Salvador de Bahia

23 March 2020

It is a possible to say that Brazil was an historical mistake. After Christopher Columbus arrived in the Bahamas in 1492, the Spanish felt threatened by the territorial aspirations of their imperial neighbour, Portugal, with its existing colonies in west Africa, Goa and Macau. Spain therefore sought an internationally agreed territorial division that kept Portugal out of the New World. The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 was brokered by the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, and it put a line directly down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean: new lands to the west of the line were for Spain, and Portugal had the east. But the pope had drawn his line too early – no one had explored further south, and the line didn’t pass through endless ocean as they thought, but in fact cut through the western corner of the South American continent. Portugal had an unforeseen foothold in the New World, and its first settlement on this foothold was… Salvador de Bahia.

Salvador was established as a Portuguese trading port to export the brazil tree to Europe, where it was readily used for the manufacture of red dyes (the brazil tree is now endangered and very rare, and yes, Brazil is named after the tree – it was easier to remember as the place where a lush dye came from, than the original “Terra de la Santa Cruz”). But the Portuguese had a problem: the indigenous tribesmen weren’t structured into local empires like the Aztecs or Incas that could be productively appropriated, and (from the European perspective) were particularly scattered and disorganised, and certainly unsuited to agricultural labour.  The Portuguese therefore established the slave trade between Salvador and their west African colonies. The trade lasted longer than anywhere else in modern history and transformed Salvador into the most Black African city in South America – renowned for its African-influenced culture, tribal religious practices, music and food. Indeed, Bahia is the most African of all cuisines in Brazil.

Salvador de Bahia and the historic centre of Pelourinho

Pelourinho sits high on an escarpment on the fringe of Salvador, looking out over the Bay of All Saint and the Church of Saint Bonfim in the distance. The old centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and “pelo” comes from pillory where the slaves were publicly whipped. The principal square is a beautiful baroque ensemble and a walking tour of extravagant and richly decorated churches could take a week. Pelourinho also has Misericordia, which was once the oldest hospital in Brazil and is now an excellent museum. The city is the epicentre of the “candomble” religion that mixes Brazilian and African spiritualist traditions. Followers dress in distinctive white costumes and white flags mark the homes of candomble practitioners (which are usually located in close proximity to catholic churches).

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