Said good-bye to the Old World at Dakar and proceeded, without any glimpse of the Cape Verde Islands, to the fateful North. Here it was that, in 1498, Columbus on his third voyage changed course towards the north-west. But for this he would have done as he intended and discovered Brazil; as it was, it was by a miracle that he did not miss, fifteen days later, Trinidad and the Venezuelan coast. As we drew towards the doldrums, so much dreaded by navigators in ancient times, the winds proper to both hemispheres dropped away; we were entering the zone where sails hang idle for weeks on end. So still is the air that one would tliink oneself in an enclosed space rather than in the middle of the ocean. The dark clouds, with never a breeze to disturb them, respond to gravity alone as they lumber slowly down towards sea-level; if their inertia were not so great they would sweep clean the polished surface of the water as they trail their fringes along it.
The ocean, lit indirectly by the rays of an invisible sun, offers an oily and unvarying reflection that reverses the normal light-values of air and water. (Look at it upside-down and you will see a more orthodox sea- picture , with sky and ocean each impersonating the other.) There s a strange intimacy about the passive, half-lit horizon; and the area between the sea and its cloud-ceiling seems even narrower for the little funnels of cloud which idle their way across from one side to the other. The ship slithers anxiously between the two surfaces, as if it had none too much time to avoid being stifled. Sometimes a cloud comes near, loses its shape, bellies out all round us and whips across the deck with damp finger-ends. Then it re-forms on the far side of the ship; but it can no longer be heard.
All life had gone from the sea. No longer did dolphins cut gracefully through the white waves ahead of us; nothing spouted on the The New World horizon; and we had lost the spectacle of the pink-and-mauve-veiled nautiluses. Should we find, on the far side of the deep, the marvels vouched for by the navigators of old? When they moved into unknown regions they were more anxious to verify the ancient history of the Old World than to discover a new one. Adam and Ulysses were authenticated by what they saw. When Columbus, on his first journey, stumbled on the Antilles, he thought that they might be Japan; but he preferred to think of them as the Terrestrial Paradise. Four centuries have elapsed since then, but they can t quite obliterate the twist of circumstance by which the New World was spared the agitations of history* for some ten or twenty millennia. Something of this must remain, even if on another level. I soon found out that even if South America was no longer Eden before the Fall, it was still, thanks to that mysterious circumstance, in a position to offer a Golden Age to anyone with a bit of money. Its good fortune was melting like snow in the sun. How much of it is left today? Already the rich alone had access to its remnants, and now its very nature has been transformed and is historical, where once it was eternal, and social, where once it was metaphysical.
The earthly paradise which Columbus glimpsed was at once perpetuated and destroyed in the ideal of good living which only the rich could enjoy. The charcoal skies and louring atmosphere of the doldrums summarize the state of mind in which the Old World first came upon the new one. This lugubrious frontier-area, this lull before the storm in which the forces of evil alone seem to flourish, is the last barrier between what were once quite recently two planets so different from one another that our first explorers could not believe that they were inhabited by members of the same race. The one, hardly touched by mankind, lay open to men whose greed could no longer be satisfied in the other. A second Fall was about to bring everything into question: God, morality, and the law. Procedures at once simultaneous and contradictory were to confirm these things, in fact, and refute them in law. The Garden of Eden was found to be true, for instance; likewise the ancients Golden Age, the Fountain of Youth, Atlantis, the Gardens of the Hesperides, the pastoral poems, and the Fortunate Islands. But the spectacle of a humanity both purer and happier than our own (in reality, of course, it was neither of these, but a secret remorse made it seem so) made the European sceptical of the existing notions of revelation, salvation, morality, and law.
Never had the human race been faced with such a terrible ordeal; nor will one such ever recur, The Doldrums unless there should one day be revealed to us another earth, many millions of miles distant, with thinking beings upon it. And we know, even then, that those distances cata., in theory at any rate, be covered, whereas the early navigators were afraid that an enormous nothingness might lie before them. Certain incidents will remind us of how absolute, complete, and intransigent were the dilemmas which confronted our predecessors in the sixteenth century. Take, for instance, what they called Hispaniola: the Haiti and San Domingo of our day. In 1492 there were about a hundred thousand people on those islands. They were to dwindle in the next hundred years to a mere two hundred; horror and disgust at European civilization were to kill them off quite as effectively as disease and ill treatment.
The colonists couldn t make these people out, and commission after commission was sent to enquire into their nature. If they were really men, were they perhaps the descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel? Or Mongols who had ridden over on elephants? Or Scotsmen, brought over some centuries earlier by Prince Modoc? Had they always been pagans, or were they lapsed Catholics who had once been baptized by St Thomas? That they were really men, and not animals or creatures of the devil, was not regarded as certain. In 1512, for instance, King Ferdinand authorized the importation of white women as slaves into the Westlndies, with the object of prevent ing the Spaniards from marrying the native women who are far from being rational creatures . And when Las Casas tried to put an end to forced labour in the islands, the colonists were not so much indignant as incredulous. What? they said. Does he want to stop us using our beasts of burden? The most famous of the commissions is, quite rightly, that of the monks of the Order of St Jerome in 1517. The story is worth recalling, both for the light it sheds on the mental attitudes of the time and for the marks of a scrupulosity which was to be well and truly banished from colonialism.
