Oliveira Vianna who, in a series of books, professed
the view that the blacks are an inferior race
dragged Brazil downwards suggested that
only Aryanization could help the country.
The Boys from Brazil is a 1978 Hollywood production based on an Ira Levin best-seller. It concerns a secret plot to
clone the dead Adolf Hitler, masterminded by Gregory Peck’s villain who is no other than the Nazi Angel of Death, Dr. Josef
Mengele; we are supposed to swallow the implausible scenario that he was alive and well and plotting in Brazil.
Laurence Olivier gives a great hammy performance in a thriller with moments of high camp, peppered by streaks of
intense violence and punctuated by a rather good original score, which lost the Oscar to the music from
Midnight Express. The title has entered English usage denoting South America’s fictitious neo-Nazi sympathizers in Chile, Brazil and Argentina,
whereas the movie and its preposterous plot is forgotten.
Except that we now know that when the book was written and the film was shot, Dr. Josef Mengele
was indeed alive and well, leading an uneventful existence in São Paulo.
In the Curitiba bus station the young woman at the counter flirted with me.
“You are going to Florianópolis?”, she half-asked, half-remarked as she saw my ticket.
Indeed, I was.
“Oi-oi”, she remarked, eyes denoting what-a-shame.
Phew, this is still Brazil.
My bus was a two-story modern monster with TV and toilet at the back; reclining seats let me put my feet up; I still
recall my surprise at the noiselessness of the engine, the functioning air-conditioning, the comfort combined with punctuality
and the American-style ‘Have-a-nice-day’ service. Where were the screaming children? They were sitting obediently playing
with their Gameboys. Where were the loud chatting couples? There, reading newspapers and magazines. Where was the
pandemonium occasioned when storing your luggage under the bus? I checked mine at the Catarinense counter with the
brunette who appeared so upset at my departure. I glanced at my coupon. I wasn’t
flying to Florianópolis, was I? No, John, this is
a bus station, but this is a Santa Catarina company, and there are many German-Brazilians there.
To reach the said state of Santa Catarina we had to descend from Curitiba to Joinville, flanked by the tall pines of the
Mata Atlântica and by three-lorry-long logging juggernauts whose motorway antics, such as overtaking each other on blind
curves, reminded me that, refined behavior aside, this is South America after all. If anything, as one approaches Argentina, the
drivers become more erratic, not less.
Joinville is an embarrassment. Industrial and ugly with snooker halls and over-the-top motels: here’s one shaped like
a windmill (for S&M sessions?); another comprising several individual log-cabins advertises itself as
(for the discerning ageing hippie?); and a whale-shaped motel (catering for the Moby-Dick sized punter?)
The more we enter Santa Catarina whose coastline we begin to hug after Barra Velha, the more you notice the
names—Bar Schmitt, Fazenda Breitner, Hotel Fischer (offering
cachaça and queijo
colonial)—and the buildings: gone are the
usual cement-and-corrugated iron or adobe-and-wattle dwellings and in come Scandinavian-like log cabins and Swiss
wooden-slate chalets. There’s a self-congratulatory sign before Itajaí:
“500 years em paz—Parabéns,
Brazil”. (500 years in peace—Congratulations, Brazil). Have these people never been to school? There have been hundreds of conflicts in this country.
Even the renaming of Florianópolis from Desterro was the result of a suppressed local rebellion.
On the right we pass a sign to Blumenau, the most German of all Brazilian towns, which celebrates its own annual
Oktoberfest—unlike the Bavarian original this actually does occur in October—a symbol of the multicultural mosaic that’s Brazil.
If you think I’m talking bollocks you’d be right.
Brazil started attracting European migrants for two reasons: the gradual abolition of slavery during a period of
agricultural expansion, and a racial desire of ‘whitening’ the country’s population, an unspoken thesis which became quite
outspoken in the early 20th century. Its prime exponent was Oliveira Vianna who, in a series of books, professed the view that the
blacks are an inferior race and dragged Brazil downwards—only Aryanization could help the country.
In the 1840s a group of Germans and Swiss first came to work in the coffee plantations of São Paulo and immediately
rebelled at the conditions they were supposed to work under—so much that some European states, notably Prussia, banned
Brazilian agencies from advertising passages for prospective migrants. It would take many steps towards the eventual abolition
of slavery for European immigration really to take off in Brazil. In the eleven years from 1872 to 1883, about 50,000
immigrants arrived; in 1888 alone, the year of the abolition, Brazil welcomed 132,000 new faces.
As the British and the French had their own colonies to choose from, it was left to the poor of the countries who had
lost out on the initial carving of the globe to emigrate to Brazil: East Europeans, Italians and last, but not least, Germans who
settled in the south. The Italians, who made up about 50 percent of new arrivals, any Spanish who made the move and of course
the steady wave of mainland Portuguese were acculturated easily. Not so the Germans, who formed the fourth largest
immigrant group, for the language was very different, their customs Northern European and their demeanor more exclusive.
They started building their own schools in their own towns and only learned sufficient Portuguese to communicate
outside their sheltered existence which under other circumstances might have been called a ghetto. This isolationism combined
with the doctrine of Pan-Germanism in Europe, which fuelled Prussian expansion in the end of the
19th century and continued in Hitler’s time, created mistrust between the German immigrants and the Portuguese establishment. The creation of a Nazi
Party in Santa Catarina didn’t help much either…
When we reached Itajaí I noticed for the first time that this is the same BR-101 motorway I rode on from Fortaleza to
Canoa Quebrada. It doesn’t quite have the ring of a Route 66, but it more than compensates for the sights. I’d been on it from
Natal to Pipa—from Recife to Porto de Galinhas, and I hit it again near Cachoeira. It continues just off Ilhéus to Itabuna
onwards to Vitória and Rio de Janeiro where it forms the highly scenic coastal route to Santos passing Parati, Angra dos Reis and Guarujá.
It sort of disappears around São Paulo (doesn’t everything?) with various state highways to re-emerge in Joinville
and continue uninterrupted to Rio Grande do Sul through the National Park of Lagoa do Peixe where the perilous stretch
between Bojuru and Tavares is nicknamed ‘The Road of Hell’. The BR-101 stops at the bottom of the park peninsula opposite Rio
Grande—the town which gave the southern state its name. It was at the turnoff to Brusque I spotted the highway name again,
near a car showroom of the Irmãos Fischer, full of solid, commodious lorries. The Brusques seem to like their cars, well,
As the afternoon progressed, the shadows became longer, the twittering birds emerged—along with the
vultures—and the ghastly painted-by-numbers skyscrapers of Balneário Camboriú blotted the landscape ahead. This resort offers the
best imitation of a Spanish Costa overbuilding you can get in South America this side of Viña del Mar, a kind of
Torremolinos-without-the-lager-louts with the role of the ubiquitous British assumed by the Argentineans, Santa Catarina’s main
source of foreign exchange. It is not widely known that Florianópolis is the second most visited town in Brazil after Rio, but yes,
it eclipses Manaus, Foz do Iguaçu, Olinda and Salvador; it makes Ouro Preto bite the dust and Fortaleza turn green with
envy. And the only thing Florianópolis and Santa Catarina have to show for, is beaches.
At Itapema (no, not Ipanema or Iracema) we hit one of those famous beaches with a thicket of villas sporting enough
satellite dishes to intercept communications over the whole of Patagonia, before we climbed up in the mountains again. Santa
Catarina is a small state of three Belgiums full of mountains and coastline, which make for an appealing combination like in
Chile—especially now, as we drive through hydrangeas, wild banana trees and ivy creepers, which frame beautifully the town
of Porto Belo below.
Whyever anyone would spend time in Balneário Camboriú when this gem of a peninsula is so close, is for
advertisers to ponder over. But tackiness rears its head even here. Forget those whale-and-windmill motels: here is a whole pizzeria
within an old, rusting airplane. Excuse me. Do people crave for airline food and plastic cutlery on a Saturday night? Do they
get to wear seatbelts, sit uncomfortably with the minimum of legroom and queue interminably for the tiny toilets? And how
did the frigging plane get there?
Before I had time to solve such eternal questions, we turned a curve and I shut my brain, for there’s a panoramic
view of Florianópolis which has the whole bus enthralled. The setting only Brazil can provide: a city split between the
mainland shore and the hills of the island of Santa Catarina, less than two miles across a channel which divides the sea into a
north and south ‘bay’. The two city halves are joined by an old iron suspension bridge—now a spectacular state
monument—and a more modern one below.
Dusk in shades of orange bring on the lights which flicker in a sloping, subtropical San Francisco without the fog. I
watch in disbelief. Behind the city, on the island itself there are forty-two beaches as remote or as cosmopolitan as you desire;
a large inward lagoon stretches itself next to a forested national park; and smaller islets full of coves, pirates’ bays and old
Portuguese forts surround this pearl of an island.
A Little History
If someone offered you a window seat in a time-capsule to Brazil’s 500-year-old historical past where would you
choose to land? At Monte Pascoal with Cabral and his men checking out the first contact between the Old World and the New?
In Salvador watching a slave ship unload its human cargo? In Aleijadinho’s atelier observing the master at work, trying to
second-guess his disease?
