Sir Jose d’Almeida

Sir Jose d’Almeida – A Catholic Pioneer in every sense

By Martin Scott

When looking at the origin story of St Jospeh’s Church Portuguese Mission, the name of Jose D’Almeida holds a special place. D’Almeida Street still stands today in the central business district, amid the soaring skyscrapers – a testament to the family’s mercantile heritage.  But the family’s devotion to the Catholic faith is what secures its place in the annals of the Catholic Church in Singapore. For it was at D’Almeida’s house on Beach Road that the first masses were celebrated by Rev Father Francisco Maia of the Portuguese Mission from 1825 to 1833. When Fr Maia finally acquired the necessary land, the Portuguese Mission was then able to build its first church – the Church of Sao Jose (Saint Joseph).

Martin Scott, the great-great-great grandson of Jose D’Almeida approached the Archdiocesan Archives for assistance in tracing the sacramental records of his ancestors.  With assistance from his cousin Linda Locke, he has written this loving tribute to his ancestor Jose D’Almeida and his contributions not only to the Catholic Church but also to the development of early Singapore.  

Early career

Jose D’Almeida Carvalho e Silva (pictured left) was born in 1784 in Sao Pedro do Sul, Northern Portugal, the son of Jose d’Almeida and Maria Joaquina de Louroiro.  After school he entered the Coimbra School of Medicine and Surgery.  When he completed his studies, he enlisted in the Portuguese navy as a ship’s surgeon.  After some years he then volunteered to move out East and took up a position as the Director of St. Raphael’s Hospital in Macau (then Macau’s only health establishment) arriving there in 1810.  He married Rosalia Vieira Ribeiro de Sousa soon after his arrival.

D’Almeida buys land on Beach Road

On his travels he passed through Singapore a couple of times and was greatly taken by the strategic location of this recently established East India Company trading post. In fact he was so convinced of its future prosperity that he gave some money to F.J. Bernard, the son-in-law of William Farquhar (the first British Resident and Commandant of Singapore), to purchase some land on which to build a house. On his behalf, Bernard acquired Lot 207 on Beach Road 1, which then marked the original coastline.  The house built on this site was occupied by Bernard until d’Almeida and his family finally moved to Singapore.  But first we should consider what really caused d’Almeida to leave Macau.

D’Almeida meets Father Maia and Stamford Raffles

In 1820 the Liberal Revolution in Portugal took place but news of these events did not reach Macau for another two years. Macau went through political and social turmoil as a consequence. The existing establishment in Macau was deposed and replaced with those of a liberal persuasion.  Macau also broke ties with Goa.  This resulted in a military force being despatched by the Viceroy of Portuguese India, Dom Manuel da Camara, who supported the absolutist King and his son Prince Miguel. As a consequence, in 1823 Jose and other liberal leaders were arrested in Macau and was sent to Goa to face charges of sedition before a military tribunal.  Upon arrival in India, Jose D’Almeida managed to escape and made his way to Calcutta. Among those arrested and who escaped together with Jose included the Rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Macau; Father Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia.

Whilst in Calcutta, Jose was thought to have met with Raffles. As Raffles was in need of doctors and surgeons in the burgeoning trading post of Singapore, he convinced D’Almeida to move to Singapore, which he agreed to do.

 Mercantile beginnings

D’Almeida then returned secretly to Macau to gather up his family and by December 1825 they were all in Singapore. There, he soon established a dispensary in Commercial Square (now Raffles Place and where D’Almeida Street still stands). But fate also had a hand in his future.  Because of bad weather, both a Portuguese and a Spanish trading ship found themselves stranded in Singapore with perishable cargoes that needed to be sold.  Naturally they turned to D’Almeida, a Portuguese and Spanish speaker who found himself acting as their intermediary in procuring the sale of their cargoes.  This successful commercial experience led him to establish a trading firm, Jose D’Almeida & Co.  Over time two of his sons were to join the business and by the time of D’Almeida’s death in 1850 it was one of the largest trading firms in Singapore.2