The enquiry was held on the most up-to-date psycho-sociological lines, and in the course of it the colonists were asked whether, in their estimation, the Indians were capable of running their own society, like the Castilian peasantry . A unanimous No was the answer. Their grandchildren just might be up to it, but they re so profoundly anti-social that you couldn t be sure. Take an instance: they dodge the Spaniards when they can, and you can t get them to work for nothing and yet sometimes you ll find them giving all their belongings away. And when we cut the ears off one of them they all The New World stick by him, just the same/ And, with one voice: The Indian is better off as a slave, among men, than as an animal on his own.
Ten years later Ortiz spoke up as follows before the Council of the Indies: They eat human flesh and they ve no notion of justice; they go about naked and eat spiders and worms and lice, all raw. . . . They ve no beard, and if one of them happens to start one he makes haste to pull it out, hair by hair. . . . At this same time, so Oviedo tells us, the Indians in the neighbour ing island of Porto Rico used to kill off any captured Europeans by drowning. Then they would mount guard for weeks round the dead men to see whether or not they were subject to putrefaction. We can draw two conclusions from the differences between the two methods of enquiry: the white men invoked the social, and the Indians the natural, sciences; and whereas the white men took the Indians for animals, the Indians were content to suspect the white men of being gods. One was as ignorant as the other, but the second of the two did more honour to the human race. To these moral disturbances were added ordeals of a more intel lectual order. Our predecessors were baffled at every turn: Pierre d Ailly s Imago Mundi speaks of a newly discovered race of supremely happy beings, gens beatissima, made up of pygmies, and headless creatures, and people who lived for ever. Peter Martyr described monsters of many sorts: snakes in the likeness of crocodiles; ox-bodied creatures with tusks as big as an elephant s; ox-headed fish, each with four legs and a long shell on its back, like a tortoise covered with warts; and man-eating tyburons.
What he meant, of course, were boa- constrictors, tapirs, sea-cows or hippopotamuses, and sharks (tubarao, in Portuguese). Conversely things genuinely mysterious were taken as quite natural. When Columbus wanted to justify the abrupt change of course which cost him Brazil, he put into his official report an account of extravagances such as have never been reported since, above all in that zone of perennial humidity: a blazing heat which made it impossible to set foot in the hold, with the result that his casks of wine and water exploded, his grain caught fire, and his lard and dried meat roasted for a week on end; the sun was such that his crew thought they were being burnt alive. O happy age, when all was possible! Surely it was here, or hereabouts, that Columbus sighted the sirens? Actually he saw them in the Caribbean, on the first of his voyages, but they would not have been out of place off the Amazonian delta.
The Doldrums had three sirens/ he tells us, lifted their bodies above the surface of the ocean, and although they were not as beautiful as the painters have made them their round faces were distincdy human in form/ Sea- cows have round heads and carry their udders on their chests; as the females feed their young by clutching them to their breasts there is nothing very surprising in Columbus interpretation especially in an age when people were ready to describe the cotton plant (and even to draw a picture of it) as a sheep-tree : a tree that bore whole sheep, where others bore fruit; dangling by their backs, so that they could be shorn by any passer-by. Rabelais must have worked from narratives of this sort in the Fourth Book of Pantagruel. In offering us our earliest caricature of what anthropologists now call a system of relationships he embroidered freely upon the skimpy original; the system can barely be conceived, surely, in which an old man could address a young girl as Father . The sixteenth century lacked, in any case, an element more essential even than knowledge itself: a quality indispensable to scientific reflec tion.
The men of that time had no feeling for the style of the universe just as, today, where the fine arts are in question, an uninstructed person who had picked up some of the surface-characteristics of Italian art, or of primitive African sculpture, would be unable to distinguish a faked Botticelli from a real one or a Pahouin figure from a mass- produced imitation. Sirens and sheep-trees are something different from, and more than, failings of objectivity; on the intellectual level they should rather be called faults of taste; they illustrate the falling short of minds which, despite elements of genius and a rare refinement in other domains, left much to be desired where observation was concerned. Not that I mean this by way of censure: rather should we revere those men the more for the results which they achieved in spite of their shortcomings.