Nah—I’d go for a laugh, attending moments of the Portuguese court in Rio de Janeiro where we had left them some
chapters ago: King João VI a plump, effeminate slob carrying chicken drumsticks in his pocket in case he needed a snack, his
ugly-as-sin, scheming, autocratic Spanish wife Carlota Joaquina, and their two sons—acne-ridden Dom Pedro and
cowboy-playboy Dom Miguel, extraordinary womanizers both.
Mad Queen Maria had died in exile back in March 1816, but was not buried until the Court’s return to Portugal in
1821. Of course, the royal funerary rites had to be observed back home: the queen had to lie in state for all to pay their
respects. When they opened the coffin which had suffered the heat of the tropics for all these years, the stench of decomposition
was such that one of the Princesses fainted. The ladies-in-waiting for the first time earned their keep as they had to reclothe
the body in a black robe, gloves, shoes and stockings, while the nobles and the bishops had to line up and kiss her hand.
I’d pay good money to watch that.
… Back to Brazil where Dom João opened its ports to trade with Great Britain and caused a major boom in the
London Stock Exchange where thousands of madcap schemes were launched. In the year 2000, when asked about the capital of
Brazil, many Brits answer Buenos Aires, so imagine the extent of their ignorance nearly two centuries back: they tried to sell
ladies’ corsets to the sweating mulatas, cast iron fireplaces to the denizens of Rio and ice skates to the barefoot population of
the Nordeste. But soon enough the British ships outnumbered the Portuguese in the ports by twenty to one and Brazil
entered the chessboard of Great Power machinations.
Around it Spanish Latin America was ablaze, as Napoleonic ideas spread. Perhaps it is fitting for a continent with
operetta politics that Simon Bolívar, a Basque revolutionary with a Clintonesque libido, aided by the bastard son of an Irish
settler (Bernardo O’ Higgins) and an Argentinean hypochondriac (José de San Martín) should liberate the Spanish colonies,
with the English fearsome seadog, Admiral Cochrane, playing the pantomime
It was the very presence of the King in Brazil that avoided the bloodiness of the uprisings from Santiago to Caracas.
Even after the Duke of Wellington’s successful Second Peninsular War, even after Waterloo, even after the newly assembled
Cortes recalled him back to Lisbon, even after the British tried in vain to convince him to return to Portugal, King João VI
stayed in Rio, his only moves being from the Palace of São Cristóvão to the one on the Ilha do Governador. Some say he was
sluggish and indecisive, some say he liked Brazil and his new subjects more than Portugal and its power games—and who can
blame him—but his actions always make sense with hindsight.
He left Portugal when he should have done, he stayed in Brazil as long as he had to in order to avoid bloodshed, he
returned to Portugal at the right time to save it from anarchy, and he left his 23-year old heir Dom Pedro in Rio to take care of
business in case independence did catch on. Dom João remained to his death a rare figure of equanimity in an era seething with
conspiracy, although he is loathed in Brazil for ransacking the Treasury upon his return to Portugal. He looked increasingly porcine
towards the end of his life and like Elvis he died by food.
His supposed last words were: “This broth has killed me” giving rise to the usual speculation that he was poisoned.
Gossip has it that Caetano, the servant who brought him that lethal broth, apparently saw the court physician Dr Aguiar empty
a phial into the soup bowl (“The King’s tonic”) and that some liquid spilled on the napkin burning it immediately. And
wow!—Caetano was found strangled later in his room! But gossip it all was—it took King João six days to die after he collapsed
during a procession, and the only aberration regarding his circumstances is that he died almost exactly 10 years after his mad mother.
The last momentous act of his reign was to recognize the independence of Brazil. This happened so quickly and so
relatively bloodlessly, it left everyone astounded, including the King, the Cortes and the London Foreign Office. It was in the
Lisbon post-Napoleonic Constitutional Assembly that the envy towards the rich ex-colony exploded. The Rio notables were
enraged when they found out that laws were being passed before the deputies from Brazil, now an ex-colony with equal status to
Portugal, had taken their seats. And when they did, they were taunted and shouted down when they refused to accept that their
courts of law should be moved to Lisbon and that they should lose their new commercial privileges. The question of sending
troops to Brazil—which had none of its own—was raised. The Cortes talked of exiling Prince Pedro to England.
The first act of defiance by the young Prince was his public declaration on February
9th 1822 that he would not leave; an episode which has been labeled
‘dia do fico’—the day of ‘I’m
staying’. I mention this, because for years when I was
learning Portuguese, I thought fico came from
ficus and lived under the impression that those giddy Brazilians were celebrating a
Day of The Fig or, judging from their dental floss swimming trunks, the Day of the Fig Leaf. Sigh—it would be a nice idea.
In August 1822, an ill Dom Pedro set off from Rio to São Paulo just as he found out that the Cortes in Lisbon had
declared its intention to undertake ‘the reconquest of Brazil’. The Paulistas welcomed him in their town with fireworks and cheers;
Dom Pedro had to smile and gesture royally despite terrible diarrhea—we all have our crosses to bear. He also checked out
the mood in Santos and on September 7th at the banks of the Ipiranga river he received two letters from Rio. His secretary
read them while Dom Pedro was ‘crouching by’ as historians put it, not explaining why he didn’t read them himself, although
they stress pointedly that he was still suffering from dysentery.
The first missive was from the Cortes which had sent an ultimatum—arrest his Prime Minister José Bonifácio and
return to Lisbon NOW. The other was a plea from the said José Bonifácio and Pedro’s wife Empress Leopoldina. They asked
him either to return to Portugal as a prisoner or stay free and proclaim independence. Dom Pedro rose, ripped up the letters
and told his equerry: “Inform my guard, I have decided upon the Independence of Brazil”. It was 4:30pm and a scene I would
like to have witnessed with my Time Machine, if only to ascertain what Dom Pedro’s squatting involved and whether history
would have been different had Imodium already been invented.
Incidentally, that 7th of September is a national holiday throughout Brazil with streets and squares in every small
village and town named after that day. It is indicative of the state of early
19th century communications that on the
20th September the Cortes was still determining the post-Dom Pedro state of affairs in the now ex-ex-colony. I would also like to have
been in the chamber and see the faces of the exaltados
when news of the declaration of independence broke out.
From then on, events proceeded quickly. The Portuguese garrisons in the Northeast rebelled. The main resistance
occurred in Salvador. There, General Luiz Madeira only surrendered when Admiral Cochrane, fresh from supporting the
Spanish rebels, accepted Dom Pedro’s invitation to head the new Brazilian navy and blockaded Salvador. On July
2nd—the famous Dois do Julho in Bahian history—the last Portuguese were driven out of Bahia. The further capitulation of Pernambuco
and last of all Maranhão was a matter of months.
All Portuguese property in Brazil was confiscated to force the Cortes into acceptance. Dom Pedro was crowned
Emperor Pedro I on December 1st 1822: a constitutional monarch in the New World, at war with the country of his birth—and his
father. Note that Pedro I was his shortened name. The longer one including all his titles was Dom Pedro de Alcântara Francisco
Antônio João Carlos Xavier de Paula Miguel Rafael Joaquim José Gonzaga Pascoal Cipriano Serafim de Bragança e Bourbon,
Prince of Beira, Royal Prince of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarve, Prince Regent of the Kingdom of Brazil,
First Constitutional Emperor and Perpetual Defender of Brazil, Duke of Bragança. Although the power of cut-and-paste is
formidable, I shall still stick with Pedro I.
It was that dynastic succession that ensured Brazil’s survival, because its future was not secure until the
newly-formed Holy Alliance of Great Powers agreed to its independence. The first country to recognize Brazil was James Monroe’s
United States, but the Holy Alliance was at odds. Bourbon France and Czarist Russia were for the
status quo ante; Metternich’s Austria saw a monarchy in South America as a counterpoise to all these new
caudilho democracies; this left Great
Britain with a carte blanche to mediate for Brazil’s independence.
Negotiations started in London in July 1824 between Brazil, Portugal, Great Britain and Austria as an observer of the
Holy Alliance. The talks were stalled until Canning shocked the Portuguese representative with a candid superpower
dressing-down: “Tell me”, he wrote to him, “if you believe that any government here would throw away the trade with Brazil in
order to avoid the simple admission that what is, is, viz. that Brazil is separated from Portugal [..] The King of Portugal has it
yet in his hands to decide whether Brazil shall be independent by his act or in spite of
His intermediary, Sir Charles Stuart, hopped—slowly, as hopping involved a slow marine journey—between Lisbon
and Rio obtaining finally a treaty on August
29th, 1825, ratified on November the
9th. Perhaps it was this ratification that was
the last nail in the coffin of João VI—the only European monarch who had ever witnessed the vitality, vigor and promise of
its transatlantic colonies and seen the child grow taller than the parent. The treaty recognized the independence of Brazil,
prohibited its unification with other Portuguese colonies, sealed an alliance between the two countries, restored the rights
of any sequestered property and finally it arranged for Brazil to pay reparations to Portugal—with money that was lent by
London banks. Thus it was in debt to international bankers that Brazil was born and that has been its curse ever since; in debt it
has lived for most of its history and on her
500th year she owed to foreigners more than all African countries from the Sahara
to Cape Town.
