Early Portuguese settlement in Nova Scotia

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Monument dedicated to the First European settlers in Nova Scotia on the Halifax waterfront.

There is a monument dedicated to the First European settlers in Nova Scotia on the Halifax waterfront.  Some historians contend that after the Vikings, the first attempt at establishing a permanent colony in Canada was led by navigator João Alvares Fagundes circa 1520. In 1570, Captain Francisco de Souza, governor of the island of Madeira, reported that under license by King Manuel I, João Alvares Fagundes created a settlement in the new land of the Cod Fish. The location of this settlement has never been found but believed to have been somewhere in Cape Breton. Although no permanent communities are known to have lasted, the Portuguese presence in Atlantic Canada continues to this day while men fish for cod on the Grand Banks.

João Alvares Fagundes was born circa 1460 in the Kingdom of Portugal, and died in 1522. He was an explorer and ship owner from Viana do Castelo in Northern Portugal, and organized several expeditions to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia around 1520-1521.

King Manuel I of Portugal gave Fagundes exclusive rights and ownership of his discoveries on March 13, 1521.

The islands of St. Paul near Cape BretonSable Island, Penguin Island (now known as Funk Island), Burgeo, and Saint Pierre and Miquelon which he named the islands of Eleven Thousand Virgins in honour of Saint Ursula and led several families and couples, mostly from the Azores (especially from the island of Terceira, who were gathered en route) were explored by Fagundes, together with his vice-captain (Pêro de Barcelos or other navigator), and accompanied by colonists (mostly from the Azores and some of mainland Portugal)

It is believed that contact with these intrepid settlers was lost, and that according to Basque fisherman decades later that this colony was assumed to be Cape Breton. This colony existed until late into the 16th century.

In 1607 the French explorer Samuel de Champlain identified the remains of a large cross at what is now Advocate, Nova Scotia on the Minas Basin. The erection of the cross has attributed by some historians to Fagundes, since he has been presumed to have visited the spot some eight decades earlier.

It is believed that Diogo de Teive who set out from Lisbon in 1452, had previously explored the east coast of Canada, although it is unclear who may have landed in Canada prior to John Cabot’s historic voyage in 1497. Diogo’s exploration would eventually influence Christopher Columbus. It is well documented that Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real landed in Newfoundland in 1501 and his statue stands proudly in St. John’s today.

Evidence of the Portuguese presence manifested in the many place’s names of Portuguese origin in Atlantic Canada is evident along the shoreline. Most notable perhaps is the name Labrador which is believed to be named after João Fernandes, a “lavrador,” (a farmer).

In the early 1600s Portuguese-born Mateus Da Costa, might be considered the first Portuguese person to have lived in Canada. He was Samuel de Champlain’s interpreter in his contacts with Natives. A few decades later, a handful of men, possibly mercenaries, came to settle in Acadia and New France. Most notable among them was Pedro da Silva “Le Portugais” (1647-1717) who has come to be known as Canada’s first letter carrier. He paddled in his canoe between Montreal and Quebec City delivering mail. This handful of men assimilated fully into Canadien society are the ancestors of the thousands of Dassilva, (sometimes spelt Dasylva or Dassylva) or Rodrigue that live in Canada today, particularly in Quebec.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of large-scale Portuguese immigration to Canada, this stamp was issued by Canada Post in 2003 commemorates Pedro da Silva

In the 19th century, there were other scattered male migrants from the Portuguese world that made their way to Canada. Francisco Silva (anglicized to Frank Silver) settled in Hantsport in Nova Scotia and became a noted naïve painter. During the Klondike years in Dawson City, there were a few Portuguese men among the hodgepodge of gold-seekers. In the coastal Arctic communities farther north, Portuguese sailors, were highly valued crew members aboard American whaling expeditions, particularly men from the Azores and Cape Verde. Their descendants continue to live in northern communities such as Inuvik and Tuktoyuktuk

The number of Portuguese stowaways to Canada seemed to increase in the early 1900s as steamships become prevalent in the North Atlantic. Most of them appear to have settled in the Maritimes and taken Canadian wives. Francisco da Silva (1900 -1936) who arrived as a young teen became a successful Lunenburg fisherman and crew member of the famous schooner the Bluenose. Antonio da Silva (1904 -1984) from Newfoundland, served as a cultural beacon for the homesick Portuguese fishermen of the White Fleet. Eduardo Antonio Alves (1898-1960) who settled in southern Ontario served as an interpreter in the Canadian Army in World War I and earned a military medal from Portugal. During WWII he served overseas again for Canada and earned military medals for this country.

In the new millennium there are an estimated 400,000 people of Portuguese birth or descent living in Canada, making it one of the most sizeable ethnic communities. Like all other ethnic groups in Canada, Portuguese have helped enrich arts, sports, politics, business, science, cuisine, and much more. Portuguese living in Canada have rooted and created a wonderfully unique Portuguese Canadian culture. The Portuguese community is one of the many gems that make up the Canadian mosaic.