Melungeons were Portuguese?

This entry is part 11 of 14 in the series Melungeons

PortugueseIt’s easy to see how uneducated mountaineers might have classified people who were Italian, Greek, Latino or Portuguese, as coming from African roots due to their darker colors. Two hundred years ago, education was a luxury in a life of bare survival.

It’s not so simple to understand how those biases hold any legitimacy in the modern world. With respect to what the original people claimed for over a century, there are many indicators that they were indeed Portuguese. A considerable number of alternative evidences do support this.

By far, the most substantial reason: the original Melungeons stated they were. There is no doubt or confusion in the matter. Even the most slanderous and derogatory articles acknowledge this admission. With the mass influx of immigrants coming to the New World during that era, it’s simply unlikely they would have reason to hide their heritage. The Melungeons were in the area decades before the 1834 ruling that free persons of color couldn’t vote.

Another intriguing aspect is that descendents of the Mullins, Collins and Gibson families, who lived there, have been tested. Their DNA proves European ancestry, consistent with the Portuguese theory.

In all fairness, it should also be stated they didn’t develop their animosity towards other persons of color until they, themselves, became victims of discriminatory behavior. Many of the older generations blamed the slaves and former slaves, for “ruining their lives.”

It wasn’t just a verbal admission, either. The people obviously physically resembled the Portuguese, far more so than Native or African individuals (otherwise, they would’ve lost their case in court). Countless documents mentioned their strange coloring, unlike any other group. They used a strange language. Lastly, Portuguese history, like Melungeon history, is not as documented as it should be.

There is never a question as to how a group of isolationists, that were considered uneducated, would even know of Portugal? They had no books, no maps and no written documents. Most households didn’t even have a bible. Then, they just happened to pick a nation that contains people who are also darker in color.

Burial customs are also intriguing. Historically, Portugal always had an elaborate system for dealing with the deceased. Their dead weren’t buried at all. When a person died, they were placed in charnal house, or ossuaries, to decay. When the corpse was nothing more than bones, it was taken to a permanent resting place inside a church or other building considered “holy.”

There is also a common fear that wild animals will disturb the dead. Even in the Nineteenth Century, British Protestant ground burials in Portugal occurred in a place that was secured, so animals couldn’t enter. In the Melungeon community, small houses were build atop the graves. In Europe, grave houses weren’t just protection from animals and the elements, but also from grave robbers.

The community did not practice any kind of formal or informal leadership. There were no mayors, kings, chieftains, officials or any other social hierarchy. They had a group of elders, which also coincides with Portugual, as many places there even today utilize what is called a “parish council.”

There is also the peculiar naming system Dromgoole discussed.

“They resort to a very peculiar method of distinguishing themselves. Jack Collins’ wife for instance will be Mary Jack. His son will be Ben Jack. His daughters’ names will be similar; Nancy Jack or Jane Jack, as the case may be, but always having the father’s Christian name attached.”

This practice is called Patronymics and it was introduced by the Romans. The father’s given name becomes the child’s surname. It is still common today in Portugal. Portugal has a long history of carrying parental names. The extra names come from the parents. Portuguese women today can have up to six surnames. Names can commonly involve 12 words. This is also likely a factor in why it’s so difficult to trace the Melungeon elders.

This has also been used to support claims that surnames were “stolen” from others, reinforcing the notion that they were thieves. It’s more probable that the community decided they needed consistent surnames to match the world around them.

The elders of the community also had bits of pottery as their “relics,” and many with Maltese crosses. Portugal is known for azulejos, a beautiful glazed tile produced in the nation. During the 16th and 17th Centuries, entire buildings were covered with these.

The Maltese cross is a symbol used by Portuguese Templars. It is an emblem of the Order of Christ, an order that Vasco de Gama himself was associated with.

The Portuguese prowess for navigating oceans was admired by both Spain and France. The Portuguese were settling in Brazil as far back as 1508. Portuguese navigator Gaspar Cortereal explored as far north as Newfoundland and he is credited with naming “Labrador.” A Portuguese navigator Verrazano sailed from North Carolina to Newfoundland, as a favor to France, in 1524.

There’s also an extensive history of Portuguese emigrants in the southern states. This is particularly true of Portuguese Jews, also called Sephardic Jews. The horrors of the Inquisition followed them from Europe, then England. Many would not be welcomed in the Puritanical northern colonies, but found acceptance in the southern colonies.

It’s estimated that during the 17th and 18th Centuries, there were around 200 wealthy Jewish families in England and over 2/3 were Spanish or Portuguese. No matter how successful they were in England, they remained stigmatized. They ventured on to the New World.

Most of those who fled to South Carolina were not native English. They’d merely attempted life in England. The Jewish people found their own colony, beside of what is today Savannah, Georgia. The Jewish colony began around 1733 and nearly all of them were Portuguese natives.

This was also a similar settlement in what is today Charleston, South Carolina. Abraham de Lyon, for example, was a vineron, or winemaker, in Portugal. He is said to have been originally Spanish, but all records point to his winemaking in Portugal. The skilled horticulturist applied for a grant to start his own vineyard and local leaders were hopeful. He applied for a loan to start the vineyard, but the proceeds were overtaken by Oglethorpe. Oglethorpe’s merciless policies drove many away, including de Lyon, who was only given a pittance of the money he requested. As Oglethorpe’s reign ended, de Lyon returned.

There were countless Sephardic Jews all over the south. Henry De Castro colonized thousands of people in Texas, while Jacob de Cordova was among the first to encourage settlers to move there. Judah P. Benjamin was an adamant supporter of slavery. Solomon Heydenfeldt, of Alabama, was a rigid abolitionist.


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