Monday, April 11, 2011

Rio de Janeiro: A French Obsession

If the French had not settled in the Bay of Rio in the 16th century, the city would never have been founded. This is not to say that the Portuguese were unaware of Baía da Guanabara (Guanabara Bay), as the area is known. They had cruised along the shore, but the bay had not interested them. The vast territory which was to become Brazil had been officially claimed by Portugal in 1500 when its fleet, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, landed in Porto Seguro 1100 km north of today’s Rio. Actually, a couple of months earlier a Spaniard named Pinzón, a companion of Cristobal Columbus, had landed further north. But, a Spanish-Portuguese treaty had already earmarked the territory for Portugal.
The Portuguese claim didn’t prevent Dutch, Spanish and French navigators to maraud along the coast in search of Pau-Brasil, Brazilian wood valued at the time for its red dye. Then in 1550, a French aristocrat named Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon entered the Guanabara Bay with two ships and six hundred soldiers and colonialists. He built the small Coligny fort on a tiny island which now bears his name. Villegagnon’s purpose was not to plunder natural resources but to settle. He founded the France Antarctique colony.
Villegagnon was a colorful character even by 16th century standards. His CV is impressive; he started his military career as a Knight of Malta and fought the Turkish fleet in the Mediterranean Sea. Villegagnon was also a scientist, explorer, entrepreneur and adventurer, the last two occupations probably being the same thing. He was born a Catholic but had been drawn to the Reformation of Jean Calvin. His religious beliefs are still a matter of argument as they might have changed with his luck.
                                             Villegagnon Island, Guanabara Bay.
The purpose of France Antarctique colony was to have a place to settle Swiss Protestants and French Huguenots along with some Catholics. During this period, France and other parts of Europe were at the stage of bloody sectarian violence between the dominant Catholic population and those who had recently embraced the Reformation. It was pure Utopian to believe that the two religious communities could live in peace on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. As old habits die hard, soon after landing the colonialists started bickering, to the puzzlement of the local Tamoios Indians. Villegagnon left the island to seek reinforcements but never came back.
The Portuguese army defeated the ragtag survivors in 1567. The French dreamland had lasted nearly ten years. Euphoric with his victory, Estácio de Sá, the young Portuguese commander, subsequently founded the city of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, Rio for short. It was not a total loss for the French. To drop their territorial claim they received 30 000 gold ecus from the king of Portugal. The episode is purposely remembered when the cariocas, the citizens of Rio want to nag the Portuguese: a French Rio would have been so much more glamorous!
Pirates and French, English and Dutch privateers continued to roam the coast of Brazil. Again the French had a knack to pick good spots. They traded with the Indians in the bays of Buzios and Cabo Frio not far from Rio. During the 20th century, these two fishing villages became sophisticated resorts visited by the rich and famous, including French icon Brigitte Bardot. In 1612, once again the French landed in Brazil, this time in the far north. They named their new colony Equinoctial France and built the fort of Saint Louis named after the King of France. The settlement was short lived; it was rapidly conquered by the Portuguese in 1615 and renamed São Luis. For a short time, the city was also occupied by the Dutch.
Brazilian coastal cities didn’t see much threatening French action until that fateful month of August 1710, when a Caribbean-born privateer named Jean Francois DuClerc tried to invade Rio. Gold had recently been discovered in the heartland of Brazil, in a region which became the state of Minas Gerais. Gold attracted the interest of DuClerc who wanted to endear himself with the Sun King. The king’s coffers were empty. DuClerc convinced the king to give him six ships and thousand and two hundred soldiers and sailors in order to invade Rio de Janeiro and steal its gold for France. Unfortunately, this straightforward plan went awfully awry.
The Portuguese were tipped of DuClerc’s arrival and the entry of the port of Rio was heavily defended, compelling the French to land in the swampy Barra da Tijuca 20kms west of the city. They had to trek back under the heavy fire of the Portuguese defense. Four hundred soldiers were killed and the survivors were taken prisoners, DuClerc included. The later was taken to a Jesuit monastery on top of Castelo Hill (leveled during the early 20th century urban development). His new home was not to his liking. After arguing that he had no vocation to become a monk, he was moved to the house of a Portuguese officer in downtown Rio. In September, DuClerc was murdered by hooded men in mysterious circumstances. The debonair navy officer had probably been assassinated on the order of a jealous husband. Who knows, taking the oath of chastity might have spared DuClerc’s life.
