Quick. Name the very first things that come to mind when you think of Brazil. Carnival? The girl from Ipanema? Carmen Miranda? Cowboys?
What? Cowboys! It may be the Old West in the U.S. but it’s the Old South in Brazil.
In fact Rio Grande do Sul (sounds Texan already) is the southernmost state in Brazil and, in many ways, more like its neighbors Uruguay and Argentina than Brazil. It boasts Brazil’s highest standard of living, is the center of the country’s wine region, features great Italian restaurants, and claims the world’s longest beach. Called Cassino Beach, it measures something like 130 miles long, give or take a dune or two. How did it get that way?
Gauchos, Grapes and Gastronomy
Before Brazil was Brazil, Spain and Portugal vied for dominance in this part of South America. Spanish Jesuits were the first Europeans to arrive. In 1627, they began establishing missions to convert local Guarani Indians to Catholicism, a tale we’ve heard before. The original missions were destroyed by bandeirantes who wanted these indigenous people as slaves and didn’t care whether they were Catholic or not. But the Jesuits bounced back and, within fifty years or so, reestablished the missions.
By this time merchants, military adventurers, and settlers had begun arriving in the region and the focus was on consolidating territorial claims.
The Guarani Wars
In 1680, Portugal founded Colonia do Sacramento across the Rio de la Plata, also known as the Plate River, from modern Buenos Aires. The area around Colonia is in what is today Uruguay. The Portuguese planned to contain the Spanish on the south side of the river. Therefore a search ensued to find a suitable port east of Colonia in order to form a line of defense. This search resulted in the establishment of a fortified village, now the city of Rio Grande, as the companion bulwark to Colonia. The Spanish, of course, weren’t about to take this lying down. However, they were also busy plundering the rest of their possessions so a half-hearted war “raged” for about a century.
The Cisplatine War
Meanwhile, the Portuguese were busy populating the region between the two bastions. In 1816, they captured Uruguay and declared it the province Cisplatina, which literally means the province this side of the Rio de la Plata. This then would become part of the Empire of Brazil. But, Brazil declared its independence from Portugal in 1822. Then Uruguay declared its independence from Brazil in 1825, lead by Juan Antonio Lavalleja, and in 1828 succeeded in formally breaking from Brazil.
From that point on, disputes between the Portuguese and the Spanish morphed from territorial to commercial.
The Jerky War
In order to populate the Rio Grande do Sul region, enormous tracts of land were distributed to settlers. In these latifundia, raising cattle became the dominant activity. The Jesuits had brought cattle a century before, but they’d escaped and gone feral when the missions were destroyed. Enterprising settlers, seeing the potential for profit, captured and redomesticated them to create immense herds. Unfortunately the limitations of transportation meant that beef was most efficiently distributed only in a dried form called charqueadas.
However jerky producers in Argentina and Uruguay were blessed with greener pastures and superior seaports. They soon began producing and distributing a better grade of jerky that became preferred. The gauchos of Rio Grande do Sul asked for trade protection from the central government and, when denied, declared independence from Brazil. That resulted in a ten-year war that ended with the defeat of the rebels but also with the institution of the trade protections originally requested.
The Port of Rio Grande
Architects of the port city’s original site at the mouth of a river could never have contemplated the growing size of commercial vessels that would call there. So, in 1855, a military engineer was sent to make a plan for increasing the depth of the channel and port area from the current two-meters. He concluded that the task was “unviable”. But in 1875, Sir John Hawkshaw was commissioned to have another go at it. He proposed a pair of two-mile long breakwaters extending out into the sea. His plan was undertaken in 1906 and the resulting Porto Novo, with its ten-meter draft, is where ships enter today.
The port city still displays touches of Portugal’s colonial past in its architecture and streets. But signs are also visible of the other cultures that have joined the region’s population. People of German, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, and African descent have all added to this mélange.
To celebrate this destination, do as the locals do. Sample a cup of maté (called chimarrão here), the traditional gaucho tea. Also enjoy churrasco, the typical barbecue. And be sure to take home a pair of bombachas, those baggy gaucho trousers. You’ll be pleased at how skillfully they cover a wide variety of personal flaws.