It has been a common pattern for people to set off across the oceans in pursuit of an imagined destination – an idealised shelter where all their dreams would come true. In this, my parents were no exception. Like so many other adventurers arriving in Brazil or in any other “tropical paradise”, they were to discover that the “jungle” behind the gorgeous beach could be a carnivorous soul-devouring morass. In an attempt to restructure their lives and fearing that a nuclear conflict between the West and the Soviet Union would follow the Korean War, the couple had sought refuge in the remoteness and the neutrality of Brazil. However, if one were to take away the safety aspect, as well as the colourful exotic one, what they saw in their new country was a land without a past, where their war-scarred selves could start over again and re-discover happiness.
In this light they considered Brazil as a place rather than a country and their emotional and cultural compasses never stopped pointing towards Europe. As far as they were concerned, the old continent was – for good and for bad – the undisputed centre of world history. Therefore, they never truly understood Brazil and never managed to connect to its deeper layers, rather they saw their new home as something close to a canvass upon which to paint their fantasies. In this they were wrong, in reality the canvass was not blank, Brazil was also like an artist that painted upon its newcomers.
While I do not have any intention to write a history book and acknowledge it is impossible to be accurate in condensing a country’s history into one chapter, in an attempt to give the reader a clearer picture of the background to these pages, I will try to describe what was there before my family arrived in Rio de Janeiro.
This story begins with the indigenous peoples who lived around Guanabara Bay spotting strange vessels far-off on the horizon. Those ships, with their huge sails bearing incomprehensible signs and intricate woodcraft, were nothing short of UFO’s sightings, and when the first apprehensive low rank sailors rowed out to meet them, the face-to-face encounters were like coming close to aliens.
The natives may have seemed primitive to the arriving Europeans, but the feeling was surely mutual. Stepping ashore in bizarre garments were a group of strangely clad, pale and hairy men sickened by weeks of appalling conditions at sea. Wherever they came from, it was clearly a world with no knowledge of basic hygiene. As time went by and more and more of them arrived, the “Indians”, as the Europeans insisted on calling the native peoples, would never really understand why they had travelled so far nor what was wrong with their world to do so, perhaps it was the intolerance that they would end up experiencing first hand.
It is not certain who those naked people at the beach were, nor where they came from, some argue that they were offshoots of complex societies encountered in the Andes and in the Northern part of the Amazon forest, we may never know. What we do know is that the relationship between the hundreds of different tribes spread along the Brazilian coast was complex and that they were in the midst of a civilizational process of their own. By looking at their descendants closer we also know that they were connected to the environment in ways that the world transported on those caravels could barely understand, let alone appreciate. The natives bathed daily, were extremely healthy both in body and in spirit and had no notion of the meaning of social inequality. The indigenous inhabitants of Pindorama, as they called the world, not Brazil, experienced their existence in a way that was incomprehensible for a civilization that was leaving religious obscurantism and beginning to embark in an era where economic ties would become an impersonal God presiding over almost all aspects of life.
The so-called Indians did not need to strive for a heavenly after-life in the Garden of Eden, they were already living as one with the landscape. The integration with their surroundings was so intimate that they could sense, for example, the presence of an animal or of a person approaching from a considerable distance without having to see them. Only now, do outsiders appreciate and take seriously their knowledge, with big pharmaceutical corporations beginning to investigate their understanding of their forests’ varied medicinal properties.
Women were responsible for agriculture while men hunted and fished. It was also a male responsibility to deal with the demanding preparations for their religious festivals: to complete the shaman’s – or Pagé’s – headdress, they would roam the forest for days on end to find a specific feather from a specific bird that only lived on a specific mountain. On their way back to their settlement, they would collect herbs and roots to produce potent hallucinogenic drugs that they ingested to learn the secrets of the jungle. Our rational western knowledge system is still to explain the precision and the mystery of these visions.
The natives’ world floated above good and evil. Every year, alongside nine months of carefree living and not much work to do, they dedicated three months to war. This was fundamental to their very being. They needed to be good at fighting because they and their enemies kept no prisoners: they ate them.
