Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Lost Samba – Chapter 04/01- The birth of Brazil


Photo by Custodio Coimbra

It has been a common pattern for people to set off across the oceans in pursuit of an imagined destination – an idealised shelter where all their dreams would come true. In this, my parents were no exception. Like so many other adventurers arriving in Brazil or in any other “tropical paradise”, they were to discover that the “jungle” behind the gorgeous beach could be a carnivorous soul-devouring morass. In an attempt to restructure their lives and fearing that a nuclear conflict between the West and the Soviet Union would follow the Korean War, the couple had sought refuge in the remoteness and the neutrality of Brazil. However, if one were to take away the safety aspect, as well as the colourful exotic one, what they saw in their new country was a land without a past, where their war-scarred selves could start over again and re-discover happiness.
In this light they considered Brazil as a place rather than a country and their emotional and cultural compasses never stopped pointing towards Europe. As far as they were concerned, the old continent was – for good and for bad – the undisputed centre of world history. Therefore, they never truly understood Brazil and never managed to connect to its deeper layers, rather they saw their new home as something close to a canvass upon which to paint their fantasies. In this they were wrong, in reality the canvass was not blank, Brazil was also like an artist that painted upon its newcomers.
While I do not have any intention to write a history book and acknowledge it is impossible to be accurate in condensing a country’s history into one chapter, in an attempt to give the reader a clearer picture of the background to these pages, I will try to describe what was there before my family arrived in Rio de Janeiro.
This story begins with the indigenous peoples who lived around Guanabara Bay spotting strange vessels far-off on the horizon. Those ships, with their huge sails bearing incomprehensible signs and intricate woodcraft, were nothing short of UFO’s sightings, and when the first apprehensive low rank sailors rowed out to meet them, the face-to-face encounters were like coming close to aliens.
The natives may have seemed primitive to the arriving Europeans, but the feeling was surely mutual. Stepping ashore in bizarre garments were a group of strangely clad, pale and hairy men sickened by weeks of appalling conditions at sea. Wherever they came from, it was clearly a world with no knowledge of basic hygiene. As time went by and more and more of them arrived, the “Indians”, as the Europeans insisted on calling the native peoples, would never really understand why they had travelled so far nor what was wrong with their world to do so, perhaps it was the intolerance that they would end up experiencing first hand.


It is not certain who those naked people at the beach were, nor where they came from, some argue that they were offshoots of complex societies encountered in the Andes and in the Northern part of the Amazon forest, we may never know.  What we do know is that the relationship between the hundreds of different tribes spread along the Brazilian coast was complex and that they were in the midst of a civilizational process of their own. By looking at their descendants closer we also know that they were connected to the environment in ways that the world transported on those caravels could barely understand, let alone appreciate. The natives bathed daily, were extremely healthy both in body and in spirit and had no notion of the meaning of social inequality. The indigenous inhabitants of Pindorama, as they called the world, not Brazil, experienced their existence in a way that was incomprehensible for a civilization that was leaving religious obscurantism and beginning to embark in an era where economic ties would become an impersonal God presiding over almost all aspects of life.

The so-called Indians did not need to strive for a heavenly after-life in the Garden of Eden, they were already living as one with the landscape. The integration with their surroundings was so intimate that they could sense, for example, the presence of an animal or of a person approaching from a considerable distance without having to see them. Only now, do outsiders appreciate and take seriously their knowledge, with big pharmaceutical corporations beginning to investigate their understanding of their forests’ varied medicinal properties.


Women were responsible for agriculture while men hunted and fished. It was also a male responsibility to deal with the demanding preparations for their religious festivals: to complete the shaman’s – or Pagé’s – headdress, they would roam the forest for days on end to find a specific feather from a specific bird that only lived on a specific mountain. On their way back to their settlement, they would collect herbs and roots to produce potent hallucinogenic drugs that they ingested to learn the secrets of the jungle. Our rational western knowledge system is still to explain the precision and the mystery of these visions.

The natives’ world floated above good and evil. Every year, alongside nine months of carefree living and not much work to do, they dedicated three months to war. This was fundamental to their very being. They needed to be good at fighting because they and their enemies kept no prisoners: they ate them.

