Nfld. & Labrador

A grave discovery: Portuguese fishermen return to honour White Fleet

Celestino Riberio still remembers it clearly: a chilly day back in 1966 when he and other fishermen gathered to bury their friend and colleague Dionisio Esteves.

Forgotten grave found and restored in honour of lost fishermen

Celestino Riberio returned to St. John's from Portugal for the first time in 50 years to attend to unveiling of the monument. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

Celestino Riberio still remembers it clearly: a chilly spring day back in 1966 when he and about 70 fellow fishermen crowded around a plot of land to bury their friend and colleague Dionisio Esteves.

Riberio and the others sobbed as they each dropped a handful of dirt onto the coffin below them.

They cried, in part, because they had lost a friend, but also because death came all too often for the men of the Portuguese White Fleet.

"He died on board during a storm... It's sad for me to remember his accident, " said Riberio on Tuesday, during his first trip back to St. John's from Portugal in 50 years.

"[Dionisio Esteves] was my best friend and my mentor during the cod fishery, so I lost my friend and my mentor at the same time, and that made me very lonely."

White Fleet fishermen

Ribeiro and Esteves both worked on the Santa Maria Manuela, a tall ship and member of the Portuguese White Fleet — fishing vessels known for their white sails.

From 1504 to 1974, the White Fleet fished southeast of Newfoundland on the Grand Banks, an area known for its valuable fish stocks.

A documentary from the CBC's Caroline's Hillier.

Leaving the safety of the schooners, each fisherman set out alone in a dory -- a small, open stackable boat.

The proof of the fishermen's hard work was in the calluses on their hands, so hardened that could hardly close to form a fist.

Although cod sourced off the Grand Banks was integral for generations to the Portuguese economy, the last White Fleet vessel to fish from the area sailed out of St. John's in 1974.

Vanished grave

With the departure of the White Fleet vessels, Esteves' grave site became neglected. The marking -- that was likely a small cross -- deteriorated, and after the cemetery's records were destroyed in a fire, the grave remained unmarked for years ... until it was discovered by archivist Larry Dohey in 2012.

Larry Dohey, Manager of Collections and Projects at The Rooms Provincial Archives, discovered the grave site of Dionisio Esteves. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

"In 2012, I received a phone call asking if I could come up with some occasion or event whereby we could invite these young naval officers into St. John's," said Dohey, the manager of collections and projects at The Rooms Provincial Archives.

After learning about Esteves's lost grave, Dohey searched and found the unmarked site.

After years of planning and fundraising, a permanent monument designed by Portuguese artist António Neves was unveiled on Tuesday at the grave site in Mount Carmel Cemetery in St. John's.

Returning to the grave site

Fifty years after the sombre and simple burial of his friend, Celestino Ribeiro returned to St. John's from Portugal to attend the unveiling of the monument.

The monument, which sits on the grave site of Dionisio Esteves, was designed by Portuguese artist António Neves. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

At the age of 68, he stood on the same grave site, whispering the same prayers he did in 1966.

"It's nice to be back here in St. John's, and reviving the memories and the places," said Riberio.

"It was sad... all the images went through my mind when we were praying here," he said, kneeling on the plot of land where his friend is buried.

"Sad images — but in the same time, I'm happy with the solidarity of the Canadian people to do this."

Tony Rosado, an electrician who worked on the White Fleet's hospital and assistance vessel called the Gil Eannes and who now lives in Vancouver, also came back to St. John's for the ceremony.

"I'm very happy to be present. It means a lot to me," said Rosado.

The monument was unveiled at a ceremony officiated by Archbishop Martin William Currie. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

While working on the Gil Eannes, Tony Rosado would often see men injured and killed while working on the water.

Rosado recalls seeing images of swaying, lifeless men on the ship's radar system. The bodies would be standing straight up on the ocean floor, anchored down by rubber boots that acted as dead weight and pulled fishermen to the bottom. 

"We'd pick them up — sick, dead or alive. Then we'd bring them to St. John's," he said. "We'd bury some fishermen at sea. Very sad. I cried very much. Some of them were friends of mine."

Esteves was fortunate to receive a proper funeral service; some Portuguese fishermen were never given a grave. Many bodies — momentary specks on the sea — were quickly swallowed up by the brutal swells of the North Atlantic.

'An important part of Canada's history' 

Portuguese ambassador Jose Moreira, who came from Ottawa for the event, noted the important part the Portuguese White Fleet played in Canada's history.

"I think that not only the people from Newfoundland and Labrador should remember this but all the Canadians," he said.

"It's part of the fantastic history of Canada."

Archbishop Martin Currie, Celestino Riberio, Tony Rosado, and Jose Moreira, the Ambassador of Portugal in Canada after the ceremony. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

Click on the audio player to hear Caroline Hillier's documentary that originally aired on Atlantic Voice.


Caroline Hillier is the producer of the St. John's Morning Show.


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