Brazil Part 6: Manaus

Reading this week:

  • Peaceland by Séverine Autesserre

This, my friends, I promise is the last installment of my riveting Brazil Series. Thank you for sticking with me for so long. Over the past five installments, I have described how my dad and I landed in Brazil, got on a riverboat, bothered a bunch of animals, and went on adventures, among other things. As I mentioned way back in the beginning, one of the major things that actually drew me to Manaus was visiting the Teatro Amazonas, which was a thing that I got in my head that I wanted to do, probably from Atlas Obscura (where so many of these blog posts originate).

After finishing the riverboat cruise, my itinerary had given us a weekend in Manaus. I think we spent the time pretty efficiently. The top priority, as I have said like three times, was of course going to the Teatro Amazonas. It was within easy walking distance of our hotel, so we uh, walked over there, and they offered regular tours. I demurred from thinking too hard about the impacts of the rubber trade on the people of the Amazon in my last post, but the Teatro Amazonas was built on their backs. The reason that Manaus is where it is is because it is about as deep into the jungle as ocean-going ships can get. Where those ocean-going ships were going was to haul rubber out of the Amazon, which of course was a big commodity. To get the rubber out of the jungle, the rubber barons mercilessly oppressed the indigenous people of the rainforest, forcing them to harvest vast quantities of rubber and drive themselves into debt to do it. The rubber barons got rich off of this, considering themselves more European than anything, to the point where they sent their laundry to get done in Portugal. Seeking some entertainment at home, they got together and built the Teatro Amazonas.

It’s certainly opulent. They spared absolutely no expense and on the tour they showed us a lot of the features. It even had an intricate ventilation system that came out from underneath the chairs to try to provide the space some air conditioning. It’s covered in busts and has tapestries hanging from it and all sorts of statues. I utterly failed to get a single good picture of the interior, so here is one from Wikipedia:

On the tour they acknowledged how and why the thing was built, but were very proud of all the intricate details that highlighted it’s place in Manaus. There were paintings all over the place of idyllic jungle scenes, and particularly impressive parquet flooring made of jungle hardwoods:

I used to wear shorts.

The theater is itself also set in a large plaza with a very nice fountain out front. After our tour dad and I hung out at one of the outdoor cafes across the plaza and enjoyed a beer while plotting our next moves.

The rest of our time in Manaus, and Brazil, was pretty quiet. We went to the Museu do Índio, which didn’t let you take pictures but where I was particularly excited to correctly identify an indigenous still. The museum itself was set within a convent and was a very peaceful spot, with gardens and flowers and if I recall correctly a nice-looking basketball court. We stopped for lunch at a small corner restaurant where everyone was distracted by a soccer game.

We spent the largest chunk of the next day visiting the Manaus Zoo, which if I’m reading everything correctly is run by the Brazilian army, I think to provide an opportunity for their soldiers to see what sorts of animals they’re likely to run into in the jungle. They did indeed have a variety of animals (some pictured above), house in a variety of habitats. Not too shabby a little zoo, and it gave us an opportunity to see more of the animals of the Amazon that we hadn’t been able to bother in person.

After that, our Brazilian adventure was largely done. We spent some additional time wandering around in Manaus a bit, seeing the sights, and at one point eating at a Brazilian steakhouse, or, as they’re known there, a steakhouse. Finally early the next morning we trekked off to the airport to catch our flight back stateside, having had a fantastic time in the great country of Brazil and enjoying our final cup of Brazilian coffee at the departure gate:

The Chronicle, 1876-1880

The above link will let you download the first installment of a project where I might have bitten off a great deal more than I can reasonably chew. As the title suggests, it is a transcription of every article in The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society relating to their Central African Mission from the years 1876-1880.

The Chronicle is of course a particular favorite of this blog. As you may be aware at this point, I served as Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia’s Mbala District from 2017-2019. I find the history of that area absolutely fascinating. A huge part of that is probably of course my personal connection to the area, but it also represents a crossroads of a complex array of different historical crossroads that I love to uncover. I’ve only come across it (relatively) recently, but The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society has been a really interesting resource to learn about a lot of the history of the area.

As you’ve gleaned from the title, The Chronicle was the monthly publication of the London Missionary Society, detailing its missionary efforts around the world. One of those worldwide efforts was what they dubbed their Central African Mission. There were a lot of different missionaries in a lot of different locations in Africa, but the missionaries in the area that would become Mbala District were representatives of the LMS. As The Chronicle documented the efforts of the Central African Mission for the benefit of its readers and the patrons of the LMS, it provides a glimpse into the area as the first Western missionaries and colonialists arrived, usually with first-hand reports. Therefore, it provides some of the earliest accounts of the people and areas that I would live in nearly a century and a half later.