Anyone who, in our own day, wants to rewrite the Priere sur YAcropole should choose, not the Acropolis, but the deck of a steamer bound for the Americas. It s not to the anaemic goddess of old, the headmistress of our ingrown civilization, that I for one should offer homage. And higher even than those heroes navigators, explorers, conquerors of the New World who risked the only total adventure yet offered to mankind (the journey to the moon will one day replace it), I would set the survivors of that rearguard which paid so cruelly for the honour of holding the doors open: the Indians whose example, as transmitted to us by Montaigne, Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire, so The New World enriched the substance of what I learnt at school. Hurons, Iroquois, Caribs, Tupis it is to you that I would pay homage! When Columbus saw a glimmer of light along the horizon by night he took it for the coast of America; but it was merely a marine variety of glow-worm which produces its eggs between sunset and moonrise.
These I, too, saw during a night which I spent watchfully on deck in readiness for my first sight of the New World. That world had been present to us since the previous day: not in sight, though, for despite a change of course which took us more and more to the south we were to steam parallel to the coast from Cape Sao Agostino to Rio. For two days at least, and maybe for three, we were to keep company with an unseen America. No longer was it the great sea-birds which gave us warning that the voyage was nearly over: the strident tropic birds, or the tyrannical petrels which swoop down on gannets in flight and force them to disgorge their prey. Both of these, as Columbus learnt to his cost, travel far from land; he had sighted them with joy when he had still half the Atlantic to cross.
The flying-fish, too, had become, if anything, less common for the last few days. It is by its scent that the New World first makes itself known to the traveller; and it is difficult to describe that scent to anyone who has not experienced it. At first it seemed as if the sea-smells of the previous weeks were no longer circulating freely; somewhere they had come up against an invisible wall; immobilized, they had no longer any claim upon our attention, which was free to sample quite other smells smells to which experience had as yet given us no guide; it was as if forest breezes alternated with the smells of the hot-house, quintessences of the vegetable kingdom any one of which would have intoxicated us by its intensity had we savoured it in isolation; but, as it was, they were spaced out as if in an arpeggio, isolated and yet commingled, with each strong scent following fast upon its predecessor.
To understand what all that is like, you must first have plunged your nose deep into a freshly crushed tropical pepper; and before that you must know what it is like to walk into a botequin in the Brazilian interior and smell the honeyed black coils ofthefumo de rolo, which is made of fermented tobacco- leaves rolled into lengths several yards long. In the union of those two smells you will recapture the America which, for many a thousand years, alone held their secret. But when the visible image of the New World first presents itself, at four o clock the following morning, it seems worthy of its smells. The Doldrums 83 For two days and two nights the ship steams past an enormous cordillera: enormous not in its height but because it goes on repeating itself exactly, with never an identifiable beginning or end in the disordered succession of its crests. Several hundred yards above the sea we could see, continuously, mountain-tops of polished stone: there was an element of wild absurdity in their outline, of the kind one sees in sand-castles that the waves have washed half away; I should not have believed it possible for such shapes to exist, on such a scale, anywhere on our planet.
This impression of immensity is, of course, characteristic of America. I have experienced it on the plateaux of central Brazil, in the Bolivian Andes and in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, in the outskirts of Rio and the suburbs of Chicago. . . . The initial shock is the same in every case: the streets remain streets, the mountains moun tains, and the rivers rivers and yet one feels at a loss before them, simply because their scale is such that the normal adjustment of man- to-environment becomes impossible. Later one gets used to America and comes to make, quite naturally, the necessary adaptations; a momentary change of gear in one s mind, as the aeroplane comes down, and normal functioning continues. But our judgments are, none the less, permeated and deformed by this difference of scale.
Those who call New York ugly, for instance, have simply failed to make the necessary change of registration. Objectively, no doubt, New York is a city, and can be judged as one; but the spectacle which it offers to a European sensibility is of a different order of magnitude: that of European landscape; whereas American landscape offers us, in its turn, an altogether more monumental scheme of things, and one for which we have no equivalent. The beauty of New York, is not, therefore, an urban beauty. It results from the creation of a new kind of city: an artificial landscape in which the principles of urbanism no longer operate. And our eye will adapt itself at once, if we do not inhibit it, to this new landscape, in which the values that count are those of the velvety light, the sharpness of the far distances, the sublimity of the skyscraper and the shaded valleys in which the many-coloured motor-cars lie strewn like flowers.