One of Dom Pedro daughters from his first wife, Leopoldina, was Francisca Carolina who married the son of French
King Louis Philippe in 1843. (Incidentally, the Viennese Empress Leopoldina is #94 in the list of famous gays and lesbians in
Brazil of the Grupo Gay da Bahia; she had two public lesbian affairs: one with English travel writer Maria Graham who left us
an excellent account of 1820s Brazil and another with the Parisian dancer Naomi Thierry.)
Dona Francisca’s dowry were twenty-five square leagues of land. With the 1848 revolt and subsequent rule of Louis
Napoleon, the Philippes fled to England and in order to survive sold the family silver and their large plot to the Colonization Society
of Hamburg which sent 118 German and Swiss immigrants in 1851 to found the city of Dona Francisca. Its name was soon
changed after the title of her husband: Prince de
You thought I was drifting, eh?
The reception at Hotel Faial on the beautifully-named Rua Felipe Schmidt gave me a map of Florianópolis. I was
buzzing after a short taxi ride from the bus station where I had successfully convinced the driver I was on business from Curitiba.
Hey, I can fool anyone!, I thought until I saw the city map with all GLS spots of Florianópolis clearly marked. I was doubly
impressed. Not only by the town tourist board which had printed out a map specially for gays and lesbians, but also by my
receptionist who earned his tip. I checked. There was the Mix Café Bar and Dancing, the gay sauna Oceano, Chandon Danceteria…
At the time of my first trip in Brazil, Renildo Santos had just been murdered in Alagoas. Soon after, on
24th May 1994, Claudio Orlando dos Santos a 30-year-old AIDS activist was distributing free condoms to the transvestites in the Avenue Ivo
Silveira on the continental side of Florianópolis. I leave the rest to Amnesty International’s Report—AMR 19/31/97:
“At 9pm Military Police arrived and the transvestites who were in the area ran away. According to a letter, Cláudio
Orlando dos Santos wrote to the president of the Brazilian Lawyers Association in Santa Catarina, dated June 1994, the Military
Police officers began to harass him and threatened to arrest him. He ran to a public telephone and called the Captain of the
Military Police, Edson Luiz, Coordinator of Centro de Operações da Polícia Militar, COPOM, to report what had happened. The
Military Police officers came back and started to beat him with truncheons and kick him. After he lost consciousness, he was
handcuffed and moved, in the boot of the Military Police vehicle, to the 8th Civil Police Precinct, where he was again beaten and
insulted by the Military Police, and his personal belongings destroyed”. Dos Santos who was suffering from AIDS himself never
fully recovered from the maltreatment and died within six months of the incident.
Yet six years later, the Tourist Board of Santa Catarina promotes a map with all gay and lesbian places clearly marked.
From my room I could see the bridges and the continental part of the town across the channel; I couldn’t help
thinking how much they spoiled the view by creating that second motorway bridge. The view south-west looks across to a large
motorway, the Via Expressa, two large bus stations or an empty
Sambódromo—and that only comes to life during Carnaval. It’s a
pity they closed the old iron suspension bridge Hercílio Luz for safety reasons in 1985 after just sixty years service; surely
Floripa authorities could have done better with proper maintenance. Notice the local shortening: Floripa—the Brazilian habit of
making tongue-twister towns out of names (Petrópolis, Teresópolis, Rondonópolis, Anápolis et al) has thankfully disappeared
recently with the renaming of towns to João Pessoa and Euclides da Cunha.
Bar 32 is the hippest place in Floripa, chosen by the Brazilian
Playboy magazine as having one of the best selection
of beers in the country. It’s within the expanse of the Mercado Público, which is full of very popular watering holes from
the early evening on. I chose the oysters—the only live food I allow myself to digest—and a glass of Undurraga, a Chilean
dry white wine. I expected half a dozen; I was served twelve. I expected them size AA like French farmed
huîtres, and when they came they were deep-sea-monstrous. I looked at the menu: Norwegian gravadlax, Scottish whiskey, Chilean wine,
Metaxa brandy, French foie gras, caviar, lobster, crab.. For such a famous institution it’s tiny. This place with fewer than ten
two-person tables sells the most champagne in the whole of Brazil?
The busy waiter picked my empty wine glass.
“Você é de Curitiba?”
This is the second time in a day. Tanned and relaxed I surely didn’t look like a gringo.
“No”, I said. “From London”.
If the waiter was surprised, he didn’t puncture his cool.
“Ah, London”, he said taking more interest in me. “I’m originally from Italy”.
It’s reassuring to note that long distance can be responsible for geographical confusion both ways: it’s not just
Europeans who view Latin America as a homogeneous whole.
“London is in England”, I smiled condescendingly. “But I’ve been to -”
Was that a shot?
“Was that a shot?”, asked the waiter eyes wide.
We heard another shot. And another. They were from next door.
The waiter got up along with all of the bar’s patrons.
“My wine!”, I reminded him. I couldn’t swallow those oysters dry.
The waiter had already run off.
So that’s what shots sound like. Better stay here.
There was no one at the bar or behind the till. I walked over and re-filled my glass with wine. I heard the ambulance
arrive. I checked my watch. Fifteen minutes, long in a small town like this. The waiter returned gesticulating excitedly.
“Personal dispute”, he said. “In the bar Goiânio, next arcade along. One guy shot another over a woman”.
And I thought it was in Rio and Salvador I had to watch out
ENVY PROVOKES FIGHT AND LEAVES TWO WOUNDED
Florianópolis 12.4.2000—local paper.
Because of a woman, two men caused a violent fight close to the capital’s Mercado Público around 20:30 last night
and both were shot. According to the Operations Center of the Military Police which called the Ambulance, Rodrigo
Gonçalves shot in the shoulder, neck and buttocks is interned in the Intensive Care Unit (UTI) of the Hospital Celso Ramos. Ademir
João Coelho, 30, shot in the abdomen received attention in the Emergency Surgery. Until late last night both patients have
been subject to operations to remove the projectiles from their bodies.
A police spokesman said that Ademir, a bus driver, became jealous when he saw his ex-girlfriend with Rodrigo and
gun in hand, appeared and shot his rival. Although wounded, Rodrigo was able to react. He removed the
calibre 22 revolver
from the hand of the aggressor and managed to shoot him in the abdomen. The weapon was apprehended by the police and
handed over to the duty officer of the
1st Police Station for safekeeping.
The onslaught of the beaches of Santa Catarina started next morning when I took a tour of the island with several
Paulista tourists and Manuel, one of these arrogant Cariocas who believe that splendor and elegance begins and ends in Rio.
We first headed to the bar Ponto de Vista for a panoramic view of the Lagoa da Conceição. I find the concept of an
island with many beaches quite acceptable—but to have an island with many beaches
and a large and lengthy inward lagoon
perfectly reflecting the forested dunes which surround it, smacked of excess of goodwill by the Creator. I mentioned it to
Fernando, our guide.
“We have TWO such lagoons”, he said. “This is the developed one, with villas and nightlife. There is one further
south, the Lagoa do Peri which is still pristine”.
We did manage to get a glimpse of the smaller lagoon after we stopped at a promontory to admire the long curve of
the beach at Armação, somnolently Bahian in its laziness with one of the smaller islands, the Ilha do Campeche, figuring
hazily in the distance.
“Any secluded beaches?” asked Manuel.
“There is the Praia do Mole, a nudist beach”, replied Fernando, “but it’s too accessible from the highway. If you
really want complete solitude, then you have to walk the half hour through the woods from this turn-off “—he showed us a
side road—”to Lagoinha do Leste. Some say this is the best beach in Brazil, better than Ceará’s Jericoacoara, and it’s so
difficult to get to that it will stay that way for years to come”.
At Pântano do Sul the fishermen were dragging their nets in. The catch is so abundant in these South Atlantic
waters that the whole village participates in the haul, rushing afterwards to pick up the fish that are flapping for dear life. You
can pick up yours—although if you haven’t helped, your action is frowned upon—and give it to a restaurant to grill straight
away. I walked up close. Some fish were already cut in half.
“Sharks?” I asked a tranquil local who ignored the commotion mending his nets. He looked so old, he had probably
assisted Lord Cochrane personally.
“No”, he said. “Dolphins”.
“They don’t get entangled in the nets?”
The old man frowned incomprehensibly.
“Why should they?”, he replied.
Of course. Small scale fishing—ecologically sound.
THINGS I DON’T LIKE ABOUT
I think it’s the hypocrisy behind the concept which makes me scoff at this uniquely Brazilian institution. Motels are
My friends in Brazil see nothing untoward; they make use of them all the time. Because for casual sex, especially if it
Ultimately, men—almost always men—use motels because they don’t want to be seen having sex with a prostitute,
THINGS I LIKE ABOUT BRAZIL # 14
The attitude towards gays and lesbians in Brazil has progressed in leaps and bounds since the public mourning of
In Curitiba the Municipal Secretariat for Health started a high-level campaign against AIDS talking frankly about
Alagoas likes to dub itself the most gay-friendly state in the country. São Paulo’s Gay Pride has grown from a
We started clocking the beaches. In my mind’s eye they melted into a stretch of golden sand surrounding the island:
Joaquina the surfer’s shore with waves to equal Recife’s; Moçambique, at the edge of the modest but solid national park of São
João do Rio Vermelho, which reminded me of Natal’s Tipitanga; Santinho small and sweet with its beginners’ surf school;
Ingleses, calm, safe and gentle; Canasvieiras, with couples and their brood building small sandcastles; Jureré, the expensive rich
men’s playground with its architectural villa creations, the
nouveau-rich wanting to outdo each other in extravagance.
