A JOURNEY TO RIO GRANDE DO SUL

Passage from a manuscript by the French biologist Auguste de Saint-Hilare, about his passage by Porto Alegre in 1820.

(translation by Adroaldo Mesquita da Costa)

Chapter I

Porto Alegre, the 21st of July, 1820 - Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul Captaincy, residence of the general and the auditor, is located on a pleasant location, on a peninsula formed by a hill that advances towards the north-southeastern part of Lagoa dos Patos. This lagoon is sixty-league long and in its origin is called Lagoa de Viamão or Lagoa de Porto Alegre. It extends from the north to south and its waters are, ordinarily sweet for more than 30 leagues. The lagoon is derived of 4 navigable rivers that mix their waters in front of Porto Alegre and that is, in its estuary divide into a large number of branches, forming a labyrinth of  islands. Three of these rivers as Gravataí, which is the most eastern one, Rio dos Sinos and Rio Caí, come from the north, from Serra Geral and have a short course. The fourth river, Jacuí or Guaíba, is much bigger than the others, it comes from the west and in its course many streams are received.

The city of Porto Alegre rises as an amphitheater, on one of the sides of the aforementioned hill, turned to the northwest. It has three main streets that start a little before the peninsula, in the continent. They spread along the lagoon, and several shorter streets cross the hill slope. Several of these crossing ways are paved; some are partly paved, but most are in very bad conditions. In the so called Rua da Praia, that is the nearest street to the lagoon, there is a sidewalk made of slabs, and in front of them there are high thin landmarks.

The houses in Porto Alegre have white painted tiles, are built in brick on stone basis and are well cared. Most of them have a balcony. They are also bigger than in other cities and many of them have two floors.

Rua da Praia (see images: 1, 2 , 3) is the only commercial street and is always very crowded. There, we can see a lot of people walking or riding horses, sailors and many black people carrying packages. There can also be seen many well installed stores, with different kinds of goods and also several professional offices. At the same distance from this street, there is a big harbor that goes into the lagoon and can be accessed through a wide wooden bridge that is around 100-step long, with a parapet and supported by stone posts. The goods that are discharged there, received at this bridge end, under a 23-step wide and thirty-step long warehouse, supported by eight stone pillars on where other wooden ones lean. The view of this harbor would have a beautiful effect on the city if it were not impaired by the construction, at the bridge entrance, of a heavy and rustic building that shall be the customs. 

One of this three big streets, named Rua da Igreja (presentRua Duque de Caxias) spreads on the hill top. It is there that the three main buildings of the city are located: the Government House, the Parish Church and the Court. They are aligned, one at the foot of the other, turned to the northwest and on the other side of the street, they have raised a supporting wall so that it would not ruin one of the most beautiful sceneries of the city. Down this wall, on the slope, there is a square, unfortunately very irregular, and its ground is supported by stones that do not come to the surface, forming flowerbeds disposed in lozenges (see some images of the present Praça da Matriz).

Besides the Church, the Government House, and the neighboring buildings, there can be seen the lagoon (see images: 1, 2), that may have the same width of the Loire in Orleans, surrounded by low islands covered by a not very high vegetation. Among them, the branches of the four aforementioned rivers coil, but it is impossible to determine, exactly, to what river they belong because, before they reach the lagoon, they mix. The waters that run into the Gravataí, at the most eastern part of the lagoon, arrive in a huge curve (see image), and present as a beautiful river, distinct from the others. A little more to the north, other waters form a big bay between two strips of land curved into a semicircle and leaving, at the end, a very narrow opening. Some of the rivers are seen behind the islands, and from this mixture of water and land we have a very pleasant set. To complete the scenery, I would also say that the horizon line is limited by the tops of Serra Geral that take the east/north direction and are lost at a distance. If you want to enjoy a different landscape, but also full of beauty, it is enough, when you reach the highest city part, on Rua da Igreja to turn to the opposite side (see image). The lagoon portion that bathes the peninsula on the southwest side forms a big semi-elliptical small bay with still waters. A long and not very deep valley, limits the lower part of this small bay. On its margins Count Figueira has just requested the growing of a very wide alley with wild fig trees that, in the future, will constitute a pleasant place for strolling. Farther the land, which is covered by trees and, mainly by bushes, there can be seen country houses. A little farther, there are big lawns with woods, and bush rows that draw the irregular contours of a great number of hedges. The lagoon extends to the south, skirted with not very high hills and it is confounded in the horizon with the clouds, and at the distance there can be seen a whitish rock in the middle of the waters (nowadays known as “Ilha do Presídio”). The panorama before our eyes, on the northwest side, is more pleasant and lively; something that invites for a dream.

The buildings on the top of the hill do not have any other beauty than their location; we can surely state that they do not have the value for the city importance and richness.    

The Government House is nothing else than a common construction, with just one floor and nine verandas. The inside is not well divided and there is no any room, where the numerous society of Porto Alegre can be hosted. 

The Court is even shabbier; it has only one ground floor. The Parish Church, which can be accessed through its external stairs, has two different towers; it is light and well decorated, with two altars besides the ones found in the main chapel; but it is very small, because I’ve counted just forty steps from the main chapel to the door.   

