Arrival at Aldea da Pedra – Roman Catholic Missionary – Indian Aborigines of the tribe of Puris – River Parayba

Chapter IV

Arrival at Aldea da Pedra[1] – Roman Catholic Missionary – Indian Aborigines of the tribe of Puris – River Parayba[2]

We made the best of our way to the abode of Father Thomas, a Capuchin friar, and missionary of the society De Propaganda Fide. His kindness and hospitality were a theme on which my servant, who, in common with others of his countrymen, had been hospitably treated by him, was fond of expatiating. Hence his name and character were already familiar to me; and, upon my arrival at Aldea da Pedra, I found a number of Swiss families lodged under his roof, who received and welcomed us in a very cordial manner. I began now to feel once again restored to civilized society. A comfortable bedroom was appropriated to me by these good people; and having adjusted a few necessary preliminaries, I made my inquiries after Father Thomas.

The tolling of a bell at this moment announced the hour of evening prayer, and he had gone to his devotions. The chapel-door stood open, and I ventured to look in. What a sight then met my eye, and fixed me to the spot! Before the image of a crucified Saviour, suspended above the altar, and dimly illumined by the gleams of a single lamp, the venerable Father was seen bending forward in humble adoration, with hands devoutly clasped together, and kneeling in silent and secret prayer. His silvery locks bespoke his advanced age, and a long white beard gave an inexpressibly fine effect to a countenance naturally benign, but furrowed over with the deep lines of habitual meditation. A rosary was suspended on his breast; and a coarse brown garment of cloth falling loose round the body, and sandals on his feet, marked him as belonging to a rigid order of Friars. The chapel was small yet neat, and appropriately furnished, according to the usage of Roman Catholics, with images and pictures of Saints. That of Our Saviour over the altar was rudely carved in wood, and still more rudely painted; but if the contemplation of it were intended to convey feelings of horror and pity to the mind of the worshipper, that object was completely attained.

Such scenes as this may indeed occur every day unremarked, in Catholic countries; but the effect they produce depends much upon time, place, and circumstance. – Here all conspired to awaken interest. The hour of solitude and darkness; the place – one of the most sequestered valleys of Brazil, among a tribe of Indians, whose loud and peculiar shouts alone broke the general silence; lastly, the character and person of the man – an Italian missionary, who had left his native land, to convert and civilize these poor Indians – a missionary, whose sanctity had gained him the respect and whose beneficence had conciliated the affections of all around, who now lay prostrate in deep devotion before his Saviour and his God.

The evening passed away pleasantly in conversation with the good Father, who spoke a mixture of the Portuguese, Italian, and French languages, of which latter he had gained a slight knowledge from his Swiss inmates. He was delighted to meet a foreign traveller; having lived unvisited and unknown, except by the native Brazilians, the Indians, and Swiss settlers, for a space of twelve years. Thirty years had passed over his head since he left Italy. The recollection of his native land was still delightful to him, and he cherished a lingering hope that he might still lay his bones there; although determined not to desert his post, unless a fit successor were appointed. He was the first European who had ventured to approach the Indian settlements on this part of the river Parayba. He had cut his way through the woods, with no inconsiderable difficulty, from St. Erita, attended only by two negroes. The natives, alarmed at this intrusion upon their domain, and taught by bitter experience to dread the usurpations of Europeans, were at first inclined to dispute his passage: they menaced him with their bows and arrows, and were proceeding to destroy the whole party, when the mild demeanour of Father Thomas, and the symbols of peace which he carried in his hands, won pity and attention. They entered into an amicable conference, and finally allowed him to settle among them; giving him land, and assisting him to construct a dwelling-house and chapel. His gentle manners, attractive virtues, and superior knowledge, soon gained their affectionate respect; and the entire confidence which from the beginning he had placed in them, served, as he himself said, most effectually to win their hearts. At last his influence became so great, that they allowed him to introduce a few Brazilian Creole families among them, and abandoned in some measure their former savage habits, in imitation of the new-comers. The acquisition of European goods gave a stimulus to industry; and the use of money, as it became understood and appreciated, assisted the progress of civilization. With regard to religion, they had never doubted the existence of a God, and never acknowledged any system of idolatrous worship. The profession of Christianity was therefore readily adopted, as far as submission to the rite of baptism, attendance at mass, and the outward observance of some other ceremonies; but whether any of them were real converts in heart, and on conviction, is a point much more doubtful, and indeed not to be easily believed. The vice of drunkenness, and immoderate love of spirituous liquors, followed the march of trade in this as in all other parts of America, in spite of the influence of the Missionary and his religion.

