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José d’Almeida Carvalho e Silva, 1774-1850

Pioneering doctor, revolutionary, and botanist

By Anthony Correa

The Portuguese have a long history around the Straits of Malacca, but along with the Dutch & British, they largely ignored the island of Singapore for the best part of 3 centuries, preferring Malacca, Penang, Java / Batavia, Sumatra and the Riau islands. The British finally decided to establish a trading port there in 1819. Shortly after its founding, Sir Stamford Raffles invited a Portuguese revolutionary, Dr Jose d’Almeida to help establish Singapore’s early healthcare system. His remarkable story is one born out of historical events in Europe and Asia, a healthy dose of luck and a commitment to his people.

Early Life and Macau

Jose D’Almeida Carvalho e Silva was born in 1784 in Sao Pedro do Sul, Northern Portugal, the son of Jose d’Almeida and Maria Joaquina de Louroiro. He trained as a doctor at the Coimbra School of Medicine and Surgery, then as was common for many young educated men of his day, he entered the service of the navy as a ship’s surgeon. He moved to Macau in 1810 as Director of St. Raphael’s Hospital (now the Portuguese Consulate building) and married Rosalia Vieira Ribeiro de Sousa. The hospital was Macau’s only health establishment at that time and he was well respected, growing his family and position within society.

History Intervenes

In 1820 the Liberal Revolution took place in Portugal starting in Porto not far from his birth place. News did not reach Macau until 2 years later, after which the city descended into chaos. The Governor Joze Ozório de Castro Cabral e Albuquerque and the Ouvidor (ombudsman or magistrate who ran the administration) Miguel de Arriaga Brun da Silveira were dismissed. Members of the Leal Senado were removed, and others of a more liberal turn of mind elected in their place, a process repeated in other civilian and military institutions in the city. Macao cut ties binding it to Goa, an act tantamount to treason. This liberalist movement had been brewing for years. Born out of frustration amongst local Macau elite in the military, civil service, business and also the catholic church. There were many unresolved problems, unfair policies and taxes that had been imposed by the administration in Goa, that many felt were out of touch with the political and economic conditions in Macau and China. The aspirations of the local Macanese were for full 20 independence to run their affairs without administration or oversight from Goa. (These feelings were mirrored in other Far East Portuguese outposts of Timor and Solor, in the Flores Islands and were only resolved two decades later in 1844 with the creation of the Province of Macau, Solor and Timor.) Dr d’Almeida was one of the leaders of this movement for greater autonomy. He and other revolutionary leaders were able to operate Macau independently for a year, until the arrival of a military force sent by the Viceroy of Portuguese India, Dom Manuel da Cámara, an ardent supporter of the absolutist King Dom Miguel I. The revolutionary leaders in Macau were arrested, including Dr d’Almeida, and sent to Goa to be tried. Dr d’Almeida was in good company in Goa. Other jailed revolutionaries included the Rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary, Fr. Pinto e Maia, the President of the Leal Senado, Colonel Paulino Barboso, his comrade-in-arms António de Holanda Cavalcanti (who would later serve as Minister in various governments of Brazil), and Fr. António de São Gonçalo de Amarante, editor of the first Portuguese newspaper in the Far East. The political situation remained unstable in Portugal and there was to be a civil war to follow (Guerra dos Dois Irmãos 1828-1934) between factions loyal to Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil and his younger brother Dom Miguel (leader of the Miguelista army). Amongst this uncertainly Dr d’Almeida and his revolutionaries managed to escape and take refuge in Calcutta, where they were beyond the reach of the Viceroy’s justice.

The General and Extraordinary Cortes of the Portuguese Nation that approved the first Portuguese Constitution. 24 August 1820

A New Life in Singapore

Dr d’Almedia was not unfamiliar with Singapore. He had passed through it many times on his travels and he had already purchased some land on Beach Road in the European settlement, via F.J. Bernard, the son-in-law of the William Farquhar, the first British Resident and Commandant of Singapore. By 1823 Singapore was in Sir Stamford Raffles words “a great emporium”, providing unrivalled opportunities for British investors and the East India Company. His town at the mouth of the Singapore River was showing early signs of promise. However, he was appalled by the lax management of Singapore by William Farquhar. Legalised gambling dens, illegal slave trading and licensing of opium and liquor were activities that Raffles abhorred. He dismissed Farquhar and sent him back to London in disgrace. So it was at this time while in Calcutta that Dr d’Almeida was approached by Sir Stamford Raffles who was looking to recruit respectable professionals to establish essential services his new trading port. Singapore was a malaria & dengue ridden island, covered in swaps and was in 21 The General and Extraordinary Cortes of the Portuguese Nation that approved the first Portuguese Constitution. 24 August 1820 desperate need of healthcare. He took up Raffles offer and as he was still sought by the Portuguese authorities in Goa, secretly moved his wife and family from Macau.