Not only was France still broke, but its self-image was severely bruised. Immediate retaliations seemed necessary. Now enters the resolute René Duguay-Trouin. He was a native of the port of Saint-Malo in Normandy where his family owned a shipping business. This walled city is fabled for having been the breeding ground of generations of French pirates and privateers. Museums to their glory draw visitors, and a statue to Duguay-Trouin graces one of the city’s squares. As a seasoned privateer, Duguay-Trouin was an expert in the art of ransacking, and he had many naval victories under his belt.
                                    duguay trouin                          
                                     Duguay-Trouin and the Sun King
On 21 September 1711, commanding a twelve ship strong fleet, he appeared in front of Rio. His fleet had entered the Bay of Guanabara with divine help, hidden by a thick fog. In an eleven day battle, his two thousand and six hundred men defeated a stronger Portuguese garrison. After capturing the hapless governor and his men, and freeing the prisoners, the sack of Rio started in earnest. It lasted for two months. The terrified population abandoned its houses and fled to the forest. On November 13, Duguay-Trouin was ready to leave with an impressive but diverse bounty; it included tons of sugar, two hundred heads of cattle, piles of money, bags of gold, church artifacts, and £4 million worth of African slaves. The slaves were promptly sold in Cayenne, the ramshackle capital of French Guyana. The ships were so heavily loaded with loot that a couple of them sank during the journey back to Saint-Malo.
Rio was left reeling, but France had restored its reputation as a nation of dare devil corsairs. The king rewarded Duguay-Trouin with title and land. He was to continue his brilliant navy career but his extravagant and lavish lifestyle left him so destitute that on his death bed he begged the new king a pension for his widow. Duguay-Trouin’s success marked the end of French aggression towards Rio de Janeiro.
The next French foray took place in 1816. Not only was it peaceful but it was welcomed. In 1807, Napoleon had invaded Portugal forcing the Portuguese royal family to flee to Brazil. In 1808, Rio became the capital of the kingdom of Portugal and Brazil. It was still a backwater in great need of cultural shine. In order to correct this situation, the king invited a group of French artists to Rio. Having worked for the defeated Emperor, they were unemployed and therefore keen to accept any work opportunity, even in Brazil. A former court painter, Jean-Batiste Debret, was the most famous among the group. He became a painter of everyday life in Brazil and that of Rio in particular.
His sketches of street scenes, as well as his official commissions of court life, are unparalleled documents of the period. The French mission created the first national art school. During the same period, many foreigners, adventurers and naturalists were invited to visit and document Brazil. Consequently France began to be regarded as a paragon of fine art and class.
This love story with French artists lasted longer than the Brazilian Empire. The young Brazilian republic called on French architects, landscape designers and sculptors to beautify and modernize its capital. Rio’s much photographed icon, the Christ on top of the Corcovado Mountain. was partly sculpted by Paul Landowsky, a Polish born French artist (1921). The statue was built in France and brought back in sections to Rio.
The most recent and significant French undertaking is the Cidade da Musica (City of Music) a cultural complex situated in an urban sprawl known as Barra da Tijuca, west of Rio. The concrete eyesore is the creation of the famed architect Christian de Portzamparc. It was erected to host classical music concerts. The highly controversial building follows the tradition set by other French-inspired cultural projects such as the Rio opera house (built in 1909 and a copy of the Paris opera), namely that they are indecently over budgeted and shamefully behind schedule. Initially expected to be inaugurated in 2004, the Cidade da Musica, renamed Cidade da arte will now be inaugurated in 2012. The first French building of Rio, the Coligny fort of Villegagnon was built on an island. Coincidentally, the Cidade da Arte was also erected on an island, but on an uninviting island set in the middle of two major thoroughfares. Has the French cultural elite lost its panache? Not entirly thanks to monsieur Le Bron! Leblon, one of the huber chic suberb of Rio was named after him!
Beatrice Labonne, April 7, 2011.