Portuguese Navy Yard 1905- Courtesy of the N.B. Whaling Museum

Remembering New Bedford’s Portuguese Navy Yard and Shanty Town


The Portuguese have a long, prominent role in the development of western civilization, the New World, and progress of the nation. There is hardly a facet of the planet’s history that this tiny nation did not have some influence over. So, it should come as no surprise that the Portuguese also had a central role in the development of this region in general, and specifically New Bedford.

By the 15th century the Portuguese were known as some of the greatest seafarers, whalers, fishermen, navigators, cartographers, and shipbuilders, so it was simply a matter of time before they began to migrate to the whaling capital of the world. Here is a spot on earth where not only were there major opportunities available, but in an area where they specialized and excelled. They were so refined in this area that it is not uncommon to find children as young as 11 years of age on a whaling vessel. It’s almost as if it is written in their DNA!

As the 16th century opened its eyes, the Portuguese were already colonizing parts of South America and poking their noses around New Foundland and Labrador, even claiming it for the crown. What funded much of these explorations was proselytization, but as momentum was achieved they began to establish industries and trade. They began with cod as a commodity, but eventually established sugar cane plantations which in turn created a massive demand for labor for which the slave trade was established. Slavery and the treatment of natives while attempting to convert them were two of the darkest moments in humanity and Portugal’s history.

Today Brazil is home to 110 million people of Portuguese ancestry. Pretty impressive considering that Portugal itself only has 11.5 million people. America claims 1.5 million people of Portuguese ancestry, the largest communities centralized in Metro Boston (195,000+), Greater New York/New Jersey/Connecticut (130,000+) area and San Francisco (124,000+). Massachusetts is home to almost 300,000 people of Portuguese ancestry (beat only by California) with most communities in East Cambridge, Lowell, Taunton, Fall River, Dartmouth and of course New Bedford. The majority of the population in the New Bedford area were Azorean and when the whaling industry died, the next waves of immigrants sought construction and unskilled labor.

Wider Shot of Shanties – Courtesy of the N.B. Whaling Museum

In that latter part of the 19th century and the when the 20th century was just getting its legs under it, there was a wave of Portuguese to New Bedford and it is here that brings us to the point of this particular article. The whaling industry begun to peter out and sputter to a conclusion leaving many of Portuguese descent searching for a means to support their families and put food on the table. Having the aforementioned predilection for the sea, DNA “profile” and having a long storied history of navigation, ship building, and sailing it was a no-brainer that the population gravitated to the waterfront. The poorest began to build shanties, or crudely built shacks at the edge of the waterfront, particularly at the foot of Potomska Street. A modest shantytown developed and was dubbed the “Portuguese Navy Yard.”

Not only did being at the edge of the water remind them of home, history and past glory, but this is where all the industry was. If labor was needed they were ready. If ship repairs, building or containment was needed they were available. They could also fish, quahog, and trap lobster and crab; anyway to generate revenue. They could jump at the smallest of jobs and make enough to feed their families and that has always been a priority of theirs.

Unfortunately the Hurricane of ’38 not only was disastrous for the area, it was catastrophic for the Portuguese Navy Yard. It was completely and totally wiped away. As happens with many events of history, they are overshadowed by relatively greater events and swept away often almost disappearing. A symbolic second hurricane if you will. These images which were generously provided by the New Bedford Whaling Museum and Spinner Publications are the only photos of the Portuguese Navy Yard that are known of. Surely someone, somewhere in an attic, cellar, or dusty photo album there are some forgotten treasures. By all means, if these images stir your memory and you have anything related, please share them!

About Joe Silvia

When Joe isn't writing, he's coaching people to punch each other in the face. He enjoys ancient cultures, dead and living languages, cooking, benching 999#s, and saving the elderly, babies and puppies from burning buildings. While he enjoys long walks on the beach, he will not be your alarm clock, because he's no ding-a-ling.

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  1. I am deaf Portuguese a man in ma.

  2. This is a beautifully interesting story Joe…I wish we actually still had such a community still exiting here in NB…I imagine it would be retrofitted to today’s standards with a bunch of artists and bohemian types living in them amongst some of the descendants still living in them!

  3. Thanks for the feedback Freddie! That’s an equally interesting idea you have there!


  5. What is your view on Miguel Cort-Real and Dighton Rock ?
    I find it interesting that Columbus never stepped foot in North America, but gets the credit for being the first European.

  6. Agh I can’t even fathom how you think this is an appropriate response to my pointing out that the word “colonizing” was used to sugar coat the Portuguese slave trading in South America, etc. Just call it what it was if you think it was ok since Africans sold their own. Which clearly you do after that comment and link. Sincerely, white privileged and honest.

    • The point being you decided to smear the Portuguese instead of celebrating their culture like this article did. There is no culture more evil than the other. There is no culture without their bigots or criminals. If you are going to go around the internet smearing Europeans I just think you need to include the entire picture. There were evil Portuguese that shipped off slaves from Africa to the new world. But there were also evil Africans that rounded up the slaves, most dying before they even reached those ships. It would be silly for me to post the article that I did as a reply to an article celebrating Africans (and I’ve written several), so please don’t smear the Portuguese on an article celebrating their heritage.

      Search this website and you’ll see I’ve written or published about a dozen articles celebrating the contribution of African Americans to New Bedford. If someone posted a link smearing African-Americans, on an article meant to celebrate them, I’d reply with the same rebuttal.

  7. Why does everything have to come down to racism and why is every “white” person by default a racist and privileged until proven otherwise?

    I will not apologize for highlighting an ethnic community in the city’s history. Nor will I substitute colonizing for “raping, pillaging and plundering.” It’s redundant and unnecessary. There is a time and a place for that and this article was not it.

    You may feel that you are the only one privy to what “colonizing” means, as if it’s some sort of little known, secret knowledge, but it’s actually common knowledge. You aren’t declaring anything that everyone who read the article didn’t already know.

    As for the white privilege insult, we are Sicilian with our own history of being slaves. The African culture does not have the monopoly on slaves in their history. We have more in common than you think.

    • Steven H. Carreiro

      Well said Joe and thank you for the fine lesson in cultural history. Keep up the good work we in the Portuguese community appreciate and are extremely proud of you.

  8. This is a wonderful article…. I am a New Bedford native. My dad was of Portuguese descent. I’m very proud of this… Every race, every culture has made slaves of another.. This is how civilizations grew. History is what it is… It cannot be changed. What we need to do as we go forward is embrace our differences, appreciate what the other guy brings to the table. Leave the racist bull….t out of the conversation.. There is no time to waste on that stuff…

  9. I can’t imagine how tough it must have been living there, but they did and made every day count. Today, we have to have each and every modern gadget and we’re still looking for more to make us happy. I hope that each and every one of them has a beautiful home in heaven.Amen.

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