Perhaps the system pursued by Protestant Missionaries, of teaching letters, and awakening as far as is possible the dormant faculties of the mind, might have proved more useful than the oral inculcation of religious knowledge, aided by that appeal to the senses which image-worship and the Catholic ceremonial make. Under the most favourable circumstances, however, it is well known that the Aborigines of America have baffled the most zealous and well-meant endeavours to convert them; and the rapid decrease of their numbers, wherever Europeans have established themselves, afford strong ground of belief of the total extinction in due time of the whole Indian race.

September 14. – The break of day disclosed to view a country so beautiful and susceptible of advantageous cultivation, that I felt surprised the Indians had so long been left undisputed masters of it by the Portuguese. A noble river, from a quarter to half a mile in breadth, pursued its rapid course at the base of a chain of low and wood-girt hills. In the channel were many islands of various magnitude – some mere rocks, others overgrown by copse-wood; and here and there an Indian cabin made its appearance among the trees. From these rocky islets the name of the place, Aldea da Pedra, is derived. Several canoes, paddled by natives of both sexes, were seen skimming along the surface of the water, and the use of one of them was readily placed at my disposal. The banks on each side were thickly wooded, except in the immediate vicinity of the village: here a considerable extent of ground had been cleared, and plantations, chiefly of maize, mandioc[3], beans, and tobacco, made by the Brazilian Creole inhabitants for their own use.

Only a few families, belonging to the poorest class of whites, live in this village, and they partake more of the character of Indian hunters than of regular farmers. Their cottages are not many degrees better than those of the natives; nor have they any domestic animals, except pigs and poultry. The house of Father Thomas is of unusual magnitude, being two stories high, and containing a suite of unfurnished uninhabited apartments: it is built of wood, the chapel forming a part of the same edifice. Indian huts are scattered along the banks of the river, for a distance of about two miles: some have a small enclosure round them, planted with the above-named vegetables; others are unenclosed, and built in the thickest parts of the forest. They are of very simple construction, and thatched with the leaves of the palm-tree. Their height in the centre is seldom sufficient to allow a man to stand upright, and net hammocks suspended lengthways constitute their only furniture.

These Indians belong to the tribe of Puris: their number altogether does not exceed three hundred in this settlement. They speak a little Portuguese, and understand it sufficiently well for common purposes of trade. On Sundays, those who can afford to purchase clothes dress themselves after the manner of the Brazilian Creoles, in linen trowsers and jackets; and take great delight in imitating European fashions. On common occasions they go nearly naked; but the women always wear a coarse frock: upon them devolves the performance of all menial offices, and they are treated in a very brutal manner. The passion of love, as has been observed of most other Indian tribes, is but feebly felt: no strong ties of affection appear to exist between parent and child; far less between brothers and sisters, or more distant members of one family. Husbands offer their wives, parents their daughters, to any stranger; and for the low price of one dollar, a boy may be purchased and carried away as a slave to distant parts of the country. So powerful, however, are the feelings of liberty and independence which nature has planted in their bosoms, that when thus carried away into towns or civilized communities, they either contrive to escape, or pining after their native wilds, gradually lose all their physical energies. Father Thomas had never known a single instance of an Indian who could endure the restraints of civilized life for any length of time. Their mental faculties are very limited, and they seldom think seriously on any subject beyond the present moment. Impulse is their guide in all things, whether of pleasure or of business; and they either hunt, or fish, or cultivate their grounds, according to the whim of the moment. They disdain to act by rule; and if determined not to work, no pay nor promises, no threats nor expostulations of any sort, can alter their determination. Hence there is great difficulty in giving them the benefit of any new idea to work upon; but when once they take it up, they persevere with admirable assiduity, and generally with success.

Vista da Ponte Metálica sobre o Rio Paraíba do Sul em São Fidélis – RJ – 1940 – Foto de Aristides Henriques de Oliveira

To get money for the purchase of clothes and rum – the only luxuries of which they feel the want, they fell timber, and convey it for sale with much dexterity in rafts down the river to St. Fidele[4]. They also employ themselves with less labour in gathering the ipecacuanha root, which grows abundantly in this neighbourhood: it is sold on the spot, for one pataca and a half or 2s. 3d. per lb.; the market price at Rio varies from 1200 to 1300 reis, which, at the present low rate of exchange, is from 5s. 6d. to 6s. per lb. They subsist chiefly upon game, in the killing of which with bows and arrows they are very dexterous. Their great delight is to wander for days and weeks about the woods, intent only upon the pleasures of the chace. In temper and disposition they are docile, pacific and ingenuous, strangers to cruelty, and of late years unused to wars, either among themselves or with other more distant tribes. A stranger may safely trust himself alone and unarmed, either in their huts or on hunting expeditions; and in their own rude way they never fail to treat him with friendliness and hospitality.

