Monday, June 11, 2007


A Visit to Bahia

Mater center of the nationality, Bahia is the most emblematic of all Brazilian states. Starting point of history. It transformed itself in an eternal transmutation, in a constant mutation point, copious font of traditions and of cultural renovation. Its land was sprinkled with the blood of the warriors for independence, which were glorified by Castro Alves, the most popular of all our poets. It is in Bahia where the Brazilian baroque has its highest expression serving of inspiration to the music of Caymmi, João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso y Gilberto Gil. Every day is a commemoration day. Censo Cultural de Bahia, Secretaria da Cultura e Secretaria do Turismo

I returned recently from a work related trip to Brasil, the main purpose of which was to participate in the the 32nd Annual Congress of the Caribbean Studies Association. Although I had been a regular participant from 1984 to 1998 (except for the years I was away doing my dissertation), I was renewing my ties to the association after a 9 year hiatus. The highlight of my visit, though, was the opportunity to see more of a northeastern Brasilian state that I have come to love since my first visit to the region several years ago. As a student of the Caribbean, it is only natural (if you accept as a defining element of Caribbean identity a common historical legacy of plantation slavery and its inseparable opposite: marronage) to be drawn to the Northeast of Brasil; a deciding factor as well in the odd choice of Salvador for the celebration of a “Caribbean” conference.

My first trip to Salvador da Bahia, in July of 2002, benefited enormously from the help of João José Reis*, Professor of History at the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador. His name had been suggested to me by researchers Richard and Sally Price and he turned out to be of incalculable help with everything from finding reasonable places to stay to successfully identifying points of interest for my visit (which included a trip to the city of Recife and its adjacent town of Olinda in Pernambuco). As an added bonus, it was through the distinguished historian of Bahia that I came to learn about the famous Muslim slave uprising.

Being the son of a historian, I was naturally drawn to places of historical interest. From Olinda, I went to Ilha de Itamaraca where I visited (of course) Fort Oranje. While the expulsion of the Dutch is celebrated in Brasil, it signified the spreading of the slave-based plantation economy to the Eastern Caribbean. According to Cornelis Ch. Goslinga:

During the years of the [Dutch West India] company's decline, great changes had occured in the Caribbean area.  Sugarcane, which had been introduced in the West Indies by Columbus a century and a half earlier, was under cultivation on most of the islands prior to 1650.  The English and the French, however, had not known how to convert the cane into sugar, molasses and rum.  Dutch refugees from Brazil, who poured into the area after 1654, brought with them the techniques of sugar cultivation and manufacture.  Furthermore, Dutch capital helped the French and English planters purchase the necessary equipment on a credit basis.  Dutch control of the slave markets in Africa secured the necessary labor.  Dutch ships bought up the sugar crops and provided the colonies with food, hardware and other needed commodities throughout that period of English civil strife when the London government could do little to help them.  The Dutch did the same with the French. (pages 333-334 of The Dutch in the Caribbean and on the Wild Coast, 1580-1680)

For another (lesser) consequence for the Caribbean of the expulsion of the Dutch from Pernambuco, see this.

Hence, my first trip covered a lot of ground, thanks in no small measure to the guidance from João as well as my own informed curiosity. The Northeast of Brasil is so rich in culture and history, however, that a handful of trips, however well advised and planned, can only scratch the surface. On my second trip, I wanted to explore more of the Recôncavo, the fertile agricultural region embracing All Saints Bay, that is also home to some of Brasil's richest and most cherished cultural traditions, including a wide array of afro-Bahian expressions.

I had to await this second opportunity to fulfill my wish to visit some of the smaller towns of the Recôncavo. One of these was the town of Cachoeira, birthplace of the abolitionist poet Antônio de Castro Alves, and location of the Sisterhood of the Good Death, a Black lay sodality that had drawn my interest during my first trip.

As the Sisterhood's own website states:

The history of the Irmandade da Boa Morte (Sisterhood of the Good Death), a religious confraternity devoted to the Assumption of the Virgin, is part of the history of mass importation of blacks from the African coast to the cane-growing Recôncavo region of Bahia. Iberian adventurers built beautiful towns in this area, one of them being Cachoeira, which was the second most important economic center in Bahia for three centuries. In a patriarchal society marked by racial and ethnic differences, the confraternity is made up exclusively of black women, which gives this Afro-Catholic manifestation - as some consider it - a certain fame. It is known both as an expression of Brazilian baroque Catholicism, with its distinctive street processions, and for its tendency to include in religious festivals profane rituals punctuated by a lot of samba and banqueting.

