He chewed his gums for a while deep in thought.
Then he spoke laughing: ‘Actually, we were only the first town
to abolish slavery because we were all too poor to afford slaves’.
By Philip Blazdell
I am laying in my hammock, the maid has just brought me another cold beermy
fourth I think, the mosquitoes which have plaguing my every move have finally retired for
the night. I am alone with my thoughts now; only the incessant night sounds of the forest
disturbs my scribbling. I should be at peace here high in the mountains above the searing
heat of the coastal plane, but I am not.
I feel ill at ease in the lap of luxury that my host has forced onto me, the
carshould I need it, is ready and fuelled to go and the maid is preparing another
meal for me and fussing with my hammock. I swing listlessly and imagine that I can hear
voices in the night. I imagine the pain and suffering which this land endured, and it
chills me. I look at my own hands and in the half-light of dusk I can almost imagine that
I have blood on them.
I have come deep into the forest to the town of Guaramiranga, in the state of Ceará,
which I am reliably told, is Atlantic Coastal Forest, and not the rain forest proper, for
two reasons. The first is to escape the blistering heat of the coast. A heat, which over
the last few days has been pounding me continuously, denying me sleep, making me sluggish
and melancholic and the second is to learn a little more about the history of Brazil and
in particular slavery. It was here that the first nail in the coffin of Lisbon’s
inhumanity was hammered home.
The colonization of this beautiful land was based on extensive agriculture, immigration
by Portuguese colonists and the unrestricted use of slaves. That alone is not remarkable.
However what is perhaps remarkable is that the colonists preferred African slaves to the
local Indians as they believed they were stronger, more disease resistant and, more
importantly, cheaper. The African slaves brought to Brazil came from different regions of
Africa, from exotic countries in Western Africa such as Guinea, Senegal, and Gambia and
later from Benin, Nigeria, Togo, Cameroon and more importantly Angola. Little accurate
historical records remains, only scratches of testimony told many years after their
‘They put us in separate parcels and examined us attentively. They also made us jump,
and pointed to the land, signifying we were to go there. We thought by this these ugly men
should eat us, as they appeared to us. When soon after we were all put down under the deck
again, there was much dread and trembling among us and nothing but bitter cries to be
heard all the night from the apprehensions’
One historian notes that the indigenous Indians of Brazil had not urbanized or
developed religious cultures, which made it easier for the Portuguese to be accepted and
for slavery to be used extensively. I, like many others, wonder at the folly of such
thinking which is often used to justify barbaric acts. The Spanish colonies, conversely,
were confronted with organized indigenous people, such as Aztec, Inca and Mayan
civilizations. Religious cultures were very much a part of their daily lives and they
lived in a more structured urban area, which somewhat restricted the Spanish in their use
of slaves. Perhaps this also accounts for the difference in Portuguese colonies from, for
example, the colonies of other ex-colonial powers. I had, for example, fallen in love with
Macao and Mozambiqueboth former Portuguese colonies whilst I feel a continual sense
of loss each time I visit a former British colonysuch as India.
Pulitzer nominated Los Angeles Times journalist David Lamb partially agrees with
me when he says that the Portuguese were unique to European colonialism in that they built
beautiful cities, but he adds that ‘to refer to Portugal’s colonial history as disgraceful
would be to give Lisbon the benefit of the doubt’. He continues by pointing out that
Portugal stood for all the evils of colonialisms and none of the good.
It milked its former colonies such as Angola and Mozambique to economical ruin and
bequeathed them nothing. He brushes aside the fact that Brazil was left with a single
language that has allowed it to sidestep many of the problems experienced in Angola and
Mozambique and remains, at least on paper, a potentially strong country. Today, this sole
language is the binding force that unites one of the world’s most diverse populations.
Early the next morning, whilst everyone was still asleep, I took a dawn walk around the
farm where I was staying. The morning was slowly creeping over the fields and a sallow
mist hung in the air. I crept into the silent barn, which apart from the prim farmhouse,
where for the last few nights I had slung my hammock, dominated the landscape. The door
was stiff and warped with age and the hinges creaked as I pulled it opena thousand
Black and White horror movies came to mind.
The early morning sun had yet to penetrate its depths and my flashlight pierced the
murky gloom. I took a few small, tentative steps inside and pulled the door closed behind
me. I stood still waiting for my eyes to become accustomed to the dark, breathing in the
musty smell of rotting wood and decaying fruit.
