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Sidebar: The Portuguese White Fleet


The Portuguese White Fleet is woven into the folkloric history of Newfoundland. Their fishing fleet, known to the Newfoundlanders as the White Fleet for its white sails, had a long-standing relationship with the people of St. John's. For Antonio da Silva, who in 1919 had stowed away -- most likely in the hull of one of the fleet -- the fishermen of the White Fleet replaced the family he had left back in Portugal.

The Portuguese had been fishing off the Grand Banks for over 400 years, since navigator Gaspar Corte-Real had proclaimed Terra Nova to be land of the King of Portugal. In the 20th century, cod fishing off the North American coast became the driving force of the Portuguese economy and culture. Here was the worker who suffered the long days of work, hand-lining for cod from his dory boat all day, only to return to the ship at sun down to spend hours splitting, gutting and salting the day's catch. The doryman was an heroic figure, a constant image of propaganda in the national media and traditional ceremony.(1)

The annual departure of the fleet from Portugal took on the proportions of an epic production. While the ships waited, rigged and ready, mass was performed for the captains, officers, fishermen, families, and dignitaries of Church and state. The service was performed either within the church or outdoors where the symbols of cross and anchor were intertwined at an altar.(2)

Our cod fishermen are about to leave for the cold and foggy seas of Newfoundland and Greenland.

In this solemn hour of parting, and for as long as they may be there, far away from us and separated from the warmth and comfort of home, we will be constantly praying for them--our way of rewarding them for their work, their sacrifice, their value--in an ever growing desire to glorify those who in so many moments of their life devote themselves to the epopoeia of fishing in the frozen regions of the North Sea.

Off they go, yet one more time. And we stay behind. We remain and with us remains the sadness of embracing happiness--the sadness of our seeing them set sail with their happiness of our awaiting their return.(3)

The ceremony was often very emotional, with tears and embraces. In Portuguese, the word describing the complex mix of emotions felt before such a journey is saudade: longing, yearning, nostalgia, joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, an ardent desire for a person who is going away, or for someone who has already gone.(4)

Each season's voyage of the Portuguese fishing fleet was called a campanha or campaign. It was somewhat like a military mission, for the doryman, like the soldier, enlisted for a certain period of time, sacrificing his life for God, country and family. The doryman wore a special uniform, used very specialized gear, lived by strict discipline, obeyed his superiors, and often confronted danger or death alone in his one-man dory.(5)

Although crucial to the collective consciousness of the Portuguese, it wasn't until 1951 that the passion and plights of their fishing expeditions was first revealed to the rest of the world. An Australian writer and man of the sea, Alan Villiers, gave a first-hand account experience in a book and two articles for the National Geographic, "I sailed with Portugal's Captains Courageous" and "The Lonely Doryman":

A tough life, you say?...A dog's life, that's what it is! My God, there is no harder life upon the sea! All fishing is tough, but that's the toughest, hardest way to make a living that I know. Those fellows will be lucky to be back home six months from now. Aye, and some of 'em won't be coming. I warn you, shipmates, things are tough all over Europe now, but don't ever ship in one of them! Those Portuguese use one-man dories. Keep out of them!(6)

The saga of this annual sailing also had its impact on St. John's Newfoundland. It was a time when codfish were plentiful and the St. John's port was bustling.(7) St. John's became the primary port of call for the White Fleet, which fished for approximately six months of the year. When the ships made scheduled and unscheduled calls to replenish supplies, make repairs, provide shore leave, land sick or injured men or seek shelter from bad weather, the sailors and fishermen became a prominent part of St. John's life.(8)

Antonio da Silva was always the first on the docks to greet them. Those fishermen replaced the family he didn't know back in Portugal. When he left, his mother sold fresh fish in the open market. He had never known his father, probably a fisherman lost at sea. For over 30 years, the kitchen of Antonio da Silva's boarding house was a safe harbour, a home away from home, for dozens of Portuguese fishermen. Antonio used to say to his daughters of the fishermen's regular visits to their home, "They're out to sea for so long and they just like to come home and have a little bit of home life. We're not their family but let's pretend while they're here."

During their time in town, the crews and dorymen played soccer along the waterfront. They visited the Fishermen's Centre and window-shopped along Water and Duckworth streets. They had a bit of money to spend, the officers more than the others. They remembered their families back home, buying souvenirs such as games, toys, dolls, perfume and cosmetics. Some men picked up merchandise they had ordered the year before. Purchases were small, but over the years it all added up. According to estimates made in 1972, each Portuguese ship that came into the harbour of St. John's spent nearly $22,000 per visit. In that year along, the Portuguese ships were reported to have spent over $5million. The annual cost of postage stamps alone added up to thousands of dollars.(9)

The people of St. John's also bought things from the fishermen, indulgences like cigarettes, gin and whiskey. The fishermen would come up to Antonio da Silva's place, for example, bringing along a fish or two, and a few jars of wine. Someone would pull out a guitar, and Antonio with his accordion or fiddle, and the party would get started. "These poor old fellows," Antonio was known to say. "They're some mother's sons. So be good to them."

There was also generous socializing with the town folk, fostering a deep rapport of friendship and interdependence. The fleets' captains were known for inviting friends and business associates from the town aboard their ships and into their dining saloons for a night of fine Portuguese cuisine. And in 1955 a festival was held in St. John's to welcome the arrival of a new addition to the fleet. The port was lined with dignitaries, businessmen and citizens.(10)

The launching of the new ship also marked the quincentennial celebration of the Portuguese presence in the waters off Newfoundland. There were celebratory masses. The St. John's film council organized a special film festival for the fishermen, with showings of the films "Portuguese Grand Bankers" and "Portuguese Golden Beaches," with announcements printed in both the Portuguese and English language. The festivities ended when a parade of 4,000 Portuguese fishermen marching to the Basilica of St. John the Baptist bearing a three-and-a-half foot high statue of Our Lady of Fatima, a gift of gratitude and friendship intended as a holy link between the two peoples. A statue of Gaspar Corte-Real also stands looking out to sea, in remembrance of the Corte-Real brothers' 1501 and 1502 exploration of these coastal waters, to which they ultimately lost their lives.(11)

It had been five hundred years since the Portuguese had first made contact with the maritime shores of Newfoundland. Occasionally over the years fishermen would come ashore to stay. By 1935 they numbered 6,000. But few of their families followed, and a Portuguese community never really rooted. What Portuguese community there ever was, gradually left for the bigger cities of Québec and Ontario.(12)

The festival year 1955 was the height of the relationship between the Portuguese and the Newfoundlanders, especially the people of St. John's. It marked the end of an era. Canada began to express concern about protection of its fish stocks and respect for the national boundaries of territorial waters. National recriminations and a rupture in the relations between Canada and Portugal ensued. On July 23, 1974 the last ship of the White Fleet, the Novos Mares, sailed out from St. John's Newfoundland.(13) The era of the Portuguese in Newfoundland was over. Antonio da Silva's family of Portuguese fishermen had gone and would not being returning to port.

Port O' Call, Memories of the Portuguese White Fleet in St. John's, Newfoundland, by Priscilla Doel
(Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, 1992).

A Future to Inherit, The Portuguese Communities in Canada, by Grame M. Anderson and David Higgs
(McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1976).

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