The island city of Florianópolis occupies a key strategic location in South America: easily defended, critically placed
en route the mouth of La Plata, and naturally protected both from naval invaders and from the less benign climatic elements.
A quick glance at the history books tells the same story: before the Portuguese settled in Desterro/Florianópolis in 1726,
the Spanish had used the island to launch some dramatic expeditions. In 1516 Melchior Ramirez discovered the most
important system of waterways below the Amazon; in 1522 he also accompanied the Jaques expedition which climbed into the
Argentinean interior and brought back silver pieces bartered from the native Indians—a fact which eventually gave that fluvial
system its present name: Rio de la Plata, River of Silver. In 1524 the legendary expedition of Aleixo Garcia left Santa Catarina to
reach Peru. It passed north of the point which would become Asuncion, sailed up the Paraguay river deep into the Pantanal
crossing into present day Bolivia at Corumbá where I did, and then climbed 4100 meters up the Andes to Chuquisaca near Potosí
with its silver-laden mountain, the Cerro Rico. Unfortunately Garcia did not return, as he was killed by the Payaguá on his
way home; still, the treasures brought back to Santa Catarina by his sub, Francisco Pacheco, were enough to stimulate
expeditions to the interior and start a dispute between the Spanish and Portuguese
colonizers which would not cease until the
Paraguayan war several centuries later. Finally, in 1541, Cabeza de Vaca trying to find the source of the Plata, was the first Westerner
to behold the Iguaçu falls.
Just above the Praia do Forte on the north tip of the island stands São José da Ponta Grossa, one of the three
formidable forts guarding the north bay of Santa Catarina—the other two being on the smaller islands in the bay. The imposing,
walled fortaleza of São José, now restored and functioning as a museum, has an monumental view of the continent across the
bay with ancient canons still facing the open sea. Although low in the scale of military command prestige, this large,
charming complex of orange-plastered stone dwellings with green doors and window grilles—now home to lacemaking
women—must have been one of the most agreeable garrisons to serve in the Portuguese Empire. The cobbled road surface, the
sloping Mediterranean roofs, the confined beach below, the hot sun tempered by wind and the scent from the ocean could have
been transplanted from Lagos or Sagres in the Algarve.
By Sambaqui the Carioca had to admit defeat.
“And all this is supposed to be inside a whole city? ”
“Yes”, answered Fernando, “Florianópolis covers the whole island”.
“It’s fantastic”, conceded Manuel. “Fantastic”.
He was right. Not since Natal had I seen such open marine horizons marked by such unsullied seashore; and if you
count liveliness and energy the only comparison of the island city of Florianópolis can only be with Fortaleza. If you ever
come to Brazil with a pair of swimming trunks, you want to head to one or the other, or possibly both.
“You should come back during Carnival”, said Fernando. “Ours is the best Carnival in Brazil”.
“I heard this in Rio, Olinda and Salvador. They all say that”.
Fernando had the answer ready.
“But here”, he said, “our Carnival is not spoiled by rain”.
I am sitting alone—for after the incidents at Curitiba I am still uneasy and have not yet emerged from my shell, like a
tortoise who can still perceive the presence of a predator—at a restaurant table on the South Atlantic-facing Joaquina beach, a
vast expanse of quietly siffling sand, sealed by leafy hills in the south and greensward dunes in the west. I’m eating
barbecued king prawns brushed with oil and garlic. The flag is red, the wind comes from the Northeast, the cold marine waves are
medium and the surfer boys from Brazil—who can be awfully middle-aged looking sometimes—are all dressed up in their black
wetsuits walking up and down holding their boards; some have pulled down the suit tops and are playing beach volleyball.
Although the infrastructure in Joaquina is one of the best in South America, it’s not the Maracanã of surf it wants to advertise
itself. The whole of the south Catarinense coast from Guarda do Embaú to Farol de Santa Maria is windswept by the mightily
southerlies and in Silveira the waves create the best and most frequent pointbreak in Brazil; for you need a rocky underside to create
a pointbreak in this land of sandy coasts and Salveira is blessed with what can only be described as—pun unintended—a
Unlike Fortaleza or Natal with their primitive dry, sandy tracts of seashore, there is a beach for everyone in Santa
Catarina: surfers in Joaquina, nudists in Mole, families on Ingleses,
Argentineans in Canasvieiras, picnickers in Moçambique,
beachcombers on Lagoinha, gourmands in Pântano do Sul, fat cats in Jureré, romantics in Naufragados, lake-lovers in
Conceição. No wonder the New York Times once ranked Florianópolis seventh in a list of the world’s most beautiful cities. There is
a lack of obvious poverty, a sense of order and tranquility and, despite last night’s
crime passionel, a very Mediterranean outlook both in nature and in the inhabitants. The awful question rears its head, and I dare to pose it because someone
somewhere is thinking about it:
Is it all because Santa Catarina is more white and European than the rest of Brazil?
The southern states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul were blessed in that they did not suffer from
the scars of slavery, so, for a start, there is no historical guilt on the shoulders of the rich and no chips on the shoulders of
the poor. Ultimately, it is not color that matters, but poverty and degradation. The plantation owners chucked their
ex-slaves out when they didn’t have to provide them any more with food and lodgings (of whatever abysmal standard), so the
army of the poor started congregating in the large cities of the
19th century to beg and live in, creating the first marginal
shanty towns. And did the state help them? No—it regulated their dismal existence.
DECREE No 1435 OF DECEMBER 27, 1900, Minas Gerais
Article 1: All persons who are unable to earn a living through working, who are destitute, who lack relatives or
means to provide sustenance, who live by asking for alms, are considered beggars in the eyes of the law.
Article 2: No one may ask for alms within city limits without first registering in the mayor’s office as a beggar.
Article 3. This may be either voluntary or coercive if the police wish it. Only persons fulfilling these requirements
will be eligible to beg: a. When a person is destitute and has no relatives to support him and b. when the person was born in
the city or has resided there for more than two years.
Article 7. Registered beggars are subject to the following regulations:
No begging outside of zones designated for this purpose or on days on the calendar not specified for begging,
No begging without display of the person’s identity card
No begging without display of the persons papers
No begging using someone else’s papers
No cursing or saying offensive things to persons unwilling to donate alms
No displaying of deformities or wounds
Although Rio, Salvador, Recife, São Paulo and the Minas towns were rich and populous, Paraná and Santa Catarina
were underdeveloped and split into rural, agricultural homesteads granted to recently-arrived Europeans; so not only did
they avoid the favelization of the big cities, but they were also settled by immigrants imbued with progressive values
regarding the merits of education, democratic pluralism or self-liberating dignity of
labor. You see, the south appears to be the big
white hope of Brazil’s future not because it is white-skinned, but because it is unblemished by the cycle of hate and
humiliation of the economic systems from the past.
But it has generated its own share of bad karma. Were these new immigrants whose brains had not been stifled by
the lack of contact with new ideas for centuries liberal-minded towards the Tupi-speaking tribes of the coastline?
I’m lying on Playa dos Ingleses, a small bay-in-the-bay, a lighthouse breaker on my right. This is a much finer sand
than Joaquina and oh, the miracle, no wind. The bay is closed, safe, no currents and the sea is calm and warm like olive oil.
There are no swimmers inside; only two youths with midi Bermudas are washing their shoulders, their arses half-hanging out,
for that’s ultimately the point of wearing surf shorts. I hear a noise. A motorboat traverses a canal towards the sea. Fishing
boats are moored on the beach some being tarred, some mended, some simply stranded on the edge of the tide. The sun is
setting spectacularly behind the hills. Every small sand bank undulates ever higher, and higher until it eventually becomes a
forested headland where, in some remote villages, some Indians still live, refusing to be exterminated.
The Kaingang in Paraná—the ones who led Cabeza de Vaca to the Falls of
Iguaçu—and the Xokleng in Santa
Catarina, both called Coroados by the Portuguese, stubbornly resisted conversion to Christianity and the inroads of the German
colonists. They were violent and warlike with bloody intertribal competitions and protected by impenetrable forests and, uniquely
for Brazil, mountainous terrain. They were also immune to the material offerings of the Paulista bandeirantes and resisted
ferociously the incursions of the whites; so they were hunted relentlessly when João VI’s edict sparked off the war against
the Botocudos further north.