I left my flashlight play lazily over the walls of what my host had told me, just a few
hours ago, with considerable pride, had been built entirely by slaves. My light disturbed
the flock of bats that were roosting in the rafters. Unlike every scary film I have seen
their swooping and confusion at being disturbed was not accompanied by a blood-curdling
screech or a sense of menace, but their frantic motion was still enough to send me
flailing, like a whirling dervish, out the door into the early morning sun. The farm hand,
or bóias-frias (cold lunch folks) as the Brazilians say, was leaning on a post
laughing genially at my antics.
The moist and fertile seaboard of what is now the State of Pernambuco was most suitable
for growing sugar and also conveniently located as a port of call for sailing ships
traveling from Portugal to West Africa and the Orient. The sugar plant and the technique
of its cultivation had reached Brazil from Madeira. A flourishing triangular trade soon
developed, based on the importation of slave labor from West Africa to work on sugar
plantations. The sugar was exported to markets in Europe where rising demand was beginning
to outrun supplies from traditional sources. Slavery suddenly became a major issue.
Later, when the bats had returned to their roosts, the old farm hand showed me the
exquisite machines that remained in the barn, the last testament of a different age. The
machines reminded me of the glorious steam powdered devices I had once seen in a museum in
London, remnants of an age when engineering was both noble and worthy and England was a
mighty nation. However, these machines, which had seemed somehow to have resisted the
inevitability of rust, were clearly not designed to be powered by electricity or steam (in
fact electricity was a recent arrival in Guaramiranga). It seemed to my mind that they
were clearly designed with human power in mind.
Their function eluded me, though their sleek cogs and huge wheels suggested the
backbreaking labor of processing sugar cane. The farm hand shrugged, he too did not know
what purpose these machines once served, and it seemed that he cared very little. To me,
it seemed profoundly sad, both as an engineer and as a humanitarian. We left them alone in
that dark barn, like ghosts from the past.
The final abolition of slavery, which occurred largely as a result of British pressure,
is usually regarded as the most immediate cause for the fall of the monarchy. With the
Emperor Dom Pedro II, who had recently made a rousing speech declaring that he would
rather loose his crown than allow slavery to continue, away in Europe, his daughter,
Princess Isabel, acted as Regent. On May 13, 1888, responding to the collapse of slavery
as a workable system and yielding to pressures from the abolitionists, she signed the
so-called "Golden Law" (Lei Áurea) that abolished slavery in Brazil.
For once I felt a slight glow of patriotism. I felt proud that it was British pressure
that had bought this terrible trade in humanity to an end. However, a few days later I
read a more comprehensive account, which left a bitter taste in my mouth. I read that ‘the
end of slavery in Brazil came by the way of the British influence, because of the British
colony of the West Indies, where slavery had been abolished." This didn’t seem bad
until I continued to read ‘both the West Indies and Brazil were sugar-producing colonies.
The British interest in abolishing slavery in Brazil was to insure that Brazil did not
gain a financial advantage, by using slave labor, in selling sugar to world markets at a
lower price than the British colony could compete with.’
I left the library, ironically enough, in search of a coffee.
Historians of the time note that by the end of the 19th century, slavery in Brazil was
declining under pressure from immigrant laborers whose wages cost less than the upkeep of
slaves. Nevertheless, the "Golden Law" set off a reaction among slave owners
that rapidly eroded the political foundations of the monarchy. After a few months of
parliamentary crises, the Emperor was deposed on November 15, 1889, by a military movement
that proclaimed the abrogation of the monarchy and the establishment of the Republic.
This institutional transformation, albeit profound, was surprisingly carried out
without bloodshed. Although treated with all possible respect, the Emperor and his family
had to be asked to leave the country. Accompanied by some close associates, they went into
exile in France. Most of the leading figures of the country lent their support and
collaboration to the new regime; among them was one of Brazil’s most outstanding
statesmen, the Baron of Rio Branco. It was his wisdom and skilful diplomacy that enabled
Brazil to end, by treaty or arbitration, nearly all its outstanding frontier disputes.
After a leisurely breakfast we drove to the town of Baturité. Founded in 1745 this
town played a strong part in the story of slavery in Brazil. It was the town where slavery
was first abolished, but today little evidence remains of the glorious past. I was musing
this fact over, leaning on a tree in the shade, when I fell into conversation with a local
man who was on his way to the pretty market to buy some fruit.
I told him I was fascinated that Baturité was the first town to abolish slavery. He
chewed his gums for a while deep in thought, when he spoke, it was with the slow clear
voice Brazilians use to speak to foreigners like myself, ‘actually’, he laughed, ‘we were
only the first town to abolish slavery because we were all too poor to afford slaves’. It
stuck me as typical Brazilian logic and I couldn’t help but smile as he shuffled off.
