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The Portuguese Community in the Port of London

Voyages of discovery
Sugar, wine and tobacco
The Jews and the Portuguese queen
Changing fortunes
From East End to West End
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Changing fortunes

World-wide conflict

English ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588

View full size imageSpanish Armada 1588. © NMM

The Portuguese Empire suffered when it became incorporated into the Spanish crown under Philip II. He was the king who launched the Armada against England in 1588.

The Sea Ingagment betwixt the Portuges and Dutch near Goa.
View full size imageThe Sea Ingagment betwixt the Portuges and Dutch near Goa. © NMM
The battles between the Iberians (Portuguese and Spanish) and the English and Dutch in the 16th and early 17th centuries included naval battles and blockades in places as far apart as Brazil, India and Indonesia. That is why some historians regard the conflict as the first true world-wide war.

From the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans a series of man-made and natural events in the 18th and early 19th centuries added to the problems in the Portuguese Empire. This was to have an impact on the numbers and types of Portuguese-speaking seamen arriving in London.

The Lascars

'Glory to God in High' in Portuguese on a board at the Home for Asiatics in West India Dock Road.
View full size image'Glory to God in High', in Portuguese, on a board at the Home for Asiatics in West India Dock Road. © NMM
An East India Company agreement of 1746 lists 21 Indians from Calcutta who came to London. All of them had Portuguese names, suggesting that they were from the Indo-Portuguese community in Bengal.

Crew lists for East India Company vessels and the Dreadnought Hospital records support the idea that the East India Company employed Indo-Portuguese Lascars in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

In 1837 there were still more than 3000 Portuguese and nearly 5000 Eurasians in Calcutta, compared to just over 3000 Britons. Eventually, the Portuguese and Eurasians could no longer supply crewmen and the East India Company took on Lascars from other Asian communities.  

Decline of the Portuguese Empire

The River Tagus, Lisbon, Portugal.
View full size imageThe River Tagus, Lisbon, Portugal. © NMM
The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 marked the final blow for the Portuguese Empire. The earthquake destroyed many buildings in central Lisbon. Those that remained standing were soon ravaged by fire.

The epicentre of the earthquake was off the coast in the Atlantic Ocean. It triggered a tidal wave that raced up the River Tagus and engulfed the city centre. 

War and unrest

Seige of Oporto.
View full size imageSeige of Oporto. © NMM
During the Napoleonic Wars Portugal was threatened by the French. The Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil in 1807.

The country became effectively under British military occupation led by Marshall William Beresford (1768-1854) and the Dukes of Wellington. By the time Dom Miguel took over the government in Lisbon in 1824, a decade of war had used up Portugal’s manpower. A decade of internal political unrest was to follow.

The Dreadnought Hospital records at Greenwich from the early 19th century suggest a gradual decrease in the number of Portuguese seamen from mainland Portugal.

The Azores

The Azores had long been a regular port of call for the ships of the East India Company. They found a ready source of local Sailors' Grog, produced from sugar cane. By the end of the 18th century the island of Sao Miguel had developed a thriving export trade in oranges to England.

However, the orange groves on Sao Miguel were hit by blight in 1860. This outbreak of disease forced more of the men to join the British merchant navy, on vessels such as the Cutty Sark.

Cape Verde Islands

Map of Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde Islands
View full size imageMap of Portuguese-speaking islands, Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde Islands. © NMM
After 1747, a series of droughts in the Cape Verde Islands virtually destroyed the agriculture of the islands. And then in 1798 the French attacked the island of Brava.

From the beginning of the 19th century we see a gradual increase in the number of seamen from the Cape Verde islands. This especially included men from the densely populated islands of Brava and Sao Nicolau, seeking attention at the Dreadnought Royal Hospital. 

The 18th-century Portuguese community in London

Our Lady Star of the Sea Church, Crooms Hill, Greenwich.
View full size imageOur Lady Star of the Sea Church, Crooms Hill, Greenwich. © NMM
The Virginia Street Mission was established in the 18th century as part of the hospital for foreign sailors. It was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of 1780 and a new chapel was subsequently opened. This was built before the existing church of Sts Mary and Michael at Commercial Road (Tower Hamlets, E1).

