Happy Birthday, Rio de Janeiro!

Rio de Janeiro celebrated a birthday yesterday.  The city was officially founded on March 1, 1565. St. Sebastian is the patron of the city of the “River of January” (first seen by Europeans on January 1, 1502).

Yesterday’s celebration included a 10 meter long birthday cake and free concerts, a big change from the first birthday in 1566 when the Portuguese were engaged in a series of bloody fights with the local indigenous peoples and the French.  Estácio de Sá, recognized as the official founder of the city, was killed in these battles.  The original site of the settlement (what today is the Aterro do Flamengo) was moved inside the Bay of Guanabara for great safety from the Indians and the French.

Monument to Estácio de Sá with Sugarloaf in background

The French had tried to establish a settlement in the mid-1550s.  They were so afraid of the locals that they settled on a small island in Guanabara Bay, one without fresh water.  (Today the island is the site of the Naval School.)  We know a great deal about this failed colony on Villegagnon Island.  Two of its participants later wrote books about their experiences in “Antarctic France”.  One of them, Jean de Léry left us with the greatest account of European-Amerindian relations from Brazil in the sixteenth century.  His History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, trans. Janet Whately (Berkeley, 1993) is a classic.  Léry spent months with the indigenous peoples because he feared his fellow Frenchmen who were bitterly divided between contentious Protestants and Catholics.  The religious feuding eventually did in the colony and opened the door for the Portuguese to establish a permanent settlement in the 1560s.  The French attacked and invaded the city on several occasions in the following centuries.

Villegagnon Island, 16th century

Those sixteenth-century French and Portuguese colonizers would, no doubt, be astonished if the were to return today.  The setting of the Bay of Guanabara and the Atlantic are still spectacular. The few hundred (thousands of?) Indians have been replaced by ten million inhabitants (including a lot of French who continue to invade the city on a regular basis).

Villegagnon Island today

St. Sebastian is known for his martyrdom at the hands of the Romans in the 3rd century A.D. when he was shot full of arrows and then beaten to death at the orders of the Emperor Diocletian.  In the colonial period in Brazil, the Brazilian masses gradually came to identify St. Sebastian with the Afro-Brazilian orixá (spirit or deity) Oxossi, the hunter and archer.  There are some dozen or so orixás in the various Afro-Brazilian religions (such as candomblé and macumba).  These African-influenced beliefs have permeated all Brazilian culture, even among the vast majority of the population who do not consider themselves adherents of the Afro-Brazilian religions.  According to these beliefs, all of us are protected by/connected to one of these orixás.  (It is somewhat like North Americans’ beliefs in astrological signs.)

St. Sebastian

So celebrate Rio de Janeiro, land of Indians, invading Europeans, and protected by a European saint (riddled with arrows) and an African hunter spirit.  What a city!

Happy Birthday, Rio de Janeiro!



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