In the Matrix

Palpable History in Places & People

In Bahia, in the beginnning...there lived the indigenous people now commonly referred to as "Índios", and we can follow human recordings as far back as a people called the Gé. The Gé were pushed out by a people called the Tupinambá, and these were the people who were here when the first Europeans arrived (the coastal village of Olivença, Bahia remains home to a number of Tupinambá to this day).

Those first Europeans were Spaniards under the command of Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, who on January 26, 1500, landed to the north of what is now Bahia, close to the location of present-day Recife (capital of the state of Pernambuco). Pinzón had also been the captain of the Niña (as in the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria) when Christopher Columbus made his maiden voyage to the New World.

How Cabral got to Brazil while on his way to India.

Next to arrive was the fleet of Pedro Álvares Cabral, who was actually on his way to India via a wide southernly swing out into the Atlantic Ocean (to avoid unfavorable currents) before heading east around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. Cabral's fleet landed in the territory which would come to be called "Brazil" (in English anyway; in Portuguese it's "Brasil") on the 21st of April, 1500, anchoring at a site he named "Porto Seguro" (or "Safe Port"; Porto Seguro is now a town located in present-day Bahia).

Cabral hadn't planned on landing there, at least not openly so. Common wisdom is that he was blown off course, but some people believe that he'd been secretly instructed by King Dom Manuel I to land for purpose of securing Portugal's rights to the territory. Whatever the case he did claim for Portugal the ground upon which he stood (this was on the 22nd of April, the day he himself went ashore), calling it the Ilha da Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross). When it was discovered he'd actually been standing on a continent -- not an island -- the name was changed to Terra da Vera Cruz (Land of the True Cross).

Then on November 1st in 1501, a ship navigated by Amerigo Vespucci put into an enormous bay (November 1st is All Saints Day, and for this reason Amerigo named the bay "Bahia de Todos os Santos" -- "Bay of All Saints"). Amerigo also gave his own name to the entire continent via the use of a latinized form of it by mapmaker Martin Walseemüller in 1507. "America" at first applied only to the continent of South America.

Moving backwards in time somewhat, in 1493 Spain and Portugal had agreed that all of the Earth's territory west of Africa would be divided between themselves at a north-south line 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands (a league is 3 nautical miles, and a nautical mile is about 15% longer than a statute mile). In 1494 the line was moved 270 leagues further west.

The French weren't a party to this deal (called the Treaty of Tordesillas) and not wanting to be left out they began to exploit the South American coast. In order to counter the French incursions the Portuguese Crown divided Brazil up into 14 capitanias (this was between 1534 and 1536), all with straight, horizontal, north and south borders. The grantees of these capitanias were to be responsible for the administration and defense of their lands. Most of them failed miserably at it.

The Capitanias of Brazil

One of those who failed was the captain of Bahia, Francisco Pereira Coutinho, who arrived in 1536 and founded a village -- Vila Bahia -- on the site where the fort São Diogo and the church of Santo Antônio da Barra now stand. Both the fort and the church are readily visible from the beach at Porto da Barra. More about Captain Coutinho after another digression...

Paraguassu? It's the MOVIE version anyway...

Sometime between 1509 and 1511 a ship sank off the coast of Bahia, and one of the few survivors was a man named Diogo Álvares Correa. Diogo was well-treated by the Tupinambás (after supposedly coming very close to being eaten by them) and from them he received the Indian name "Caramuru" (caramuru was the Tupinambás' name for a type of fish, and it is supposed that the new name had something to do with its soon-to-be owner having been found in the water).

Caramuru came to be so highly regarded that he was given Paraguassu -- daughter of the Tupinambá chief Taparicá -- as a bride. Salvador's first church -- Nossa Senhora da Graça -- was built by Caramuru and it is there that Paraguassu's body was eventually laid to rest. The church still stands (much grander than it was originally) and it was from the church that the neighborhood which grew up around it took its name: Graça ("Grace"). Catharina Paraguassu's mortal remains (she received the European name upon being baptized in France) are there to this day.

[The church is located in the Largo da Graça and is open Monday to Friday from 8 to 11:30 a.m. and from 2:30 to 5 p.m. Masses are Monday to Saturday at 7 a.m., and Sunday at 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. The church's phone number is 3247-4670.]

Catharina as depicted on the ceiling of her own church.

In the year 1537, a year after his arrival, Captain Coutinho -- the man whose word was law -- was on a boat which went down on the reefs off the southern end of the island of Itaparica. He was fished out of the water by Tupinambás but they weren't impressed by the position he held (they had a problem with it rather), and his fate was not to be that of the venerable Caramuru. After saving Captain Coutinho, they ate him.

The general failure of the captaincy system spurred the Portuguese Crown (in the person of Dom João III) into setting up a governorship of Brazil to be led by Thomé de Souza (often spelled "Tomé" nowadays). De Souza arrived in Bahia on the 29th of March, in 1549, and he went to work building a capital for Brazil and a place for himself to live (or for the governor-general to live and administrate from, rather). The latest incarnation of his palace, now called Palácio Rio Branco, sits on a commanding position overlooking the bay, on the same public square giving onto the Elevador Lacerda which takes one down to the lower city. The palace, in all its neo-classical glory, is open to the public.