Botanical leanings

But D’Almeida had many interests.  He was very active in the social aspects of Singapore with his house on Beach Road being a centre of the social scene.  He himself was an accomplished musician.  In addition, he was very interested in scientific and botanical matters.  He, together with Dr William Montgomery, were credited with discovering  “Gutta-Percha” (a forerunner of rubber) which they experimented with for use in surgery, specifically dental mouldings.  Eventually, Gutta-Percha was to find an industrial use in the insulation of under-sea cables.  They also helped to establish what would eventually develop into and become the Botanical Gardens.  He experimented with the cultivation of many crops from other countries to determine whether they were commercially viable in Singapore including vanilla, cloves and cochineal.  In fact, a type of banana plant that resulted from his cross-breeding was named after him – the “Pisang d’Almeida”.

Origins of St Joseph’s Church Portuguese Mission

In 1825, Reverend Father Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia, the Catholic priest whom was arrested with Jose in Macau earlier, also arrived in Singapore to set up the Portuguese Mission.  But with no church or chapel, Father Maia turned to Jose D’Almeida for help. Until 1833, Father Maia held Holy Mass in Jose’s house in Beach Road.  Eventually, Father Maia bought six lots of land between Victoria Street, Queen Street and Middle Road to add to the other six lots that were donated by the British Government to the Portuguese Mission for the establishment of a place of worship – eventually to become St Joseph’s Church, Portuguese Mission at Victoria Street.

Knighthood – Sir Jose

Jose D’Almeida went back to Europe in 1842 on a visit.  During that time, he was knighted by the Queen of Portugal and appointed as the Portuguese Consul General to the Straits Settlements. He was also knighted by the King of Spain. Shortly before his death, he was made a member of the Queen’s Council in Portugal.  In fact an exception was made for him by the British establishment in Singapore in referring to him as ‘Sir Jose’ notwithstanding that it was a foreign honour that bestowed this title upon him.

Memorialised at Fort Canning Hill

Sir Jose D’Almeida died in Singapore on 17 October 1850. He was buried in the cemetery at Fort Canning Hill, where part of his gravestone can still be seen having been mounted in the wall surrounding the former cemetery (pictured left). Such was the esteem in which he was held by the local community that it was reported in a local newspaper that on the day of the funeral, the Governor of Singapore acted as one of the pallbearers, and that almost every merchant in the town attended his funeral.

The D’Almeida Family

Frederico D’Almeida

D’Almeida had a large family with 19 known children. Some died very young 3 (he was married twice, the second time to Maria Isabel Nunes in Singapore in 1838) .  Among the ancestors whose sacramental records are found in the Church Registers are Martin Scott’s maternal great grandparents, Frederico (pictured right) and Maria Grace ( pictured below seated with Frederico standing behind her, with their family), who were first cousins and had to receive special dispensation from Bishop Gasnier to marry in the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in Singapore on 7 January 1891.

Many of d’Almeida’s descendants lived on in Singapore for many years after his death.  Unfortunately, the disruption that the Japanese Occupation of Singapore during World War II brought to Singapore and its economy led to many of his descendants emigrating abroad, mainly to Australia and the UK.  Martin himself was born in Hong Kong and now resides in the UK. But there are still some of his descendants who continue to live in Singapore to this day, including Martin’s cousin, Linda Locke and her family.

Family photo of Frederico George d’Almeida and Maria Grace Pereira (seated)

References:

(1) “Jose d’Almeida” by Ong Eng Chuan, http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_102_2005-01-18.html
(2) “O Ilustre Dr. José De Almeida Carvalho e Silva” by Eduardo Nuno R.S. Oliveria, Gazeta da Beira, No. 459, 23 June 2005
(3) “From scientist in Macao to founder of Singapore” by João Guedes, Macao Magazine, 9 August 2017

Notes:

  1. Lot. 207 Beach Road was 2 doors from Middle Road, on the town side
  2. Eldest son, Joaquim and the youngest, Jose Jr. d’Almeida joined the firm. The eldest was more speculative and younger Jose was more conservative. By 1865, they brought the business to a close.
  3. Annette Elizabeth (Anne) and Emily Delphina (Delfina) d ‘Almeida died at the age of 4 and 5 years old respectively