Voyage, and Rio de Janeiro



On Sunday, May 27, 1821, I sailed from Lisbon in the Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese Indiaman, burden 800 tons, bound to Rio Janeiro, Manilla, and Macao. Another ship of 600 tons, likewise bound to Brazil and the East Indies, accompanied us; for large merchantmen seldom sail alone, through fear of pirates, who, under South American colours, have, since the late war between Brazil and Buenos Ayres, committed great depredations on the Portuguese trade. Some vessels had even been captured within sight of the coast of Portugal. The practice has been to land the crews at Madeira, and to sell the captured vessels in the United States. Indeed, it is well understood that the Americans have generally been the principal agents engaged in this species of predatory warfare: they act under letters of marque obtained from the Government of Buenos Ayres, while the crews are mostly Americans, or anything but Buenos-Ayreans.

The Vasco da Gama mounted 20 guns, and her companion, Nossa Senhora da Luz (Our Lady of the Light), was of the same force. – On board the latter was a Lieutenant of the Navy, called Commandante, and employed expressly to direct our tactics in case of an attack. Whenever a sail hove in sight, up went the signal for a suspicious vessel: as it approached, the signal for preparation was hoisted; the drum beat to quarters; the hatches were closed; the females, surgeon, and friar, sent below; the men stationed at the guns, with matches ready lighted; the passengers drawn out upon the quarter-deck – some with muskets, others with sabres, and boarding-pikes; and all, either through ignorance or awkwardness, presented an appearance so grotesque and ill-suited to any real engagement, that the scene, stripped of its terrors by needless repetition, became at length positively ludicrous. When this happened to take place at night, the confusion exceeded all description; and the hubbub of voices, the rattling of arms, the gleaming of lanterns, the crying of women and children, and the firing of signal-guns, added to the general fright inspired by the supposed enemy, brought to mind the attack made upon Sancho Panza, in his island of Barrataria. The disorder, want of discipline, and alarm, which prevailed on these occasions, were in fact so great, that we must have fallen an easy prey to any pirate that attacked us; but fortunately we pursued the even tenor of our way unmolested, and at length safely reached the place of destination.

Previously to the Revolution and establishment of the Cortes in Portugal, it was unlawful for any foreigner to take his passage on board a Portuguese Indiaman. It may, therefore, be new and interesting to some readers, to know the economy of the ship, and the manner in which things were conducted. – First in command came the owner, who, not being himself a sailor, merely superintended the business of the equipage generally: under him were three mates, and three junior mates, termed pilotos; a contramestre, or boatswain, who was responsible for the security of the whole cargo, in addition to his other duties; and a sergeant of marines: a surgeon and friar completed the establishment; and it may here be observed, that no Portuguese ship of large size sails without one, and often with two chaplains.

Mass was performed regularly on Sundays, and vespers said every Saturday evening. – The effect, at sea, was peculiarly solemn and affecting, when, on a fine moonlight evening in a tropical latitude, the chant of the mariners rose in wild and not unmelodious notes upon the wind; all kneeling in apparent devotion round the altar, where the priest officiated, – some telling their beads in silence, others muttering an Ave Maria or Pater Noster, or calling out the responses, with accents hoarse and strange to an English ear. Then ever and anon the plaintive chant of Mater Purissima ora pro nobis, was sung by the priest below, and re-echoed by those on deck; and the solemn simplicity of the worship, amid such a scene, and at such a time, spoke at once to the heart and imagination, to the religious and poetical feelings, of the audience.

In addition to the officers already enumerated, were two supercargoes, and a number of traders of an inferior class, who were allowed to work their way out as supernumerary servants. The crew, 70 in number, were many of them fine men, but badly disciplined. Each officer carried a cane in his hand, in order to ensure more ready obedience to his commands; yet the greatest inactivity still prevailed, and the old-fashioned practice of taking in sail at night was rigidly adhered to. The ménage, on board, was abundantly supplied, about a dozen head of bullocks being added to the usual live-stock. The poultry was entirely reserved for the use of the sick among the passengers and crew generally, without any distinction. The former were numerous, and the accommodations bad. The passage-money to China was 600 dollars.