One of the advantages of The Chronicle is that it is all available online, via Hathitrust, Google Books, and the Internet Archive. However, those resources can be hard to use. Despite the power of text recognition these days, the automatic text recognition in the files you can download online is not great. This makes it hard to search for things within them. Also, despite the power of the various search engines, the pictures from The Chronicle don’t show up when you search for the topics. This keeps a lot of really interesting information buried unless you painstakingly scroll through every issue.

What I therefore wanted to do is painstakingly scroll through every issue, extract all the pictures, and transcribe the text by hand. My goal here is to make the information far more easily available online to the casual researcher, like I was back when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer living in a mud hut just trying to learn more about the history that surrounded me. When I got the bright idea to do this, I pondered idly how far I should go. Should I stop at WWI? WWII? But then I got started.

I haven’t exactly been working on it full-time, but doing the first five years has taken me months. And these people were wordy. My end goal is to have a final consolidated document, ideally with some useful timelines and an index and a table of contents, but I have decided in the interim to release the results in five-year chunks. This is to make the project more manageable and to start getting things out there in the world. If or when I get the final version out into the world, it is going to be massive. The first five years, 1876-1880, have clocked in at 138 pages and over 81,000 words already. It’s supposed to be impressive that Hunter S. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby, but that novel is only 47,000 words.

Despite my enthusiasm for getting out these first five years, I want to warn readers that it will not be a perfect document. I tried to be constantly proof-read as I typed it out, but I didn’t go back and check my work or anything, so there are probably errors. I was also in the process of making some editorial decisions I haven’t settled on yet. In the final document, I think I would like to standardize and modernize all the names, to again make it easily searchable for the casual researcher. Even in these five years the editors at The Chronicle had a few different spellings for some of the same people and places. That would still be a monumental undertaking once this thing is all done, again just because how long it is. One decision I have already made is that I Americanized all the spellings, but only because I am American and couldn’t be bothered to change the version of English on my spell-checker.

There is also some necessary editorializing to just pick out the articles relevant to Central Africa. Some articles are only tangentially related to Central Africa, and sometimes I left those out, but sometimes I added extra when there were interesting details about the Society’s finances, for example. They also have (tautologically) every year their Annual Report, which is both generally incredibly wordy and also only specific passages will pertain to Central Africa, so when I include those passages they’ll seem potentially disjointed. I also always skipped the individual donations noted in The Chronicle, though sometimes if you read into them they contain hints of very interesting stories. Despite trying to be painstaking, I might have missed something that could be important.

I am comfortable making these changes because I don’t intend this to be authoritative; my vision is that it will allow people to find articles and pictures useful to their research, and then they can use the year, month, and page numbers that I noted to go back to the source material and pull their information from there. If you find this document useful, I would be absolutely delighted if you let me know by uh, I can’t think of a less cringey thing to say than “by posting a comment below.”

It is important to say that I don’t endorse what the missionaries were trying to do. Missionaries and colonialism are big complicated topics, and fundamentally these people were going to Africa with the goal of totally upending a people’s religion and way of life. I value this resource because they do try to document a lot of the life there, even if their perspective is biased. Clearly, their language is going to sometimes be far from kosher, and even as they refer to some of the people they meet as friends their default assumption is that the people they are coming to proselytize to are “dark and degraded.” However, we are intelligent historians, and it is possible to understand the missionaries from their perspective without endorsing their beliefs as our own.

That is the project I am trying to undertake. But in the first five years of the London Missionary Society’s Central African Mission, what happened? There may have been earlier mention of the idea in The Chronicle, but I started in 1876 because that was when the earliest serious rumblings about a mission started. The most important impetuous was a conditional donation by one Mr. Robert Arthington of £5,000 (about $800,000 today) if the LMS would undertake a mission on Lake Tanganyika. From the start he wanted them to put a steamer on the lake, but that would still take a while to come.

