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I Go to Rio: Australia’s forgotten history with Brazil

Australia’s shared past with Brazil enriches understanding of the two former European colonies. EPA/Antonio Lacerda

I Go to Rio: Australia’s forgotten history with Brazil

As Australia and Brazil celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations it is worth reflecting that links between the “two powerhouse economies of the southern hemisphere” are as old as European Australia.

Brazil’s tourist capital Rio de Janeiro is famous in Australia for the monumental Christ the Redeemer statue (Cristo Redentor), and for [Peter Allen](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Allen_(musician)’s marvellously hyperactive I Go To Rio (1976), below:

Oz Rock bands were big in Brazil in the 1990s. Australian surfers know its breaks. Australian sporting fans revere its soccer stars. Rio will host the 2016 Olympics.

Less known is that in the past decade Brazil has had the second fastest rate of migration to Australia after Nepal and just ahead of Pakistan and India.

There is much to be gained from closer attention to Brazil.

Australia’s connection with Brazil began in 1787 with the First Fleet voyage. This was thanks to the port of Rio’s location in the South Atlantic and a centuries-long British-Portuguese alliance – unique among European powers in the Age of Empires.

The First Fleet had three layovers on its relatively cautious eight month voyage from Britain: a week in the Spanish colony of Tenerife in the Canary Islands, a month at Rio in the Portuguese colony of Brazil and a month at the Dutch East India Company’s Cape colony in South Africa.

Fleet commander Arthur Phillip had not intended to rest and resupply at Rio but sailing conditions made it prudent to do so. And Phillip’s former service in the Portuguese navy ensured a cordial welcome from Rio’s colonial authorities.

At this time, as Bruno Carvalho writes in Porous City: A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro (2013), Rio enjoyed rising status within the Portuguese Empire. In 1763 it had been named the new capital of Brazil. In 1808 Portuguese royals fled to Rio to escape Napoleon and remained there at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. As a consequence, Rio could boast of being the only American city to serve as a centre of European power.

One First Fleet official lamented how little the British knew of Rio. This came to be addressed, as Luciana Martins notes in A Bay to be Dreamed Of: British Visions of Rio de Janeiro (2006), as increasing numbers of British visitors ventured there during the 19th century.

Visitors included New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie, and later Charles Darwin – along with thousands of convict and free migrants on board ships calling at the port of Rio.

Writing in Connected Worlds: History in Transnational Perspective (2005), [Emma Christopher](https://www.google.com.au/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&rlz=1C1NCHB_enAU640AU640&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=E+Christopher,+%E2%80%98Steal+a+Handkerchief,+See+the+World:+The+transoceanic+voyaging+of+Thomas+Limpus%E2%80%99+in+A+Curthoys+and+M+Lake,+Eds.+Connected+Worlds,+History+in+Transnational+Perspective+(Canberra:+ANU+EPress,+2005) observed that in Australian history books, travel from Britain to Australia seemed to have been “covered as if in the blink of an eye”. This inspired her to write of the “watery non-places” of the journey not as voids, but rather as places where much transnational history was lived – rather than a means by which internationalism was achieved.

Yet historians have for the most part overlooked ports of call between the “watery non-places”, such as Rio.

I began to read about the Atlantic ports of call such as Rio and Madeira while researching historic Australian wine grape varieties and colonial wine drinking, and continue to do so in my study of the origins of the social and cultural landscape of the Hunter Valley wine region.

This has led me to see that journals by intending Australian colonists such as Macquarie’s wife Elizabeth allow glimpses of colonial Rio through colonial Australian eyes. Elizabeth Macquarie assessed Rio with keen intelligence and, more challengingly – as Jane McDermid has argued in recent research on histories of the British abroad – a callously casual racism.

First Fleet journals tell us that, in 1787, convicts confined to ship at Rio witnessed enslaved West Africans rowing Portuguese fruit sellers around the anchored Fleet transports in decoratively festooned boats.

Convicts overheard and exchanged stories from officials permitted shore leave: stories of the songs of captive West Africans awaiting sale at the port marketplace; of colourful Portuguese Catholic institutions and festivities that were exotic to straight-laced British Protestants. Stories of being forbidden, on pain of death, to venture to hinterland jewel mines.

Onshore at Rio, colonial migrants bound for Australia befriended Portuguese colonists, despite the language barrier. They purchased curios. They passed judgement – glowing and harsh – on the people of the Portuguese colony, its natural and built environment, just as Brazilians in turn scrutinised them.

Australian national archives hold many paintings and sketches of Rio. First Fleet surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth represented its harbour through the lens of emerging scientific objectivism. Others captured its natural beauty, and perhaps its naval utility.

Appearance of the Land about Rio d.Janeiro, to the Sugar Loaf Mountain, Arthur Bowes Smyth - drawings from his journal A Journal of a Voyage from Portsmouth to New South Wales and China in the Lady Penrhyn (1787-1789). State Library of NSW, Author provided

Still, Rio is brought most vividly to life in peripatetic American Augustus Earle’s 1822 paintings held in the National Library of Australia’s Rex Nan Kivell Collection. In View from a summit, the artist, in top hat, is dazzled by the natural beauty of Rio’s harbour from the elevated peak that now hosts Cristo Redentor.

View from the summit of the Cacavada Mountains, near Rio de Janeiro by Augustus Earle (1793-1838). National Library of Australia, Author provided

According to Martins, Earle lived at Rio in a cottage with Charles Darwin, a cohabitation which no doubt enlivened each man’s perception of this intriguing place. Certainly Earle’s paintings are strikingly unconventional for their time.

Punishing negroes at Cathabouco, Rio de Janeiro by Augustus Earle. (1793-1838). National Library of Australia, Author provided

Earle’s empathetic eye for Afro-Brazilians and his caricature of colonists is curiously contemporary. His unblinking gaze at slavery is explored by Sarah Thomas in the edited collection World Art and the Legacies of Colonial Violence (2013). This, alongside his exuberant portrayals of celebration, affords an intensely nuanced impression of Rio as also experienced by colonial migrants to and from Australia in the 1820s.

Games during the carnival at Rio de Janeiro by Augustus Earle (1793-1838). National Library of Australia, Author provided

In Games during the carnival at Rio de Janeiro (above), we see a giddy playfulness among colonial Brazilians which elite colonial Australians observed and perhaps participated in during their migration journey. Games infused no doubt with Afro-Brazilian exuberance; a culture also depicted in Earle’s Negro fandango scene, and which Allen – more than a century later – made metaphorical.

Negro fandango scene, Campo St. Anna, Rio de Janeiro by Augustus Earle (1793-1838). National Library of Australia, Author provided

Now as the world “goes to Rio” for the 2016 Olympics, Australia’s shared past with Brazil enriches understanding of the two former European colonies’ ongoing diplomatic, and present migratory, ties.

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