On the 3d of June we landed at Madeira, – a place which the characteristic hospitality of its inhabitants would alone have endeared to my remembrance; but who ever saw, and, having seen, could forget, its gardens and vineyards, and delicious climate and various picturesque beauties? For a constant residence, its circumscribed limits and small society might render it objectionable: but as viewed in the interval of a long voyage, it seems almost like a fairy isle, purposely made to enchant and gladden the soul of the passing traveller.

On Saturday, the 9th of June, we again set sail, and on the 4th of August entered the harbour of Rio Janeiro. The approach from sea reminded me of the scenery of the Trossachs, near Loch Katrine; and as I surveyed the precipitous cliffs, and “Crags, knowls, and mounds, confusedly hurled,” and other rugged forms into which this remarkable land is broken, it seemed like meeting, in a foreign country, the well-known features of an old friend.

Seldom, indeed, can any striking resemblance be traced between tropical and British scenery; but whenever the imagination does find out kindred ties, when associations long since cherished and beloved are thus accidentally brought to mind, then is the traveller’s enthusiasm doubly felt, and the joys of the moment are doubly enhanced in value, by recurrence to days of past happiness;

“For not an image, when remotely viewed,
However trivial and however rude,
But wins the heart, and wakes the social sigh,
With every claim of close affinity.”

Such were my reflections upon first approaching this celebrated harbour; but I had no sooner landed, than the novelty of the scene, and the characteristic features of a tropical country, soon banished every recollection of our northern wilds.

Few spots in the New World are more deeply indebted to the hand of Nature, than the harbour of Rio; and all possible combinations of picturesque scenery are here included in one magnificent perspective. Since, however, it has been minutely and repeatedly described by other travellers, its beauties need not now be particularized; and, for the same reason, a general description will suffice of the town of St. Sebastian. Like other South American cities, it has no pretensions to magnificence; nor indeed can it be expected that architecture should have yet attained any great perfection in places of which the founders were needy adventurers, intent only upon the acquisition of wealth, and where the common arts of civilized life are of late and still feeble growth.

Very few towers, domes, or steeples, attract the eye at a distance by their superior height, and no handsome public buildings of any kind adorn the banks. The Government-house, or Palace, and Chapel Royal adjoining, are the principal edifices, and compose two sides of a large square opposite the landing-place. The streets are narrow and filthy; the churches and convents numerous, but rudely built; the houses of stone, generally two stories high, with jalousies painted green before the windows: those of the wealthiest inhabitants have sometimes a large portal and court-yards enclosed within.

The Bank, Exchange, Custom-house, and Arsenal, are all situated in the Rua Direita, along the water-side, but exhibit nothing remarkable. The latter is in very bad order, and seems to have been as much neglected by the Government as the Navy itself, which is not sufficiently strong to protect Portuguese merchantmen from the insults of pirates, even within sight of the harbour. A large public library, consisting principally of historical and canonical books, brought by the King from Portugal, is open to the public from ten in the morning till one o’clock, and from four to six in the afternoon. Two or three librarians are always in waiting, and pay every suitable attention to such as wish to make use of the library. During my visits I noticed very few native Brazilians who availed themselves of this privilege.

National Museum in the Campo St. Anna, by P. G. Bertichem, 1856.

