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A road paved with strife

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Portuguese immigration has helped improve Bermudian prosperity

The following is an edited version of a letter sent to the independent and opposition senators

The Progressive Labour Party has successfully promoted itself and its policies on a series of myths. As a Portuguese-Bermudian, one of the myths that is most offensive to Bermudians of my heritage is the notion that the Portuguese were imported to serve as a racial buffer between “coloured” Bermudians and that of white Bermudians.

Extending this myth into today’s discussion on immigration, I see the recent passing of an updated Immigration Act combined with a reading of the published report from the working group on immigration policy, which specifically states that immigration policy should redress (perceived) wrongs committed in the past, as being extremely dangerous to harmony in the community and a deliberate attempt to discriminate in favour of one group of people against another.

In fact, a letter published in the Blue Book of 1854 by the Governor, Sir Charles Elliot, states that he had not “heard any complaint” against the Portuguese from Madeira and also recommends the importation of “coloured refugees into Canada from the United States”.

So the PLP myth that the Portuguese were introduced to Bermuda for any means other than to promote a struggling agricultural industry is entirely false. Further, the Portuguese migration eventually extended beyond Madeira to include a large number of African-Portuguese from the Cape Verdes who assimilated readily into African-Bermudian communities, becoming early movers and shakers of the PLP.

To say that the ancestors of Portuguese-Bermudians were favoured by Bermuda’s immigration policy is also false, as the Portuguese were the only ethnic group for which immigration policy restricted migration through the seven-year work rule, which created tremendous hardship to Portuguese families who were not allowed to join their husbands and fathers. If the purpose for Portuguese migration was to increase the numbers of Portuguese in Bermuda, why did the Colonial Parliament in the early 20th century restrict the migration of their families?

The recent immigration legislation, as well as the report from the working group, is extremely biased towards one group of people at the expense of all others — purely based on myths promoted by the PLP and the perceptions of its supporters. I fear that the injustice coming from this legislation will result in continued strife and disharmony for centuries to come.

Before the importation of the first Portuguese in 1849, Bermuda had almost no agricultural industry. Similar complaints as we hear today were raised in letters to The Royal Gazette at the time, arguing that agriculture was already growing in Bermuda and that more would be done if the authorities allowed better compensation from it. However, parish vestries noted that Bermudians were starving and it was evident to Sir Charles and his predecessor, Sir William Reid, that something had to be done to sustain the colony — and that was through immigration.

In addition to the Portuguese, Swedes were imported, people from the Isle of Skye, and impoverished children from St Pancras. Not to diminish the contribution of these other ethnicities, the migration of the Portuguese from Madeira, Cape Verde and the Azores resulted in a huge turnaround in the fortunes of all Bermudians. Whereas before 1849 slightly more than 1,000 acres of land were being tilled in Bermuda, by 1880 in excess of 2,000 acres of land were being tilled. Soon Bermudian sloops that employed mostly African-Bermudian sailors were transporting large volumes of agricultural produce to the east coast of the United States, as well as throughout the Caribbean, whereas previously the island’s agricultural goods had to be brought in from the United States. Immigration has always been good to Bermuda and, as shown by this historical record, has resulted in the improved prosperity of all Bermudians.

If the proposed legislation is passed by the Senate, whatever government that is in power will have the legal right to discriminate against any group on the basis of ethnicity. Previous PLP administrations have deliberately reduced the migration of Portuguese, demanding through unstated immigration policies that landscapers must employ out of the West Indies. Although Bermuda’s landscapers have complied with this non-policy request, this has not been successful, despite no reported abuses by the landscapers. Remember also, the now-defunct Cure (Commission for Unity and Racial Equality) initiatives, which tried to force companies to hire more blacks. I have no doubt that, as a consequence of this recent legislation, racial quotas will be imposed on all employers when requesting work permits.

The PLP promotes an unhealthy racial bias in the community. You need only look at the racial make-up of the bipartisan advisory group on immigration by the home affairs minister. Nothing coming out of that committee will be considered fair or just if all of Bermuda’s primary ethnicities are not involved. Likewise, the present legislation has biased intent and the proposed legislation will result in a lowering of confidence among those who fear it will be used to discriminate against them, resulting in an increased flow of Bermudians overseas where their human rights will not be assaulted for political intent.

Robert R. Pires is the chairman of Bermuda Investment Advisory Services and a leader in the Portuguese-Bermudian community