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Brazil: The Background

An extensive introduction to the vast territory by J. de Sousa-Leão

Originally published in AR March 1944, this piece was republished online in October 2010

Brazil was discovered by the Portuguese in 1500. Its settlement began in 1532, that is about one hundred years before Virginia New Amsterdam, when the country was divided in fifteen hereditary Captaincies, the future States of the Union. In spite of Brazil’s vast area, spreading over the South American Continent for more than three million square miles, the world has only lately begun to realise the possibilities of this country of over forty million inhabitants.

It was first known for its dye wood, which gave the country its name. The seventeenth century saw the spread of sugar cultivation-a valuable colonial product, of which Brazil became the largest producer. Then followed the gold cycle, during which she supplied the world with more of the, precious metal than it had ever possessed. When this had run its course, cotton and tobacco were to be the main resources, with ups and downs, until coffee superseded them, in the second half of the nineteenth century. This quick succession of economic periods with its continued temporary dependence on one crop accounts for the slow material progress of the land during the three first centuries of her national existence. Another cause was Portugal’s rigid colonial policy-a policy pursued by the other European countries in their possessions overseas as well.

After the loss of their Indian Empire, the Portuguese clung zealously to Brazil, since it was from this, their last remaining asset of real value, that the Crown derived its main sources of revenue. This feat of colonising and holding together such a gigantic country against the French and the Dutch, with the scant population of Portugal, was nothing short of a miracle. A price had to be paid. Brazilian ports remained closed to international trade until 1808, when the Portuguese King removed his Court to Rio.

Later with the advent of the industrial revolution, it was the lack of coal and oil that has made Brazil trail behind and the United States.

As the bare million inhabitants to which Portugal was reduced, after the Napoleonic wars, did not warrant a place suitable to her rank at the Congress of Vienna, an ingenious solution was found when Joao VI raised his colony of Brazil to the level of the Mother Country by the creation of a United Kingdom, of which Rio became the seat of government. This solution proved in time to be highly beneficial to Brazil. It led, when the movement for independence came in 1822, to Joao’s son, Pedro, becoming the first Brazilian Emperor. It spared the country the civil struggles which the Spanish Vice-Royalties had to undergo, when breaking off from the Mother Country. It gave Brazil the stability of a sixty-year monarchical regime.

The unity thus assured saved the country from breaking up into several parts, as had been the case with Spanish America. And it made it possible for Brazil to get safely, through the difficult passage from a slave-ridden country to a model democracy, which the Republic inherited in 1889 from the magnanimous hands of the second all Emperor. The liberalism of a model parliamentary Government was enjoyed by Brazilians of the mid-nineteenth century, based on the English two-party system, which withstood successfully two foreign wars and derived its strength from a central authority and the Emperor’s moderating power.

The Republic in 1889 changed this system into a Federation of States, patterned in some measure on the United States of America. This sub division of authority was a challenge to the preceding order, and found the country unprepared. The interests of each individual State became paramount, and national problems such as transport, legislation, health and education ceased to be viewed on national lines. Political and economic rivalries between States became a threat to the unity of the nation. The results of Presidential elections were often disputed by the defeated candidates or by the group of States behind them. A general dissatisfaction, together with an impending threat of foreign ideologies, brought about the 1937 coup d’etat, on the lines of Salazar’s authoritarian democracy, by which much of the autonomy of the States was withdrawn by the Central Authority. The political structure of the nation is now undergoing a period of trial. The final decision, as the Government has promised, rests with the people, who will determine, after the war, in conformity with Brazilian realities, what shape it is to assume-a fitting recognition of their deeply ingrained personal freedom.

To give a short description of a country as large as Brazil is not an easy task. Travelling by land and by sea, with the existing facilities, a year would be required to cover it, whilst a couple of weeks suffice to fly over it in all directions. Such are the possibilities introduced by aviation for countries of the size of Brazil. While progress was at the pace of the mule-pack or at best of the narrow-gauge railway, in the interior, it was bound to be slow; now, however, if the country becomes airminded, its development may step up to the speed of the aeroplane. Also the best way to see Brazil is by air, and so I will attempt a flying description of the country.

The first landing place for the international place coming from Miami is Para, a pleasant city lined with mango trees, on the mouth of the Amazon. It occupies a key position, due to the fact that it is the starting point for the whole Amazon system as far as Peru in the West, Venezuela in the North, and Bolivia in the South, thus linking this vast hinterland with the wide Atlantic. Two huge churches, several forts and an imposing Governor’s Palace, built in the 18th century by the brother of the great Pombal, show that the Portuguese were well aware of the possibilities of the place, both from the point of view of trade and of strategy. They are confirmed by present-day facts and will become more and more important as time goes on.

