When Joe Portuguese died in a fire in 1841, the obituaries, along with the details of his life as a “character,” told the story of his one great patriotic deed, performed many years earlier in a place far from New Orleans. Portuguese Joe, it was reported, had participated in the famous sea-fight on Lake Champlain in the War of 1812, serving on the Saratoga under Commodore Thomas McDonough. This unexpected American victory over superior British forces catapulted Commodore McDonough to prominence. McDonough’s fame spread across the country, turning him by war’s end, a rival to Andrew Jackson, the hero of the battle of New Orleans. Contemporary accounts of Commodore McDonough’s exploits at Lake Champlain cast the ship’s commanding officer as a single heroic figure in a great victory over an enemy with superior forces. If anyone else behaved heroically in this victory at Lake Champlain, that fact goes unmentioned. In fact, the part played by Joe Portuguese, McDonough’s captain of the main-top, would be given its small share of the permanence newsprint accords only on the occasion of his death.
In death Joe Portuguese became something different and more honorable than merely a comical barman. He was given a hero’s funeral, and in its report the Daily Picayune told the story of Joe’s one extraordinary deed:
We long ago heard an anecdote of poor old Joe that obtained some of local knowledge by verbal communication from one to the other. He was captain of the main-top on board of Com. McDonough’s ship “Saratoga,” at the famous battle of Lake Champlain, at the time that the American flag was shot from the mast. In the very heat of the action, when shots were flying thick as hail, he stuck a hammer in his belt, a dozen nails in his pocket, the flag in his mouth, and mounted to the mast-head. All means of fastening the flag in any other manner had vanished long before in progress of the engagement. Joe nailed the flag to the topmast and descended safely to the deck amid the enthusiastic cheers of his shipmates! The anecdote we had often intended to tell before, but, among many other matters well worthy of type, it has remained in neglect.
To this anecdote the Daily Picayune added the information that while he was “known here by almost everybody only as ‘Portuguese Joe,’ few were aware of his right name, which we found some trouble in ascertaining yesterday. He was called, when addressed properly, Louis D’Jose, and he will be consigned to the tomb today.”[i]
Several months later the Daily Picayune, capitalizing on a recent meeting with Capt. Aaron Fitzgerald, a marine aboard the Saratoga under Commodore McDonough in 1812, chose to recall still again Joe Portuguese’s remarkable feat:
Capt. Fitzgerald interested us deeply with his description of the exciting scene.-The flag had been twice shot down, and fell at length to the deck. Bullets were flying like hail through the sails and rigging. There was a single instant’s pause when the flag dropped, as if all hearts sunk with it, and the next moment every eye in the vessel was turned aloft, and every voice broke out in long, deafening cheers, when brave Joe was seen dashing up the shrouds, with his mouth full of nails, a hammer in his belt, and the banner of the Union around his neck! He ran like a squirrel to the mast-head, and there clung as a living target for the British marines, until he drove his last nail through the flag into the truck; and, as the glorious stripes floated off again upon the breeze, he hung beneath it, waving his tarpaulin at the British vessels, and returning triumphantly the shouts and cheers of his shipmates below! The brave sailor reached the deck in safety: he had before been the pet of the ship, and now he became the hero. Capt. Fitzgerald was himself wounded in the action, having the upper part of his shoulder shot away by a cannon ball, and Joe became at once his watchful and attentive nurse. The Captain speaks of this with warm and grateful recollection. Poor old Joe’s exploit is well worthy to prove a theme for some American Dibdin to enweave in song for our sailors of another generation.[ii]
Unfortunately, Joe Portuguese’s story has not yet attracted its Charles Dibdin, an English poet and composer known for his songs celebrating heroic deeds of patriotism, it does make a cameo appearance in a dialect poem addressed to the Daily Picayune in 1842:
I hears of things, sometimes, my Pic,
Vot sets my eyes a veepin’,
And often sorrows come so thick
One don’t care how they deepen.
In von short moment vot we once
Gets all knock’d into smashes,-
Poor, poor old ‘Joe,’ the ‘Portuguese’-
Peace, peace be to his ashes![iii]
Obituaries and doggerel verse notwithstanding, it was the fate of Joe Portuguese to have both his names disappear almost immediately, unlike, for example, that of Wyoming’s John “Portugee” Phillips, the emigrant from the island of Pico whose extraordinary exploit is celebrated on a monument erected by the Historical Landmark Commission of Wyoming in 1936, with these words: “In honor of John (Portugee) Phillips who Dec. 22-24, 1866, rode 236 miles in sub-zero weather through Indian infested country to Fort Laramie to summon aid for the garrison of Fort Phil Kearny beleaguered by Indians following the Fetterman massacre.”