On the shore and hinterland of Guanabara Bay, including what now we call Rio de Janeiro, the Tamoios, Tupinambas and Puríi peoples believed that the flesh of a brave man was imbued with his physical and spiritual strength, which could be acquired by its ingestion. Brutal though they certainly were themselves, the Portuguese had a hard time coming to grips with this local custom and there are accounts of missionaries breaking down in floods of tears as they waited to become a meal. Disgusted at this cowardice, the natives released these useless beings. One such surplus prisoner had the appropriate name of Bispo Sardinha (Bishop Sardine), the first dignitary from the Vatican to set foot in Brazil, and it is easy to imagine his mixed feelings of relief and shame he would have had walking back to his mission, had he been released. In this case they ate the man, which bought an even worse P.R. upon the native non-Christians.


Despite the barbarity of cannibalism, such practices would compare favourably with the destiny that the “civilized” Europeans had in store for them. According to one of the country’s greatest intellectuals, Darcy Ribeiro, following the arrival of the white men, their population dropped from an estimated four million to a meagre forty thousand. As in the rest of the Americas, the Caraibas, or white men, spread deadly diseases and imposed the rule of either adapting and becoming second-class citizens or vanishing. Very little of their culture was to be absorbed into the mainstream culture, at least as far as increasingly urbanized Brazil is concerned. However, despite the concrete and the asphalt carpeting the land, the pollution of the rivers and of the air and other forms of harm to the environment that the indigenous peoples considered themselves as being guardians, their memory remains in the Brazilian genetic pool and not far below the surface of the nation’s subconscious. The Brazilians’ easy-going mannerisms, their love of the outdoors, their ease to empathise and their informality are a part of the natives’ legacy. Perhaps this dormant mindset will one day be the country’s gift to the world; a formula for achieving harmony through openness and for acquiring completeness through seeing nature as greater than man.


On the Portuguese side, the Sagres Academy, an official navigators’ guild and syndicate, led the country’s enterprise for global discovery. For this, they used technology that the Arabs had left behind in the Iberian Peninsula. This institution was the most advanced navigation centre of its time and had refused to sponsor the travels of the Genovese mariner Christopher Columbus because its members already knew that there was a great mass of land, perhaps a continent, that lay to the west of Europe and that was not Asia. Their great hope – and the reason why patrons as important as the King, Infante Dom Henrique supported them – was to discover a passage around, or through, this uncharted territory to shorten the journey to the Orient instead of having to go all around Africa to get there. If they were to locate this route, it would facilitate the valuable trade of spices and the revenues would fund not only the colony but also the Portuguese kingdom, which was almost bankrupt following its wars of liberation against the Moors.


The rivalry with Spain ended up forcing the Portuguese to admit their knowledge of the western land. In 1494 – six years before the official discovery of Brazil, the two countries signed the Tordesilhas Treaty. In this agreement authored by Pope Alexander VI, Portugal and Spain divided the possession of the new continent along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands (off the west coast of Africa).

Unlike with the Spanish, the Portuguese possession did not fragment into small countries, it remained as one big colony and for small Portugal the size of their new territory was a problem. They had to control and to inhabit the wilderness before a stronger power might seize it. In addition, how could Portugal make its new possession economically viable? The “Indians” had no notion of commerce and there was no evidence of gold or of the coveted spices that drove the world’s economy. There was of course plenty of timber in the impenetrable forests but this would not justify the resources required for a colonial adventure.

After the official discovery in 1500 the quest to find an opening to the Pacific Ocean continued but proved to be frustrating. Brazil’s coast showed itself to be regular. Parallel to the shore and its dense vegetation ran a mountain range that seemed impenetrable. On New Year’s Day of 1502, a group of Portuguese vessels surveying the coast came across two massive promontories covered by tropical vegetation guarding an enormous maritime entrance. This could be the passage to “the Indias” or perhaps a route connecting the seas to legendary kingdoms with vast, untapped, gold resources. They rushed to name it River of January – Rio de Janeiro, a name filled with hope and poetically referring to an endless beginning.

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2 thoughts on “Lost Samba – Chapter 04/01- The birth of Brazil

  1. Factually wrong right from the beginning. You fell for the old ‘good savage’ stereotype. Brazilian native peoples had pretty sofisticated religions, social hierarchy and their mythology included the sought after paradise, either after death or on earth, because they also belonged to many different peoples.