This makes it all the more embarrassing for me to have to say that I do not respond at all to the renowned beauty of the bay of Rio de Janeiro. How shall I put it? Simply that the landscape of Rio is not built to the scale of its own proportions. The Sugar Loaf mountain, the Corcovado, and the other all-too-famous points of beauty seemed to me, as I arrived by sea, like stumps left at random in the four corners of a toothless mouth. Geographical accidents, lost for the greater part of the time in the brown mists of the tropics, they are too small to furnish adequately the colossal horizon. The bay is best seen in reverse: if you stand on the heights, that is to say, and look down towards the sea you will feel as if you were looking down into an enormous builder s yard. Nature, in short, will give you the feeling that mankind has given you in New York. The bay s various landmarks give no real impression of its pro portions; but as the ship creeps into -the harbour, changing course this way and that to avoid the islands, cool scented breezes blow down upon us from the wooded hillocks and we establish a sort of preliminary contact with flowers and rocks which, though they have not as yet any individual existence for us, are the prefiguration of the whole continent. Once again Columbus comes to mind:
The trees were so high that they seemed to touch the sky; and, if I understood aright, they never lose their leaves; for they were as fresh and as green in November as ours are in the month of May ; some were even in flower, and others were bearing fruit And wherever I turned the nightingales were singing, accompanied by thousands of other birds of one sort and another. That s America: the continent makes itself felt at once. It is made up of all the presences which enliven, at the end of the day, the misted horizon of the bay; but to the newcomer these shapes, these move ments, these patches of light do not stand for provinces, or towns, or hamlets; he will not say to himself: There s a forest (or a stretch of open country, or a valley, or a view ); nor will he see them in terms of the activity of individuals, each enclosed within his own family and his own occupation and knowing nothing of his neighbours. No: it all strikes him as an entity, unique and all-comprehending. “What surrounded me on every side, what overwhelmed me, was not the inexhaustible diversity of people and things, but that one single and redoubtable entity: the New World.
The bay of Bio lias bitten Rio itself right to the heart; and when the traveller disembarks in the centre of the city, it is as if the other half, the Ys of our day, had foundered beneath the waves. And, in a certain sense, it has so foundered: the first city of Rio, a simple fort, stood on the rocky islet which our ship had just negotiated. It still bears the name of the founder of the city: Villegaignon. Once ashore, I ambled along the Avenida Rio Branco, where once the Tupinamba villages stood; in my pocket was that breviary of the anthropologist, Jean de Lery. He had arrived in Rio three hundred and seventy-eight years previously, almost to the day. With him were ten other Genevese, Protestants to a man, sent by Calvin to seek out Villegaignon, his friend of student days, who had gone over to Protestantism barely a year after his arrival in die bay of Guanabara. Villegaignon was a strange figure, who had turned his hand to more or less everything and taken part in all the quarrels that were going. He had, for instance, fought the Turks, the Arabs, the Italians, the Scots (he had abducted Mary Stuart in order to facilitate her marriage to Francois II), and the English. He had turned up at Malta, at Algiers, at the battle of Cerisoles.
Just when he was almost at the end of his adventurous career, and appeared to be settling down as a military architect, he suffered a professional disappointment and decided to go off to Brazil, with intentions cut to die pattern of his resdess and ambitious mind. He aimed to found a colony that was more than a colony: an empire, in feet. And his immediate objective was to establish a place of refuge for Protestants who were being persecuted in Europe. A Catholic himself, and possibly a free thinker, he secured the patronage of Coligny and the Cardinal of Lorraine. After a brisk recruiting campaign among the faithful of bodi beliefs, and a diver sionary drive among debauchees and runaway slaves, he managed to 85 86 The New World get six hundred people aboard his two ships, on July I2th, 1555: pioneers drawn from every rank of Society, with an admixture of convicts among them. The only things he forgot were women and food.
There was trouble at the start: twice the ships put back to Dieppe, and when they finally got away on August I4th there was trouble again: fighting broke out when they reached the Canaries, the ship s water became polluted, and there was an outbreak of scurvy. On November zoth, however, Villegaignon dropped anchor in the bay of Guanabara, where the French and the Portuguese had been in competition, for several years past, for the natives favours. France s privileged position on the Brazilian coast dated back at least to the beginning of the century, We know of many French travellers who were in Brazil at that time notably Gonneville, who returned to France with a Brazilian son-in-law; and it was, of course, in 1500 that Cabral discovered Santa Cruz.
There may even be something in the tradition, so long current in Dieppe, that Jean Cousin discovered Brazil four years before Columbus first voyage. The French did, after all, immediately call the new country Bresil, which had been the name given in secret, since the twelfth century at least, to the mythical continent whence wooden dyes were obtained. And the French language incorporated directly within itself and with no intermediary passage by way of the Iberian languages a great many items from the natives vocabulary: ananas, for instance, and manioc, and tamandua, and tapir, and jaguar, and sagouin, and agouti, and ara, and caiman, and toucan, and coati, and acajou. . . . Cousin had a man called Pinzon among his crew, and it was the Pinzons who gave Columbus fresh courage at Palos, when he seemed ready to turn back; and it was a Pinzon, yet again, who commanded the Pinta on Columbus first voyage: Columbus discussed every change of course with him.
And if, finally, Columbus had not gone off the course which was to be followed, a year later, by yet another Pinzon, he would have pushed on as far as Cabo Sao Agostino. Columbus, not Pinzon, would have had the honour of the first official discovery of Brazil. Only a miracle will ever resolve this mystery, since the archives of Dieppe, with Cousin s narrative among them, were lost in the fire started by an English bombardment in the seventeenth century. But when I first set foot on Brazilian soil I could not but remember the incidents, some tragic and some grotesque, which witnessed to the intimacy of Franco-Indian relations four centuries earlier.