Perhaps it is not entirely surprising to learn that individuals like Emanuel Holmes, Joseph Joachim De Ornellas Evasconcellos de Figura, and Louis D’Jose, after fulfilling their natural part in the common doom, disappeared from the annals of history. But it is surprising to learn of the disappearance from all histories-national, regional or local-of a whole enclave of Portuguese emigrants in New York.[iv] In 1873, Leo Pap tells us, there was “a very small Portuguese immigrant colony in New York,” but that even as late as 1898 it numbered “no more than about 100 individuals.”[v] It is pretty certain that Pap’s figure does not include the members of the Portuguese enclave that in 1889 was written up in the New York Times as “People from Portugal: A Picturesque Colony on Conover-Street in South Brooklyn”:
The Portuguese colony in this city is comparatively small, and the immigrants from the little strip of land on the Atlantic’s European shore are quickly swallowed up among the Spaniards, Cubans, and Italians who make their homes together in the city. But there is a little bit of water front in South Brooklyn where the Portuguese vessels all seem to tie up, and there the language can be heard any day and a glimpse of the true, though poorer, class of inhabitants of Portugal can be obtained. The vinous and other products of the country are stored in warehouses along Conover-street, and it is back of these that the Portuguese ships are docked. The vessels are nearly all sailing craft, with ugly-looking masts, dirty sails, but invariably with elaborately-carved and brilliantly painted or gilded figure-heads. The vessels are broad and roomy and look as though they would be a paradise for rats. Room is more looked after than fast-sailing qualities.
Conover-street is a curious place. For nearly half a mile it is practically a pier, for it is all planked, and, for the most part, blocked with piles of merchandise. Finally it emerges from under an arch into a broad street lined with houses, where seafaring men have their homes. Along the portion where the bows of the Portuguese ships extend over the planked way on a pleasant Sunday afternoon the Portuguese can be seen in their glory. Women in scarlet bodices and skirts of the colors of the rainbow are perched upon the spiling or on boxes. Clotheslines laden with variegated garments spread along the decks, while below, in groups of five to a dozen, the swarthy-looking men smoke fantastically-fashioned pipes and wildly gesticulate in their noisy arguments. Cheap wine is drank, often from the bottle, which is passed around from one to another, or poured into cups from wicker flasks.
Mixed in the crowd are black-faced half-breeds and negroes, sailors from the Canaries and Southern Islands. The book idea of a Spanish Main pirate is pictured on many a face, though their ferocity is mostly expressed in countenance and is only skin deep. The police do not have near as much trouble with them as with their Italian neighbors. They keep to their ships and rarely wander far for purposes of sightseeing. Yesterday there was a great crowd of them chattering like so many parrots and giving the street the appearance of a Spanish dock. This little colony there is not heard of often in Brooklyn, and few know of its existence.[vi]
The fate of this “little colony” remains a mystery.
George Monteiro is Professor Emeritus of English and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, Brown University, and he continues as Adjunct Professor of Portuguese Studies at the same university. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature in Brazil– Sao Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, and Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop and Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot.
[i] Quoted in the Boston Daily Atlas (Dec. 13, 1842, p. 1. See also the Barre Gazette (Massachusetts) (Dec. 15, 1842), p. 2, and the Vermont Gazette (Jan. 10, 1843), p. 2.
[ii] “Old Portuguese Joe,” New Orleans Daily Picayune (Apr. 18, 1843), p. 1, and Southern Patriot (Charleston, S.C.) (Apr. 26, 1843), p. 2.
[iii] “To the Pic-Forebodings,” Daily Picayune (Dec. 27, 1842), p. 2, and Southern Patriot (Charleston, S.C.) (Jan. 5, 1843), p. 1.
[iv] In “Portuguese Enclaves: The Invisible Minority,” an essay based on work done in communities in Rochester and Corning, New York; Provincetown and Fall River, Massachusetts; Newark, New Jersey; Toronto, Canada; and London, England, the anthropologist M. Estellie Smith defines “a territorial enclave” as “a spatially cohesive neighborhood.” The places she chose for her study were largely major Portuguese communities (Identity: Problems of Persistence and Change, ed. Thomas K. Fitzgerald [Athens: Southern Anthropological Society, distributed by the University of Georgia Press, 1974], pp. 82, 90). When the emphasis falls on the term “neighborhood” in this definition of “enclave,” a plethora of smaller Portuguese-American communities suggest themselves, such as Bethlehem and Erie (Pennsylvania), Springfield (Illinois), Ludlow, Lowell and Peabody (Massachusetts), Mineola (New York), Stonington (Connecticut) as well as, a myriad of locations in California, as possibilities for fruitful study.
[v] Leo Pap, The Portuguese-Americans (Boston: Twayne, 1981), pp. 64-65.
[vi] “People from Portugal: A Picturesque Colony on Conover-Street in South Brooklyn,” New York Times (August 12, 1889), p. 2.