Map of Singapore 1862 (D’Almeida Street, crossing Malacca Street above Commercial Square)

In 1825, he established a dispensary in Commercial Square (now Raffles Place), where D’Almeida Street still stands. This western side of the Singapore river was then known as the Kampong China where the markets were and traders established themselves. The town was attracting all manner of business people from China, the Malay peninsula, Java, Sumatra, Siam and the Spice islands. Dr d’Almeida must have been comfortable in Raffles new Singapore emporium, as many of these same traders would have done business in Macau, shared a common lingua franca (English had yet to be established in SE Asia at that time) and had reliable commercial relationships for credit and financing of trade. Shortly after his arrival, Dr d’Almeida was the recipient of some good fortune. After some poor weather, some Portuguese and Spanish trading ships found themselves stranded in Singapore with perishable cargoes that needed to be sold. They turned to Dr d’Almeida, a trusted local gentleman able to converse in their language and he assisted them with the sale of these cargos. From this experience he established his own trading firm, Jose d’Almeida & Co, in time building his own private quay and establishing his own branches around the region including Macau. His two eldest sons Joaquim and Jose were to join the business in time, and it became Almeida and Sons. By the time of D’Almeida’s death in 1850 it was one of the largest trading firms in Singapore.

D’Almeida & Filho’s Private Harbour

Science and Botany

Palaquium gutta

Dr D’Almeida was an extremely well educated man for his day. He was trained in medicine, played music and was interested in the sciences. He collaborated with another scientist William Montgomerie a military surgeon who arrived in Singapore in 1819. Together they researched tropical plants and how they might be used scientifically in medical applications. The two men began researching the gutta perch tree native to Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. Their work focused on the capacity for industrial use of gutta-percha latex which possessed elastic properties. Their experiments revealed that it could be applied in surgery, specifically for dental moulding and filling. The latex discovery was registered with the Calcutta Medical Board and Montgomerie was awarded the gold medal by the Royal Society of Arts, London in 1843 for the research. While it was developed for surgical medicine, gutta-percha’s first application was in the telecommunications industry, where it was used to insulate underwater telegraph cables laid by England for the first time in 1845. Later it was used in the manufacture of golf balls. Guttapercha latex’s industrial use declined with the development of plastics and synthetic resins, however, it is still used today in dentistry, helping to seal dental canals and prevent infection. As was the fashion of that time, Dr d' Almeida’s experiments also included cross-breed in species to test their possible industrial use. Among others, he experimented with vanilla, cloves and the cochineal, in addition to devoting time to the import of birds, such as quail. All these species can be still seen today in the Singapore Botanical Gardens, including a banana-tree species that resulted from his cross-breeding. The pisang d’Almeida, (d’Almeida banana) is now cultivated across Southeast Asia. Both Dr d' Almedia and William Montgomorie played a role in the first Singapore Botanical gardens founded in 1822, closed in 1829 and moved to its present site in 1859 after Dr Almeida’s death.

Singapore Botanical Gardens

Church of São José and St Joseph’s Church, Portuguese Mission

Church of São José, Portuguese Mission, Victoria St, Singapore. (1853-1906)

When Dr d’Almeida arrived in Singapore in 1825, he was not the only revolutionary to relocate from Calcutta. Fr. Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia, the Catholic priest who was arrested with him in Macau, also arrived in the same year to set up the Portuguese Mission. Fr Maia was a native of Porto, from the north like Dr d’Almeida, and they had followed an eventful path together to Singapore, via Macau, Goa and Calcutta. When he arrived in Singapore without a church or chapel Father Maia turned to Dr D’Almeida for assistance. Holy Mass was held by Fr. Maia at Jose’s house in Beach Road until 1833. His home was also known 23 Palaquium gutta Singapore Botanical Gardens as a gathering place for amateur theatrics at a time when no such venue had yet existed in the new British settlement. After Father Maia’s death in 1850 he left some land in Victoria Street to build a church. This land plus funds from the Portuguese Missions in China (headquartered at St Joseph’s Seminary, Macau) and additional land from the British, resulted in the construction of the Church of São José in 1853. This important Portuguese Mission was administered from Goa until 1886 when it was transferred to the catholic diocese of Macau that ran it for nearly a century until 1981, when it was finally transferred to the archbishop of Singapore. Today on this site is St Joseph’s Church, at Victoria Street (completed in 1912). It is still referred to many locals as the Portuguese church, as the Bishop of Macau continued to send priests to St Joseph’s church until 31 December 1999 to service the local Portuguese and Eurasian community.

St Joseph’s Church, Victoria St, Singapore.

Rehabilitation and Honours

Dr d’Almeida returned to Portugal in 1842. The Miguelista army has been defeated in 1834 and the absolutists movement had subsided. The country was united under Queen Maria II (1834-53) and a period of relative peace had returned. He was awarded the Order of Christ, raised to the title of Counsellor of Queen Maria II and named Consul-General of the Straits Settlements. 24 Church of São José, Portuguese Mission, Victoria St, Singapore. (1853-1906) St Joseph’s Church, Victoria St, Singapore In Spain he was bestowed the title of Knight of the Order of Carlos III, while Great Britain granted him an honorary knighthood. His rehabilitation from revolutionary to honoured noblemen was complete.

D’almeida Street in modern times.

Death and Legacy

Dr Jose d’Almeida played an important role in the early development of both Macau and Singapore. He was a party to a turbulent political period in his homeland but emerged vindicated in his liberal progressive views. He fathered 19 children, married twice (second time to Maria Isabel Nunes in Singapore in 1838) and died in 1850 at the then grand old age of 76. His community spirit and warmth as a gentleman and leader of his time was widely admired and he is still remembered by members of the Eurasian society of Singapore and the congregation at St Joseph’s church. At his funeral in attendance were the Governor, Resident Councillor, Consuls, and “of the European settlement, scarcely one was absent”. He was buried at the Fort Canning Hill cemetery.

Obituary of Sir Jose d' Almeida, The Straits Times, 22 October 1850


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