Reflections on Slavery and Servitude in Brazil

Brazil - The Making of a Novel - Part 26

The Journey -  Amazon River,  Augusto Montenegro, Belém to Manaus, August 12 - August 17, 1980

August 15- August 16: At one point last night, some of us commented on behavior and service of crew in what is obviously one of the great attractions of Brazil. They're surly, uncooperative, unprofessional, ungrateful. They give the impression of simply not caring, one way or the other. Reflecting on this, a Brazilian at the table said that the difference between them and, say people in the service industry in Europe/U.S. was that here they were an extension of the servitude of slavery.
Interesting point, especially when considered against fact that slavery was only abolished in 1889, less than a hundred years ago. Just as there are many misconceptions or ignorance about the finer aspects of Brazilian history, so, too, the darker side. Brazilians pride themselves on the peaceful, humane liberation of their slaves but I'm beginning to believe that the truth may run somewhat contrary, that they have an exceptionally long way to go to finalize the adjustment between slavery/freedom. “Born free to live in chains,” truly applicable!

Brazilian Slave Ship - Johan Moritz Rugendas
New York Public Library Digital Collection
Elsa, the German girl stayed with a casa grande family in Fortaleza and was convinced there is also a racial element: Her hosts kept reminding her that they were “Portuguese,” i.e. “white” of the best sort. The dona of the house boasted that she had already “sold” six servant girls to the south. Elsa took that literally, though I suspect it's more of the South African way of “selling” — the arranging of girls from the farm “good girls” to go south where they're coveted because they're “honest, reliable,” that sort of thing.
Another subject that came up was the “internationalization” of the Amazon basin, once suggested by a U.N. conference but, predictably, violently resisted by the Brazilians. (In the north, among few expressions of political graffiti: AMAZONIA PARA BRASILEIRO.) A young Brazilian passenger himself suggested that this would be only way to “develop” the area properly. From what I have seen and heard about other “development” projects in the North-North-East, I'm inclined toward agreeing. At the same time, I have to consider the effect of the Tropics on Western Man - Perhaps Gilberto Freyre is too optimistic, idealistic - Perhaps the true Brazilian, man of the tropics, has not yet appeared on the scene or developed sufficiently to cope with the land, the climate and its challenges.

Amazon River settlement near Manaus
Spending time with the two Brits, unfortunately, brings my Brit-background prejudices to the surface and I have constantly to remind myself that this is Brazil and Brazilians are different. Nevertheless, I do find several things disgusting. The spitting. A downright unhealthy habit. At least on the ship the aim is over the side! Also on hygiene, lavatories are often stinking, blocked affairs with horrid little wastepaper baskets for toilet paper, open and exposed.
Then, too, the food: With rare exception, usually in private homes, it's the same monotonous starchy stuff, steak, chicken, potatoes sometimes, rice, farina, beans. The food markets in the Amazon ports are the worst I've seen anywhere. Great, open mounds of freshly-butchered meat, minimal vegetables and little to see of the exotic tropical fruits people rave about. An inveterate traveler, I can stomach a great deal but here even I reach a limit.
Where do you begin to build a “modern nation”? Aren't these basic lifestyles important? Cleanliness next to godliness, says the proverb?
I wonder, though, just how much the negative thoughts expressed here are a reflection of the depressed North-East and the unfathomable “green hell.” How heavily do those weigh on a man's soul? What will the contrast be like in the south?
Also discussed the difficulty of bridging the gap between “moneyed (apparently) estrangeiros” and locals aboard prompted by so small an incident as attitude of barman. One senses his resentment of foreigners' continual ability to go up and buy beers, cool drinks etc...It would be almost impossible to explain to him that every cent of this was worked for year after year. Says the young Brazilian with us: “They think like slaves.” Or is it simply, a “tropical” don't-give-a-damn mentality. 
Amazon Voyage  1980

BRAZIL - The Epic of a Great Nation

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