While this property is earmarked for the development of RGM’s new signature property, we thought we would pay homage to the rich history of the club that used to occupy the site…
During the 19th century, Portuguese immigrants came to Trinidad to work the country’s sugar and cocoa estates under the new indentureship laws. Some were fleeing religious persecution, others were simply looking for better economic prospects. They hailed mainly from Madeira, a small archipelago situated just north of the Canary Islands – and these new settlers formed the core of what would become Trinidad’s Portuguese community – a community that produced literary pioneers like Alfred Mendes, political champions like Albert Gomes and business leaders like JB Fernandes.
Now, the history of the Portuguese in Trinidad and the future of RGM are linked. The legacy of the Portuguese community’s entrepreneurial spirit will inspire RGM’s new flagship building – Savannah East. Not to be confused with the Portuguese Association, which was founded on July 16, 1905 by the Madeiran settlers, the Portuguese Club was started by a group of Portuguese Trinidadians on December 5, 1927.
Interestingly, the Club was a split from the Association. The latter began as a way of getting Portuguese nationals together through the formation of a dramatic club, which would stage plays and concerts to raise funds for the poorer members of their community. Two years later, the Association had its first set of rules – its first Constitution, you could say – after which membership fees and regular meetings became the norm. It soon began putting its subscriptions towards health and funeral benefits for member families, and even hired medical officers – but the Association was still predominantly a bar and gathering place for Portuguese men, boasting over 100 active members. Around 1916, the Association morphed from a friendly society into a company. It was looking to purchase a property and two years later, eventually bought #50 Richmond Street for $7,500. The Portuguese Consulate is still housed there today.
The Club, on the other hand, while encouraging a sense of community, focused on cultural dissemination. It was essen- tially a social club that was much more open to welcoming people of non-Portuguese descent: In her book The Portuguese of Trinidad and Tobago, Jo-Anne S. Ferreira writes: “Non-
Portuguese spouses of Portuguese members could become ordinary members of the Portuguese Club under certain restrictions, but not at the Associação Portuguesa.” In examin- ing the forces that prompted the division, Ferreira says: “The Association managed to build bridges among the Portuguese in the country and even to break down barriers of class by uniting employer and employee on the same boards. Yet it ultimately failed to unite the Madeiran-born and the Creoles…the failure to overcome these differences inevitably led to the formation of the Portuguese Club.” Essentially, the falling out was over the role of Creole-born Portuguese, who were rarely given a voice in the decision-making of the Association.
The first meetings of the Portuguese Club were in members’ homes, but in September 1928, the group acquired its first clubhouse at #105 St. Vincent Street. It moved to #11 Queen’s Park East in March, 1934. The antagonism between the two entities was not encouraged for long, though: members of the Association were welcome to also join the Club and vice-versa. According to Ferreira, the Club’s membership comprised mainly well-to-do second and third generation English-speaking Portuguese, both men and women. Because of its popular socials, the Club soon gained the reputation of being a haven for the upwardly ambitious – it was the place to see and be seen.
Events were always well attended – and as the community became more Trinidadian, indigenous Carnival costumes began to take their place alongside traditional Madeiran peasant outfits. Sports were also quite popular – the men’s arm of the Club played mainly cricket and football, but there was also volleyball, tennis, rugby, badminton and swimming. The women were not excluded – today’s vibrant Magnolias hockey team took form under the umbrella of the Portuguese Club.
RGM is humbled to be occupying a property with such a rich history, where issues of the day were discussed, and by extension, the profile of a new era of Portuguese-Trinidadians was brought into wider consciousness in their forefathers’ adopted land. We are sure that the Portuguese spirit of industri- ousness, creativity and integrity will permeate the walls of Savannah East and make it, once again, the place to be.
*Special thanks to Jo-Anne Ferreira, for her contribution to this article.