Nantucket Cape Verdeans and an American Anthropologist

Women seated on her  schooner
Photo property of the Parsons family. Submitted to Wikipedia by James Parsons. Photo taken sometime between 1926 and 1941, likely by one of her children with her own camera, but exact photographer is unknown., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1916 Fogo-born Gregorio Teixeira da Silva traveled to Nantucket with anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons to collect stories and riddles from Cape Verdean cranberry bog workers.

Teixeira da Silva lived in Newport, Rhode Island, and his regular employment was as a laborer. He was a crucial associate of Parsons, however, because despite her appreciation of immigrant Cape Verdeans and their folklore, she was unable to write down what they told in Kriolu. Using his contacts in Newport, Providence, Fall River, and New Bedford, Teixeira da Silva set up interviews and did the transcriptions and initial translations for Parsons.

One of several prominent women in the early days of American anthropology, Parsons (1875-1941) predated well-known Margaret Mead. (1901-1978).  She was a close contemporary of anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887-1948). British artist Adela Breton (1849-1923) was even a bit earlier.  They were all fearless women of means who paid their own way, camped out, rode horses, never hesitated to work with men, and did not take no for an answer. They were never happier than when working with people very different from themselves. and each made lasting contributions to anthropology.

With Teixeira da Silva, Parsons had already visited bog workers on the Massachusetts South Coast, arriving in the evening after their day job was done. She described working in “a cranberry log cabin” until late at night as “pleasant.” She wrote to her husband that she was going to take a boat from New Bedford to “go with Silva on a little trip to Nantucket.”  She did not anticipate difficulty engaging with bog workers on the island, but the uncomfortable buggy ride out Milestone Road “through long stretches of sand or swamp” to the property of the Burgess Cranberry Company turned out to be a waste of time. When they arrived at a bog shanty that evening, they discovered that none of the dozen men who lived there were from Fogo, and their boss insisted that Parsons and Teixeira da Silva speak only English. They returned the way they had come, but the next day “in a yard in town” one of the Cape Verdeans they had tried to talk with the evening before apologized and joined in with others in telling stories and riddles.

Parsons considered the work in which she and Teixeira da Silva engaged to be a joint project, and it was both a personal and a professional loss when he died in 1919.  Parsons forged on with publication of what they had been doing together. The result was a two-volume compilation of Cape Verdean stories, proverbs, songs, and riddles they had collected. Unfortunately, Parsons did not identify where each of these had been collected, so it is impossible to connect any of them specifically with Nantucket.

The volumes were published in 1923, and Parsons dedicated them to Gregorio Teixeira da Silva, her “interpreter and teacher.”

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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