by Patricia O'Sullivan

More than just chouriço and linguiça.


Portuguese Explorers' Monument at Brenton Point.

Arms and Heroes, who from Lisbon's shore,
Thro' seas where sail never spread before,
Beyond where Ceylon lifts her spicy breast,
And waves her woods o'er the wat'ry waste.

Os Lusíadas, Luís de Camões

For six hundred years, Portuguese have been leaving their native land in search of fortune, adventure, and freedom. They established settlements on six continents, making Portuguese one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Every June, Portuguese communities around the world celebrate Dia de Portugal, de Camões e das Comunidades Portuguesas (Day of Portugal, Camões, and the Portuguese Communities). Originally a national festival honoring the poet, Luís de Camões, the day has come to celebrate the Portuguese people and their culture wherever they reside.1

Despite its small population, Rhode Island has the largest percent of people in the United States who claim Portuguese as their primary ancestry. Many of their forebears arrived in Rhode Island during the previous century. However, people of Portuguese ancestry have lived in Rhode Island for the better part of its history.2

According to court records, there have been Portuguese settlers in Newport since 1684.3 Some histories qualify these settlers by their Jewish religion while others define them solely by their Jewishness, as if their Portuguese identity is incidental. One such history can be found on the Library of Congress website, which states: "The Portuguese did not establish major settlements in North America during the colonial period, but they did become an important immigrant group during the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. A few isolated settlements, such as the Portuguese-Jewish congregations in Newport, Rhode Island, and Charleston, South Carolina, have been documented in the original thirteen colonies."4 While one would hope that devaluations of the earliest Portuguese settlements in North America were uncommon, even the editor of the Portuguese American Journal wrote a few years ago: "The Portuguese presence in the United States goes back to colonial times. Still the first significant Portuguese settlements were established around 1850."5

The Jewish faith of the earliest Portuguese settlers in Newport is important, and it does not invalidate their Portuguese identity. These men, women, and children were Portuguese immigrants. They, too, took risks and traveled widely like the Portuguese heroes in Luís de Camões's national epic, Os Lusíadas. Most of them came to the New World after fleeing the Portuguese inquisition. They capitalized on contacts in other Portuguese settlements in Asia, Africa, South America, Europe, and the Caribbean to build successful merchant enterprises. They spoke Portuguese, they married into Portuguese-Jewish families, and they passed on their Portuguese surnames to their children rather than Anglicizing them as did some of their brethren in London, or replacing them with Hebrew names as did some of their brethren in Amsterdam. These immigrants embraced their Portuguese heritage as much as their Jewish faith.

By 1759, the Portuguese community in Newport was large enough to commission a house of worship, Touro Synagogue, which still stands today. We don't have exact numbers for the size of this community, but half of the family names in Touro Cemetery are Portuguese, representing nine families.6 Two more Portuguese family names are mentioned in documents from an earlier period. 7 It could be argued whether or not eleven families constitute enough persons to qualify a settlement as significant, but what cannot be denied is the influence these families had on New England's history.

Aaron Lopez and his business partner, Jacob Rivera, were merchant kings in Newport. They operated a shipping trade as well as several industries in Newport, most famously the production of spermaceti (whale oil) candles. They raised the funds to commission Touro Synagogue, and Aaron Lopez donated the land that would be used to found Leicester Academy (later Becker College) in Massachusetts. He donated lumber for the building of what would become Brown University. More importantly, he supported the Patriot cause during the Revolutionary War, supplying the American forces with necessary goods.8

The Touro family was equally influential. Isaac Touro, the leader of the Jewish congregation at Newport from 1759-1779, is credited with saving the synagogue from destruction by giving it over for use as a hospital during the British occupation of Newport. The philanthropy of his children, Judah, Abraham, and Rebecca, ensured the restoration of the synagogue, the Jewish cemetery, and the Stone Mill in Newport. In addition, Judah Touro's generosity funded dozens of institutions in New Orleans, including that city's own Touro Synagogue. Upon his death, he bequeathed $10,000 toward the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Beyond their individual deeds, these Portuguese settlers in Newport provided a corporate testament to the mission of Roger Williams to establish Rhode Island as a haven for liberty of conscience and the colony's 1663 charter granted by King Charles II, which states:

"...noe person within the sayd colonye, at any tyme hereafter, shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion, and doe not actually disturb the civill peace of our sayd colony..."9

The British blockade of Narragansett Bay in 1775 dried up Newport's thriving trade. When the British landed six thousand troops on Aquidneck Island in 1776, three quarters of the population fled to the mainland. At the end of the Revolutionary War, only a handful of the Portuguese residents returned to Newport. Three quarters of a century later, in 1858, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about the Jewish cemetery at Newport, writing:

The very names recorded here are strange,
Of foreign accent, and of different climes;
Alvares and Rivera interchange
With Abraham and Jacob of old times.
10

Longfellow visited Newport long after the Jewish community had moved away or died out and years before Rhode Island replaced Massachusetts as the primary destination of Portuguese immigrants. The 1790 census notes only three Portuguese family names among the residents of Newport11 and the Tax Book of 1855 for Newport and the Newport Directory of 1856 both list just one Portuguese surname, Seixas.12 13 Because so few people of Portuguese ancestry lived in Newport during the time of Longfellow's visit, perhaps he can be forgiven for finding their names strange. However, by 1880, about 250 residents of Newport listed their birthplace as Portugal, and by 1900 their number exceeded 1,000.14

The nineteenth-century wave of Portuguese immigrants, drawn by the whaling and textile industries, came mainly from the Azores and Cape Verde. They were Catholics most of them. Irish Catholics had been living in Newport since the early 1800s, but in typical Newport fashion, the city was no stranger to the religious diversity Catholic immigrants brought to the city. The first Catholic mass in the state of Rhode Island was held at Newport in July 1780.15 Many more masses took place in the year following to accommodate French forces, who made Newport their base after the British abandoned Aquidneck Island, ravaged by a hurricane in 1778. The anti-Catholic riots that plagued Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington in the nineteenth century did not erupt in Rhode Island. Indeed, the Rhode Island General Assembly had voted in 1783 to grant Catholics "all of the rights and privileges of the Protestant citizens of this state."16 This is not to say that immigrants and their decedents did not experience anti-Portuguese prejudice, however, the locus of this sentiment tended away from Newport.

During its 375th anniversary year, residents of Newport are celebrating their city's history as an important military and commercial port and as a center of culture. But what makes Newport stand apart from other colonial port cities is Rhode Island's history of religious tolerance and ethnic diversity. Portuguese immigrants, who tested and strengthened the state's commitment to these values, are an integral part of that history.

Originally from Massachusetts, Patricia O'Sullivan is an Adjunct Instructor of Pharmacy Administration, Religion and Philosophy at the University of Mississippi. She has written two novels about the Portuguese Jewish settlers in Newport: Legend of the Dead (set during King Philip's War) and A Notable Occupation (set during the Revolutionary War).

End Notes

  1. Day of Portugal and Portuguese Heritage in Rhode Island; accessed June 11, 2014.
  2. While the history of the region and its indigenous people dates back thousands of years, the history of Rhode Island begins in 1636.
  3. It is a widely repeated error to date Jewish settlement in Newport in 1658. See my twelve-part series "1658" in which I uncover the fraud that led to the errant 1658 date.
  4. Library of Congress, Hispanic Reading Room, "Celebrating the Portuguese Communities in America: A Cartographic Perspective"; accessed June 9, 2014.
  5. Carolina Matos, Editor, "Portuguese Americans are organized and well connected," Portuguese American Journal, April 13, 2011; accessed June 9, 2014.
  6. Internments, Colonial Jewish Cemetery of Rhode Island; accessed June 10, 2014.
  7. Mordecai Campannall and Moses Packeckoe are listed on a nineteenth-century copy of a 1677 land deed, of which there is no evidence of the original. "1658, Part II: 1658, 1677, 1684, 1750?"; accessed June 9, 2014.
  8. Holly Synder, "Guide to the papers of Aaron Lopez," American Jewish Historical Society; accessed June 11, 2014.
  9. Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, July 8, 1663; accessed June 11, 2014.
  10. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport," Birds of Passage, 1858.
  11. 1790 Rhode Island Federal Census; accessed June 10, 2014.
  12. Tax Book of the City of Newport for 1855, A. Crawford Greene, State Printer, 1855; accessed June 10, 2014.
  13. The Newport directory, containing the names of the citizens, a business directory, city record, government of state, & C, 1856-'57, William H. Boyd, Compiler and Publisher, 229 Broadway, New York; accessed June 10, 2014.
  14. 1880 Rhode Island Federal Census, 1900 Rhode Island Federal Census; accessed June 11, 2014.
  15. Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, "History"; accessed June 11, 2014.
  16. Records of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England; Printed by order of the General Assembly and edited by John Russell Bartlett, Secretary of State; Vol IX; 1780-1783; Alfred Anthony, Printer to the State, Providence, 1864; pg. 674-675.

This article last edited January 9, 2015

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