The Directors of the LMS decided to undertake the mission and sent out Rev. Roger Price to investigate what would be required. Reading between the lines of The Chronicle, I think the LMS had a few mixed motivations for undertaking the mission. As a non-profit organization, they were always looking for funds, and the offer of £5,000 could not be turned down lightly (though the organization would feel a squeeze within a few years due to the expense of supporting their new mission). There was of course also a keen missionary zeal. It’s an organization run by and for people who liked to go out to the far corners of the world and preach, and so any new field held an enticement for them. I also think there was a bit of a missionary scramble for Africa, with the LMS winding up on Lake Tanganyika because choicer spots on Lake Malawi (then Nyassa) and closer to Zanzibar had already been taken. Nonetheless, out they went.

With a favorable report from Rev. Price, they soon dispatched the newly minted Rev. Arthur W. Dodgshun along with Revs. J.B. Thomson, and E.S. Clarke. They also sent lay members Edward C. Hore and Walter Hutley. They departed England from March to May of 1877. The next longest chunk of time would be spent just getting to where they were going. The Chronicle details in uh, detail, the monumental trials to get themselves and all their stuff overland to the Lake. Their vision was to set up a mission station about halfway between Zanzibar and Lake Tanganyika and another on the Lake itself. By the time they realized the beginnings of that vision, Revs. Thomson and Dodgshun would be dead. Central Africa was stunningly deadly for the missionaries that went there. At one point, in a crunch for missionaries willing to reinforce the remaining men after the losses, the Society’s Foreign Secretary Dr. Joseph Mullens volunteered himself to go. The Directors were reluctant to let him go, but I think this was a case of a man wanting to relive his glory days. As it was, he too died before ever seeing Lake Tanganyika.

By the end of 1880, however, they had successfully set up mission stations at Urambo, Ujiji, and across Lake Tanganyika at Uguha. Apart from the original cohort, the mission had been supplemented by Revs. William Griffith, A.J. Wookey, and David Williams, along with Dr. Walter Palmer and Dr. E.J. Southon. For me, the story really gets exciting towards the end of 1880, because our favorite mariner Edward C. Hore had taken an excursion to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika, where he talks about my main man Tafuna and my good friend Chief Zombe. There were also further rumbles from our mysterious man behind the scenes, Mr. Robert Arthington, who was offering another £3,000 to accelerate the project of putting a steamer on the Lake.

Disappointingly, only two pictures relating to the Central African Mission were published in The Chronicle during these five years. The first is at the top, depicting the grave of Dr. Mullens. The second was a map showing where the various missionary societies had staked their claim. It’s included in the PDF, but the best map I’ve found so far comes from another pamphlet published in March 1879 by the London Missionary Society succinctly titled “The Mission in Central Africa, from the Letters and Journals of the Revs. J.B. Thomson and A.W. Dodgshun, and Messrs. E.C. Hore and W. Hutley.” I have included a crudely cropped version below (to save myself some filespace here on WordPress, but click to embiggen) with some of the most oft-mentioned placed highlighted, but the full version is available here (on Page 3 of the scan, and you get the best version if you download the jpg of the page). The scan could be better, but when I went to check if there were any copies for sale the only one I found was for £350, so I won’t be adding it to my personal collection anytime soon. The map is from 1879, so there are plenty of white spaces, but it highlights the route the missionaries took to get to Ujiji:

And so that’s the first five years of the Central African Mission, as told in the pages of The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society. I hope someone else finds this project useful and good research comes out of it. The area is sadly lacking in scholarship, and maybe we can help rectify that. I tried to summarize the major points above, but despite being wordy at times this saga is full of twists and turns and hope and despair and triumphs and failures, and sheds light into some of the earliest interactions in an area that would help shape world events, and so there’s little way I could have done it justice. I’m not the first person to discover The Chronicle, but hopefully now more people will, and help tell the stories of the people of Central Africa.

Brazil Part 5

Reading this week:

  • The Struggle for Zimbabwe by David Martin and Phyllis Johnson

Thank you for sticking with me on so many weeks of this Brazil journey! I promise this week I will wrap up the river cruise portion, and then next week I’ll probably do all of Manaus is a single post. And then! And then hopefully something noteworthy will be going on in my life, and I will make a note of it here. Until then, Brazil.

Now, we didn’t only bother wildlife and chop down trees in Brazil. Sometimes we met people! A chunk of these people-meets were in slightly more casual interactions. I thought it was great every single time we met another riverboat cruising down the river, because a lot of the time we would come alongside each other and the crew of each boat would presumably swap news or barter, with us exchanging ice for fish one time that I remember. And then we would cruise along our way. I also liked the see the people living along the river. Some were living on dry land, and had small herds of cattle and the like; when we got the best chicken ever, which I am still thinking about, it was just by stopping by one of these homesteads as we were cruising along.