I walked myself into the market and bought for a small handful of coins (actually it
was with two grubby notes, but I yearn for a more romantic view then current fiscal policy
allows) a clutch of pitombas. I am told that there is absolutely no clinical reason
why I should be addicted to this small lychee like fruit like there is no clinical
reason for my addiction to chocolate or exotic places, but still I need my daily fix. As I
peeled off the thick outer skin and let the first initial flavor explode, almost numbing
my mouth I wondered how far we have really come. Pitomba is a real philosopher’s
fruit. The effort required to strip the flesh from the generous seed and to extract every
last ounce of intense flavor is not a task to be taken lightly. It is a fruit, like a fine
brandy, to be taken seriously. I found a dense mango tree and sat in the shade sucking
Slavery may have gone, but still today the richest 10% of Brazilians control a
staggering 50% of the nation’s wealth, the poorest 10% have just 0.6%, sixty million live
in squalor, 60% of people make less then the minimum wage ($80 a month), 40 million people
are malnourished, 25 million live in favelas, 12 million children (roughly the
population of the Netherlands) are abandoned and 7 million don’t receive any formal
education. Brazil may claim, with some justification, to be free from racism, it is true
that there is little visible discrimination between skin colors, however racism raises its
ugly head in terms of money.
When the slavery was first abrogated the newborn babies (or children from a very young
age) were made free. However, their families were often not free and so liberation took
place at a snail’s pace. Adult slaves were free when they reached the age of 60, but then
had nowhere to go (they hadn’t been able to build up sufficient capital to make a clean
break from their owner and were now too old. The slaves were free, but nothing more. Very
few people tried at all to give them a good start.
This policy left a large population with little education, no money, and very little
chance of bettering themselves. As one acquaintance told me we can’t equate poverty with
stupidity anymore, as a nation we must take responsibility for our forefathers actions and
do our best to reach out to this people with economic reforms, schooling and compassion. I
would like to believe this sentiment.
The following weekend I found myself once again bouncing around in the back of a
pick-up truck. We climbed the winding roads through the fields thick with dense green
vegetation. The chuchu (a strange green watery vegetable which tastes something
like a potato) were almost ready for harvesting and the air was rich with the scent of
bananas. I really couldn’t understand why my girlfriend had opted for the air-conditioned
interior of the truck to miss the wind in her hair and the smells of a dozen fruits
surely was a crime.
On our way to the highest point in Ceará, the appropriately named Pico Alto, we passed
through villages that hardly seemed touched by these first few days of the new millennium.
Young children played carelessly in the street, gaudily dressed women chatted amiably with
friends as they returned from market and old men swung in their hammocks.
I leaped from the truck when we stopped for a young mother to amble across the street
and dived into a one-room lean-too bar for a beer. In the dim light I could see strips of
meat hung curing over the bar (the fantastic carne de sol) and two wizened locals,
fresh from a hard day in the fields, were nursing small dirty glasses of sugar cane rum.
‘Two beers’, I smiled at the barman in my best textbook Portuguese, ‘and make sure they
are icy, icy cold’. He grinned and invited me to linger and chat. It was a tempting offer,
a bar, the sound of mosquitoes and a genial host, but the sun was setting and I had a
sunset to see.
Sitting alone on the peak I let the mist roll around me. The sun slid below the horizon
draining the color from the sky. I was alone with my thoughts, or at least I thought I was
until the largest (or if I am honest, the only) tarantula I have ever seen in the wild
crawled across my boot. Although it was an undeniably beautiful animal I suffer from a
compulsive urge to run screaming from even the smallest spider, let alone this plate sized
monster, which was currently inspecting my shoe with grim determination.
Unable to even scream I sat shivering, hoping that it wasn’t as mean or as hungry as it
looked. Eventually, after it had completed its inspection and left me alone and my
breathing had finally returned to normal the stars had come out. We drove back through the
now deserted villages, the streets were empty but when we stopped to ask for directions we
could hear the unmistakable sounds of beer glasses clinking together.
The night was thick with the light of fireflies as we made our way back to the farm
where my travels had begun. A fire burned to welcome us home. Such a starry night, the
smell and sounds of the forest and the gentle murmuring of the maid as she bustled around
serving drinks seemed idyllic. It seemed hard for me to equate this with the suffering
that had shaped this land. I didn’t know how to feel, relieved that the past is now little
more than a fading memory, or anxious for the future. I sipped my beer and tried to find
the Southern Cross, which like the answer to many of Brazil’s enigmas still eludes me.
The author grew up in London but left at the first opportunity. He currently
lives and works on the NE coast of Brazil. He has traveled extensively and currently
divides his time between his office and the local travel agents trying to sniff out cheap
deals to little known and exotic places. He loves to hear from readers and enjoys spending
a significant amount of his working day reading and replying to emails: firstname.lastname@example.org
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