Palácio Rio Branco, on the Praça Municipal. All it's missing is a cherry on top.

One strange twist in this complicated tale is the origin of a common Brazilian-Portuguese word. De Souza was accompanied by a group of Jesuits intent on spreading Christianity to the heathen natives of the "new" lands. The leader of the Jesuits was a padre by the name of Manoel da Nóbrega, and at a later point in history Salvador honored Nóbrega by bestowing his name upon a city street. Along this street grew up a string of places of ill-repute -- brothels and low-class bars -- and with time a shortened form of the street's name became synomynous with such places (and with a style of music commonly heard inside them): brega. (The name of the street -- Rua Padre Nóbrega -- has since been changed to Ladeira da Misericórdia).

What was the worry about converting the Indians? Their souls? Not exactly. Portugal's claim to Brazil was supported by the Catholic Church, the Treaty of Tordesillas having been recognized by Pope Alexander VI under the condition that the parties to the Treaty would convert the Indians to Christianity. The Church also allowed that those Indians who did not convert could be enslaved.

Well, up until now the principal source of wealth provided by Brazil had been pau brasil, or brazilwood (a source of a reddish dye). This was about to be supplanted by white gold -- sugar -- grown and harvested on immense plantations in Brazil's Northeast. Bahia's fortune was in the making, but it was to be a product of the sweat and blood of people who spent their lives producing and not partaking -- enslaved Africans and their descendents.

An estimated 1.2+ million slaves were imported into Bahia before slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, some four times the number imported into the entire United States of America (and between one-third and one-half of all slaves imported into Brazil).

(see the Summary statistics tab)

Why enslave Africans and not Indians? To keep a longer story short, the successful conversion of Indians diminished the "pool" of available slaves. One result of this was such an outcry that Mem de Sá (the third governor of Brazil) approved a "just" war against the Caeté Indians for their treatment of Brazil's first bishop (they'd eaten him) allowing the Caeté (who lived in the interior of Bahia) to be taken as slaves. But things got out of hand and converted Indians were taken as well. Epidemics of smallpox, influenza, and measles followed, and then famine. These factors, combined with resistance and flight, led the Portuguese to (largely) abandon the enslavement of natives and to adopt the importation of Africans in chains. These people were to have an immeasurable impact on what Bahia was, and is.


It was Jorge Amado who asked why a man should be so conspicuously commemorated in one of Bahia's most public places when this man had nothing to do with Bahia beyond having been eaten there.

And so Bishop Sardinha's noble and prominently positioned visage greets arrivers to Praça da Sé, while the remains of his avenger Mem de Sá (whose sanctioning of the enslavement of the Caeté Indians was based upon the bishop's unsavory demise) lay entombed within the church in the background (the Catedral Basílica).

Mem de Sá's nephew, Estácio de Sá, was the founder of Rio de Janeiro. The neighborhood of Estácio de Sá was (of course) named for him, and it was here that the first samba school (to be referred to as an escola de samba) was founded, and that the samba of Rio was modified from the samba of Bahia (by removing the clave, what Jelly Roll Morton called -- speaking of New Orleans jazz -- "the Spanish tinge)".

Uprising! The Revolt of the Malês

"Abadá" is a word familiar both to people who do capoeira and to people who've marched in Bahian Carnival blocos. In capoeira it refers to the pants worn (and to an organization named for those pants), and in Carnival terms it refers to the shirt/shorts combination which marks one as a member of a particular bloco. The word is derived from the Yoruban "agbada", which in Africa meant a long robe of the type worn in Islamic countries (or areas).

In Bahia, "abadá" had assumed its present linguistic form by the early 19th century, but its association with capoeira and Carnival still lay a century in the future. It denoted at that particular point in the past a long, flowing, white robe, a manner of dress expressly forbidden on the streets of Salvador and which would not be seen in public until the Malês were to rise up in revolt against their enslavement.

Another short digression: The Mali of today is an impoverished African republic, one of the poorest countries in the world. But at one time there was a vast Mali empire sustained by commerce in gold and salt, with Timbuktu as its principal city. "Mali" is derived from the Yoruban "imale", or "Muslim", a reference to the empire's religion. The part of the empire encompassing part of what is now northern Nigeria was the provenance of the Malês of Bahia.


And yet another digression: The Lavagem do Bonfim is a huge yearly festa which takes place in Salvador during the month of January, but in 1835 it was only one in a cycle of religious festas, and it was during the early morning hours of January 25th, during the festival of Nossa Senhora da Guia (Our Lady of the Guide), that the Malês planned to attack.

Maybe there was confidence born of language, a feeling that loose talk in Nagô (a dialect of Yoruba) was safe. This was a mistake. Talk of the insurrection down at the pier, and of its leader Ahuna, reached the ears of a freed Nagô by the name of Domingos Fortunato. Domingos engaged someone to write down what he'd heard and had the letter immediately delivered to his ex-master, Fortunato José da Cunha. Sr. da Cunha apparently didn't take the threat seriously.