The other public buildings in Porto Alegre are less important than those I’ve been describing. Besides the Parish Church, there can be seen two others still not finished. In one of them the messes are celebrated; and the other is with the works stopped. The Council House is nothing more than a floor ground (Casa Rosa). A middle class individual, would not wish to live there. Here, the prison is not part of the Council House building. There are two, very small ones located at the city entrance. On Rua da Praia end, two neighboring buildings serve as a warehouse for the Navy, as a storehouse for arms and also workshops. I have admired the order, the organization, I could even say, the elegance in the room for the reserve arms. At the lagoon side, the buildings have a façade and each one presents an elongated body, with only one ground pavement and with a one-floor pavilion. Between the two buildings there is a considerable space where Igreja das Dores is located (see images:1, 2). Opposite to the Church, besides the warehouses, very close to the lagoon, it can be seen a column with a globe on the top, indicating that this is the seat city for the county (see image)  . In front of it, there was built a double stone sea protection with the purpose of serving as a dock for two warehouses.

This could have a great effect if the church if it would have been concluded, if the ground would be leveled and if those, although having the same model, do not presented so shocking differences. Outside the city, on the top of the highest hill points, there have been started the construction of such a huge hospital (Hospital Santa Casa), that probably will not be finished so early. Nevertheless, its location was favorably chosen because the place is aired, far from the downtown and, at the same time, near enough to provide assistance for the sick. If they have chosen the peninsula northwest side to build the city, it was due to the fact that only by this side the ships can anchor.

Nevertheless, there are on the opposite Hill side, some spread and not well aligned houses, very badly built and inhabited by poor people. Since I have arrived, I have counted around twenty to twenty five boats in the harbors and they assure me that sometimes, there are fifty. In the harbor there can enter several kinds of boats.

Located at the margin of a lagoon that goes into the sea and, that, at the same time, is able to communicate with the interior through several navigable rivers, the city of Porto Alegre, shall, for sure, become rich and flourishing. Founded about fifty years ago, it already has a population of ten, twelve thousand souls and, someone who has been living here for seventeen years, informed me that it has grown two thirds, in this meantime. It can be regarded as the major captaincy mart, mainly for the northwest regions.  

The businesspeople buy almost all goods in Rio de Janeiro and distribute them around the city; exchange the products for leather, wheat and dry meat. It is also from Porto Alegre that all the canned food is exported. The fast population growth made the land become more valued here than in the interior cities. Few houses have a garden and many of them do not have even a yard. This is an inconvenience because all the garbage is thrown onto the streets, making them absolutely dirty.

The crossing roads, the empty lands and, mainly, the margins of the lagoon are filled up with dirt; the inhabitants drink water from this lagoon and we can observe that the black people fill in their jars in the same location where others have just washed their dirty basins.  

Concerning Porto Alegre population, I have already said that it is composed, mainly, of white people, generally tall and well-built, with a nice cutis and I can add that the women are very white and blushed, and several of them are very pretty. They do not escape from talking with men, and have delicate and distinguished manners. Here there is not so much social life as in European cities, but there is much more than in other Brazilian cities.

The gatherings in the houses are frequent and some ladies expertly play the guitar and the piano, being the latter unknown in the interior due to its transportation difficulties. It is on Rua da Praia, next to the docks that the market is located; in it there are sold oranges, peanuts, dry meat, wood and vegetables, especially cabbage. As in Rio de Janeiro, the saleswomen are black, and some sell the goods sat and others have tents, disorderly placed. In Porto Alegre, one can also see the black people selling fabrics around the streets. Nowadays, they are selling a lot of Pinhão, a fruit from araucaria known in Europe as a pine seed. They boil or bake it and have them with tea or between the meals, and frequently they give as a present to the friends.       

 

Porto Alegre, the 26th of July – It seems that tomorrow I will depart with the Count for Rio Grande. I will take with me just José Mariano; Firmiano and Laruotte will go by the lagoon with my luggage. Concerning the black Manoel, whom I have been paying since Curitiba, and that had no any use and from whom I have been bearing, with a lot of patience, the excessive susceptibility has decided to leave me in the exact moment, where he could render any service, because he should take two she-mules loaded with suitcases. The reason alleged was that he wanted to return to his hometown. Thus, I reduced my luggage to two suitcases that may be taken by one of the Count’s animals, guided by an employee of his field assessor. This journey is disgusting me more than I can express. We shall go very fast; we will arrive late and depart early; I will not have any freedom and nothing shall be left to do besides this scrapbook. 

With the useless José Mariano, I will be at the mercy of all the people and will not know what will happen with my luggage. Also, it is required that I leave almost all my luggage with Laroutte and Firmiano, employees without any experience. I do not know when they will be able to embark, and it is possible that I stay longer in Rio Grande, waiting for them, unaware of everything and not knowing what decision to take.

 

Porto Alegre, the 27th of July  - We shall not depart today as it has been expected, because it has been raining all day long; the time goes, I do nothing and this trip is becoming longer than I wished.