The colonists of Santa Catarina formed a militia specifically to hunt, enslave and exterminate the Indians. Their
members were called bugreiros, the most famous of whom was Martinho Marcelino who killed hundreds of Xokleng. The pattern
of killing was to find Indian tracks, follow them to their reservation, wait overnight, surprise the tribe during their sleep,
spare no men and abduct the women and children. The governor of Santa Catarina, João Coutinho was all for imprisoning the
natives as a precautionary measure because they scared off the European immigrants. The German consul in Santa Catarina
proposed that bugreiros be hired and paid for by the state to kill and enslave the Indians, whom the locals called
In 1908, an anthropological congress in Vienna was shaken by the paper of a young Czech, Vojtech Fritz who
exposed the murders, rapes, enslavement and general atrocities against the Indians in Paraná and Santa Catarina including the
sickening revelation that clothing impregnated with smallpox was distributed amongst the Xokleng and Kaingang. The
debate was acrimonious; Brazilian diplomats dismissed the accounts as exaggerations; Fritz’s motivation was questioned—was
The illustrious members of the Vienna Congress did not believe Fritz. They could not accept that
could ever be official policy by a so-called civilized state. They would be in for a shock a few decades later, and they wouldn’t
have to move very far from Vienna itself as the ideology of genocide rebounded terribly; Nazi doctrines did not appear in an
vacuum, for in those heady days extermination of ‘subhuman’ races from American Indians to African blacks and Australian
aborigines was practiced in varying degrees world-wide.
Canasvieiras and the first crowded beach; the tall people around me talking as if they are giving orders are
Argentinean families. What is this resort like in high season when all the restaurants which have put up their shutters are open? I
look around; I don’t think I like the beach, with all the kids throwing sand at each other while their proud parents look on with
sheep’s eyes, but I like the location. Unlike the garish Balneário
Camboriú, it has no huge apartment blocks, well,
blocking the horizon, a more-or-less imaginative holiday villa layout and a decent smattering of night life. But oh, for that one has to go to the
Praia do Mole in the summer with its rave beach parties, to Barra de Lagoa with its high-society assemblage or return to the
Center of Florianópolis.
The Chandon Danceteria is situated next to a Pentecostal church which looks like a barn from the outside and even
more like a barn from the inside. I know because I had a peep. Chandon was closed outside Friday/Saturday and the sounds
from the church were pretty cool. Two women were speaking in tongues and rolling over on the floor, while onlookers were
raising one arm and held their heads with the other while they prayed aloud. At least the candomblé eguns were silent; this was
a racket worthy of an atonal modern opera by Glenn Branca.
The dense drops of the subtropical hard-hitting rain started as I entered Club Mix. I checked my watch; it was
9:30pm, and oh, horror, I was the first
paying client: a shameful predicament for any self-respecting barfly. There were a couple
of women inside, selling hippie earrings and beads behind a counter and a barman’s guest, drinking—out of all
things—coffee. The music hadn’t started and the DJ wasn’t there.
“Can I go out and return?”, I asked the doorman.
He nodded ‘yes’.
The rain turned into a tempest, the sea roared, the lights went out, the sea rose up in fury, the wind
whistled: I mentally quoted Jorge Amado as I sheltered from the storm in the first bar I could find called imaginatively Pub. It stank with
smoke and once my eyes got used to the semi-darkness, I noticed a kind of fashion apartheid operating. One room was full of
leather-clad hairy rockers listening to Beatles records holding their ‘chicks’ by the waist. The other was full of glittery blond
beings who were dancing to Le Freak. Sexuality? One girl walked up to a boy and asked him to dance; he squirmed and pulled
away. Ah, you can tell the straights, can you not?
I moved to another, quieter bar with a TV. Barbra Streisand was on with James Caan and Omar Sharif; oh, Funny Girl.
I’m so glad Brazilians don’t go for dubbing—I couldn’t bear to hear La Streisand speak with a Carioca inflection. I had not
watched the film since I was twelve, but as I’d seen it several times by then, the plot was on tertiary storage in my brain and the
images came back quickly to the fore. I remember the same question coming to my lips: isn’t it amazing how in the end James
Caan looks so old, but Barbra doesn’t?
Eleven o’ clock. Back to Mix where the music was now audible from the street.
Phew! It was full. I ordered a caipirinha and sat on the stool next to an Aryan prototype—or perhaps mock-Aryan: he
was tall, light-skinned and leptorrhine but not-quite-blond, though his brown hair had blond fringes. If I had seen him under
different circumstances, I might have made a move, but I was a bit unsociable, still under my Curitiba downer cloud. As it
happens, André, for that was his name, spoke to me first.
“Are you from Floripa?”, was his opening line.
Someone once thought I looked Finnish which is the oddest guess I’ve had made regards my provenance. This came
a close second.
“Do I look German?”, I asked.
“No, I didn’t think so. Just to make conversation. You must be from Curitiba.”
“Further North”, I said hoping he’d go away.
“Further up”. He was persisting.
“Baiano?”, André asked, apprehension in his voice.
Of course, Everyone from São Paulo upwards comes from Bahia, that mysterious, amorphous territory bordering on Africa.
“No”, I said, “further North. I’m not Brazilian”.
“But you have Brazilian parents”.
I looked at André. Eye candy. When the Goddess in the sky allotted the brains, he was probably taking a leak.
Perhaps he had some hidden qualities. I’m sure he tells a mean knock-knock joke.
“No, British”, I said. “From London”.
That freaked him out. He stared as if my eyeball had fallen out of its socket. Whatever you say about me, I certainly
do not look English and everyone, but
everyone has seen ‘A Room With A View’.
“Have you been upstairs?”, he asked me some minutes of silence later.
Oh, not a darkroom again.
“The dance floor”.
The dance floor?
Well, but for André I might have missed the second room—a dance
floor with a stage and a second bar. The DJ was
playing cheesy house mixed with funk with people dancing on stage including an Italian-looking muscular guy with piercing
dark eyes, bushy eyebrows and his top off. Behind me the empty glass collector used a dumb waiter to send his round down.
I took a bigger interest in the building which now seemed much older than the sum total of the ages of those present,
Hey, the guy on stage was taking his shoes off. And his socks!
“Sorry I mixed you up for a Baiano”, André said behind me.
The guy was now slowly taking off his trousers in rhythm.
“I’m not offended”, I replied.
“Of course, you are a gringo”.
I was ready to have this clarified when the stage hunk took off his trousers and danced only in his underwear.
Something didn’t feel quite right. For a start most of the crowd appeared oblivious.
“Is this guy the show?” I asked André.
“No”, he replied. “He’s here every Wednesday. He does it for fun”.
The hunk put his hands inside his underwear and moved his fingers around.
One eye on the stage, the other lizard-like to André, I asked that pending question.
“Why should I be offended?”
“Because down here ‘baiano’ means stupid.”
Sometimes I wish I could have a firing squad at my beck and call.
“Why? Because they’re black?”, I asked annoyed.
André laughed through his nose.
“No. Because they’re stupid”.
Back on stage the hunk bent over.
The first Brazilian Nazi group was formed in the district of Bela Aliança near Itajaí on the
20th of January 1929. I am looking at the faded black-and-white picture and count 36 men and one woman. Many sport moustaches. A swastika flag is held
by a curly-haired youth at the back. They are sitting on three benches,
organized like a school party. Someone has written
on the bottom—in the old orthography—Hitler-Ortsgruppe Bella Alliança Sta Catharina Brasilien
By 1933 the Nazi party was so extensive that it had divided Brazil in seven independent districts: I—Rio, II- São
Paulo, III—Paraná, IV—Santa Catarina, V—Rio Grande do Sul, VI—Bahia and VII—Pernambuco in a hierarchical structure
under a Landsgruppenleiter. Below him there stood seven
Kreisleiter for each of the Kreise in the country and finally
the Ortsgruppeleiter—the local area group leaders. The last Landsgruppenleiter, Hans Henning von Cossel, left around the
time of the Estado Novo in May 1938 and returned later as cultural attaché in the German Embassy at Rio. We don’t know
how many of the 262 million marks assigned to the AOs
(Auslandsorganisationen) ended up in Brazil, but there is informed
speculation that around 2500 German schools in Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul were
Nazified. Certainly a document of
the School League of Santa Catarina 1933 itself controlled by the Nazis, lists 354 schools with 12,524 pupils.
The Kreisleiter of Santa Catarina was Otto Schinke based in Blumenau who, although a Brazilian citizen born in Rio
Grande do Sul, fought for the German Army in World War I. He had control not only of the schools, but also of the churches
through the Evangelische Kirchengemeinde, the youth organizations via the
Deutsch-Brasilianischer Jugendring affiliated to
the Hitler Youth and the workers through the German-Brazilian Labor organization,
Deutsch Arbeiter Front. The Nazi influence was not restricted to German-speaking Brazilians. In Santa Catarina, for instance, Otto Schinke was also director of the
State Retirement and Pensions Fund; another active Nazi, Jorge Büchle, was head of the Teachers’ Association. In every
town there was a Nazi-sponsored
Schutzverein—a shooting and hunting club—for German settlers who by 1937 had
multiplied to one million.