The interpreters from Normandy who Vent native , married Indian women, and took to cannibalism; and the unhappy Hans Staden who for years expected to be eaten and was saved every day by some fresh accident. He it was who tried to pass himself off as a Frenchman by growing a red beard, by no means Iberian in colour, and drew from King Quoniam Bebe the remark: I ve already captured and eaten five Portuguese. They all pretended to be French, the liars! And what an intimacy can we read into the fact that in 1531 the frigate La Pelerine brought back to France, along with three thousand leopard-skins and three hundred monkeys, six hundred parrots that already know a few words of French ! Villegaignon founded Fort Coligny on an island in the middle of the bay. The Indians built it and supplied the little colony with food; but before long, weary of always giving and never getting anything in return, they ran away and left their villages deserted. Famine and sickness broke out in the fort. Villegaignon s tyrannical side soon showed itself; and when the convicts rebelled against him he had them massacred to a man.
The epidemic soon reached the mainland, and the few Indians who had remained faithful to the mission caught the contagion: eight hundred died of it. Villegaignon began to disdain the crises of this world; a crisis of the spirit took all his time. Contact with Protestants led him to go over to their beliefs, and he appealed to Calvin to send out missionaries who would have more to teach him in the matter. And that is how, in 1556, Lery came to arrive in Rio. The story then takes so curious a turn that I am amazed no novelist or scenario-writer has seized upon it. What a film it would make! A handful of Frenchmen, isolated on an unknown continent an unknown planet could hardly have been stranger where Nature and mankind were alike unfamiliar to them; incapable of growing any thing with which to keep themselves alive, racked with illness, and dependent for all their needs on an unintelligible population which had taken an intense dislike to them: and caught, what was more, in their own trap. For, although they had left Europe to found a community in which Catholic and Protestant could co-exist in amity, they soon began to try to convert one another.
Where they should have been working to keep themselves alive, they spent week after week in insane discussions: How should one interpret the Last Supper? Should water be mixed with wine for the Consecration? The Eucharist and the problems of baptism gave rise to veritable theological tournaments at the end of which Villegaignon would veer now to one side, now to the other. They went so far as to send an emissary to Europe to ask Calvin to adjudicate on certain knotty points. Meanwhile their disputes grew steadily worse. Villegaignon s faculties began to give way; Lery tells us that they could judge, from the colour of his clothes, how he was likely to behave and in what field his excesses would lie. When finally he turned against the Protestants, and tried to starve them out, they left the community, crossed over to the mainland, and threw in their lot with the Indians. The idyll which resulted is described in that master piece of anthropological literature, the Voyage faict en la Terre de du Bresil by Jean de Lery.
The adventure ended sadly: the Genevese embarked with great difficulty on a French boat. On the outward voyage they had been strong enough to pillage every ship that crossed their path; now things were very different, and famine reigned on board. They ate the monkeys, and they ate the parrots though these were so valuable that an Indian woman, a friend of Lery s, refused to give hers up until she was given a cannon in exchange. The rats and mice from the hold were eaten in their turn, and sold for as much as four ecus each. The water gave out. In 1558 the ship s company arrived in Brittany, half dead from hunger. On the island, the colony disintegrated. Terror reigned, and executions were frequent. Loathed by all, regarded by one party as a traitor and by the other as a renegade, an object of dread to the Indians, and himself terrified by the Portuguese, Villegaignon said farewell to his dream. Fort Coligny, commanded at the time by his nephew, Bois-le-Comte, fell to the Portuguese in 1560.
Now that I was free to explore Rio on foot, I began by looking about for some lingering vestige of this adventure. I was to find one, eventually, in the course of an archaeological excursion to the far side of the bay. On the swampy beach where the motor-boat had deposited our party I suddenly saw an old rusted hulk. Doubdess it did not date back to the sixteenth century; but it introduced the element of historical perspective into a region otherwise unequipped to illustrate the passage of time. The clouds hung low and fine rain had fallen continuously since daybreak. Nothing could be seen of the city. The black mud was alive with crabs; there were mangroves is it a mark of growth, or of decay, that they swell up to such an extraordinary size? and, beyond where a few ageless straw huts stood out against the Guanabara forest, the lower slopes of the mountains were swathed in pale mists. Over towards the trees was the goal of our expedition: a sand-pit where peasants had lately brought to light some fragments of pottery. I ran my hand over one of them: the white slip, bordered with red, proved that they were of Tupi origin, and the lacy bkck markings seemed to form a labyrinth destined, so people say, to deter those evil spirits which would otherwise have sought out the bones that were once preserved in these urns. I was told that we could have motored the thirty-odd miles that separated us from the centre of Rio, had it not been that the rain might well have flooded the tracks and cut us off for a week.
