Brazil is a fascinating country. In geographic, demographic, and, in recent years, economic terms it dominates South America; but it’s a world apart: a distinct culture, history, gastronomy, and language.
In fact, it’s the only Portuguese-speaking country in all of the Americas.
Most Portuguese colonies were further west: Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. This is no accident of history.
When Columbus first discovered America for white people, he thought he had reached Asia, opening up a quicker, less treacherous route to the lucrative Spice Islands (at the time, certain spices such as nutmeg were more valuable than gold).
To prevent conflict between the two major seafaring powers – Portugal and Spain – Pope Alexander VI divided the world between them, with the line of demarcation being one 100 leagues (about 350 miles) west of the mid-Atlantic Azores.
Initially, this worked fine, granting Spain the right to colonize the Americas, and Portugal free reign over Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. That is, until an intrepid Portuguese explorer found a part of South America which jutted out past this line: Brazil.
Rapid colonization begat vast sugar plantations and huge mining concerns. The indigenous Indians (the term itself a hangover from Columbus thinking he had reached Asia), ravaged by war and Old World diseases, didn’t seem to make sturdy enough slaves, so Portugal decided to import more robust recruits from Africa and the transatlantic slave trade was born.
The slave trade always existed, of course, but Europeans globalized it. Over the next three hundred years, Portuguese, British, French, Spanish, Dutch, and American traders brought (at minimum) 12 million slaves from Africa to the New World.
It was roughly in that order of scale too, as around 6 million of those ended up on Brazilian shores (dwarfing the number of colonists). And that’s just counting those who survived the journey, packed like sardines into every possible nook and cranny.
When I started researching South American history for A Storm Hits Valparaíso I knew I had to include a character who could tell at least part of that story.
His name is Zé, and I introduce him to readers in the fourth chapter of my book (below). If you missed the earlier chapters, you can catch up here:
Chapter Four—The Haunting Eyes of Dom Robado Vivaldo
Zé had been on the run for three nights now, making his way inland under the cover of darkness. By day he lay as still as possible, waiting for the sun to go down. Every time he closed his eyes he saw the face of the man he had killed, for Robado Vivaldo wouldn’t let him sleep; those cold, dead eyes haunted him. Instead, he inhabited the eerie twilight of the insomniac—tracing the sun’s slow progress in a sweeping arc across the sky, counting the seconds, minutes and hours until he would be hidden by the cloak of night and free to move again. They would still be looking for him when the sun went down, but at least he would be harder to find. He knew they would be looking for him because there was a price on his head.
Most men have a vague notion of their self-worth. Some count it in property, some count it in chickens, yet others in good deeds done or worse deeds refrained from. Zé knew he was worth six hundred and seventy-six mil-reais. At least he was, before he killed Robado Vivaldo. It might be double now; an escaped slave was worth a lot more, but only when caught.
That was the price of his freedom, a price he could never afford. And now, he was here. Free, but trapped. Imprisoned by the glare of the sun and the watchful eyes of the slave-catchers. He hadn’t eaten in three days. Zé was used to going without food, but his strength was beginning to fail. Each night he made less progress but he couldn’t allow himself to lose hope, just as Robado Vivaldo wouldn’t allow him to sleep.
Old Falçao’s voice came to him again. “Follow the direction of the setting sun and keep going. Don’t worry, they will find you before you find them. Only travel by night. Be careful, the slave-catchers will be looking for you too.”
Zé heard stories of the quilombos all his life: hushed tales around the fire, history passed in whisper, victories sung in secret, defeats silently mourned. In Brazil, there were only two roads to freedom for a slave, meeting your slave price with stolen or borrowed gold, or the quilombo. Death of your master only brought freedom for a lucky few; most slaves were passed down the family tree like a pocket-watch.
The slave-owners had tried to spread stories that all the uprisings had been quelled, all the runaways returned to chains or dead. But everyone knew the quilombos were still out there, existing as little communities of runaway slaves who lived in secret in the sertão, the vast, barren Brazilian interior. Many quilombos only survived for a few months before having to move on. Most slaves lasted only a few years before they were captured or killed, but then most would take a few years of freedom over a lifetime in chains. That’s why the price on Zé’s head was so big—escaped slaves had to be recaptured and returned, so the others couldn’t dream, so the others would accept their place in the great scheme of things, keeping sugar prices low for whites—that, and the blood on his hands.
Zé woke with a start. The sun was high in the sky; he needed to hide, fast. He scanned his surroundings, spotting some brush in a gulley not far to his left. Keeping low, he scurried towards it. Every snapped twig made him flinch as he eased his way under the foliage. As he lay down, a wave of nausea swept over him. Falçao’s voice drifted back to him once more. “I will delay them as long as I can, but you have to leave, Zé. Now! If you don’t they will kill you. Go! Run! Stay off the roads and away from any villages. And keep out of the sun. Go!”
His shirt was torn, his back lacerated from the whip. He had cleaned the blood from his face and hands, but it still covered his clothes. And that face, he would never forget that face. He probably would have stood on that spot forever, still standing over the dead body of Robado Vivaldo, if his friend, old Falçao, had not grabbed him and broken the spell. He would have still been standing there when they came for him, frozen by the awfulness of the act he committed.
“Follow the setting sun…” Falçao’s words repeated in his head like the voice of a spirit. “Keep to the edge of the field and then cut through the trees. I will delay them as long as I can.”
Zé wondered what punishments were inflicted on Falçao for that act of kindness. He wondered what other crimes he would have to answer for when the time came. He stared the deep cuts around his knuckles, made when he struck Robado Vivaldo over and over. The hands of a killer. He closed his eyes. He wanted to see the face of his victim again. He wanted to suffer.
Blessing himself, Zé asked God for forgiveness.
He got no response.