Shortly later Domingos's wife Guilhermina -- also a freed Nagô -- was standing at the window of their home on Rua do Bispo (a side street which runs into Praça da Sé) when she gathered from the talk of several passing Nagôs that at the sound of the 5 a.m. alvorada (a wake-up chant sung in the street, when slaves were to rise and fetch water from the fountains) the revolt would begin. Guilhermina went straight to her ex-master -- Souza Velho -- and told him what she'd heard. And she wasn't finished.

Rua do Bispo enters to the right.

On her way home she was met by her friend Sabina da Cruz. Sabina had had an ugly fight with her husband -- Vitório Sule -- that morning, and upon arriving home after work (she sold food in the lower city) she saw that Vitório, together with his clothes, was gone.

The distraught woman set out to find the father of her children, finally managing to locate him in the basement of a house on the Ladeira da Praça where he was crowded in together with 50 or 60 other men and some sort of leader (basements of this sort were referred to as armazens -- storage areas; they were the undivided, unfurnished, and poorly ventilated living quarters of city slaves, the master and his family living on the floors above).

Guilhermina passed this new development on to her neighbor André Pinto da Silveira, who had in his salon at that very moment two important visitors with government connections. The government palace was informed and at one a.m. a team of armed men entered the house on the Ladeira da Praça. The revolt was off to an early start. Vitório Sule was one of the first to die.

The crux of the matter now was to unite forces, and Malês ran from house to house, beating on doors to wake up and alert their colleagues. As this was happening the main contingent moved up the street to the Câmara Municipal (city hall), where esteemed Malê leader Pacífico Licutan was being held prisoner in the jail beneath the building. Caught in crossfire from the câmara itself and from the governor's palace across the street (now the Palácio Rio Branco), the Malês were forced to retreat.

They moved on, skirmishing along the way, moving to reinforce their numbers with a sizable contingent of Malês coming from the neighborhood of Vitória. Their trajectory eventually took them past the Largo da Lapa (Salvador's Colégio Central is located on this spot now) where another skirmish took place, and eventually down to the cidade baixa (lower city). The idea was to make their way to an area called Cabrito (today a poor neighborhood; "cabrito" denotes a small goat or -- perjoratively in Brazil -- the offspring of a mulatto and a negra, or vice versa).

Here in Cabrito the Malês of Salvador were to meet up with Malês of the Recôncovo region (the land surrounding the bay) and together they would establish themselves somewhere on the bay's far side. It's not clear what their intentions were after this; a couple of marginal participants are on record as having said the the Malês intended to take Salvador. But the Malê leaders were intelligent men, some of whom almost certainly had experience with military campaigns in Africa before being apprehended and shipped off to Brazil, and they undoubtedly would have wanted to know what kind of force and organization they would be facing before launching what could be futile attack.

This now was the most dangerous part of their trajectory -- with the sea to the left and high cliffs to the right -- the men had to pass the Quartel of the Calvary -- and the calvary was ready. The Malês were charged, scattered, chased and hunted down down by a superior force of mounted soldiers, and this effectively was the end of the Malê Revolt. It was also the beginning of the repercussions.

It's important to note that during the three hours of the revolt itself, not a single citizen who was not a part of the constabulary or armed forces was harmed. There was no looting, no wanton violence. With the exception of one house set fire to by the slaves escaping it, nothing was damaged.

But in the aftermath of the revolt, violence, beatings, hysteria and murder -- directed against innocent Africans -- ruled. Much, although not all of it, was at the hands of soldiers, so much so that commanding officers were afraid of a serious breakdown of order in the ranks.

On May 14th, 1835, four leaders of the uprising were shot dead by firing squad in Campo da Pólvora (in front of where Salvador's forum, or courthouse, stands today). Sixteen participants were sentence to between 5 and 20 years of prison. Eight participants were sentenced to perpeptual forced labor (although some sentences were eventually remanded at the requests of the slaves' masters). Thirty-four participants (all freed slaves) were deported to Africa, probably Nigeria or Dahomey. And forty-five participants were sentenced to be whipped at the post (Pacífico Lutan received a sentence of 1,000 lashes).

These whippings were not like the movies, where a person is flogged maybe ten or twelve times. The number of lashes meted out ranged from 250 to 1,250 - at a rate of 50 per day until the total was met. As one might imagine, wounds and sores became infected, ulcering and festering, and the beatings went on nevertheless, day after day, until the lesions became life-threatening. Only then was punishment was temporarily halted in order to give the castigated time to recuperate, before the lashing would again be renewed. Sometimes the slaves never did recuperate.

In any event, the uprising of 1835 was the last in Brazil, but it wasn't the end of the resistance.

Malê de Balê (a bloco afro) was inspired by the Malês of Bahia

For a wide-ranging and scholarly description of the Malê revolt I recommend the excellent Rebelião Escrava no Brasil: A História do Levante dos Malês (1835), by João José Reis (available in English as Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia). My source for the very condensed narrative above was the copy of the book in Salvador's Biblioteca Central.