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Articles Blog

Natal, Brazil

Karyn Planett

Colonies, Confederates and Capoeira 

“The country has been nicely described as a country with its colonies inside it.” —John Gunther, Inside South America, 1967

And Mr. Gunther was right, especially if you expand the description of “colonies” to be more than just pockets of populations.  Let’s look at the geographical component first.

Brazil is so vast, so huge, so great that its fascinating geography defines its profile.  It is South America’s biggest country and covers practically 50% of the continent.  Brazil is so massive, in fact, that only Chile and Ecuador don’t touch on its borders.  Every other country in South America is its contiguous neighbor.  Now those are some pretty impressive stats.

In the southeast of the country is what’s called the Brazilian Highlands, which reach over 4,000 feet in height.  In the west, as well as the north, is the immense Amazon basin that covers more than 40 percent of the entire nation.  The mighty Amazon River winds through the Brazilian landscape for a whopping 4,000 miles, if you consider tributaries.  These virtually impenetrable jungles, the rugged Andes, the River Plate in the south and the Atlantic to the east form a natural fortress, creating virtual colonies within Brazil.

Pockets of Civilizations

Two hundred million people call Brazil home.  It is the world’s fifth most populated country and the bulk of her population resides within 200 miles of the sea.  More than one dozen Brazilian cities boast over one million inhabitants.  In contrast, the Amazon Basin is virtually without people.  And, even though there is one official language, which is Portuguese, there are in excess of 180 native languages spoken across the land.

So, who are all these people?  The indigenous people, called indios and indianos depending on their ethnicity, form ethnic groups that have inhabited this area long before any Europeans arrived.  Over the centuries, many arrived on ships including settlers from Portugal, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland.  Millions from Africa followed.  Their communities might be described as mini-colonies. A large influx of Japanese also arrived, as well as people from Syria and Lebanon.  Brazil’s citizens of Japanese ancestry number approximately 1.5 million and, as of 2013, represent the largest group of Japanese outside Japan.  And in 1865, post Civil War America, thousands of defeated Confederate soldiers, known as Confederados, and their families attempted to re-establish an antebellum life by laying down their roots in Brazil in communities called Americana, Lizzieland, and New Texas.  Some historians believe more than 20,000 American Confederados came to Brazil in a twenty-year period from 1865-1885.  With their farming skills, they cultivated tobacco, sugarcane and watermelon.  All this wonderful diversity brings a texture of cultures that is unique to Brazil and forms an important feature of the country’s tapestry.

All this Brings Us to Natal

Natal is the city closest to Europe on the entire South American continent.  It’s no wonder then that it caught the attention of national powers.  The basis of a permanent community took root here in 1597 with the help of Jeronimo de Albuquerque Maranhão who was sent to the area with the mandate to protect Portuguese settlers and prevent the French from interfering with their trade.  Ultimately the Fortress of Three Wise Kings was built.  Soon, this fledgling community you now visit began to grow and was officially founded on Christmas day, 1599 hence the name “Natal”, which is Portuguese for Christmas.

Hopes of creating a productive sugarcane operation here were dashed due to the fact the soil was much too sandy.  Therefore, development was stalled for the area.  Its strategic importance came into the crosshairs of military strategists during World War II when the Americans used Natal’s Parnamirim Airbase for the trans-shipment of supplies to the Allies fighting in North Africa.  Throughout the early days of 1944, the Parnamirim base may have been the busiest American air base in the entire world with planes reportedly landing every three minutes.  Natal became a major player in President Roosevelt’s call to become a “Trampoline for Victory.”  In fact, the air base factored into the resupplying of troops in Africa, Russia, Italy, and Normandy, as well as the even more distant battlefields of China and Burma.  All this activity brought many historic figures here including Madame Chiang Kai-shek, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh and celebrities like Jack Benny and Tyrone Power.

Now, You

You, too, have now found your way to Natal.  Your exploration might include the 16th century Fortress of Three Wise Kings or Wise Men -- Forte dos Reis Mago as well as the Metropolitan Cathedral.  The Centro de Artesanato, housed in the former fortress, showcases the talent of local artisans.  The Palacio da Cultura was the former governor’s palace and the Palacio Philip Camarão is another impressive landmark.  For people watching, there’s the André Albuquerque Square.

And, speaking of that, you may wish to seek out a capoeira de roda demonstration.  This rhythmic dance, introduced to Brazil in the 16th century by African slaves, is physical, powerful and almost terrifying in its choreography.  You’ll definitely need a sweet, strong coffee called cafezinho to prepare yourself for this cultural experience.