The Haunting Eyes of Dom Robado Vivaldo

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 One: A Storm Hits Valparaíso

Chapter Two: The Sea Wolf

Chapter Three: A Pact In Blood

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.

About David Gaughran

David Gaughran is Irish, living in Prague, and the author of Mercenary, A Storm Hits Valparaiso, Let's Get Digital, Let's Get Visible, and this here blog.
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23 Responses to The Haunting Eyes of Dom Robado Vivaldo

  1. Werner says:

    I’m hooked. I’m enjoying the story and like your writing style and voice. When A Storm Hits Valparaíso is released, it’s going up on my blog to get the word out about it…

    Werner

    Like

  2. Living just a few miles from Juffereh, the tiny West African village made famous by Alex Hayley in Roots, and having written a play about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, this struck a chord.

    The fact of Brazil’s geography also features in a WIP I may one day get to complete. For Brazil not only extends way beyond Pope Alexander VI’s demarcation line, but is by far the closest part of the Americas to the Old World.

    Had Columbus but realised, he could have whizzed across from modern day Dakar to Natal in next to no time. Take a look at the world map and compare the distance from West Africa to South America with Europe to the Carribean. Then factor in trade winds, and the need for less water and food supplies…

    There is a growing body of evidence to show West Africans were trading with the Americas long before Columbus got there. African artefacts that predate Columbus turn up constantly, and the explanation of the Catholic Church in its time that these were items the slaves took with them are laughable given the conditions in which they were transported.

    One day I’ll have time to sit on the beach here, stare out towards Brazil, and write that story. Until then, I look forward even more to A Storm Hits Valparaiso.

    Like

    • I was thinking of you when I posted this chapter. I never asked which bit of paradise you had pitched up in, but I’m starting to triangulate now🙂

      Brazil does indeed extend beyond the original demarcation line, and that’s a story in itself. Longitude was difficult to quantify at the time but Portugal figured that the more they settled, the more they would get to keep – and that’s exactly what happened.

      Speaking of Natal, that was the site of the largest US airbase in World War II, outside of Europe. Northeastern Brazil is surprisingly close to Africa (and Europe). American bombers ran sorties out of Brazil, bombing Rommel in North Africa.

      Brazil was a big WWII ally. In fact, I’ve always thought about writing a story set in wartime Brazil. The government had what were essentially indentured workers tapping rubber in the Amazon. They were forced into labor under war legislation, but weren’t told the war ended until 1947 as rubber had become such a valuable commodity.

      Columbus gets all the press. But we both know that St. Brendan get their first, in a currach: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brendan#The_Voyage_of_Saint_Brendan

      I look forward to that book…

      Like

      • Neil says:

        1st, the chapter snipet was great.

        Finish this book. Write what sells. But if you decide to write a WWII Brazil story, I’ll certainly buy.

        Neil

        Like

      • I might just do that some day.

        Like

      • Dave, these little snippets are the very stuff of modern-day narrative non-fiction. Well-researched, well-written infotainment is one of the few areas the trad publishers got right, taking a risk and letting non-academics bring facts to life, instead of buried in dreary textbooks. It’s got to be a major boom aea for indie writers.

        So far I’ve been deterred by the limitations of format for non-fiction ebooks, but looking forward to returning to a range of narrative non-fiction books over the next twenty-four months.

        BTW I’m actually writing this from The Gambia, locked within Senegal bar the small coastline the British held on to. Rather appropriately, given your observations on Natal, Banjul has one of the longest airport runways in the world, built as an emergency landing stage for the space shutttle.

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      • Thank you very much Mark. I can certainly see a big future in shorter narrative non-fiction. After all, how many books have you read where they had one great idea, but were forced to stretch it out over 300 pages? I can see someone doing well with a whole line of shorter focused books on specific topics.

        Like

  3. A fascinating snippet of history as well as an attention-getting chapter.

    Like

    • Thanks JL. I have a big problem with info dumping when I write historicals. Each draft I have to remove more and more, and hopefully by the end, all that’s left is story. But, there is so much interesting history out of all the stuff I throw away, that it’s nice to get an opportunity to share it here and there.

      Like

  4. I have to say that South America has an interesting place in my heart. Reading your conversation with Mark I wish that mi Abuelo was still around. He was a missionary in Paraguay, which is why, despite his total Anglo Saxon genetics, my father is Hispanic to the core. He was born and raised down there, and didn’t come state side till he was 15. Anyway, mi Abuelo had stories, but I never fully remembered them all, now I wish I’d taken the effort to get them down.

    I did get to go to Paraguay when I was 16, which was fun. We even popped over into Brazil to check out the Iguassu falls. At the end of that same year I got to spend New Years in Colombia, because my step-mother is Columbia.

    Sadly I only know a smattering of Spanish, though apparently I can speak it without a gringo accent. (According to my Step-Mother’s brother or nephew I’m not sure which.)

    Like

  5. LK Watts says:

    As someone who has travelled a vast part of the world this is very interesting. Although I have never been to South America, the history and culture still intrigue me. Definitely worth taking a look!

    Like

  6. Lee Lopez says:

    As a American, we always took the blame for the slave trade. But it wasn’t just us. I think we were just slow to stop it. It is a horrible black mark in country’s history. I always feel a bit of a jolt when I see those old pictures. I just can’t imagine.
    I’ll keep reading…

    Like

    • The Portuguese and the British traded far more slaves. Dutch too probably.

      And it wasn’t just Europeans. Slavery had existed in various forms in Africa a long time before the Europeans arrived. They just industrialized it.

      Like

  7. James says:

    Dave,
    As a history lover, I’m really enjoying this. I think there’s a deep audience for this.
    Here’s a (possibly) related wiki project a former co-worker of mine made. I don’t know if it’s of interest to you, but:
    http://thelouvertureproject.org/index.php

    Like

  8. Pingback: Capoeira, Runaway Slaves & The Dutch-Portuguese War « South Americana

  9. Luis Alves says:

    There is not such name as Falçao in portuguese language. I think that you intent do mean “Falcão”, as this is a portuguese family name. It means Falcon in english. Falçao is like calling someone Falnoc.

    Best wishes!

    Luis

    Like

    • Thanks Luis for catching that.

      None of these excerpts I have posted hear have been edited yet. All of the foreign language names and words will be checked by a native speaker – so, hopefully there will be no errors in the finished book.

      Thank you for catching this though, it’s one less error for my foreign proofreaders to deal with, and I’m sure there will be many!

      Dave

      Like

  10. Pingback: Current Titles « Arriba Arriba Books

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