The scenery from the air is a wonderful experience. The display of the enormous masses of clouds, dense with tropical rain or glaring under the sun, patches of dark, steaming forest below, tremendous storms and torrential downpours are the most outstanding impressions one receives flying up-river towards Manaos. The city unexpectedly appears from the middle of the jungle with no roads to indicate its approach and no suburban area-just the city with its squares, its grand Opera House and its floating docks, the remains of a former prosperity: the days of the rubber boom. Further on, the same aspects, the same muddy waters, a few villages ’ and huts on the bends of the river, the unbroken forest everywhere, relieved only here and there by some scant clearings. And so the forest rolls on towards the foothills of the Andes to the West and the rocky-plateau of the Guyanas to the North, where at last rapids and grass lands break the monotony of the sombre green, picturesquely enhanced by flocks of gaily painted birds, such as toucans, macaws and herons of all colours.

From Belem down the coast, the plane soars for two hours over , many small rivers, with sandy banks and shallow anchorages, which oblige ships to keep at a distance, until it strikes the natural harbour of Sao Luis, the capital of the State of Maranhao, where Admiral Cochrane, commanding the new Brazilian Fleet, besieged the last Portuguese garrison in 1824. Here one sees barges with sails of every colour being loaded with produce. A Baroque cathedral and a and a large convent stand out against the narrow streets, dotted with chapels and and colonial balconies. In the time of the sailing ships, Sao Luis was the seat of the Government for Northern Brazil, as it was easier to sail with the prevailing winds to Lisbon, than to the capital of the Vice-Roys, either at Salvador, either at Salvador or Rio. Sao Luis was actually founded early in the seventeenth century by French privateers and was named after Louis XIII.

Proceeding south, the landscape changes. The white chequer boards of the salt pans sparkle along the coast, cattle graze on the plains, and, and here and there cotton plantations appeaer. Then comes Fortaleza, with its geometrical flat pattern, in the arid section of the bulge of Brazil, and Natal, now famous as the jumping-off ground for the transatlantic air-service. Its proximity to Africa and the favourable climatic conditions prevailing all the year round make it a permanent and important international air-junction.

Then, through hundreds of miles of coconut groves and red cliffs, the plane swoops down upon sun-baked City of Pernambuco. A curious reef stretching for miles, parallel to the coast, forms here a natural dock.

The heights of nearby Olinda and the spires of its churches make a delightful landmark for the ships that harbour. The rich, almost greasy soil is ideal for sugar cane. Two rivers converge on Pernambuco, contributing to its most characteristic aspects: quays and canals everywhere, above which the tiled and coloured facades of the old houses cast their reflections in the jade-green water. Pernambuco is rich in tradition. Portuguese and Dutch forts, ornate churches in profusion, together with the convents of Olinda, give it the distinction of being one of the four centres of colonial art in Brazil. Lovely cloisters lined with the famous Portuguese blue tiles, gilt altars and the heavily carved furniture are the main features that attract the lover of Baroque art. Pernambuco has also played an important part in the seventeenth century wars against the Dutch who at one time succeeded in ruling this part of the world under one of the Nassau princes. Attracted by the rural prosperity of the captaincy, they remained there for twenty-five years - a period of incessant fighting, during which the nation was forged.

The titled proprietors of the sugar plantations were the most gifted members of the two political parties that governed the country during Empire and counted amongst the influential orators in the Senate at Rio. They lived with a considerable degree of refinements on their country estates and were proud of their horses and carriages. They traced their descent Freon the best Portuguese blood, and their elegant manners were a reflection of the same easy and cultured life as that led by the wealthy planters of the American Southern States or the British West Indies.

The next halt is at Maceio. Sugar cotton fields and the coconut palms on the fringe of the sea is practically all one sees for another two hours, until one reaches Salvador in the magnificent Bay of All Saints, a lovely and sheltered harbour as no other in the globe. As the one-time capital of Portuguese America the city has preserved, more than any other in Brazil, its old-world atmosphere. It is above all noted for the number of its churches and monasteries, and for this reason remain the most suggestive, the most Brazilian of our cities, past and present. It is divided into a lower part-the busy trading centre-and an upper part-beautifully set out overlooking the bay.

Bahia is proud and full of dignity, conscious of the nation she has mothered, of the Portuguese traditions she has preserved, and of the spiritual sway she continues to exercise over the hearts of all Brazilians.- The town was formerly the main slave market. Hence the omnipresence of negroes and their own particular way of life - indolent, soft people, dancing at voodoo gatherings or praying in religious processions, an inextricable mixture of Saint and Witch Doctor. These two aspects which stamp Brazilian life are best expressed in that great popular revelry, the carnival. The negroes haunting songs and their highly spiced cooking have left their mark in Brazil everywhere. The dresses of the Bahia women are the inspiration of our artists.