Thus, I joined two other CSA conference participants on a one-day tour with an exceptional guide through portions of the Recôncavo on the way to the twin towns of Cachoeira and Sao Felix. On the way to the Sisterhood, we made several stops which enriched my experience even more than I had expected. The first was to a bountiful outdoor market at Santo Amaro, birthplace of Caetano Veloso and his sister Maria Bethânia.

Santo Amaro’s colonial legacy is directly tied to the world of the sugar plantation. Although the latter has since been supplanted by the paper industry, mansions of the sugar barons can still be seen along with several churches. The town’s largest church, the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Purificação is located in the town square (see photo, above). A few steps from where I took that photo, is a plaque commemorating the poet Caetano Veloso (right: click to enlarge). The plaque reads Ao poeta Caetano Veloso O reconhecimento do povo de sua terra neste meio seculo de poesia Santo Amaro 2(?) de Agosto de 1992.

Our next stop was at a small rural community of (formerly) landless workers that belonged to the Movimento dos Trabalhadore Rurais Sem Terra (MST), Brasil's famed Movement of Landless Rural Workers. This was an added bonus since it was not scheduled on the formal tour. Nevertheless, our wonderful tour guide, who was clearly sympathetic to the MST, asked us if we would like to stop briefly to see and meet members the community, to which all three of us enthusiastically agreed. As expressed in their web-site, the MST clearly situates their movement in the country’s rich history of resistance groups, dating all the way back to the Quilombos (another key tradition that Brasil shares with the Caribbean):

Para falar sobre a trajetória do MST é preciso falar da história da concentração fundiária que marca o Brasil desde 1500. Por conta disso, aconteceram diversas formas de resistência como os Quilombos, Canudos, as Ligas Camponesas, as lutas de Trombas e Formoso, a Guerrilha do Araguaia, entre muitas outras.

In stressing the legitimacy of their cause, the cooperative workers highlight the fact that the land they rescued was idle or “unproductive” land held for the most part by the country’s financial sector. Their cause is furthermore backed by Article 186 of the Brazilian Constitution and has the support of the Lula government. While I was impressed with the activity I witnessed in the cooperative, which included the processing of cacao (chocolate) and other agricultural goods for commercial purposes, I couldn't help but wonder what these people could accomplish with a relatively small infusion of cheap capital. Clearly there was pride and motivation in their endeavors. See this for additional information about the situation of landless rural workers in Brasil.

Our next stop was at the mangrove and artesanal fishing village of Acupe which, if I recall correctly, was also linked to the MST. We were lucky enough to arrive at precisely the time the fishing boats were returning with the day’s catch to distribute at the cooperative. If you look carefully behind the beached vessel in the photo, you can make out the distribution of the fish from the canoes to awaiting consumers. On the way out of the town we searched out for inconspicuous candomble terreiros hidden among the town dwellings.

The Recôncavo in general and Cachoeira, in particular, have a high concentration of candomble terreiros, reflecting the rich African heritage of the region. Sufficient publicity is offered by the various tourist agencies bent on promoting excursions (including visits to terreiros to “witness” religious ceremonies), so there is no need for me to go into that here. For the city of Salvador, there are good resources like Bahia Online, which provide background for the itinerant visitor. Publicity is also evidenced in overseas media like the New York Times. The Sisterhood of the Good Death even has an English language Wikipedia entry.

Cachoeira is situated beside the Rio Paraguaçu below a series of hills. The river divides Cachoeira from its sister town, São Félix (above). While sugar cane has been the principle crop associated with the Recôncavo, Cachoeira is at the center of the country’s best tobacco-growing region; other main crops include cashews and oranges. When we reached Cachoeira, it was getting late, so we visited the Sisterhood and took a whirlwind tour of the town before returning to Salvador.

I would like to conclude by drawing attention to the renown soprano Inaicyra Falcão dos Santos, whose fascinating CD of traditional Yoruban songs set to orchestral arrangments, OKAN AWA, I purchased on my first visit to Bahia. It can be sampled and ordered here. According to that source:
Inaicyra is daughter of noted Mestre Didi Axipá (Deoscóredes Maximiliano dos Santos), a candomblé priest (of the Egungun on the island of Itaparica) who in his writings and art explored Nagô traditions in Bahia. She is also a great-great-granddaughter of Marcelina da Silva -- Obá Tossi -- captured in the Oyá region of Africa and brought to Bahia where she would eventually become a founder and high-priestess of house of candomblé Casa Branca.

*João José Reis is the author of a number of works on African slavery, Africans and people of African descent in Brasil, including the books Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia and Death Is a Festival: Funeral Rites and Rebellion in Nineteenth-Century Brazil; He is also winner of the 1996 Clarence H. Haring Prize, American Historical Association; the 1992 Jabuti Prize for Nonfiction, Brazilian Book Council; and was chosen as a 2004 Choice Outstanding Academic Title.

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