Excursion in the Interior Continued – Canta Gallo

Chapter III

Excursion In The Interior Continued
Canta Gallo

At eight o’clock, on the evening of the 10th September, we bade adieu to our kind host, and proceeded on our journey to Canta Gallo[1] by moonlight. Our route lay through a series of thickly-wooded ravines, and on one occasion we were seriously incommoded by the conflagration of the woods. The effect produced by the blaze of light among the adjacent hills was very fine, and heightened by the noise and crackling of the dry timber, which sounded far and near like successive volleys of musketry reverberated by a thousand echoes. At the end of five hours, having travelled sixteen miles, we arrived at a small log hut, by the roadside: we knocked at the door, and requested admittance — not without fear of refusal at such an unseasonable hour; but luckily the owner was a Swiss settler, and he and his wife immediately bestirred themselves to give us the necessary accommodation. A fire was soon lighted, and a dish of coffee warmed up; while a mattress, spread upon the ground, afforded a more comfortable bed than could be met with in any Portuguese venda. Here we rested three hours, and then pursued our journey at four o’clock on the morning of the 11th.

This Swiss peasant told me that he had left Morro Quemado[2] in consequence of the sterility of the land allotted to him. He said he had better expectations of success on his present estate. The woods, for a space of several acres, were already burnt down and cleared. His plan was to make it a coffee-plantation, for which the soil and climate were well adapted: but many months, he said, must elapse before the trees could be planted; which might even then fail through mismanagement. Under the most favourable circumstances, they would yield no return in less than three years, and in the mean time he had to provide maintenance for himself and a large family. He said they could subsist, according to their present mode of life, upon game, which was very abundant, and vegetables of easy growth, such as Indian corn, and mandioc[3]. For the rest he trusted to Providence: and having been foolish enough, in the first instance, to quit his own country, he had only to make the best of his actual position without repining. I admired the philosophy of the man, or rather his happy unconcern at the vicissitudes of life.

Daylight found us still slowly traversing a country of hills, valleys, and wooded fastnesses, the dull monotony of which was not relieved by any open views. We breakfasted and baited the mules at a venda six miles distant from the Swiss cottage, and continued our course. Parrots, doves, toucans, woodpeckers, and other birds, now often came within gun-shot, and furnished a little amusement as we travelled along. The monkeys made an incessant chattering sort of noise in the woods, but kept at too great a distance to be seen.

Cantagallo – 1874

As we approached the neighbourhood of Canta Gallo, we discovered, with delight, a succession of fine coffee-plantations, which covered the sides of all the hills, and completely altered the aspect of the country. To the principal proprietor, Senhor Joachim das Lavrinhas, a name derived from his father’s profession, and signifying Joseph of the Gold Washings, I had procured a letter of introduction. Knowing him to be the wealthiest person in the district, I expected to find the most comfortable accommodations under his roof, and probably a welcome besides, if that were possible from a Brazilian planter. Nothing, however, about the place gave any indication of its master’s opulence. The house, like most others of the same class which I had seen, presented a comfortless and mean appearance. The walls were built of stone rudely cemented together, and showed that they had once been whitewashed. A red-tiled roof, with sides slanting upwards in form of a pyramid, projected over a wooden balustrade which made part of the upper story. Two or three latticed holes, at this time closed by shutters, served for windows, — glass in this retired district and warm climate being a luxury neither known nor required by the inhabitants. In one corner, a small image of the Virgin, or some other tutelary saint, with bell attached, showed that a private chapel formed part of the establishment: and it may here be mentioned, to the praise of Brazilian Creoles, that some such place appropriated to Divine worship, or indicative of respect for religion, is generally to be met with in all large farmhouses.