The next flight takes one over a thousand miles, along a continuous coastal chain, to the modern airport of Rio, right in the heart of the city. No more advantageous view of the whole bay can be obtained than by air. From above, all its beauties join in a single panoramic sweep. Long white beaches in graceful curves, lush green islands and the serried rank ‘of the tall residential blocks of Copacabana rise in brilliant colours like the creation of a surrealist. The town, so different from any other, nestles in the valleys, follows the broken contours of the beaches in endless strings of jewels, on a most lovely setting. The well-known beauties of its harbour need not be described. What must be pointed out here, however, is that Rio undergoes a vast plan of reconstruction. Stately Government buildings, sky-scrapers and palatial flats spring up everywhere. A vast avenue was torn right through the centre of the town, as wide and longer than the Champs-lysees; diagonals are foreseen to ease the traffic congestion.

From Rio two air-lines branch inland; one to Belo Horizonte, the comparatively new capital of Minas Geraes and the other to Sao Paulo, the coffee and industrial centre. The first flight takes one over abrupt, rocky mountains to the plateau of Minas - a heart of gold locked in a breast of iron, as someone once called it. Around the capital are the gold mines, one of which, the St. John d’EI Rey, has been’ in operation since colonial days. From them derives the name of Minas Geraes. They were discovered by the Paulistas, those famous bandeirantes who played such a part in exploring and appropriating the vast ininhabited spaces of Brazil, with total disregard of the Pope’s line of demarcation between Spain and Portugal.

From Belo Horizonte motor roads branch to the ancient mining towns, today little more than ghost-towns, but once in the eighteenth century by far the greatest producers of gold. In these towns the usual gold-rush instead of developing into rough collections of shacks, with vice and gambling rampant, was held with firm hand by the State and the Church. The King’s collectors were exacting and penalties for evasion were savagely carried out. All ostentation on the part of his subjects was frowned on by His Majesty. Only the churches were allowed to display the riches of the district. A characteristic Baroque sprang up in these mountains, forming one of the greatest ensembles of old architecture in South America.

The most notable Brazilian colonial artists: in sculpture, the versatile Antonio Francisco Lisboa, better known as the “Cripple”; in painting, Manuel Ataide; and in literature that group of poets, styled as the “Minas School,” are the outcome of this flourishing episode. Vila Rica, one of the mining towns, was also the stage of the first nationalistic movement in Brazil. It centred around these dreamers of freedom, while inspiration came from the American Revolution. It is known under the name Inconfidencia, and Tiradentes was its martyr who paid with his life for the vain attempt to free his country (1790) from the burden of taxation and the greed of the Crown. By then the alluvial gold of Brazil was nearly exhausted, and the gold towns became deserted and soon decayed. Of late, however, Minas has attracted the attention of art students both in Brazil and abroad. The Government has fortunately taken steps to stop all demolitions and disfiguring restorations. Vila Rica, renamed Ouro Preto in 1823, was recently declared a National Monument, and two museums were- founded in historical buildings.

The other air-line from Rio goes to Sao Paulo. Here the tourist will be introduced to a completely different aspect:” of Brazil. The city was founded by the Jesuits in the sixteenth century. One of them was the Blessed Anchieta, the apostle of Brazil, whose pious accomplishments rank with those of St. Francis Xavier and the greatest missionaries of all times.

Sao Paulo is the fastest growing city on the American Continent to-day, the headquarters of the greatest coffee producing area, spreading out over millions of acres, as. well as the most important industrial area of South America. The growth of Sao Paulo is a startling phenomenon. About the nineties, that city had a population of some 60,000. In 1900 it numbered 200,000. Then it began to gather momentum. It increased to 350,000 in 1910, to 600,000 in 1920, and to just under the million mark in 1930. To-day it counts almost one and a half million. Not only foreign immigration, mostly Italian, explains this increase. Brazilians from everywhere flocked to the heart of the great coffee country, since its cultivation moved south from the State of Rio de Janeiro to the fertile purple earth where it found its habitat, about the end of the last century.

Santos, a somewhat prosaic port from where one half of the world’s coffee is shipped, has a definite and important claim in the romantic history of Brazil. For here was born the beautiful and ambitious Domitilia, the Brazilian Pompadour, who eventually received “from her adoring Emperor the title of Marquesa dos Santos. - Dom Pedro, that passionate Braganc;a, fell madly in love with Domitilia on a visit to Sao Paulo, when he was but twenty-three years of age. Their love was like a flame, burning through all the proprieties and heavy traditions of the dull Portuguese society of those times. Dom Pedro forced his first wife to receive his lady-love in Court, and with the death of the Empress, five years later, it looked as if he would wed Dona Domitilia in spite of the protests of his courtiers and countrymen. However, this scheme never succeeded and she eventually retired to Sao Paulo. The last stage of the air-voyage brings on’e to Porto Alegre, the modern and attractive capital of the State of Rio Grande do Sul.