    Living in the jungle is hardly care free. Everyday is a fight for survival. Caraybas were the name of a tribe from the northern coast, bathed by the caribean sea (named after the tribe, originally from the Venezuela coast).

    The “Sagres School” was not an institution, as frequently protrayed by armchair historians. It was a loose association of the finer navigators and pilots of the country at the time.

    The Portuguese kingdom did not start searching for a way to the far orient due to poverty. It had just been founded amidst the Reconquista of Iberic peninsula. The king was all powerful, absorbing the property of defeated muslims and lording over foreign trade, when Lisboa was one of the main ports connecting the mediterrenean to the north sea. They started searching for a way to bypass the arab-venezian monopoly over oriental spices.

    They did know about America before the Spanish, and sought to go around Africa. Hence the Tordesilhas treaty, where Portugal recognized Spanish sovereignty over most of the Americas in exchange for a bit of Brazil and sole dominance over the African route. This part of your post was pretty much the only factually right.

    From the set out Brazil was profitable. They extracted Pau Brasil, a very valuable dye wood, from the coast, and Brasil’s name come from this tree. After that came the sugar plantation cycle, which was one of the best businesses of the time. You completely forgot these 2 of the 4 main development cycles of the Brazilian colonial history, the other two being the gold rush of the XVIII century, followed by the coffee plantations of the XIX century. Also, most of the gold was mined by rich slave owners which organized big prospecting operations. It was nothing like the American gold rush of adventurous independent prospectors going solo and striking rich.

    The notion that the native peoples of Brazil were as averse to labor as the Portuguese nobility is both wrong and offensive. The native peoples worked very hard from dawn to dusk. They did not however become docile slaves, since they knew best how to escape and remain away from the Portuguese, because they knew the land, unlike the african slaves. Free Brazilians and Portuguese noblemen did despise labor and even poor free people thought themselves above it, and this still permeates our society to this day.

    In the last couple of posts about our History you managed to perpetuate many negative stereotypes related to Brazilian history, glossed over some of the most important phases of national development, and came across as a condencending foreigner. Please review your facts.

    • History is a very controversial subject and usually its interpretation speaks more about the present than the past. Anyway, I suggest you read Darcy Ribeiro’s A Historia do Povo Brasileiro which is at the core of the statements I have written in this chapter.

      Of course the native culture was more complex than I stated but it was way more simple and carefree than the European one at time, they had not reached the stage of the organized civilizations happening in Europe and in Asia at the same time. Not that I see this is as anything negative, I actually show this as a possible contribution that Brazil could give the world if it were less Eurocentrist.

      No one is saying that the native’s life was easy, but it was free of commerce and there was no class distinctions. By the way, the natives did call white people Caraibas, and many still do.

      The Brazilians attached to the court in Rio and in the capitals of the Northeast were not exactly hard workers while there were many hard working white Brazilians in less privileged classes, specially in Sao Paulo and in the South.

      Portugal was in fact a poor country including when they defeated the moors, the reason for them to have sent so many adventurers around the world was to boost their economy and of course to avoid the monopoly of Arab merchants over the spice trade.

      The Sagres school was a sort of a guild and, yes, they were responsible for Portugal being more advanced than any other country at sea at the time. Its patron Infante Dom Henrique was responsible for boosting Portugal’s sea quests always with an eye on finding the passage to “the Indias”.

      This chapter is speaking about Rio de Janeiro’s history, it is not about the history of Brazil (OK the title is not exactly clear about this) and in this it is pretty precise. Actually as the initial part of chapter explains this is to give the reader of Lost Samba a rough guideline as to what Brazil is about. This is not supposed to be a history book, there are many books on the subject and I could indicate you several if you want.

      As I stated above, and I think it is clear in the text, the male natives did not work the land, this was and still is a task for women in native societies. I did say that they were averse to working in farms as slave labor and preferred suicide to captivity.

      I do not see the text as being either condescending, nor perpetuating negative stereotypes nor anything else that you say. This is the way I was taught Brazilian history at school and in college (UFRJ) and the conclusions I reached after reading several books on the subject.

      Still I thank you for your participation.

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