This isolation would at least have brought me nearer to Lery, who may have whiled away the months of waiting by watching the manufacture of just such a pot as I had, in fragments, before me. He describes, at any rate, how the natives would take up a thin rod, dip it in black varnish, and describe charming and amusing patterns by the thousand . Quite different was my first contact with Rio. For the first time in my life I was on the other side of die Equator, in the tropics, and in the New World. By what master-token should I recognize this triple transformation? What voice would confirm it for me, what never-yet- heard note ring out in my ear? Flippancies first: Rio seemed to me like one huge drawing-room. Running off the main avenue are any number of narrow, winding, shadowy alleyways, each faced with black and white mosaic.
When I came to explore them I found that they had an atmosphere all their own. The transition from house to street was less clearly marked than it is in Europe. No matter how smart the shop-front, the goods have a way of spilling over into the street, so that you hardly notice whether you are, or are not, inside the shop. The street is a place to be lived in, not a place to pass through. It is at once tranquil and animated more lively, and yet more sheltered, than our streets at home. Or, more exactly, what happens is this: the change of hemisphere, continent, and climate has made it unnecessary for the Brazilians to erect the thin glass roof which, in Europe, creates artificially something of the same sort. It is as if Rio had taken the Gallerias in Milan, the Amsterdam Galerij, or the Passage des Panoramas or the hall of the Gare St Lazare in Paris, and reconstituted them in the open air. People generally think of travel in terms of displacement in space, but a long journey exists simultaneously in space, in time, and in the social hierarchy* Our impressions must be related to each of these three before we can define them properly; and as space alone has three dimensions all to itself we should need at least five to establish an adequate notion of travel. This I sensed as soon as I went ashore in Brazil.
That I had crossed the Atlantic and the Equator and was near the tropics I knew from several infallible signs: among them, the easy going damp heat which emancipated my body from its normal layer of woollens and abolished the distinction (which I recognized, in retrospect, as one of the marks of our civilization) between indoors and outdoors . I soon found out that for this distinction the Brazilians had substituted another (that between mankind and the jungle) which does not exist in our entirely humanized landscapes. And then there were the palm-trees, the unfamiliar flowers, and in front of each cafe the heap of green coconuts which, when cut open, offered a cool sweet liquid that smelt of the cellar. Other changes struck me. I, who had been poor, was now rich.
My material condition had changed, to begin with; and then the prices of local produce were incredibly low one franc for a pineapple, two francs a huge bunch of bananas, four francs for the chickei} that the Italian shopkeeper would roast for me on a spit. Quite magical, all this: and to it was added the slight recklessness which always attaches to a brief visit to somewhere new. The fact that one feels bound to profit by opportunities of this kind introduces, moreover, an element of ambiguity, which may well provoke the traveller to throw caution aside and embark upon the traditional bout of prodigality. Travel can, of course, have exactly the opposite effect this I was to experience when I arrived in New York after the armistice without a penny in my pockets but, generally speaking, it can hardly ever fail to wreak a transformation of some sort, great or small, and for better or for worse, in the situation of the traveller.
He may go up in the world, or he may go down; and the feeling and flavour of the places he visits will be inseparable in his mind from the exact position in the social scale which he will have occupied there. There was a time when travel confronted the traveller with civilizations radically different from his own. It was their strangeness, above all, which impressed him. But these opportunities have been getting rarer and rarer for a very long time. Be it in India or in America, the traveller of our day finds things more familiar than he will admit. The aims and itineraries which we devise for ourselves are, above all, ways of being free to choose at what date we shall penetrate a given society.
Our mechanistic civilization is overcoming all others, but we can at least choose the speed at which it will be effecting its conquests. The search for the exotic will always bring us back to the same conclusion, but we can choose between an early or a late stage of its development. The traveller becomes a kind of dealer in antiques one who, having given up his gallery of primitive art for lack of stock, falls back on fusty souvenirs brought back from the flea-markets of the inhabited world. These differences can already be detected within any krge city. Just as each plant flowers at a particular season, so does each quarter of a great city bear the mark of the centuries which witnessed its growth, its apogee, and its decline.
In Paris the Marais was at its zenith in the seventeenth century and is now far gone in decay. The 7th arrondissement flowered later, under the Second Empire, but it has now gone off considerably and its shabbified mansions have been given over to a lower-middle-class horde. As for the lyth arrondissement, it has remained set in its bygone luxury like a huge chrysanthemum whose long-dead head remains proudly erect. Only yesterday the 6th arrondissement was one long bedazzlement; today its blooms are giving way to an undergrowth of apartment-houses that is making it merge more and more into the suburbs. Where the comparison is between cities remote from one another both historically and geographically, certain rhythmic differences are added to the varying speeds of the cycle in question.
