Wreath laying tradition continues at unmarked Portuguese grave
For the third year in a row, Portuguese sailors stood at an unmarked grave in St. John’s for a man named Dionisiv Esteves and laid a wreath in his honour.
Esteves was a member of the famous White Fleet. He died in 1966 while unloading his daily catch of cod from his dory. He was crushed between his little boat and that of the steel hull of the fishing vessel Santa Maria Manuela when his dory was swamped.
Three years ago, his unmarked grave was discovered in Mount Carmel Cemetery near Quidi Vidi Lake. Each year since, Esteves’ grave has been recognized in a wreath ceremony. This year, crew of the Portuguese Naval Ocean Patrol vessel, NRP Viana De Castello, took part in the ceremony held Friday.
“It’s an honour to be here,” Raul Machado told The Telegram.
Machado is the weapons and electronics engineer on the Viana De Castello. It’s the first year he has been a part of the ceremony but the link between Newfoundland and Portugal is well-known to him.
“It’s a big tradition in the fishing communities to send their men to Newfoundland and Labrador to search for cod fish which is, if I can say, the national dish in Portugal,” he said.
Esteves’ unmarked grave and the yearly ceremony that takes place at it has come to be a way to remember all those from Portugal that have lost their lives in the fishery off Newfoundland and Labrador over the years.
Larry Dohey, manager of collections at the provincial archives, was in attendance at the ceremony and spoke afterwards about the importance of keeping the cultural connections that played a role in shaping the history of Newfoundland.
“We’ve had those connections for a long time,” he said. “Everyone remembers the Portuguese in the streets of St. John’s playing soccer and just very much being a part of the community.”
Up through the ’70s and early ’80s during his time at MUN, Dohey said the sons of the captains of the White Fleet were in the university and he knew many of them well.
There is of course the camaraderie different cultures share when they both know the dangers of a life on the ocean. Esteves’ death was similar to that of many a Newfoundlander or Labradorian.
“It’s always touching. We don’t know, personally, their stories ,of course,” Machado said of learning of such stories.
He added that despite technology today being far advanced compared to the Portuguese fishermen of the past, there is still time to reflect on what they faced.
“We can see that the weather isn’t always nice to the fleet and also the fog — it’s oppressing,” he said. We still feel in our guts the respect that it imposes. It’s our obligation to honour their memory, those who have lost their lives here.”
It is the history his country has on the sea and the peril that comes with it that made the story of Esteves’ unmarked grave familiar to Machado.
“Life at sea is a risky one and in Portugal we used to hear a lot of stories like that. And it’s one of our missions of the Viana De Castello navy ship to conduct search and rescue missions. So all the crew fulfills this mission with a great responsibility. It’s our job to try (and keep) those stories from happening often.”
The ceremony at Mount Carmel Cemetery grave has done more than to just commemorate those who have lost their lives at sea or act as a warning of the dangers that come with a life on the ocean.
It has also provided some peace of mind and closure for the family of Dionisiv Esteves. Two years ago when the grave was discovered, it made headlines in the Portuguese press. Both the daughter and brother of Esteves learned of the final resting place of their loved one.
“Before this they just made the assumption that their father and brother was buried some place in Newfoundland but they had no idea where he was,” Dohey said.
“So they were really quite thrilled to learn that some recognition has been given, that a marker is going to be designed and placed on the place where he was buried.”
Dohey recently learned of another connection between Portugal and Newfoundland. It turns out that in 1917, a young man from Portugal signed up with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
He died in the Fields of France alongside the fighting Newfoundlanders.