The countenances both of males and females are disgustingly plain: they are characterised by copper-coloured complexions, broad flat noses, small eyes, low foreheads, and thin jet black hair, greased and falling strait upon the forehead. There is a sameness of physiognomy throughout; and if their features can be said to be expressive of any point of character, it is only that of brutal stupidity and vacuity of thought. In stature they are low and thick-set. They are habitually un-cleanly in their persons; and the faces as well as the bodies of both sexes are tattooed.

Their religious condition has been already described as according with most of the outward observances of the Roman Catholic church; but they use no images nor pictures to guide their devotions, if any are ever indeed practised out of the chapel. They still retain a superstitious dread of the evil spirit which “walked in darkness,” having been confirmed in their pristine ideas on the subject by what little they have lately learnt of Christianity. They often make confessions to Father Thomas concerning the time and manner in which this fearful demon has appeared to them, whether in the form of a lizard, dog, or other animal; and believe that the prayers of such an holy man will effectually counteract the baneful influence of their spiritual enemy. Father Thomas is, in fact, the universal oracle on all occasions; listening with patience to every story or complaint, however trivial, and taking such a lively interest in their affairs, that they do nothing without consulting him. I happened to be present when many of them came in to take his opinion on some occasion, and admired the reverential manner in which they bent forward to kiss his hand and receive his benediction; evidently regarding him as a sanctified and superior being. The Brazilian Creoles belonging to the village are equally devoted and respectful, rarely allowing a day to pass by without calling to see him and obtain his blessing. The same may be said of the Swiss inhabitants, who were much indebted to his hospitable kindness, in a place where they would otherwise have been almost destitute of common necessaries. They were sanguine in their expectations of success in this fertile and hitherto uncultivated district. They were busily engaged in clearing the woods and cultivating provision-grounds; intending, when the means of subsistence had thus been secured, to employ themselves chiefly in cutting timber for the town of Campos, which is situate near the embouchure of the river Parayba, about fifty miles below Aldea da Pedra. They had good reason to believe, from the quantity and quality of the timber, which includes many varieties of the jaracanda or rose-wood, and well-known Brazilian dye-wood, that they might in this manner realize considerable profits. In furtherance of the same object, they were about to construct a saw-mill on the banks of the river, while Father Thomas assisted them with his advice, and warmly encouraged their labours. The excellence of the climate, the vicinity of so large a river, which, although not navigable for vessels or even boats, is sufficient to convey their rafts of timber to a sea-port, and the friendly disposition of the natives, all concur to make the other natural advantages of the situation available to those settlers, and to give encouragement to others of their countrymen to join them.

We left Aldea da Pedra for St. Fidele on the afternoon of the 14th, and had a charming ride for five hours, along a road which presented at every step fresh combinations of beautiful forest and river scenery. We occasionally met parties of Indian hunters returning from the chace, with skins of deer and ounces flung over their shoulders, quivers at their back, and bows and arrows in their hands. The most friendly salutations passed between us, as far at least as could be judged of by gestures and cries; but mutual ignorance of each other’s language prevented us from conversing. Towards sunset we reached a farm – the only one that lay in our route that day: it was called Aboyas, and about ten miles distant from Aldea da Pedra. The proprietor, an intelligent and active young man, invited me to pass the night under his roof, and I gladly took advantage of his kind offer. Prompt orders were issued to take care of the mules; warm water was brought for my feet, – a luxury commonly offered to travellers in Brazil, after the manner of Eastern countries: and, to complete the novel hospitality of such a reception, the proprietor’s sister, an affable good-humoured young woman, did the honours of his house at supper. She gave a magnificent description of Campos, the only town which she had ever yet visited, and said that the inhabitants of both sexes mixed much in society, and had balls, church processions, a theatre, and musical parties. She certainly had no great pretensions to accomplishments; but her simplicity and frank manners were very agreeable, and the mere sight of a female face was a treat in this part of the world.

The farm of Aboyas is situate on the banks of the river Parayba, upon a small open plain, which on one side was covered with cane-fields, and on the other furnished pasturage to the mules and cattle. Every thing about it appeared in the best possible order. The house itself is made of wood, small but well-built, and more neatly kept than is usual in Brazil. Thirty negroes, belonging to the estate, inhabit detached cottages at some little distance, and showed, by their cheerful looks and bodily condition, that they were well taken care of. I saw a number of fine negro children playing in front of the house, and in the midst of them a younger brother of the proprietor, a lad about fourteen years of age, who had been brought up in this manner on the farm, like the negroes, without any sort of education.

The proprietor himself had little knowledge of any thing that did not relate to plantation business, and had never gone beyond Campos, or its immediate neighbourhood. In answer to the inquiry, why he had never indulged the curiosity to visit Rio? he shrugged up his shoulders, and said, that it might possibly be a very fine city, but that his business detained him at home; and that the estate, if left in the hands of the negroes, would be completely mismanaged in his absence. He took no interest in politics, nor in the question now beginning to be agitated, whether Brazil should or should not throw off her allegiance to the mother-country; and appeared to consider the situation of his property too isolated and remote to be affected in any way by changes in the Government.

