The Figueiredo Report and Elizabeth Bishop’s poem: Brazil, January 1, 1502 |


 

(Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems 1927-1979, Axis of Logic, 3 October 2013)

The Portuguese sailors first arrived on Brazil’s Bahian shores of Rio Buranhém in April, 1500 led by Pedro Alvares Cabral.* They documented seeing indigenous people when they landed on the beach, greeting them with peace offerings of headdresses made from parrot feathers. The sailors responded in days that followed with acts of torture, mass murder and rape of indigenous women according to a 1967 investigation launched by Brazil’s Interior Ministry following publication of the Figueiredo report, which had remained hidden for 45 years, claimed to have been destroyed in a fire, but rediscovered in the Museum of the Indian in Rio de Janeiro earlier this year. It was found with more than 7,000 pages intact and with 29 of the original 30 volumes. Among the many atrocities and genocide committed against the Indigenous, it revealed atrocities such as the hunting of Indians with machine guns, the throwing of sticks of dynamite from planes, the deliberate injection of smallpox into the Indians and donating sugar to them mixed with strychnine.

Rubber was the first and largest natural resource extracted from the land by the early Portuguese colonists and the rubber barons rounded up the Indians forcing them to tap rubber out of the trees. One plantation started with 50,000 Indian slaves and ended with only 8,000 alive in the end.  In some areas 90% of the Indian population was wiped out. The Portuguese reported a population of about 7 million native Indians in the 16th century. More recently, from 1900 to 1957 their numbers declined from over 1 million and to less than 200,000 today.

Elizabeth Bishop begins her poem with the stunning natural beauty that met the first Portuguese invaders and concludes with their first encounter with indigenous women:

Directly after Mass, humming perhaps
L’ Homme arme or some such tune,
they ripped away into the hanging fabric,
each out to catch an Indian for himself—
those maddening little women who kept calling,
calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?)
and retreating, always retreating, behind it.

 

– Axis of Logic

Brazil, January 1, 1502

… embroidered nature… tapestried landscape.
– Landscape into Art, by Sir Kenneth Clark

Januaries, Nature greets our eyes
exactly as she must have greeted theirs:
every square inch filling in with foliage—
big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves,
blue, blue-green, and olive,
with occasional lighter veins and edges,
or a satin under leaf turned over;
monster ferns
in silver-gray relief,
and flowers, too, like giant water lilies
up in the air—up, rather, in the leaves—
purple, yellow, two yellows, pink,
rust red and greenish white;
solid but airy; fresh as if just finished
and taken off the frame.

A blue-white sky, a simple web,
backing for feathery detail:
brief arcs, a pale-green broken wheel,
a few palms, swarthy, squat, but delicate;
and perching there in profile, beaks agape,
the big symbolic birds keep quiet,
each showing only half his puffed and padded,
pure-coloured or spotted breast.
Still in the foreground there is Sin:
five sooty dragons near some massy rocks.
The rocks are worked with lichens, gray moonbursts
splattered and overlapping,
threatened from underneath by moss
in lovely hell-green flames,
attacked above
by scaling-ladder vines, oblique and neat,
“one leaf yes and on leaf no” (in Portuguese).
The lizards scarcely breathe; all eyes
are on the smaller, female one, back-to,
her wicked tail straight up and over,
red as red-hot wire.

Just so the Christians, hard as nails,
tiny as nails, and glinting,
in creaking armor, came and found it all,
not unfamiliar:
no lovers’ walks, no bowers,
no cherries to be picked, no lute music,
but corresponding, nevertheless,
to an old dream of wealth and luxury
already out of style when they left home—
wealth, plus a brand-new pleasure.
Directly after Mass, humming perhaps
L’ Homme arme or some such tune,
they ripped away into the hanging fabric,
each out to catch an Indian for himself—
those maddening little women who kept calling,
calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?)
and retreating, always retreating, behind it.

* sources of historical facts from various reports on the internet.

Poem Source: Transcribed from Elizabeth Bishop The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (pp. 91.92)

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