The centre of Rio is very 1900-10 in character, but elsewhere you will find yourself in quiet streets and among long avenues bordered with palm-trees, mangoes, and clipped Brazilian rosewood-trees, where old-fashioned villas stand in gardens of their own. I was reminded (as I was, later, in the residential areas of Calcutta) of Nice or Biarritz in the time of Napoleon. The tropics are not so much exotic as out of date. It s not the vegetation which confirms that you are really there , but certain trifling architectural details and the hint of a way of life which would suggest that you had gone backwards in time rather than forwards across a great part of die earth s surface. Rio de Janeiro is not built like an ordinary city.
Originally built on the flat and swampy area which borders the bay, it later pushed up into the gloomy escarpments which glower down on every side. Like fingers in a glove too small for them, the city s tentacles some of them fifteen or twenty miles long run up to the foot of granitic formations so steep that nothing can take root in them. (Just occasionally an isolated fragment of forest has grown up on a lonely terrace or deep shaft in the rock; virgin it will remain, although sometimes from an aeroplane we seem almost to brush against its branches, as we skim along the cool and solemn corridor that runs between sumptuous rock tapestries.)
Rio, so rich in hills, treats them with a scorn which does much to explain the shortage of water in its higher regions. It is, in this respect, the opposite of Chittagong, which lies on marshy ground in the Bay of Bengal; in Chittagong the rich set themselves apart alike from the oppressive heat and from the horrors of lower-class life by living in lonely bungalows set high on grassy hillocks of orange- coloured clay. In Rio, on the other hand, such is the reverberation of the heat on those strange granite skull-caps that the cool breezes below never get a chance to rise. The urbanists may have resolved the problem by now, but in 1935 the altimeter was also an unfailing index of social position; the higher you lived, the less important you were. Poverty perched on the hill-tops, where the black population lived in rags; only at carnival-time would they come swarming down into the city proper, there to sweep all before them with the tunes they had picked out, on high, on their guitars. Distance counts in Rio, just as height does.
Follow any one of the tracks that lead up into the foothills and you will at once find yourself in a suburb. Botafogo, at the far end of the Avenue Rio Branco, was still a smart section; but after Flamengo you might think yourself in Neuilly, and towards the Copacabana tunnel you came, twenty-five years ago, upon St Denis and Le Bourget, plus a certain element of rustication, such as the suburbs of Paris must have had before the war of 1914. In Copacabana, which today bristles with skyscrapers, I saw merely a small provincial town. When I was leaving Rio for good, I went to an hotel on the flank of the Corcovado to call on some American colleagues.
To get there, you took a rough-and-ready funicular which had been erected on the site of a landslide in a style half garage and half mountaineers cabin, with command-posts manned by attentive stewards: a sort of Luna Park. All this just to get to the top: the car was hauled up over patch after patch of chaotic mountainside almost vertical, often enough until in the end we got to a little residence of the Imperial era, a terrea house: single-storeyed, that is to say, stuccoed and painted ochre. We dined out, on a platform that had been turned into a terrace, and looked out across an incoherent mixture of concrete houses, shanties, and built-up areas of one sort or another. In the far distance, where one would have expected factory chimneys to round off the heterogeneous scene, there was a shirting, satiny, tropical sea and, above it, an overblown full moon. I went back on board.
Into the tropics
The ship got under way, ablaze with light, and as it set the sea atremble with its passing the reflected lights looked like a street of ill fame on the move. Later it blew up for a storm and the open sea gleamed like the belly of some enormous animal. Mean while the moon was masked by scurrying clouds that the wind formed and reformed as zigzags, triangles, and crosses. These strange shapes were lit up, as if from within: as if an Aurora Borealis adapted to tropical usage were being projected on to the dark background of the sky. From time to time these smoky apparitions would allow us a glimpse of a reddish moon that looked, on its intermittent appearances, like a disquieted lantern wandering somewhere aloft. The coastline from Rio to Santos still offers us the tropical landscape of our dreams. The mountains, at one point well over six thousand feet, run down steeply into the sea. Creeks and islets abound; and although there is beach after beach of fine sand, with coconut-trees and steamy forests overgrown with orchids, each is accessible only from the sea, so abrupt is the wall of sandstone or basalt behind them.
Every fifty or sixty miles there s a little harbour where eighteenth-century houses, now in ruins, were built for the captains and vice-governors of times gone by. Fishermen live in them now; but Angra dos Reis, Ubatuba, Parati, Sao Sebastiao, and Villa Bella all served in their time as points of embarkation for diamonds, topazes, and chrysolites from the Minas Geraes, or general mines , of the kingdom. It took weeks to bring them down by mule-back through the mountains. But if today we search for mule-tracks along the tops of those mountains it seems incredible that the traffic was once so abundant that men could make a living by collecting the shoes lost by mules en route. Bougainville has described with what precautions the extraction and transport of these precious stones was surrounded.