Senhor Joachim’s abode appeared to be deserted; and no notice having been taken of our arrival, we ventured to ring the bell, when a negro came up with looks of astonishment, and asked our business in a rude impertinent manner. He then made us understand, that his master was absent on a journey; but where he was gone to, or for how long a time he might be absent, he could not say; nor would he direct us to any other person belonging to the place who was better able to answer our inquiries. Whenever I attempted to approach the house to ring again, he resolutely opposed it; and I was about to retire in despair, not knowing how to account for such strange conduct, when the appearance of a female form through one of the half-closed lattices gave a ready solution to the mystery. Being again interrogated, he said, that the sister of his master inhabited the house, but must not be seen by any stranger, and I should therefore do well to go away. There now seemed to be a possibility of gaining the desired information, and accordingly pulling out my letter, I told him to deliver it to his young mistress, with a request to know when Senhor Joachim was expected to return. This message, however, redoubled his alarms, and he positively declined conveying any letters between the Senhora and a young stranger, until half angry, half diverted at the fellow’s blundering honesty, and earnest manner of repeating, in his negro accent, “Deos me livre!” “God deliver me from doing any such thing !” I bethought me of putting some money into his hand. Against such a temptation the poor fellow was not proof, and he immediately went in, promising to see what he could do. I did not attempt to follow up the opportunity thus offered of obtaining an interview with the Senhora, although, after what had passed, some degree of curiosity might have been allowable ; but a stranger in such a country must, on the ground of prudence, if not of delicacy, abstain from every intrusion, however innocent, which can be misconstrued, or tend to awaken the most distant suspicion, where females re concerned. Keeping this precaution constantly in mind, a man may travel securely through most parts of the interior of Brazil; while, by pursuing a different line of conduct, he subjects himself to the risk of perpetual quarrels, and perhaps assassination.

The negro soon returned with an answer from the Senhora, to say that her brother was not expected home for several days: we had therefore no alternative but to take our departure, which we prepared to do. In the mean time, we examined the place more particularly. The farmyard was spacious, and strewed with pressed sugarcanes, upon which a number of cattle were feeding. On the South side was a glazed brick pavement, overspread with freshly gathered coffee left to dry in the sun. Behind the house was a small mill, with a horizontal wheel (which struck me as a curious peculiarity) turned by a neighbouring stream. On the opposite side of the yard were sundry out-houses, and the negro cottages. Their filthy state was truly disgusting, and was not improved by the pigs and poultry, who seemed to take undisputed possession in the absence of the wretched owners.

Such is the picture of a Brazilian farm establishment, superior in size and importance to the generality of them in this part of the country, and where the situation itself was so excellent, that nothing seemed wanting, except knowledge and inclination on the part of the proprietor, to render it a comfortable place of residence! The appearance of the plantation was far more agreeable: the coffee-trees were in the best order, and covered the whole country so thickly, that it seemed like one richly cultivated garden. The difference of climate from that at Morro Quemado was great, the thermometer at noon being above 80º. About one o’clock, after travelling two miles, we reached the village of Canta Gallo, and put up at a small venda, kept by one of the Swiss emigrants, of whom many families had for some time past been established here. They are, however, miserably poor, and complained bitterly of their mauvaise fortune.

The distance of this place from Morro Quemado is thirty English miles: to travel which distance, allowing for stoppages, we had taken at least twelve hours.

The district of Canta Gallo, in the Capitania of Rio Janeiro, until lately a mining station, lies about 100 miles from Rio Janeiro, in a N. E. direction. It has not been very long in the occupation of legitimate Portuguese settlers. The mines, which attracted the attention of Government, were discovered by some contraband adventurers, who, in defiance of the laws, clandestinely worked and realised large profits from them. Their retreat is said to have been detected by the accidental crowing of a cock — and hence the appellation of Canta Gallo. Contraband adventurers of this description, from all that I could learn, exist no longer in Brazil; yet, as they once constituted a remarkable class of inhabitants, and promoted indirectly, by their enterprises, the improvement of the country, it may not be amiss to relate a few particulars concerning them. They were, for the most part, bold and determined men, induced by the commission of crimes, or unsettled habits of life, to retire from civilized society: men of such desperate fortunes, that they were glad to run any hazards for the sake of acquiring wealth. Thus united by the bond of mutual interest, they wandered in gangs about the country, through districts yet unexplored by Europeans, in search of the precious metal. The Indians were by turns avoided, conciliated, or subdued, according as it best suited their purposes, until they had none to fear but their own countrymen.

