Spending more time in Rio has given me the opportunity to see and wander through more areas of this complicated city. This city is not only diverse, it is massive. Despite hours and days of wandering on foot and getting lost on the buses, I don’t feel any closer to understanding Rio than I did a week ago. Overwhelmed by the geographical expanse, I went to the history museum to see if I could get a different perspective on Rio de Janeiro.
I didn’t learn so much about the history of Brazil that I didn’t already know, I . My overwhelming impression as I walked through the (very well executed) exhibition, was the question of how different things are today from when the Portuguese first landed in Rio in 1565? If the Portuguese came because they could, because they had the imperial stamp of knowledge, resources to build ships, and expertise in navigation, the French and British came because the Portuguese let them to share in the riches of spices, textiles, ivories, , and the fertility of an earth gold and diamonds. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, colonization was a favour to Brazil, that is, according to the exhibition.
By the time everyone else arrived in the nineteenth century (British, French and even the Dutch) the indigenous population were dead or driven to the uninhabited land in the north. So who was going to do the work? While the Europeans were all set to reap the rewards of mining and plantation farming, they certainly weren’t about to start going down the mines or do the backbreaking work required in the fields. This predicament led to what I see as the defining moment in Rio de Janeiro’s history: they trafficked slaves from Africa to do the work. Fifteen million slaves came to Rio before it was properly outlawed in 1888 by Princess Isabella. And though, over the centuries, immigrants to Brazil have continued to arrive from all over the world, it’s the history of the slave trafficking and commerce that is the biggest stain on this still, deeply troubled country.
The exhibition wasn’t so interested in the consequences of the end of slavery. But Rio and its people are interested, because they live with these consequences on a daily basis. Once slavery was made illegal, where were they supposed to go? There certainly was no “forty acres and a mule” policy in Brazil. Thus, the history of slavery becomes a history poverty, and with poverty a history of crime, and with crime a history of social problems that are just as alive today as they were two hundred years ago. But the history museum didn’t make this explicit. Of course not. It was more interested in communicating the policies of reparation and pacification.
When slavery became outlawed by Princess Isabella, not only were poor, but they were homeless. Where were they all to go, particularly given that they were still needed to do the work deemed too difficult for the white man? They couldn’t live in the existing nieghborhoods, that would be a profanity. But the sheer distances of Rio that it was better for them to live in the cities. And so the favelas were born.
As I wandered the exhibition, I saw how much for Rio this history of slavery is their preoccupation, still. It is the shame that underlines everything about the present and future of Rio. In anticipation of the 2016 Olympic Games, part of the restructuring work is being done in the region of the old slave markets, fattening houses and the earliest favelas. The remains of the slaves’ bodies and physical effects are being excavated and collected in old 19<sup>th</sup> century storehouses as the result of archaeological digs. The slave trade is still in the news. There has never been a proper coming to terms with this past. In addition, the history has a material presence in daily life: the poverty levels in Rio are astounding, and with it, the constant threat of crime and, with crime, the ineffectivity of the law.
It’s difficult not to remark on the continuities between the exploitation of slaves in the interests of minerals and mining in colonial Brazil and the corruption of those high up in Petrobras whose exposure has filled the nightly news since I have been here. How different are they? The one was, the other continues to be the reason and cause of the poverty and class distinction in Rio. Moreover as Brazil now officially enters into recession, it’s no secret that those who suffer will not be the corrupt industrialists who exploit the poor. Brazil has never had a government or a leader that the people can trust. So what’s new and different about the situation today? It’s impossible for someone like me from the West to grasp the extent of the social problems in Brazil, played out as they are on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. But when I look at the last five hundred years of its history, what I can say for sure is that nothing will change anytime soon. They may paint the houses next to the roads used by visiting dignitories, but like the empty facades of the buildings in the port area, no one has the money, the power or the know how to give substance to these reparations.