These tight relations with Germany caused hysteria in the Brazilian press, especially when a weighty tome published
in Germany spoke of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul as German overseas colonies. Charles W. Domville-Fife wrote a
Brazilian travelogue back in 1910 and comments:
“The fear is expressed in responsible circles that the German colonists,
maintaining as they do a strict reserve, building their own towns which are practically ruled by themselves, preserving the customs
of their fatherland and seldom marrying into Brazilian families may in time become dangerous. Many astute politicians
and an important section of the Press declare that the ever-increasing thousands of Germans in Southern Brazil keeping
aloof from the natives of the land in which they live are a menace to the homogeneity of the Brazilian people and a real
danger to the integrity of the country”.
But what could a government do faced not only with the industry and order of the law-abiding German settlers, but
also with the investment they brought in? The most spectacular example was the 1927 joint venture between a new enterprise
and the Kondor Syndikat—a Berlin-based aeronautical concern that manufactured the airplanes which would bomb Guernika
in less than a decade later. The new company was an airline to serve the cities of Porto Alegre, Pelotas and Rio Grande in
the state of Rio Grande do Sul: the Viação Aérea Rio-Grandense which went on to become the biggest airline in South
America. We know it now from its original initials as simply VARIG.
Although Mussolini was also greatly admired by the Italian immigrants in Brazil the fascist Italian party never
reached the depth to which the Nazi tentacles swaddled the German community. Here’s a copy of the Blumenauer Zeitung dated
30 January 1935: it called for a Feier celebrating the two-year Nazi government in Berlin. The Führer’s birthday was
commemorated annually. I doubt if any Italians knew how old the Duce was, let alone the date of his birthday. Why? Because the
Italians were soon absorbed by the Brazilian culture and ‘are not interested in politics by nature’—as the German foreign
secretary Weizsäcker noted in a memorandum in May 1938, when he tried to join forces with his Italian counterpart for action to
solve the problems of their compatriots in Brazil.
Ironically, it was another populist dictator from Rio Grande do Sul that became the scourge of the Nazi party: Getúlio
Vargas, who created the totalitarian Estado
Novo. He outlawed all political parties (and jailed among others Otto Schinke
himself) but most importantly, in March 1938 he decreed that all foreign language schools would be absorbed into the state
system—from then on, German children would be taught the Portuguese language and Brazilian history. In other words, by hook
or by crook, foreign immigrants would be forced to integrate. As happens in such occasions, when the backlash came it
was so strong that German identity only resurfaced back half a century later. It is only in 1984 that Blumenau citizens felt safe
enough to celebrate the Oktoberfest which—I’m explaining at last—is not a symbol of Brazil’s multicultural mosaic, because
there is none. Vargas saw to it that the country became the remarkable homogeneous social and cultural entity we see today.
Vargas also saved indirectly the Brazilian Nazis from ignominy, because they did not officially exist by the time war
broke out and Brazil as we saw, threw herself eventually on the side of the Allies. It is inconceivable that the vast majority of
the settlers separated by an ocean and without access to good communications realized the eerie footnote they had signed
for when they celebrated Hitler’s birthday. It is equally inconceivable that their leaders and intelligentsia had no idea of
the consequences of their doctrine of hate. For how else could Dr Mengele survive so unmolested, so peacefully and for so long?
When police invaded the house Mengele had shared with an illiterate Brazilian family, they found a bundle of letters.
We know he had been corresponding with his son in Germany for years; we also know that he lived in poverty and in a state
of permanent depression; from an old retainer, we know that Mengele died in 1979 after suffering a stroke while swimming
in the Atlantic and drowned before help could be summoned. But we still don’t know who helped him. Then there is the
case of Albert Blume a member of the Nazi Party who moved to Brazil in 1938—supposedly a homosexual fleeing a
homophobic regime. However, he left a hoard of gold when he died, prompting Brazil’s commission for the investigation of Nazi war
criminals to reveal that he was a spy and that his bank accounts had become a conduit for transferring Nazi money abroad. Or the
case of Fritz Stangl, who was located by Simon Wiesenthal in 1967 and extradited to Germany…
Why am I digging all this up? Eichmann was, after all, arrested in Argentina, Klaus Barbie in Bolivia, and Chile’s
German colonists were also vocal in their support of the Reich. But it is the Boys
from Brazil that have become one of the
defining images of the country, for every criminal seems to want to escape with his loot and live in Rio. Apart from the real live
Ronnie Biggs who finally decided to die in the UK, and my own Manolis in Corumbá, there are numerous popular references:
Steve McQueen in the “Thomas Crown Affair” (“Samba, Sugar Loaf, Jungle, Piranha!”), John Cleese and co. in a “Fish Called
Wanda”, Alec Guinness in the “Lavender Hill Mob”, Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane in “Nuns On the Run”, Gene Wilder and Zero
Mostel in “The Producers”, to name but a few—and it’s not just the English speaking movies as Jean Paul Belmondo in
“L’Homme de Rio” can attest. It’s not even a modern phenomenon: Alfred Hitchcock’s chilling tale of tailing a Nazi in Rio,
“Notorious”, was released in 1946; Nazi sympathizer James Mason flees to Rio in “Five Fingers” made in 1952. It only takes a few
cinema allusions to create a world image—fugitives are supposed to like Brazil because it appeals to the criminal mind as the
vast country of lawlessness, of easy women, of sun, sea, and sexpots, a place where the dangerously earned booty can buy
off everyone and everything. After all, the unexpressed question goes, if Nazi fugitives can hide there, who couldn’t?
And that’s a tough one to answer.
Next day—my last—the rain ruined my plans for a cruise around the lesser islands around Florianópolis. As I had
avoided André and any other human contact after the debacle in Curitiba, it was back to reading history books, watching
television and visiting museums.
If Florianópolis has a Center, it’s the Praça 15 de Novembro. The old cathedral stands there, although as it was
recently rebuilt, like the church of São Sebastião in Ilhéus, there isn’t much to see. There is an old oak tree in the square which
has stood there for hundreds of years but it has outlived its symbolic usefulness. It is in distinct danger of collapsing, and
has to be propped up artificially. (“Why?” “Because it’s emblem of the town”. “But it’s falling!”). Oh, let living things die
when their time comes. Florianópolis has shed its past and is emerging stronger and more dynamic as a result. It needs no
And, moreover, walking its streets, I’m falling more and more in love with it by the hour.
There is a building that screams “Visit me”. It is the white-and-pink neo-classical Governor’s Palace, which now
houses the History Museum of Santa Catarina erroneously described as
18th century in many guides. Although some building or
other has existed there since the foundation of the town, this current one dates from the time of Hercílio Luz at the turn of the
20th century; it was extensively restored in the 1970s and 80s and renamed after the most important
Catarinense poet João
Cruz e Sousa, nicknamed the Black Swan, the progeny of slaves (well, there were some). The building is guarded by
uniformed sentries in faultless 1872 Paraguayan war uniforms. Inside it is full of Carrara marble, so you enter the palace wearing
slippers on top of your shoes. The interiors are more Art Nouveau than baroque with inlaid-decorated wooden floors, curved
stucco ceilings, dark mahogany doors and those blazing color combinations that
characterize the era: blue and gold in the
famous Salão Nobre, green and gold in the Sala de Espera, ochre, mustard and gold contrasting with jacaranda wood in the Sala
da Música (with an original German pianola calling for
Einwurf 5 Pfg) and a perfect red under a golden ceiling in the Salão
Vermelho. All rooms are adorned with
18th and 19th century furniture. Around the central staircase, one of the most famous
paintings in the continent: The First Mass in Brazil by Victor Meireles, a nationalistic painter whose big historical canvasses
and compositions loom like snapshots from an imaginary Time Machine. (What do you mean I saw a copy by
Fernandez? It was a VERY good copy).
On the way out I smiled at the guard and took my slippers off.
Hey, you help clean as you slide on the floor! They should pay me for this!
My mind suddenly took off and wandered on a daydream déjà vu.
I’ve had that thought before…
Dom Pedro I reigned in Brazil as a liberator, but soon his true domineering character shone through as he pushed
through bumptiously an autocratic constitution. He faced rebellions from states, one of which he lost to history: Uruguay
became independent and a semi-permanent casus
belli between Brazil and Argentina until that epoch-shattering Paraguayan
war. He had two wives and 15 children we know of, including the ones from his mistresses, the most famous and startling
being Domitila de Castro e Melo, the big love of his life whom he had raised to the rank of Marquesa de Santos. When his first
wife Leopoldina died, he tried in vain to prove that Domitila had blue blood, but no, they would marry him with a Bavarian
princess instead. She was 16, so I suppose he smacked his lips and consented quickly to his not-that-bitter destiny—after all,
Domitila would still be hanging around the bottom of the stairs.
Given his growing unpopularity in Brazil, when the throne of Portugal became the subject of contention, Pedro I
abdicated and sailed for the mother country to ensure his first-born daughter’s succession pitting himself against his brother
Manuel. After a two-year civil war Pedro I succeeded and despite all his romantic life adventures in two hemispheres, he died in
the palace of Queluz in Portugal in 1834 in the same room where he had been born 36 years earlier. Like his father, he left in
Brazil his five-year-old son, also called Pedro—future Pedro II, the first South American monarch born in the continent
since—well, since the Incas.
And the last.
I looked out of the window of my Florianópolis hotel. It was raining still.