On the shore and hinterland of Guanabara Bay, including what now we call Rio de Janeiro, the Tamoios, Tupinambas and Puríi peoples believed that the flesh of a brave man was imbued with his physical and spiritual strength, which could be acquired by its ingestion. Brutal though they certainly were themselves, the Portuguese had a hard time coming to grips with this local custom and there are accounts of missionaries breaking down in floods of tears as they waited to become a meal. Disgusted at this cowardice, the natives released these useless beings. One such surplus prisoner had the appropriate name of Bispo Sardinha (Bishop Sardine), the first dignitary from the Vatican to set foot in Brazil, and it is easy to imagine his mixed feelings of relief and shame he would have had walking back to his mission, had he been released. In this case they ate the man, which bought an even worse P.R. upon the native non-Christians.
Despite the barbarity of cannibalism, such practices would compare favourably with the destiny that the “civilized” Europeans had in store for them. According to one of the country’s greatest intellectuals, Darcy Ribeiro, following the arrival of the white men, their population dropped from an estimated four million to a meagre forty thousand. As in the rest of the Americas, the Caraibas, or white men, spread deadly diseases and imposed the rule of either adapting and becoming second-class citizens or vanishing. Very little of their culture was to be absorbed into the mainstream culture, at least as far as increasingly urbanized Brazil is concerned. However, despite the concrete and the asphalt carpeting the land, the pollution of the rivers and of the air and other forms of harm to the environment that the indigenous peoples considered themselves as being guardians, their memory remains in the Brazilian genetic pool and not far below the surface of the nation’s subconscious. The Brazilians’ easy-going mannerisms, their love of the outdoors, their ease to empathise and their informality are a part of the natives’ legacy. Perhaps this dormant mindset will one day be the country’s gift to the world; a formula for achieving harmony through openness and for acquiring completeness through seeing nature as greater than man.
On the Portuguese side, the Sagres Academy, an official navigators’ guild and syndicate, led the country’s enterprise for global discovery. For this, they used technology that the Arabs had left behind in the Iberian Peninsula. This institution was the most advanced navigation centre of its time and had refused to sponsor the travels of the Genovese mariner Christopher Columbus because its members already knew that there was a great mass of land, perhaps a continent, that lay to the west of Europe and that was not Asia. Their great hope – and the reason why patrons as important as the King, Infante Dom Henrique supported them – was to discover a passage around, or through, this uncharted territory to shorten the journey to the Orient instead of having to go all around Africa to get there. If they were to locate this route, it would facilitate the valuable trade of spices and the revenues would fund not only the colony but also the Portuguese kingdom, which was almost bankrupt following its wars of liberation against the Moors.
The rivalry with Spain ended up forcing the Portuguese to admit their knowledge of the western land. In 1494 – six years before the official discovery of Brazil, the two countries signed the Tordesilhas Treaty. In this agreement authored by Pope Alexander VI, Portugal and Spain divided the possession of the new continent along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands (off the west coast of Africa).
Unlike with the Spanish, the Portuguese possession did not fragment into small countries, it remained as one big colony and for small Portugal the size of their new territory was a problem. They had to control and to inhabit the wilderness before a stronger power might seize it. In addition, how could Portugal make its new possession economically viable? The “Indians” had no notion of commerce and there was no evidence of gold or of the coveted spices that drove the world’s economy. There was of course plenty of timber in the impenetrable forests but this would not justify the resources required for a colonial adventure.
After the official discovery in 1500 the quest to find an opening to the Pacific Ocean continued but proved to be frustrating. Brazil’s coast showed itself to be regular. Parallel to the shore and its dense vegetation ran a mountain range that seemed impenetrable. On New Year’s Day of 1502, a group of Portuguese vessels surveying the coast came across two massive promontories covered by tropical vegetation guarding an enormous maritime entrance. This could be the passage to “the Indias” or perhaps a route connecting the seas to legendary kingdoms with vast, untapped, gold resources. They rushed to name it River of January – Rio de Janeiro, a name filled with hope and poetically referring to an endless beginning.