The Museum in the Campo St. Anna, a large square in another quarter of the town, was established, as an inscription over the door testifies, by “His most Faithful Majesty King John VI. the munificent Patron of the Arts:” “Rex fidelissimus, artium amantissimus,”’ &c. The collection is small, and the specimens of gold and diamonds form the valuable part of it. One apartment is appropriated to Derbyshire spar, given by Mr. Thornton, the late English Minister, in exchange for Brazilian minerals. The former is not less prized here than the productions of America are in Europe. Among the objects pointed out as particularly curious, were a stuffed white swan and a little robin-redbreast, neither of which birds are found in Brazil. No place could be found better adapted for a Museum of Natural History than Rio Janeiro, and few countries present a wider range for scientific research than Brazil. Such, however, is the ignorance of the inhabitants, and so numerous have been the obstacles hitherto placed in the way of foreigners, that the past and present afford little matter for observation on the advancement of science: to the future we must rather look, and anticipate the day when a wise and beneficial use shall be made of these advantages, for the promotion of philosophy and general knowledge.

The Theatre, like the Museum, owes its erection to Royal munificence. The house itself is large, and elegantly fitted up; the performance tolerable, although destitute of first-rate actors and musicians. Italian operas, and Portuguese dramas, are alternately represented. The latter appear generally dull, and the unnatural monotony of the recitation is disagreeable to English ears. The tragedy of Inez de Castro is considered the most perfect; and, being founded upon an affecting and well-known event in Portuguese history, it possesses the additional charm of nationality. The theatre is now the only public place of amusement, the bull-fights having been recently discontinued: these, indeed, do not seem ever to have been conducted with the spirit and enthusiasm which formerly marked such exhibitions in Spain and Portugal.

Church processions are among the most common and most popular of all diversions. They differ little from those which take place in other Catholic countries; but the crowd in the streets, and at the windows of the houses, renders the scene striking, and shows the interest excited by them here. Ladies gladly seize the opportunity, which gruff papas and jealous husbands seldom otherwise afford, of showing themselves in public; and gratify their vanity by displaying a numerous retinue of female slaves, who follow them in file along the streets. Others eye the moving multitude from their own windows, and throw flowers at their admirers below. Soldiers and officers, arrayed in gaudy uniforms, strut with affected dignity amid the populace; and official characters here ostentatiously exhibit their ribands, stars, crosses, &c. Noisy, and often drunken negroes, fill up the picture, and enjoy a short cessation from their labours; while a few pious persons, in detached groups, gaze upon the sacerdotal show, and cross their breasts, or say a hasty Pater Noster, as the procession passes by. Here and there a foreigner may be seen in the crowd, half enjoying, half despising the spectacle, while he gratifies his curiosity by observing national manners, and these characteristic features of the people.

When a traveller first lands at Rio, his attention will be naturally attracted by the appearance of the negroes. Their colour, to which the eye of a European cannot for a long time become familiarized – their savage and uncouth countenances, generally tattooed, or their naked limbs, only sufficiently covered to answer purposes of bare decency – their barbarous language, and noisy vociferations – the wild melody of their national airs, (if the term may be used,) which they almost invariably sing while at work – the clanking of chains, and the iron collars worn by criminals or runaways in the streets, – these, and other peculiar emblems of barbarism and misery, all concur in exciting surprise, horror, and disgust. The canoes and boats, which ply about the shipping, and between the two sides of the Bay, are manned by the same uncivilized beings, one mulatto or white man sitting at the helm. They are ever ready to profit by any opportunity of plunder; and it is accordingly considered unsafe to trust oneself alone, or unarmed, in their power at night.

Not long after my arrival, I had an opportunity of being present at a splendid ball and supper, given by the officers of the Portuguese army, at the Theatre, in honour of the Constitution. The Prince and Princess graced the festivities of that evening with their presence; but, according to etiquette, only as spectators. The dress and appearance of the ladies at this ball deserved admiration. Many wore a vast profusion of jewels; but beauty, with some few striking exceptions, was infinitely less observable. The gentlemen all wore uniforms, or Court dresses; and the stars and orders with which the majority were decorated, seemed so numerous and inappropriately bestowed, as to border on the ridiculous. Not so, however, thought they; and not so thought the ladies, who bestowed their smiles and hands with such partiality on this bespangled gentry, that the poor Englishmen present might have envied the possession of similar decorations, if it were only to avert the fate which awaited them of being left completely in the back-ground. Many boys, apparently not more than twelve or fourteen years old, wore tawdry silk Court dresses and stars, which had been obtained in the usual way. Young girls, also, of nine or ten years of age, or still less, were there, magnificently arrayed; and seemed to be as perfect adepts in the arts of flirtation and coquetry, as older and more experienced belles. Among the officers present were several who belonged to a negro regiment; and the contrast between their black countenances and fine white uniforms, of which they seemed not a little proud, made a striking addition to the novelty and ludicrous features of the entertainment.