Now there are people in Brazilian history I would like to have met rather than observe through my Time Machine: the
Prince of Nassau, Aleijadinho, Cândido Rondon, Jorge Amado. But there is no one who fascinates me more than the Emperor
who lent his name to that leafy Brazilian Simla above Rio de Janeiro, Petrópolis.
You know the soft music and ripply picture they use in the movies when a flashback is due? Imagine one now.
My last excursion during that first trip in Rio, was a bus journey up the Serra da Mantiqueira. It takes one hour to
reach the cool oasis of Petrópolis and one hour to reach the Rio rodoviária from the Zona Sul—and the approach is scary.
Beyond Praça Mauá the bus zigzags through residential areas so old and decrepit that they look as if they haven’t had a coat of
paint since the abdication of Dom Pedro I with garbage organically growing by itself on window-sills and what passes as
pavements. My co-passengers were semi-naked belching drunks; a posse of tattooed teenagers who never bothered to pass the
conductor and pay the fare; old women with skeletal faces and lost, wandering eyes who might have escaped one of
Africa’s periodic famines. I was constantly on my guard. Nicking my SLR camera in my backpack, itself huddling on the floor
between my legs, could feed the whole bus for a month. At the station, I waited until the vehicle emptied completely before I
stood up. Only Rio can be that grotesque and only Rio can have a rodoviária to match; the elevated highway around the old
port would look great in a French Connection car chase. There are armed guards everywhere, with the posh
destinations—Petrópolis, Teresópolis, Angra dos Reis or Parati—bundled together in a corner with a
‘safe’ area which you can enter with a ticket
only. When I boarded the bus, three black youths followed suit, and I could feel the seated passengers hold their breath. The
collective wind when they exhaled, as the youths took their seats politely, could have blown the Spanish Armada off-course. At
the other end, in Petrópolis, I had to pass through a metal detector—was this reassuring? So why did I find it even more alarming?
The approach to Petrópolis, 1000 feet up, is via a slow, winding road sloping with a gradient just perfect for the
gallop of the 19th century carriages of the wealthy Cariocas—for this was their escape from the heat and the disease and the
stench of the capital during the sweaty summer months. The town would look even better if it didn’t have cesspools
masquerading as canals, because red dainty oriental bridges span these open sewers, flanked by pines fighting their ground with palm
trees. My strongest memory was the sense of relief: one hour away from northern Rio and one’s street-fear disappears. Here
was a thriving low-rise 19th century town, a reminder of what the Center of Rio—Rua Uruguay, Rua Carioca—might have
been if, had it not been left to rot away or downright demolished. The avenue leading to the cathedral of São Pedro de
Alcântara—with its beautiful marble reliefs—is strewn with stately homes, many of them palaces in their own right. I felt as if I was
promenading in the Gardens district of New Orleans admiring the antebellum mansions. Number 324 was my
favorite, all covered with
blue decorative tiles, looking Dutch. A few numbers down, the
Prefeitura must be the most striking this side of the Paris
Hotel de Ville. Further up is the Crystal Palace, all colored crystal in the middle of an Oriental-inspired garden. When I walked
in, chairs were being assembled in rows. I picked up a leaflet. There was a concert tomorrow. A concert? I suppose only
bad sopranos need apply—good ones might literally bring the house down.
Everyone who goes to Petrópolis visits #111 of Rua do Encanto the house of Alberto Santos-Dumont, aviation
pioneer and #66 in the list of famous gays and lesbians of the Grupo Gay da Bahia. Santos-Dumont is one of the national heroes
of Brazil, a rich playboy inventor from Minas Gerais and a grand eccentric in the best tradition of grand eccentrics through
the ages. He bought this house on April
18th 1918—which incidentally is the day of my birthday—and worked with his
friend, civil architect Eduardo Pederneiras on the design. The place, called
‘A Encantada’ could be an inspiration for a
scenographer working on the Tales of Hoffman for it seems to have jumped straight out of a Brothers Grimm tale. It’s a narrow
green-timbered chalet built vertically on a steep slope housing a small studio apartment on two floors with ill-matching furniture: small
chairs, low tables and Santos-Dumont’s own inventions. Everyone goes on about his alcohol-powered shower, but I liked his
magnetic telephone better. It’s on his desk which pulls out to form a bed. He slept on his desk, or better, under his desk—or is it
inside his desk? Weird, but good for the cleaner who didn’t have to make the bed—just close the drawer.
I bumped my head on every single door frame: walking in, going up one floor, opening the bathroom, walking in to
the mid terrace balcony.
“He was a shortie”, explained the lady curator with a politically incorrect smile.
“And where on Earth does that lead?” I asked pointing at a narrow staircase to nowhere.
“He had a telescope permanently fixed on the roof”, replied the lady. “He spent most of the night looking at the stars
and slept during the day”.
Cool I thought, as I walked back inside and bumped my head once more.
Santos-Dumont was a Francophile and his Encantada library books include Victor Hugo’s complete works. He went
to Paris first for medical treatment in 1891 and returned in 1892, 1896 and 1897 where, one biographer put it tactfully, he
spent “16 years of illibidinous character”. It was in Paris though, where he started hanging around with avionics enthusiasts.
He constructed many experimental balloons and biplanes. In 1901 he won the Deutsch prize offered to the first flying
machine which could circle the Eiffel Tower. In 1906 his baby, the 14-Bis was the first plane to rise more than the height barrier of
25 meters. He went on to invent twenty-odd gadgets, including the wrist watch and the treadmill.
One wall of the house is covered with anecdotes from his life—I note one by a certain Mme Tissander. As Alberto
was sick of being asked why he remained unmarried, she provided him with many false romances. “I wish they thought I was
a widower”, he intimated to her, “rather then me inventing stories or being asked silly questions”. He must have been
His end was not glorious. He committed suicide in Guarujá in 1932, depressed because of the warlike use of the
airplane. Like Oppenheimer, like all scientists and engineers, he realized he had only helped invent a new weapon.
There are many things to do in Petrópolis, but the Center of attention is still the Emperor’s Summer Palace, set amidst
shaded public gardens with old-fashioned coaches parked outside for the tourist to experience the town as it was mean to: by
horse-drawn carriage. The palace itself is another neo-classical edifice, lipstick rouge with white columns. It has none of the
baroque extravagance of Rio’s other Imperial Palaces; it is much more simple and measured and contemplative—like its most
famous resident, Dom Pedro Segundo. The building is kept in pristine condition and the floors are a work of art in themselves,
like the golden goblets with Pedro II’s emblem by the entrance, so you are obliged to wear slippers on your shoes.
Hey, you help clean as you slide on the floor! They should pay me for this!
Pedro II came on the throne at the age of 15—three years earlier than the constitution anticipated by public
demand—and reigned for just under fifty. He presided over the gradual erosion of the institution of slavery, the Paraguayan
war—his war—the new technological advances and is as much a symbol of his era as Queen Victoria is for Great Britain. The
Summer Palace is full of his portraits: as white as a Scandinavian prince, eyes piercing blue, with a long and fuzzy beard, he looks
like a royal Friedrich Engels. More portraits: his grandfather, Dom João; his father Dom Pedro; his mother Leopoldina; his
wife Teresa Cristina—and who’s this? Dona Mariana Canterbach-Faulhaber? Who the frigging hell is she and what is she
doing here? She’s not only unknown, she’s
The Sala dos Diplomatas lies open in front of me with a mirror from Rio’s Lyric Theatre and French Louis Philippe
furniture: a Renaissance clock, mahogany consoles with bronze drawers, panels with tropical flora—The Dining Room comes next
with six simple wicker chairs contrasting strongly with Pedro I’s Imperial crystal, a wedding present to his second wife. The
table sits on top of an Aubusson carpet, the first of many; paintings of vistas of old Rio abound on the walls.
Pedro II was raised an orphan and like Louis XIV knew nothing but royal life and the palace. Unlike his father he was
more liberal—he freed his own slaves, for instance—and much more discreet with his extra-marital activities. He was a Mason
who kept the Catholic church at bay. This must have been Tiradentes crowning moment of posthumous glory: less than 100
years later, the secret societies of Ouro Preto claimed the Emperor whose agnosticism made him enemies amongst the clergy.
The Army was already at odds with the Court, seeing the imperial budget skyrocket by 70 percent in the decade after the
Paraguayan war while the military had to make do with an increase of 8 percent during the same period. The political establishment
had also changed. One year after the war, a Republican party was formed in São Paulo with an anti-monarchical manifesto
which ended with the words “We are from America and we want to be
Americans” penned by Benjamin Constant, Quintino
Bocaiúva and Rui Barbosa who have become street names all over Brazil any tourist will recognize. By 1880, only the might of the
slave-and-land-owning elites supported the Emperor.
This is the Drawing Room with a large grandfather clock and two windows with long pink and white curtains; the
piano room with a Chickering jacaranda piano belonging to Teresa Cristina. Oh, there’s a 1857 portrait of the royal family by
Moreaux with Dom Pedro, the two princesses and the Empress. She is seated—mind you if she were standing she wouldn’t be
much taller. Dom Pedro Segundo knew her only by her flattering portrait and when he met her at the juice-flowing age of 17,
after they had married by proxy the poor boy had the shock of his life. Mildly put, her court painter should have been
convicted under the Trade Descriptions Act: she was very short, some say dwarf-like, very fat, quite lame and in her later
depictions a discerning eye can spot a small moustache.