A church was opened in 1793 on Crooms Hill, Greenwich. Our Lady Star of the Sea Church was built to cater for Catholic seamen from the Dreadnought Royal Hospital for seamen at Greenwich. The present building dates from 1851. It is certain that Portuguese seamen worshiped here.

The Portuguese Jewish community

The 16th Century Fort do Mar and the Bay of All Saints at Salvador do Bahia, Brazil.
View full size imageThe 16th Century Fort do Mar and the Bay of All Saints at Salvador do Bahia, Brazil. © NMM
The Portuguese Jewish community of 18th-century London kept up their ties with Iberia and the Americas. They often chose to trade with the more liberal British and Dutch.

Bristish East India Company ships began to call at Salvador do Bahia on their return to Europe from the Indies in the 18th century. They often outnumbered the returning Portuguese East Indiamen. Very often, Brazilian crews were taken on to replace the British crews lost on the return voyage to disease and desertion. 

The Portuguese Jews were heavily involved in:

  • the export of English woollens to Portugal
  • the import of sugar and tobacco from the English West Indies
  • the gemstone trade (particularly diamonds) from Brazil in the second half of the 18th century.

By the end of the 18th century 20% of Portugal’s re-exports from Brazil came to London. In 1810 Portugal was forced to give Britain the right to trade directly with Brazil, and in 1815 Brazil was declared a separate kingdom to Portugal.

British control of Portuguese resources

Portuguese architecture at Goa.
View full size imagePortuguese architecture in Goa. © NMM
In Asia, the Portuguese stronghold of Goa was occupied by British troops from 1797 to 1798 and again from 1802 to 1813. The aim was to ensure that it did not fall into French hands. This resulted in the employment of Goan seamen on British vessels through agents in Bombay. 

Landing oranges at Fresh Wharf, London Bridge, for Christmas.
View full size imageLanding oranges at Fresh Wharf, London Bridge, for Christmas. © NMM

After the Napoleonic Wars British companies gained a lot of control over key economic resources of Portugal, especially the Madeira wine industry. Newspaper reports of the board meetings of the Seaman’s Hospital Society in 1860 and 1875 show that hundreds of Portuguese sailors were admitted to the hospital. 


The 19th-century London Portuguese community

View of the banks of the River Douro on approaching the City of Oporto 1827.
View full size imageView of the banks of the River Douro on approaching the City of Oporto 1827. © NMM
The 1881 census includes a lot of information on the London Portuguese community. The community appeared to consist of Portuguese-speaking people from:

  • Lisbon
  • Oporto
  • Funchal in Madeira
  • the Azores.

There was a community of Portuguese people in Deptford and at South Street in Greenwich who had connections with Oporto. These people were most probably associated with the Forester family of wine merchants, who first lived in Lewisham and then moved to Beckenham.

The Forester family was particularly involved in the trade in port wine from Oporto and sherry from Jeres in Spain. Baron Joseph James Forester (d. 1862) mapped the River Douro.

The 'Cutty Sark' and the 'Ferreira'

Stern of the Cutty Sark.
View full size imageCutty Sark at Greenwich. © NMM
Three Portuguese men were employed on the Cutty Sark between 1874 and 1877. One was from the Cape Verde Islands and two originally were born on mainland Portugal.

The man referred to as 'Antonio Joakin', although his name was more accurately Antonio Joaqim, was born in the Cape Verde

The Ferreira.
View full size imageThe Ferreira. © NMM

Islands in 1846. He served initially as a cook on the Cutty Sark between 1874 and 1876, after which he served as a steward. Antonio Joaqim was discharged at London on 11 October 1877. The other two Portuguese were signed on in London in 1876 and Sydney in 1877.    
In the 1890s many British sail ships were sold to the Portuguese as the British replaced their wood and sail vessels with steam

Portuguese on board the 'Ferreira'.
View full size imagePortuguese on board the Ferreira. © NMM

and steel ones. One of these ships was the Cutty Sark, which was sold in 1895 to Ferreira & Co. of Lisbon. The Portuguese renamed her Ferreira, though they often called her 'El Pequina Camisola'.

For much of the next 26 years the Ferreira sailed between Portugal, Brazil and the Portuguese Atlantic colonies. After calling at the Surrey Commercial Docks in November 1921, the Ferreira made her last voyage to London with a Portuguese crew under a British flag in 1922.

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