Vista do Morro do Cavalão, Niterói, RJ, 1884 , de Johann Georg Grimm, via MNBA


Soon after my arrival, I took up my residence at Praya Grande, a village on the eastern side of the Bay, for the sake of more quiet and comfortable quarters than could be found in the town of Rio. The distance across the water is four miles. There is the convenience of a steam passage-boat, set up by an American, which passes between this village and Rio twice a day. Here many of the inhabitants retire during certain months of the year, for the advantage of sea-bathing. It is certainly a very agreeable place; and the aspect of the country, everywhere beautiful, is enlivened by neat villas and plantations. The houses are seldom more than two stories high, with white-washed walls, red-tiled roofs, and porticos in front. The walks and rides in the neighbourhood are charming, particularly in the evening, when the rays of the setting sun gild the waters of the bay, and all nature seems to revive from the effects of excessive heat, under the refreshing influence of the breeze.

The view from the heights above the village is peculiarly fine. The eye glances with rapture over the fertile valleys below, and the noble expanse of water, chequered by boats and shipping in all directions. The town of Rio itself, flanked by the lofty Corcovado, or Hump-backed Mountain, on one side, and Sugar-loaf Rock on the other, next enters into the perspective, which is terminated by the huge forms and clouded summits of the Serra dos Orgãos.

But if inanimate objects are so delightful to the senses, the living are not less worthy of admiration. A great variety of birds, of beautiful plumage, people the groves; and the buzz of the tiny humming-birds, here called beija flores (kiss-flowers), as they glance among the orange blossoms, in search of “liquid sweets,” add to the general harmony. Swarms of insects, also, fill the air and surface of the earth. As night approaches, myriads of fire-flies take the place of those which sport only in the genial rays of the sun, and their vivid emissions of light, whilst darting amid the foliage, produce an effect which, in more ignorant times, might easily have been attributed to supernatural causes. The monotonous hum of the tree-frog is then heard, continuing without intermission during the night, while no other sound disturbs the solemn and universal silence.

None but those who are used to tropical climates, can imagine the feelings which such scenes inspire in the breasts of travellers recently arrived from Europe.

After residing a month at Rio and its immediate neighbourhood, I felt desirous of seeing a little of the interior of the country; and accordingly determined to visit the Swiss colony established at Morro Queimado; the ancient mining station at Cantagalo; and the Ilha da Pedra, a settlement of Indians on the banks of the river Paraíba.

The Swiss colony I was most particularly anxious to visit, from its being the first attempt made in this part of South America to introduce foreign European settlers in the capacity of farmers and labourers.

The account I received of it was this: a plan was first contrived and laid before the King, by a Swiss gentleman, and received the approbation of His Majesty, who spared no pains nor expense to carry it into effect. In Switzerland, where the people are naturally enterprising, and fond of emigration, the plan was eagerly embraced, and many persons in good circumstances left their homes with the expectation of quickly realizing large fortunes. Some skilful mechanics, and men of all trades, volunteered to join the party; but the majority were taken indiscriminately from the lowest classes of society. The accommodation on ship-board must have been very defective and bad; for, out of 1 500 persons, who left their native country, and were embarked in Holland, no fewer than 300 died during the voyage out, and many others soon after their arrival in Brazil. The remainder were immediately sent up the country, and established as a regular colony at Morro Queimado, the place above mentioned, to which I was now about to proceed.



Veja o texto traduzido para o Português do Brasil

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