Posted by: Rob Viens | March 7, 2012

Getting to Know Bahia

March 7th – Darwin’s spent the next several days in his hammock, in too much pain to walk, or even write. So there are no diary entries for the next few days.  I figured this was probably a good time to say a little about Bahia itself – so here we go:

What Darwin refers to as Bahia is now known as the city of Salvador – capital city of the Brazilian state of Bahia. To avoid confusion with the state, I’ll refer to it a Salvador. The city itself is located on the banks of the Bay of All Saints (Baía de Todos os Santos). Salvador is the third largest city in Brazil, but it is also one of the oldest European cities in the New World – “discovered” in 1501 and established in 1549 as the first Portuguese territorial capital of Brazil. (Bahia is a form of the Portuguese word Baia, meaning “bay”.)

Map of Salvador and the state of Bahia (zoom in to see the Bay of All Saints and other details):

From early in its history Salvador was a major seaport town, and sugar was its major export.  Sugar cultivation is labor intensive, so Salvador also became a major hub of the slave trade – and according to one source about 37% of the slaves taken to the new world from Africa went through Salvador and into Brazil.  (I’ll come back to this later, since FitzRoy and Darwin got into a big fight about slavery while in Bahia.) Because of this history, Salvador became a blending of three cultures – European, African and (South) American Indian.

Darwin was in Salvador at an interesting time.  Less than 10 years earlier, Brazil gained its independence from Portugal (read all about it on Wikipedia). This likely explains some of the comments made by FitzRoy and others about the recent decline of Salvador – reflecting a European bias against non-European country’s ability to govern themselves, as well as the challenges independent countries face when trying to recapture their cultural identity.  The US faced these problems, too, in the years after independence. Fitzroy notes:

“Bahia has declined ever since its separation from Portugal: unsettled, weak governments, occupied too constantly by party strife to be able to attend to the real improvement of their country, have successively misruled it. Revolutions, and risings of the negro population, interrupting trade, have repeatedly harassed that rich and beautiful country, and are still impending. Were property secure, and industry encouraged, the trade from Bahia might be very extensive, particularly in sugar and cotton: but who will embark much capital upon so insecure a foundation as is there offered?” (FitzRoy’s Narrative of the Voyage)

Salvador is separated into two sections by a 300-ft high escarpment, which creates a unique 2-tiered city. “Lower Town” (Cidade Baixa) is the ” dirty, narrow, crowded” region that consists of the wharfs and the more seedy part of town.  Darwin described this when he visited the city with George Rowlett (see George Rowlett and the “Auld Reekie” side of Bahia). “Upper Town” (Cidade Alta) is the beautiful historic part of town that consists of churches, old houses, and government buildings. Darwin describes the houses of “Upper Town” on his second visit to the city:

“The houses, I may add, and especially the sacred edifices, are built in a peculiar and rather fantastic style of architecture. They are all whitewashed; so that when illumined by the brilliant sun of midday, and as seen against the pale blue sky of the horizon, they stand out more like shadows than real buildings.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

Bahia in the 1820’s by Augustus Earle (from Voyage):

Bahia 1839

Even after condemning its decline, FitzRoy can’t help but comment on the beauty of the city and the surrounding countryside:

“After the light-house was passed, those by whom the scene was unexpected were agreeably surprised by a mass of wood, clinging to a steep bank, which rose abruptly from the dark-blue sea, showing every tint of green, enlivened by bright sunshine, and contrasted by deep shadow: and the general charm was heightened by turretted churches and convents, whose white walls appeared above the waving palm trees; by numerous shipping at anchor or under sail; by the delicate airy sails of innumerable canoes; and by the city itself, rising like an amphitheatre from the water-side to the crest of the heights.” (FitzRoy’s Narrative of the Voyage)

Salvador in the 21st century (from Wikipedia commons):

Bahia today

Much like in Darwin’s day, agricultural imports (including sugar, tobacco and coffee) and tourism (focused on Carnival, the natural beauty and the towns historic landmarks) play a major role in Salvador’s economy today. (RJV)


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