From the long ’ struggle against the Spaniards, in the vast plains of the extreme south of Brazil, was born the picturesque ” Gaucho,” a type evolved in the ” Pampas” of the River Plate, to which region Rio Grande is closely related. The plains are the realm of the “Gauchos.” The enormous distances and their loneliness, the peculiar activity of life there-the raising of cattle-help to maintain for them the title of centaurs of the Pampas. Their great tradition goes back to the guerilla warfare of the separatist wars. The “Gaucho” is inseparable from his horse. His life in the saddle brings out in him that mixture of freedom and grit, characteristic of the cowboy. His is the spirit that formed Rio Grande, the last province to be incorporated into Brazil. He has also been the last to bring in his contribution to the political life of the country. For the first time, in 1930, a man from the south rose to power, a typical representative of that breed of men, Getulio Vargas, who inaugurated Brazil’s new era.

So much for the history and physical aspect of the country; I will complete this sketch by bringing in the human element, the racial and social background. “Brazil is like no - other country, politically, socially or physically… It is, as Kipling said, a world in itself.” This is what Tom Clarke writes in Word of an Englishman, his latest book.

During colonial days Portugal could not send many white settlers to Brazil. The indigenous tribes being refractory to permanent agriculture, the Portuguese soon introduced the African slave, who was to become the nucleus of our rural population, and the main source of manual labour in the coastal and mining towns. A steady flow of blacks poured into the country from the Congo and Angola. Statistics are lacking as to their numbers; estimates varying from two to three millions, in the course of three centuries of traffic. Only after its termination in 1850 did the Brazilian Government embark upon a policy of planned European immigration. About four million Europeans have settled since the country gained its independence, a total to which must be added the already existing one million whites in a population of four millions, which Brazil had in 1822. The natives were a less important factor. The present 43 million Brazilians descend from these three sources. Sixty per cent. of today’s population is white, five per cent. is still negro, while the remaining 35 per cent. is of mixed blood, in various combinations and proportions, gradually tending to white. Some authorities are even of the opinion that the coloured element will have been absorbed within a hundred years.

Here I must touch upon a topic foremost among those of mankind’s future - that of the differences of race, class, colour and religion, which affects Brazil more than any other country. Had the country adopted the European concept of nationality and race, what would have been Brazil’s fate? It would perhaps be the most disintegrated country on earth. Without the Indians and the Africans, how could the vast areas of equatorial Brazil have been populated, where Nordic man has so far failed? One might expect, from these many ingredients of the Brazilian population, that they should be antagonistic to each other; the Negroes, the Germans, the Poles, the Italians and lately the Japanese. But this is not so. Brazil as a melting-pot seems miraculously effective. She may yet show to the world the futility of the racial problem. All the people of Brazil form indeed one big happy family. For centuries, and by force of circumstances, Brazil has been built upon the principle of free miscegenation. What in other countries is only theoretically admitted - civil equality in public as well as in private life-becomes here a reality. No colour-bar, no segregation, no arrogant discrimination are known. The conception of the sin against the blood does not exist. Climate and living conditions have creates and individual type - the “caboclo” - which is by no means degenerate. The deficiencies that are to be found in the population of Brazil come in reality from lack of education and sanitation, plus malnutrition. The vastness of the territory has made these problems gigantic. They are being tackled to the best of the government’s ability, but progress is bound to be slow.

In this negation of colour and racial distinctions Brazil is ahead of North America and even of the other Spanish American countries.

The mixed race of Brazil has produced some outstanding figures in the fields of art and literature. Perhaps the greates American artist of colonial days was the “Cripple.” Another mulatto artist was Master Valentim, the gifted craftsman and sculptor of Rio. Mulattoes were our three greates poest ad our one novelist of world-standing, Machado de Assiz. In science and politics mulattoes have attained places of distinction.

This sense of toleration has been recognized by all students of Brazil as on of her chief national achievments. The Brazilians are a gentle people, a virtue inherited from the Portugese, the most Christian of all people, and a virtue which the docile negroes have tended to accentuate/ This ahcaracteristic reveals itself in a striking love of peace. The herosed of Brazil are not victorious generals alone. Her Continental aims are not imperialistic. Her political changes have been without bloodshed. Some day, who knows, she may endow mankind with an original civilization based on racial equality and international good will.

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