Land of Amazon, Samba and Carnival – l

In a very horrific sense, they were the lucky ones, for every two out of five captives died while being herded overland to the African coast for shipment to Brazil. A further 15% met their deaths in the dangerous crossing in appalling conditions in sailing ships over the Atlantic Ocean.

 (Daily Times, 26 June 2013)

 Two of the largest Brazilian cities, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, are both situated in the south-eastern corner of this vast country.  Rio is a former capital and Sao Paulo the commercial centre.  The capital is at Brasilia, over a thousand kilometres north-west of Rio, a city built from scratch, designed on the drawing board as the federal capital and inaugurated as such in 1960.  A futuristic city for its time, Brasilia is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List due to its unique architecture, although it has not lived up to its original expectations. 

The country’s first capital, however, was Salvador and it remained so until 1763, when Rio became capital, only to lose that honour to Brasilia just about two centuries later.  Salvador (which means saviour) is also called the “capital of happiness”. Its full name translates into English as “Saint Saviour of the Bay of all Saints”, a name befitting a country that is staunchly catholic.

Salvador may no longer be Brazil’s capital, its claim to being the “capital of happiness” may also be questionable, but there is no doubt as to its being South America’s “black” capital.  Descendants of African slaves constitute a quarter of the city’s population and over half of the population is “brown” (of mixed race).

Brazil has the largest number of people of African descent in South America, 34 million out of a population of 194 million.  Colombia’s 15 million blacks constitute about a third of that country’s population of 46 million, while more than a third of Cuba’s 11 million people are black.  Haiti’s population of about 10 million is all black, the native Indians having been wiped out long ago.

It is estimated that between 1502 and 1866, more than 11 million Africans were transported to the “New World”.  Of these, less than half a million were taken to the United States. The rest were destined for Central or South America. Nearly five million Africans went to Brazil alone to serve a lifetime as slaves.

In a very horrific sense, they were the lucky ones, for every two out of five captives died while being herded overland to the African coast for shipment to Brazil. A further 15% met their deaths in the dangerous crossing in appalling conditions in sailing ships over the Atlantic Ocean.  Of the survivors, one out of ten died after landing in Brazil even before they could be sold as slaves to their future masters. In consequence, less than half of the Africans captured for slavery in Brazil survived to toil as slaves.

This African heritage has not only influenced Brazilian culture generally, but has also created a distinct Afro-Brazilian culture, the best-known manifestations of which are Samba, Carnival and Candomblé, which is a variant of Voodoo.  Carnival is an extraordinary exhibition of flesh and sensuality in tandem with Samba music and dance,   quite at odds with the country’s Catholic religion.  Nor does Catholicism prevent local and foreign tourists posing for the cameras before the huge Christ statue in Rio in ways that would be considered blasphemous and disrespectful by the faithful.  They make a mockery of the symbolism of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Believed to have originated in Benin in Africa, Voodoo now flourishes in its local variants in Brazil and Haiti, among other places. In Haiti, Voodoo has a status at par with Catholicism.  In Brazil, there are millions of followers of Candomblé. “Some of our incantations are spoken in Yoruba because Candomblé came directly from our African ancestors,” according to Nivaldo Antonio dos Santos, a priest from the north-eastern state of Bahia, whose capital is Salvador. Some colonies in Brazil’s north were founded by slaves who fled into the impenetrable interior after escaping their masters.

If asked to name the most beautiful places in the world, Brazilians will mention quite a few, of course.  But chances are that all of them will be in Brazil.  With 8,000 km of coastline and thousands of beaches to choose from – most of them lying beneath palm trees in the tropics . . . Brazilians can talk for hours about their favourite strip, nowhere is more closely associated with the beach as lifestyle than Brazil, and golden sands provide many of the country’s cultural icons,” wrote Gavin McOwan in The Guardian (April 15, 2009).

Rio de Janeiro is renowned for its spectacular natural setting, fine beaches, scenic harbour, the famous Jesus atop a hill, its notorious favelas and, of course, the Carnival. Our hotel in Rio was within walking distance of the famous Copacabana beach.  

Everywhere else in the world, hilltops are occupied by the rich because of the views they offer.  In Rio, however, the roles have been reversed, for here all the hilltops – and there are many – are dotted with poor neighbourhoods, the favelas. So, although they look nice from a distance, they are not a pretty sight from close quarters. And strangers enter them at their own peril, for even the police tread carefully here.

As I write these lines, Brazil is in turmoil, with the largest protest demonstrations in many decades.  What began as a result of a 10% hike in public transport fares, has acquired a momentum of its own and continued even after the hikes have been rescinded.  People in their hundreds of thousands are now demanding social and economic justice and protesting against the extravagant expenditure on the Soccer World Cup and Olympic Games to be held in Brazil in 2014 and 2016, respectively. 

Even in a country where people are crazy about soccer, there is a growing resentment that a government that cannot find the money to improve basic services should finance hugely expensive showcase sporting events.  Millions of Brazilians are no longer prepared to accept social and economic injustice when the country is emerging as a significant economic power. The favelas are in rebellion in a way that would perhaps make good old Karl Marx proud.

(To be concluded)

By Razi Azmi


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2 Responses to Land of Amazon, Samba and Carnival – l

  1. Javed Agha says:

    Thanks Razi, at least I learnt something about this great soccer playing country. I always thought RIO as the capital city. Now it is Brasilia. Are there any old settlers from the Indian sub continent, I know there are many in Tinidad and other South American countries. Looking forward to the completion of this article on Brazil.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Javed, the only South American country with a significant number of South Asian Indians is Guyana and I mentioned that in my previous article “”Wondrous South America”. Yes, there are Indians also in Trinidad and some of the small Carribean Islands.

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