In this manner they traced the courses of rivers, traversed mountains, passed through woods almost impenetrable, and overcame dangers and hardships which men more happily circumstanced would never have thought of encountering. When their toils were rewarded by the discovery of a mine, or of a river-course abounding with gold, all possible precautions were immediately taken to keep it secret until the treasure became exhausted. In that case, or if the secret happened to be discovered by Government, and measures were employed to dispossess these adventurers, such as were fortunate enough to escape apprehension again pursued the same course of life in another place. Thus individual enterprise and crime became eventually advantageous to the country at large; paths were cut, villages built, mining stations and a thriving population established, in places where nothing but the all-powerful love of gold would, in these days at least, have drawn together any human beings. Hence was the well-known saying of the poet — “Aurum perrumpore amat saxa, potentius ictu fulmineo,” literally verified in this as in other parts of the New World. Whatever benefits may have subsequently resulted from the progress of civilization during the last three centuries, are chiefly attributable to this prolific source of good as well as evil; and Brazil may be said to owe its existence, as a nation, not to religious zeal, or the love of emigration, or the enlarged views of statesmen, but to its own native treasures, and the insatiable cupidity which they excited in the breasts of adventurers.

The mines of Canta Gallo had no sooner passed into the hands of Government, than a number of colonists bought land, and settled there under its sanction. A regular official establishment was opened, and the mines worked in the usual way — or, I should rather say, the gold-washings; for, as the metal is merely washed out of embankments, and from the surface of the soil, by means of little streamlets of water turned on for that purpose, the former term can hardly be appropriately used. Some years ago, the village is represented to have been in a flourishing condition and thickly peopled; the mines, however, having since become less productive and the workings discontinued, the principal part of the people employed upon them have gone elsewhere. The village now consists of about one hundred miserable huts, the greater part of which are shut up and abandoned, with a small brick church, of clumsy construction, in the centre.

Some persons, among whom was the uncle of Senhor Joachim das Lavrinhas, turned their attention to the cultivation of coffee, for which the soil is particularly well adapted; the samples of it, indeed, that are sent from hence, are reputed among the best at the Rio market, upon the estate of Lavrinhas, fifty mules, besides negroes and cattle, are employed in the conveyance of coffee to the port; each cargo, or turn, being estimated by my informant, Senhor Assis, at 5000 cruzadoes, or about £560 English money. The Capitão Mor of the district, whose title and office corresponds to that of Chief Magistrate, is also proprietor of a large estate, the hilly parts of which are devoted to the growth of coffee, and the low lands to that of the sugar-cane.

The climate is hot, but salubrious and agreeable, the air being constantly refreshed by breezes from the surrounding hills, and the elevation of the valleys being considerably above the level of the sea. The employment of negroes in every species of husbandry is universal; and hence the small number of white inhabitants, notwithstanding the great extent of land in cultivation. The latter suppose themselves incapable of hard labour in the day-time under a tropical sun; yet the Swiss settlers, who had removed into this neighbourhood, declared themselves perfectly competent to do the work usually allotted to negroes, and sustain the solar heat, while at work in the field, without too great bodily inconvenience or fatigue. Still these people, whose only alternative is to work or starve, feel, nevertheless, the desire of shifting off labour from themselves upon slaves, — a desire which is engendered by pride, and universally felt by the lower classes of whites in this slave-community. The accomplishment of their wishes, by the purchase of a few negroes, will alone place them on a level with the Brazilian farmers; and they even went so far as to say, that if they could but attain this great object of their ambition, they would cease to regret their unfortunate emigration to Brazil.

The principal vegetable productions of Canta Gallo, besides coffee and sugar, are maize, mandioc, yams, sweet potatoes, beans, tobacco, cotton, indigo, and several kinds of pepper, which are raised for domestic purposes only, and not as articles of traffic. The meal made from maize and the root of the mandioc is in most common use; and that of the latter, when baked in cakes, affords a very palatable substitute for bread. Horned cattle are scarce, and reserved entirely for labour on the farms; there are no sheep, but pigs and poultry are to be had in abundance — yet neither here, nor in other places, could a fowl be purchased for less than a dollar; goats are unknown, and cow’s milk is seldom made use of; butcher’s meat is scarcely ever tasted by the inhabitants, except on Sundays, feast-days, and other extraordinary occasions. Deer, of a diminutive size, abound in the woods; large herds of wild pigs, cats, and monkeys, are common, and, like the deer, afford much sport in the chace: ounces are the only beasts of prey; and although ready to carry away any tame animals which may fall into their power, they have never been known to attack a man.