It was now the season of crop upon sugar-estates, and the mill and boilers were kept busily at work during the night. The former was constructed with vertical rollers, turned by four horses. No overseer was employed to direct the labours of the negroes, the proprietor superintending every thing in person, and keeping watch for the greatest part of the night in the boiling-house. He took great delight in exhibiting his various store-rooms filled with sugar in its various stages of preparation, and of different qualities. He sent his produce as far as St. Fidele, twelve miles distant, by land-carriage, and then in boats down the river to Campos, to be shipped on board the coasting-smacks, which, with favourable winds and weather, generally arrive at Rio in about four-and-twenty hours.

September 15. – A little after daybreak we took leave of our kind host, and passed through an unbroken wood for a distance of four miles, when we reached the house of Captain Picardo, a person of reputed wealth and consideration. He owns a sugar-estate, cultivated by forty negroes, and pleasantly situate on an open plain which slopes gradually towards the river. The stream at this place is not more than a quarter of a mile in breadth, but deep and rapid, and free from shoals. The opposite banks are thickly wooded, and uninhabited. The only description of boat I saw was the canoe, like those of the Indians, made of the trunk of a single tree.

We went up to the house, and found Captain Picardo dressed, according to the fashion of the country, in a loose linen jacket and trowsers, and engaged in conversation with a stranger, whose broad-brimmed cotton hat, large cloak of coarse drown cloth, and huge silver spurs, showed him to be a traveller, coming from or returning to some part of the distant mining districts, denominated Minas Geraes. No attention was paid to us for a considerable time, until at last it became necessary to ask for what a more hospitable man would immediately have offered, namely, a little refreshment. I stated that we were foreigners, travelling to see the country; and, as there were no vendas on the road, I had taken the liberty of intruding upon him for a breakfast. With an uncourteous look and manner he granted my request, and then turned away. Some coffee, and a scanty supply of coarse bread, was served up at the expiration of an hour, but the servant could obtain no corn for the mules. The repulsive coldness of this reception was, doubtless, in a great measure occasioned by the idea that I was one of the Swiss settlers; and the attendance of my servant naturally encouraged this prepossession in the Brazilians, who, as I have repeatedly observed, entertained the strongest antipathy to them.

We continued our journey through the woods to Rio Negro, a stream about 100 yards broad, which discharges its dark-coloured waters into the Parayba, at no great distance from the ford. Here a negro was stationed with a canoe for the accommodation of travellers. In passing over, we dismounted from our mules, and holding their bridles, swam them behind us, while the negro paddled us over in his canoe to the opposite bank. Three miles farther on, the road led round a steep hill, and disclosed to view a large extent of open country, which showed every where abundant signs of cultivation. Here the Parayba becomes very broad, and its numerous islands and winding course gave it the appearance of a great inland lake. To the westward, the Organ and Pipe Mountains, to the eastward the Atlantic Ocean, bound the horizon.

We proceeded through successive sugar-plantations to St. Fidele, a village whose deserted and miserable appearance afforded a striking contrast to the natural beauties and cultivation of the neighbourhood. A clumsy and half-finished chapel, (improperly called a Convent, because one Capuchin friar, a missionary of the society De Propaganda Fide, belonged to it,) encompassed by sixty or seventy cottages, mostly uninhabited, constituted this village, where we had great difficulty in procuring an apartment to repose in during the mid-day heat.

As St. Fidele offered no objects worthy of attention, we determined to leave it without delay. It became necessary, too, for reasons which need not be dwelt on here, to decide upon a new plan of operations. We were, according to the best calculation, about 160 miles from Rio Janeiro, at which place it was desirable to arrive by the 20th instant. No time was, therefore, to be lost; so that instead of going on to Campos, as at first intended, and taking the road by Cape Frio[5], along the coast, which would have been more circuitous and attended with greater delay and risk, I made up my mind at once to return to Rio by the shortest route.

The country around Campos, and on the road to it, was described as richly cultivated and abounding in sugar-plantations. Two or three Englishmen were mentioned to me by name, who had established themselves on the banks of the river in the same neighbourhood, and introduced machinery of a novel and curious nature. The account given of them, and of their works, was singularly diverting, and tended strongly to show the excessive ignorance which prevails here among the Brazilian farmers.


  1. Aldeia da Pedra, current Itaocara.
  2. Rio Paraíba.
  3. manioc or manioca, from Tupi mandioca.
  4. São Fidélis.
  5. Cabo Frio.



Narrative of a visit to Brazil, Chile, Peru, and the Sandwich islands, during the years 1821 and 1822