On March 1, 2015 Rio de Janeiro celebrated its 450-year anniversary. Or was it? March 1, 1565 was only chosen fifty years ago in 1965, when Rio needed a party to cheer itself up. With the founding of Brasilia in April 1960, Rio lost its crown of Brazil’s capital, and to add insult to injury, its rival São Paulo had already celebrated its 400-year anniversary in 1954, eleven years earlier. Until 1965, the accepted founding date of the city was January 20, 1567, when the Portuguese troops definitely expelled the French settlers. By selecting March 1, 1565, local politicians and historians made the city two years older. The story is rather convoluted and interpretations are many!
The choice of March 1, 1565, is disingenuous. On that day the Portuguese troops landed near Sugar Loaf with the goal of dislodging the French colonists. It took them two years to do so. Their landing place was named São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro owes its name to the Portuguese navigators who first “discovered” the Guanabara Bay on January 1, 1502. They named it January River (Rio de Janeiro) Bay, but they did not land there. The French came in 1555 and built a settlement there.
Original Carioca Honorary Carioca
A French Knight of the Maltese Order, Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon, led the expedition and built a fort on an island where the domestic Santos Dumont Airport of Rio is located. The colony grew and reached 6,000 people which included many women. Villegagnon established an alliance with the local Tamoio and Tupinambá Indians who were unhappy with the Portuguese. The settlement was named France Antartique. What sets this colony apart is that it was based on a religious utopia of the time. The settlers were a mix of Catholics and Protestants. Although they were killing one another in Europe, Villegagnon wrongly believed that they could live harmoniously in the tropics. As soon as he returned to France, the colonists started arguing under the puzzled gaze of the Indians, many of whom were sharing their home.
When the Portuguese commander Estácio de Sá landed, the French settlement was already dysfunctional, its troops in disarray, and many residents had fled to live with the Indians on the mainland. Little support came from France as the pope had decided that South America should be divided between the Portuguese and the Spaniards.
In 1565, there were two enemy settlements, one French and one Portuguese, nearly facing each other! On Saint Sebastian feast day the French were finally rooted out and Sebastian became the patron saint of the Portuguese settlement. Coincidentally, like Saint Sebastian, Estácio de Sá died from an Indian arrow injury. The historic novel Brazil Red (2001) by French writer Jean-Christophe Rufin tells the story of Villegagnon’s ill-fated attempt to colonize this region of Brazil.
During the 17th century, Sáo Sebastiáo do Rio de Janeiro grew slowly, a Portuguese backwater where the main language was Tupi Indian. Better security encouraged people to leave their stronghold on the Castelo hill to colonize the shoreline. During this period, the locals added land to the low areas, and landfills became an urban development fixture for better or worse.
The Dutch were now challenging the Portuguese colonies in Brazil as well as in Africa. In 1648, a small Portuguese armada left Rio to recapture Portuguese ports in Angola, and in Sáo Tomè and Principe. With generous funding from the people of Rio the mission succeeded in expelling the Dutch.
Rio de Janeiro finally woke from its slumber when gold was discovered in 1697 in the hinterland. This region is now known as Minas Gerais, or General Mines. Thanks to the flow of gold, the 18th century was lively in Rio and in 1763 the city became the capital of the colony. Gold smuggling became a national sport and to deter it the Portuguese authorities set up an inefficient police force with bureaucracy and corruption setting a lasting pattern. The perception was that smuggling was benefiting England and not the needy Portuguese king.
Rio was in the limelight and both welcome and unwelcome visitors docked at the city harbor. Renè Duguay- Trouin, a French privateer, convinced the Sun King, Louis XIV of France who incidentally was broke, that Rio was the new Eldorado and could be easily ransacked. On 21 September 1711, commanding a twelve-ship-strong fleet, he entered the Bay of Guanabara hidden by a thick fog (divine help!). During an eleven-day battle, his 2600 men defeated a stronger Portuguese garrison. After capturing the hapless governor and his men, and freeing French prisoners from a previous attempt, the sack of Rio started in earnest. It lasted for two months. The terrified residents abandoned their houses and fled to the forest. On November 13, Duguay-Trouin left with an impressive and diverse booty, including 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 the French port of Saint-Malo. Rio was left reeling, but France had restored its reputation as a nation of dare devil corsairs.