September 12. — Finding nothing sufficiently interesting and agreeable at Canta Gallo to warrant farther delay, we resumed our journey towards Aldea da Pedra[4] this morning at daybreak. My servant pleaded fatigue and ignorance of the road, and prevailed upon me to accept another Swiss in his stead, whilst he awaited my return at Canta Gallo, and employed the interval in preserving birds and insects to add to my collection.

We passed along the banks of a small stream, out of which large quantities of gold had once been extracted, and up a fertile valley, partly in wood and partly in coffee-plantations. We then went through a magnificent virgin forest, so called in the language of the country, because it had never yet been touched by the axe, whose recesses were equally impenetrable to the sun and breeze.

At the end of five hours, having travelled twelve miles, we came to a small opening among the trees; and here, in a truly sequestered dell, lay the little village of St. Erita, consisting of six cottages and a church. Here, also, were formerly some gold-washings, as was evident from the numerous excavations; but since the abandonment of those at Canta Gallo, these too have been abandoned, without the substitution of coffee-plantations. A few patches of land were here and there seen, which yielded tobacco, maize, and sweet potatoes, for the use of the inhabitants, yet so overgrown with weeds and brushwood, and apparently neglected, that it still seemed doubtful whether any inhabitants were really on the spot to cultivate them. My servant led the way to a cottage which belonged to a Swiss family, and there we determined to repose and take some refreshment. The owner, a widow, with five small children, readily gave us the best her scanty means enabled her to offer, — namely, coffee, eggs, and mandioc cakes. She seemed a very decent person, and related a long piteous tale, similar to those which others had told before, concerning her unfortunate adventures in Brazil. Her husband, a master stone-mason, had been tempted to leave a lucrative business in his own country, (much against her better judgment, of course,) under the chimerical expectation of realising a large and speedy fortune by emigration. He died, however, soon after his arrival, leaving this widow and her family in extreme indigence, unable to derive any advantage from a property in land which they could neither sell nor cultivate. She had wandered from Morro Quemado in search of a soil and climate better calculated to afford the means of subsistence easily, and intended to live here upon the produce of her garden, until her boys grew up to an age to admit of their working on a plantation.

What a wretched fate for the wife and children of a respectable Swiss artisan, to be thus left to linger out a wretched existence, and grow up without society or education, in a manner fit only for savage Indians, amidst the wildernesses of a Brazilian forest!

The report of miseries endured by unfortunate emigrants may not much interest a general reader; yet, when they happen to fall under a traveller’s actual observation, the impression which they create is too powerful to pass unnoticed in his Journal. The feeblest attempt to give publicity to such details may at the same time become useful, if it be only a warning to others, and tend to expose the certain dangers, and uncertain benefits, attendant upon emigration to South America.

Proceeding on our journey from St. Erita, we passed through the same virgin forest, whose solitude was still uncheered by any signs of inhabitant or traveller, until we arrived at the summit of a hill. Hence the eye roved at large over a magnificent expanse of country. The absence of all cultivation, and the sombre foliage of endless woods, gave it, however, no claims to picturesque beauty; and the ground itself, whenever visible, appeared, like the foliage of the trees, sun-burnt and barren. On one side the distant Organ Mountains, which we had lately traversed, formed a dark and formidable barrier; and on the other, a lower chain of wood-girt hills sloped gradually down towards the ocean, and bounded the horizon. Along their base ran the river Parayba[5], between twenty and thirty miles distant, upon whose banks was situated the Indian settlement of Aldea da Pedra.

At the bottom of the hill we found a small farm producing coffee, maize, mandioc, and tobacco. The proprietor was not at home, and none of his slaves were to be seen, and the place generally had a miserably deserted appearance. Two miles farther on we came to another farm, where, as the day had already begun to close in, and there was no venda in the neighbourhood, it became necessary to seek entertainment and shelter. For a long time our approach was unheeded and our calls unanswered: at length a negro came out, and conducted us to an outhouse, where the proprietor was employed with his son in washing the carcase of a recently killed hog. Our unexpected presence did not for an instant suspend their labours; and never was hospitality courted with greater unwillingness, or accorded with a worse grace. An uncourteous nod of assent, and the expression Esta bom ! “Very well !” abruptly repeated once or twice, as if in anger, was the only answer returned; and, to our inquiries after corn for the mules, they replied in the same rude manner, Tem paciencia ! — “Have patience !” without giving any orders for it. The negroes followed the example of their master, and added insolence to rudeness; nor did we obtain what we wanted until we had really exercised our patience for more than two hours.