A bigger Sala da Música—although we could be in any European stately home, this accent on music and dancing is
the real reminder that we have not yet left Brazil. There is a harp, strings, three pianos by John Broadway and Sons. I look at
the ceilings—unadorned. In the summer palace, any sumptuousness arises from the contents, not the packaging, and the
display of wealth is almost obscene. Surely, those two lacquered Chinese fans and enamel-ivory binoculars could have fed half
the population of Ceará during the famine of 1877 which so upset Dom Pedro II. He was said to have promised to sell the
last precious stone from his crown to help feed the starving.
As I walked into the Golden Room with gilded wood furniture from the old Senate Hall and into the Treasury, I
realized that this is a corner of Brazil that will be forever Europe. This is probably how England was under the Plantagenets: a
conqueror upper class standing on the shoulders of the defeated whose culture started to diverge from their masters. What was
Brazil like in the 19th century? For that matter the United States? A land full of slaves or a land full of hope? And how would it
be filled? With old certainties or with new desires? If the political and economic climate makes or breaks a country we know
now that Brazil looked to the past while the US looked to the future. I doubt whether in 1850 São Paulo, Recife and Salvador
were much different than Memphis, Montgomery or Baton Rouge or whether the Sioux and the Navajo were less belligerent
than the Kaingang or the Guaikurú—but at some point the countries diverged, and they diverged with a vengeance.
The reason probably lies before me. I am looking at Dom Pedro’s crown made by Carlos Marim in Rio, 1841. The
famine in Ceará must have claimed its victims before the Emperor could sell the jewels, for there they all are: 639 diamonds, 77
pearls and 1,720 grams of gold capped with green velour, same color as His Majesty’s velvet robe with which he used to open
Rio’s Assembly twice a year. It stands next to Dom Pedro’s I golden crown and his sabre and staff used in the 1822
coronation. Emperors and kings are not emperors and kings if they are not surrounded by pomp and circumstance to breed respect;
whereas presidents and prime ministers thrive on their gentleman-next-door credentials.
Upstairs the sleeping quarters: first for Princesa Isabel who signed the Abolition of Slavery Bill in 1888, when her
father was on a trip to Europe for health reasons—he suffered from diabetes. This was the death knell for the monarchy
because next to the Church, and the disaffected Army, the old landocracy now felt betrayed and ganged up against them. The
babies room follows with cots hanging like hammocks. The male heirs of dom Pedro died like many infants of his
subjects—there is, at last, one great leveller in the tropics. There follow the Dressing Quarters of the Emperor and the Joint Bedroom of
the Royal couple with more gilded bronze furniture and a display of sacred art objects. Next, the large State Reception room
with a throne under a large, carved P 2 I (Pedro II Imperator) which leads to the balcony through three large windows with a
prime view of the gardens.
The abolition of the monarchy when it came was swift and, as happens in Brazil, bloodless. An army coup under
Deodoro da Fonseca (woken up in the middle of the night to take charge) deposed the Emperor who was here, in Petrópolis, in the
shade of his Summer Palace, recuperating from the last ball he gave in the Ilha do Governador. He could only pack a few
belongings as he was marched off unceremoniously within 48 hours.
Next to the Throne room is Dom Pedro II’s personal office. Dom Pedro was considerably geeky and went for all the
latest inventions. He supported railways and his was the motivation and inspiration behind the Curitiba-Paranaguá line. He
owned the very first telephone in the country (what was it? Dial 01 for the Emperor?). He spoke eight languages including
Tupi-Guarani. He was an avid observer of the skies—there is his own telescope on an another Aubusson carpet amongst more Louis
Philippe armchairs. Every item of furniture has its Imperial arms. And there, there is an image of his hand made out of bronze. This
hand held a piece of Brazilian earth as he sailed to the old continent accompanied with his family. He died of pneumonia within
two years in a suite in the Hotel Bedford, in Paris. Inside his coffin, he was sprinkled with that handful of soil from Brazil. His
remains returned to his beloved Brazil for reburial in 1922 upon the centenary of the proclamation of Independence. Those of his
less popular father—memories are long in South America—had to wait for the
150th anniversary in 1972.
I step down the central staircase—and believe me it’s tricky with these large slippers on—to an exhibition of more
jewelry from the two Pedros and their wives: earrings, watches, tobacco containers, necklaces, Bahian bracelets, broaches,
rings, reliquaries, crosses, even a pair of golden nail scissors. When you see such royal wealth in Europe, you sense deeply
its historical context; when you see it in Brazil, you feel the weight of the incongruous.
L. T. Chen’s History of Political
Thought has a shattering passage: “When an institution whose roots are not among the people is introduced from the top it is
like plucking the flowers of a neighbor’s garden to embellish the dying branches of one’s own tree. [..] the
reconstruction of a nation’s thought is not to be accomplished by the wholesale transplantation of the thoughts of another society: it
must follow the natural development and must begin with the proper retention of elements of the old social
I walk towards the Sala do Primeiro Reinado. This is the table and chairs from the Constitutional Assembly of 1823
called by Pedro I. A huge room, a large table, sixteen chairs: it must have been a small assembly. On the wall, the famous
Proclamation of Independence in Ipiranga, Moreaux’s 1844 famous tableau. There are more state chambers, far too many: the Sala
Paulo Barbosa, Pedro II’s major-domo and his donated furniture; Princess Isabel’s reception with a large canvas by Victor
Meireles of the Princess taking the Regency oath. A large room which the Empress used for baptisms, birthdays, balls and
dances; this time it’s the upholstery that’s Aubusson for the luxurious carpets are from Bukhara in faraway Central Asia.
I walk out and look at Dom Pedro II’s portrait again. Dom Pedro’s eyes look sad. He always looked sad when he was
serious—like Princess Diana. I have never been a king, so I can never know how it feels to be hated not for who you are, but what
you represent. How does it feel when you are banished from the land of your birth because what people see in you is a dark
past full of dusty cobwebs? And yet, as your mother died when you were but a year old and your father left you when you
were five and you grew up by a people who expected you to fulfill your duty and you did whatever you could—how could it
be your fault that what was progressive yesterday seems tyrannical today? You, after all have always done your job, been
the same, played the game according to the rules. Suddenly someone changes the rules and you can’t play any more.
How does it feel?
Oh yes, I would like to have met Dom Pedro Segundo, the linguist, the savant, the geek, who tried so hard to gain
knowledge—but is it ever possible to become wise without
I close my history book and my mind returns to the present. There are some wonderful browser-friendly bookshops
in Florianópolis and I have replenished my stock to keep me company in bed during this bout of bad weather.
build Brasilia with a slogan “Fifty Years in Five!”—hey, I have given you one hundred in much less.
So when did Brazil become Brazil? I look at some old faded photos of Manaus and I see a white European elite in
French bustles and crinolines and English tuxedos being tended by black servants in livery coats. I look at São Paulo’s
Avenida Paulista in 1910: a long, straight tree-lined avenue with three-storey Regency mansions placed hundreds of yards
apart—like London’s Regent Street stretched to infinity. I look at an evangelical church in Santa Catarina draped with the Nazi
flag. I dream of the sad portraits of Dom Pedro Segundo. I am in search of Brazilianness and I can not even figure out when
its started. At Independence with Pedro I’s proclamation? During the Paraguayan War with blacks, mulattos and whites
fighting next to each other? When the monarchy collapsed? Or was it during the totalitarianism of the Estado Novo in the 30s
when Vargas forced all minorities to cohesion? If it was the Estado Novo—now, that would explain many things, for the
absolutist, paternalistic values that have shaped this nation still loom at large.
The rain is pounding on my window pane. The weather is unsettled. April. I want to return to Florianópolis more
than I want to return to any other Brazilian town. It feels like being abroad, abroad.
I know so much about Brazil, perhaps I should write all this down.
I now know that there is a color bar and that this is not the non-racist society images of Pelé kicking a ball have
created. I know that the country is still bearing the scars and bad karma of centuries of slavery and the annihilation of the
natives. I know that Africans, Indians, Portuguese and
19th century European immigrants have all shaped its mind and its
manners. I know that the beauty beyond
description—saintly beauty—of the country is the reason for its people’s optimism who
keep holding on to some basic truths, because and not in spite, of their misery.
Is it ever possible to become wise without suffering?
I know a lot, but I am still missing too much. There are gaps in my understanding.
I’m really missing the 20th century.
And some very important places.
is a computer programmer and occasional journalist working in London,
England using his earnings to travel between contracts. A fluent Portuguese
speaker, he has traversed the whole of Brazil from Manaus to Porto Alegre
and from Recife to the Pantanal sampling the life and history in the
course of four separate journeys. The author can be contacted at
This is an extract from his extensive Brazilian travelogue, which will be published by Summersdale in June 2003
entitled Brazil: Life, Blood, Soul. Many pictures from the travelogue
His personal site is in
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