In 1768, in the course of his first journey, Capitan James Cook docked with entirely peaceful intentions, needing cleaning, repairs and food supplies. Nonetheless, the crew of HMS Endeavour got a frosty welcome and several sailors were even accused of gold and gemstone smuggling. The exasperated Cook painted a very negative portrait of the city and its leaders who he wrote were lazy, inefficient, arrogant and despotic. The city was only ten percent white, and the British officers were shocked by the apparent freedom of movement of the black people. Naturalist Joseph Bank was scandalized by the “unchastity” of the woman folk; he further wrote that there was not a single modest woman in the whole city! With notorious British Navy arrogance, he was also critical of the quality of the food supplies, saying that only pumpkins were up to British standards.
Imported Cariocas (by J.B. Debret)
What happened to Rio de Janeiro in 1808 is unprecedented. Thanks to Napoléon and George III of England, the city became the capital of the Portuguese kingdom. The former invaded Portugal and the latter helped the Portuguese royal family to escape to Brazil. The royals fled with the whole court and government bureaucrats, some 15 000 people. Local houses were seized to house the newcomers and Rio underwent a real estate boom with the Cariocas (the local residents who drank water from the Carioca River) scrambling to build new homes for themselves.
Upward mobility, Carioca style (By J.B. Debret)
Rio became a world class city successively attracting scientists, artists, traders and an Austrian Princess who married the heir to the throne. The new king, Don João VI, modernized and turned the city upside down. In 1822, his heir declared Brazil an empire independent from Portugal. Several golden decades followed thanks to the policies of a benevolent sovereign and his daughter and the booming coffee exports. But this period has a dark edge: until the abolition of slavery in 1888, a million new slaves were shipped from Africa to work in the coffee plantations. The empire collapsed with a coup d’etat the following year.
The 20th century nearly destroyed Rio: the city was shaken to its foundations literally. The landfill mania returned with a vengeance, but it was associated with the razing of hills to the ground. With little respect for history, the first hill to be flattened was the Castelo hill, Rio’s original township. The new republic used France as a model and Rio endeavored to become a tropical Paris. Rio’s population grew with the influx of European immigrants and former rural black slaves. Colonial buildings were torn down and new thoroughfares were opened. A lasting urban process started with the richest layer of the population settling on the low areas, shorelines and landfills and the poorer ones moving up hill where the first slums, the favelas, took root.
In 1960, Rio lost its capital status. A president born in the hinterland who probably did not like the beach, inaugurated Brasilia as the new capital. But four years later, Cariocas undoubtedly experienced schadenfreude when Brasilia was taken over by a military dictatorship, whose grip lasted 21 years. Rio’s hedonistic reputation grew with the global success of bossa nova. Care-free Cariocas from all walks of life went to the beaches whistling a Garota de Ipanema.
Saint Sebastian going to the beach Olympics Cariocas
In 1965, to boost the city moral, the mayor celebrated Rio’s 400-year anniversary with pomp and new urban revitalization projects. Meanwhile poor people continued their move to the hills, some favelas became so large that they fell prey to drug dealers who set up their own violence-based government. In 1985, democracy was restored, rough and tumble, until today. Oil discovery fuelled Rio’s economy and the income that was not wasted or stolen was put to good use to pacify the favelas and attempt to bridge the socio-economic gulf between Cariocas living in the low areas and those living on the hills. Today, twenty two percent of the Rio population live in favelas. Four hundred and fifty year-old Rio remains the face of Brazil, tolerant, welcoming, vibrant but also unequal and often cruel. But again, Cariocas will put on their best behavior to host the 2016 Olympic Games.