The interval was employed more agreeably, in taking a survey of the farm and its vicinity, while sufficient daylight remained. The situation was excellent, in the centre of a small valley, irrigated by an abundant stream of water. Banana-trees and plantains were very plentiful, and a beautiful grove of orange-trees, now in full bearing, with boughs bending under the weight of fruit, cheerfully diversified the aspect of the surrounding vegetation. Coffee and sugar were the produce of the estate; and ten negroes, with a few cattle and mules, were employed, under the direction of the old man and his son, in cultivating it. They seemed one and all a bad set of people, — disorderly, and ill-conditioned; and their conduct, in any other country, would have afforded just grounds for alarm; but it was here evidently occasioned by the contemptuous aversion in which the Swiss settlers are held, and the mistake they made, in supposing me, as well as my servant, to be a Swiss.

With comparatively abundant means, this man and his family lived in a style of unnecessary dirtiness and discomfort. The house, built of earth, with tiled roof, contained three small ground apartments unfloored, and a store-room adjoining, of larger dimensions, filled with coffee and other produce. One of the apartments served as a kitchen, another as a bed-room, and in the third supper was served. It consisted of the pork just killed, and pão da farinha, or dried meal, into which the fingers of the whole party were alternately dipped! there being no forks nor spoons, and but one knife for the use of the table. The only beverage was pure water; and, judging from what passed here and elsewhere, it may be observed that the habits of Brazilian farmers, however coarse, have at least the virtue of temperance to recommend them. The custom of eating with the fingers, although disgusting, did not at the moment excite much remark, as I had already witnessed it, not only in rustic life, but among the respectable bourgeois inhabitants of Rio Janeiro. The last particular to be noticed is, that the pigs were domesticated with us, and permitted to repose themselves under the very table where we sat at our meal. The supper was cooked by the young man’s wife, whose person and dress corresponded in point of cleanliness with the rest of the household: she did not, however, make her appearance at table. Many questions were asked concerning the object of my journey to this unfrequented part of the country; yet all my assurances that I travelled for amusement, and to gratify curiosity, were at once discredited, or listened to with an incredulous smile. To my inquiries concerning the price of land and produce, or other points with which they were likely to be acquainted, I received evasive answers; and they seemed afraid of giving any information, lest it might afterwards be made use of to their prejudice.

A mattress was assigned for me to sleep upon, in the same apartment with the young man and his wife; yet, notwithstanding the fatigues of the day, the heat and filth, and incessant attacks of the mosquitoes, rendered sleep almost impossible. In the morning, I was eager to quit these comfortless quarters, but had to pay dearly for them, since my host not only took the money offered him, which is unusual in these cases, but allowed his negroes, who had stolen a silken umbrella, and my powder and shot, which were not to be replaced, to escape without reprehension.

As we proceeded towards our place of destination, the road became again rugged and mountainous, and lay through a thickly-wooded country, no where brought into cultivation, and aptly called The Desart. At three o’clock in the afternoon, having accomplished twelve miles in six hours of incessant travelling, we reached a small open plain, in the midst of a cedar-forest, where the farm and house of one Fabricio was situated. Haifa dozen negroes were the only inhabitants, the proprietor being absent. Here was a small water-mill for grinding maize, which was the chief produce of the farm. Horses, asses, and mules, with a few horned cattle, are reared for sale, the plain affording good pasturage. Leaving this place, we again entered the forest, and proceeded on without seeing any fresh object of interest, until the river Parayba, about a quarter of a mile in breadth, burst suddenly upon the view. A few scattered Indian huts were next visible; and the recent felling of trees in many places, proved that we could not be far distant from some settlement. The approach of night now obscured every object, and we were not a little startled by the loud shouts of some Indian natives, who crossed us on the road before we could perceive them, and thus either expressed their surprise, or gave us a rude salutation en passant.


  1. Cantagalo.
  2. Morro Queimado.
  3. manioc or manioca, from Tupi mandioca.
  4. Aldeia da Pedra, current Itaocara.
  5. Rio Paraíba.



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