The Expedition to Botany Bay, by Watkin Tench

CHAPTER V.

From the Arrival of the Fleet at Rio de Janeiro, till its Departure for the Cape of Good Hope; with some Remarks on the Brazils.

Brazil is a country very imperfectly known in Europe. The Portugueze, from political motives, have been sparing in their accounts of it. Whence our descriptions of it, in the geographical publications in England, are drawn, I know not: that they are miserably erroneous and defective, is certain.

The city of St. Sebastian stands on the west side of the harbour, in a low unhealthy situation, surrounded on all sides by hills, which stop the free circulation of air, and subject its inhabitants to intermittents and putrid diseases. It is of considerable extent: Mr. Cook makes it as large as Liverpool; but Liverpool, in 1767, when Mr. Cook wrote, was not two-thirds of its present size. Perhaps it equals Chester, or Exeter, in the share of ground it occupies, and is infinitely more populous than either of them. The streets intersect each other at right angles, are tolerably well built, and excellently paved, abounding with shops of every kind, in which the wants of a stranger, if money is not one of them, can hardly remain unsatisfied. About the centre of the city, and at a little distance from the beach, the Palace of the Viceroy stands, a long, low building, no wise remarkable in its exterior appearance; though within are some spacious and handsome apartments. The churches and convents are numerous, and richly decorated; hardly a night passes without some of the latter being illuminated in honour of their patron saints, which has a very brilliant effect when viewed from the water, and was at first mistaken by us for public rejoicings. At the corner of almost every street stands a little image of the Virgin, stuck round with lights in an evening, before which passengers frequently stop to pray and sing very loudly. Indeed, the height to which religious zeal is carried in this place, cannot fail of creating astonishment in a stranger. The greatest part of the inhabitants seem to have no other occupation, than that of paying visits and going to church, at which times you see them sally forth richly dressed, en chapeau bras, with the appendages of a bag for the hair, and a small sword: even boys of six years old are seen parading about, furnished with these indispensable requisites. Except when at their devotions, it is not easy to get a sight of the women, and when obtained, the comparisons drawn by a traveller, lately arrived from England, are little flattering to Portugueze beauty. In justice, however, to the ladies of St. Sebastian, I must observe, that the custom of throwing nosegays at strangers, for the purpose of bringing on an assignation, which Doctor Solander, and another gentleman of Mr. Cook’s ship, met with when here, was never seen by any of us in a single instance. We were so deplorably unfortunate as to walk every evening before their windows and balconies, without being honoured with a single bouquet, though nymphs and flowers were in equal and great abundance.

Among other public buildings, I had almost forgot to mention an observatory, which stands near the middle of the town, and is tolerably well furnished with astronomical instruments. During our stay here, some Spanish and Portuguese mathematicians were endeavouring to determine the boundaries of the territories belonging to their respective crowns. Unhappily, however, for the cause of science, these gentleman have not hitherto been able to coincide in their accounts, so that very little information on this head, to be depended upon, could be gained. How far political motives may have caused this disagreement, I do not presume to decide; though it deserves notice, that the Portuguese accuse the Abbee de la Caille, who observed here by order of the King of France, of having laid down the longitude of this place forty-five miles too much to the eastward.

Until the year 1770, all the flour in the settlement was brought from Europe; but since that time the inhabitants have made so rapid a progress in raising grain, as to be able to supply themselves with it abundantly. The principal corn country lies around Rio Grande, in the latitude of 32 deg south, where wheat flourishes so luxuriantly, as to yield from seventy to eighty bushels for one. Coffee also, which they formerly received from Portugal, now grows in such plenty as to enable them to export considerable quantities of it. But the staple commodity of the country is sugar. That they have not, however, learnt the art of making palatable rum, the English troops in New South Wales can bear testimony; a large quantity, very ill flavoured, having been bought and shipped here for the use of the garrison of Port Jackson.

It was in 1771 that St. Salvador, which had for more than a century been the capital of Brazil, ceased to be so; and that the seat of Government was removed to St. Sebastian. The change took place on account of the colonial war, at that time carried on by the Courts of Lisbon and Madrid. And, indeed, were the object of security alone to determine the seat of Government, I know but few places better situated in that respect than the one I am describing; the natural strength of the country, joined to the difficulties which would attend an attack on the fortifications, being such as to render it very formidable.

