led to war between Spain and England, but diplomacy  led to captain Vancouver's voyage of 1792 to settle the terms of peace. In 1787 and 1788 Captain John Meares, a retired British naval officer turned fur trade merchant brought a ship named Iphigenia Nubian from the Portuguese colony of Macao where his partner, Joao Carvalho had outfitted her with a Portuguese flag and Portuguese co-captain, Dom Francisco Viana, a native of Lisbon and some officers. The ships sailing papers were in Portuguese. The Spanish captured the ship at Nootka but later released her. She was still on the coast in 1792, for Captain Vancouver makes reference that a Portuguese ship was in distress in the Queen Charlotte Islands.
    On the east coast of Canada, one of the earliest interpreters between the Aboriginals and French was Mathieu Da Costa of whom very little is known. He was a linguist and interpreter who acted as Samuel Champlain's interpreter aboard the ship "Jonas" which sailed from La Rochelle in France to Acadia in 1606. He may have been born in the Azores. He had darker skin than his European employers and this has led to speculation that he may have been the offspring of a Portuguese father and an African mother - after all; there is a saying in Portuguese that God created the white person and the black person, but the Portuguese created the "mulato".

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