No sooner were they found than they had to be handed over to one of the company s depots: Rio des Morts, Sabara, Serro Frio each had one. There the royal percentage was exacted, and whatever remained for the indi vidual miner was given to him in bars marked with their weight, tide, and value, and also with the royal arms. Half-way between the mines and the coast there was a second control-point. A lieutenant and fifty men were charged with the collection of the ritual twenty per cent and of the tolls payable both for animals and for men. These taxes were shared between the King and the soldiers concerned; and so it s not surprising that every party bound for the coast was searched Very thoroughly indeed . Private traders then took their bars of gold to the Mint in Rio de Janeiro, where they were exchanged for official currency demi- doubloons worth eight Spanish piastres, on each of which the King had a profit of one piastre on account of the alloyage and die tax on money. Bougainville adds that the Mint is one of the finest in existence; and it has all the equipment which it needs to work as quickly as possible. As the gold comes down from the mines just as the fleet arrives from Portugal there is no time to be lost in the striking of the money.
This is, indeed, carried out with astonishing speed. Where diamonds are concerned the system was even more rigorous, and Bougainville tells us that individual entrepreneurs were compelled to give up every single stone that they found. These were then con signed to a triple-locked box which, in its turn, was locked within two other boxes, each sealed by a high official. Not till the whole consign ment was safely in Lisbon was it allowed to be opened, and then only in the presence of the King himself, who took such diamonds as he wanted himself and paid for them according to a fixed tariff. Of all the intense activity which, in the year 1762 alone, resulted in the transport, supervision, striking, and despatch of more than a ton and a half of gold, nothing now remains along a coastline that has reverted to its paradisal beginnings: nothing, that is to say, save here and there a lonely and majestic house-front at the hi end of a creek, with the sea still beating against the high walls where once the galleons moored. We would gladly believe that a few barefooted natives have alone had the run of those grandiose forests, those unblemished bights, those steep rock-faces; but it was there, on the high plateaux above the sea, that two centuries ago the destiny of the modern world was forged in Portuguese workshops. The world, gorged with gold, began to hunger after sugar; and sugar took a lot of skves. When the mines were exhausted and, with them, the forests which had to be torn down to provide fuel for the crucibles and slavery had been abolished, there arose an ever-greater demand for coffee. Sao Paulo and Santos, its port, were sensitive to this, and their gold, which had been first yellow, and then white, became bkck.
But although Santos was to become a centre of international commerce its site has never quite lost its secret beauty; it was there, as the boat nosed its way slowly through the islands, that I made my first direct contact with the tropics. Green leaves pressed all around us. We could almost have reached out and touched the vegetation which, in Rio, is kept at a distance in high-lying greenhouses. , The country behind Santos is made up of inundated flatlands: a network of swamps and rivers and canals and lagoons, with a mother- of-pearly exhalation to smudge every contour. It looks as the earth must have looked on the day of creation. The banana-plantations are the freshest and most tender of imaginable greens; they are sharper in key than the greeny-gold of the jute-fields in the Brahmaputra delta, and where the jute-fields have a tranquil sumptuosity the Santos hinterland has a delicacy of nuance and an uneasy charm that relates us to a primordial state of things.
For half an hour the motor runs between the banana-trees mastodon vegetables, rather than dwarf-trees with sap-laden trunks, a great quantity of elastic leaves, and beneath many of those leaves a hundred-fingered hand emerging from a huge and pink- and-chestnut lotus. Then the road climbs to two thousand five hundred feet: the summit of the serra. As everywhere along the coast, the steep slopes have kept the forests free of our humankind, with the result that they are not merely virgin , but of a luxuriance for which you would have to go several thousand miles north near the basin of the Amazon, in fact to find the equal. As we crawled up the unending spiral of the road, layer upon layer of plants and trees was laid out for inspection, as if in a museum. The forest differs from our own by reason of the contrast between trunks and foliage. The leafage is darker and its nuances of green seem related rather to the mineral than to the vegetable world, and among minerals nearer to jade and tourmalin than to emerald and chrysolite.
On the other hand, the trunks, white or grey in tone, stand out like dried bones against the dark background of the leaves. Too near to grasp the forest as a whole, I concentrated on details. Plants were more abundant than those we know in Europe. Leaves and stalks seemed to have beeipi cut out of sheet metal, so majestic was their bearing, so impervious, as it seemed, the splendid development of their forms. Seen from outside, it was as if Nature in those regions was of a different order from the Nature we know: more absolute in its presence and its permanence. As in thq exotic landscapes of the Douanier Rousseau, beings attained the dignity of objects. Once before I had experienced something of the same sort: during a first holiday in Provence, after several years vacationing in Nor mandy and Brittany. It was rather as if I had been whisked from a village of no interest to a site where every stone was of archaeological.
Strauss, C. L (1961) Translated by John Russel. Sad Tropics. London: Hutchinson & Co.