It may be presumed that the Portuguese Government is well apprized of this circumstance and of the little risque they run in being deprived of so important a possession, else it will not be easy to penetrate the reasons which induce them to treat the troops who compose the garrison with such cruel negligence. Their regiments were ordered out with a promise of being relieved, and sent back to Europe at the end of three years, in conformity to which they settled all their domestic arrangements. But the faith of Government has been broken, and at the expiration of twenty years, all that is left to the remnant of these unfortunate men, is to suffer in submissive silence. I was one evening walking with a Portuguese officer, when this subject was started, and on my telling him, that such a breach of public honour to English troops would become a subject of parliamentary enquiry, he seized my hand with great eagerness, “Ah, Sir!” exclaimed he, “yours is a free country — we”! —— His emotions spoke what his tongue refused.

As I am mentioning the army, I cannot help observing, that I saw nothing here to confirm the remark of Mr. Cook, that the inhabitants of the place, whenever they meet an officer of the garrison, bow to him with the greatest obsequiousness; and by omitting such a ceremony, would subject themselves to be knocked down, though the other seldom deigns to return the compliment. The interchange of civilities is general between them, and seems by no means extorted. The people who could submit to such insolent superiority, would, indeed, deserve to be treated as slaves.

The police of the city is very good. Soldiers patrole the streets frequently, and riots are seldom heard of. The dreadful custom of stabbing, from motives of private resentment, is nearly at an end, since the church has ceased to afford an asylum to murderers. In other respects, the progress of improvement appears slow, and fettered by obstacles almost insurmountable, whose baneful influence will continue, until a more enlightened system of policy shall be adopted. From morning to night the ears of a stranger are greeted by the tinkling of the convent bells, and his eyes saluted by processions of devotees, whose adoration and levity seem to keep equal pace, and succeed each other in turns. “Do you want to make your son sick of soldiering? Shew him the Trainbands of London on a field-day.” Let him who would wish to give his son a distaste to Popery, point out to him the sloth, the ignorance, and the bigotry of this place.

Being nearly ready to depart by the 1st of September, as many officers as possible went on that day to the palace to take leave of his Excellency, the Viceroy of the Brazils, to whom we had been previously introduced; who on this, and every other occasion, was pleased to honour us with the most distinguished marks of regard and attention. Some part, indeed, of the numerous indulgencies we experienced during our stay here, must doubtless be attributed to the high respect in which the Portuguese held Governor Phillip, who was for many years a captain in their navy, and commanded a ship of war on this station: in consequence of which, many privileges were extended to us, very unusual to be granted to strangers. We were allowed the liberty of making short excursions into the country, and on these occasions, as well as when walking in the city, the mortifying custom of having an officer of the garrison attending us was dispensed with on our leaving our names and ranks, at the time of landing, with the adjutant of orders at the palace. It happened, however, sometimes, that the presence of a military man was necessary to prevent imposition in the shopkeepers, who frequently made a practice of asking more for their goods than the worth of them. In which case an officer, when applied to, always told us the usual price of the commodity with the greatest readiness, and adjusted the terms of the purchase.

On the morning of the fourth of September we left Rio de Janeiro, amply furnished with the good things which its happy soil and clime so abundantly produce. The future voyager may with security depend on this place for laying in many parts of his stock. Among these may be enumerated sugar, coffee, rum, port wine, rice, tapioca, and tobacco, besides very beautiful wood for the purposes of household furniture. Poultry is not remarkably cheap, but may be procured in any quantity; as may hops at a low rate. The markets are well supplied with butcher’s meat, and vegetables of every sort are to be procured at a price next to nothing; the yams are particularly excellent. Oranges abound so much, as to be sold for sixpence a hundred; and limes are to be had on terms equally moderate. Bananas, cocoa nuts, and guavas, are common; but the few pineapples brought to market are not remarkable either for flavour, or cheapness. Besides the inducements to lay out money already mentioned, the naturalist may add to his collection by an almost endless variety of beautiful birds and curious insects, which are to be bought at a reasonable price, well preserved, and neatly assorted.

I shall close my account of this place by informing strangers, who may come here, that the Portuguese reckon their money in rees, an imaginary coin, twenty of which make a small copper piece called a ‘vintin’, and sixteen of these last a ‘petack’. Every piece is marked with the number of rees it is worth, so that a mistake can hardly happen. English silver coin has lost its reputation here, and dollars will be found preferable to any other money.

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