It’s just tied up to a tree or something.

I also deeply admired the river houses we passed by. Since, as I have revealed previously, the river level changes dramatically over the course of the year, a large chunk of people live in houses that float, like the one picture above. These are built on the top of gigantic floating logs that provide buoyancy. If I couldn’t quite afford a whole riverboat in my retirement, I was able to easily imagine myself living a life in one of these floating houses. We only personally got to visit one (the one above), because it was also a store:

I loved this store. Talk about character! There was a big ole’ crocodile skull on the counter, for chrissake! (I guess technically a caiman). Hello my Super Amazing Girlfriend, this right here is my retirement plan: sell cold drinks, pans, and fishing nets out of a floating house on the Amazon. Dad, at my prompting, bought from this store the paddle pictured at the very top, versions of which we saw in tourist shops in Manaus for much more than whatever dad paid for it.

Another fun excursion we went on was to a rubber farm. I don’t quite have the room here to talk fully about the long history of exploitation when it comes to rubber harvesting in the Amazon (maybe I’ll touch on it more when I talk about Manaus), but we went to go see how rubber harvesting is done. Basically, you have a plot with rubber trees, and then the tappers will go out and cut grooves in the bark of the trees. The sap will flow out into tins that the rubber collectors have nailed to the trees, and that is how they harvest the raw latex sap. With that sap, the rubber harvesters boil it down until it becomes actual rubber. At the rubber farm that we went to, they also had a variety of small things they had made out of rubber, like a coinpurse or some rubber booties. Elso had dad make the item that he is working on in the above photo. To actually make something out of rubber, they would dip a mold into the latex sap, and then cure the rubber over smoke. In front of the ladies, Elso told us with a straight face that the device dad is making there was a rubber nipple used to help feed baby cows. Later, away from the women, he told us that dad had in fact made a condom. The thing made our entire cabin smell very strongly of smoke for the rest of the week, so, uh, things to think about when you’re trying to choose a condom brand.

Alright enough of people! Back to bothering wildlife. One of the last things we did on the river was to shake a sloth out of a tree. Yeah, I know, gimme a second. The guides had been talking about this all week, and it seemed perfectly normal every time they brought it up. I guess if you’re a sloth, and you’re in danger, your first line of defense is to look like a tree. If that fails, your backup defense is to just let go of the tree you are holding onto. This is not too dangerous in a flooded forest, because they just fall into the water and I guess sloths are good swimmers. So off we went one morning to find a sloth to shake out of a tree.

This all seemed fine until we were actually doing it. I distinctly remember us finally identifying a sloth in a tree and then thinking to myself “wait… are we the baddies?” This did not deter Elso and his buddies from zooming up the tree and shaking the branch that the sloth was holding onto. This sloth, however, was stubborn. Turns out, that might have been because she was carrying a baby on her back. I felt bad about this the entire time, let me tell you. But eventually Elso shook the branch enough that the sloth finally activated its backup defense mechanism and dropped into the water. The only people left in the canoe were us tourists, so Elso was soon shouting for us to grab the sloth. I, for once in this trip being the brave one, plucked up enough courage to snatch out of the water a poor little baby sloth who was just trying to get back to its tree. The mom made it to the tree and started climbing back up, while our new friend clutched to the canoe’s life jacket for dear life.

Once the guides had scrambled down from the tree, they helped us all pose for pictures with our traumatized baby sloth. Above is dad cradling the little guy. I actually demurred, feeling terrible about this whole thing at this point, but I still know what I did. Poor thing. After a round of pictures the baby sloth was placed gently back on the tree near its mom while we darted off back to the boat. Elso assured us that everything was totally fine, but still somewhere out there is probably a sloth that needs therapy and I’m sorry, baby sloth.

Like I said, that was our last major adventure on the river boat. After that we more or less head back into town, where we piled back into some cars to drive us to the ferry terminal and take us to Manaus. I had a great time on that riverboat, and I highly recommend everyone give it a go before the Amazon is entirely gone. Or maybe we can work harder to save the thing? Food for thought. But all in all, a very nice time:

We have a brief hiatus next week from Brazil content to talk about a different topic, but in two weeks I’ll wrap up Brazil entirely when I will relate about all my adventures in Manaus, and the real point of this whole trip: the Teatro Amazonas!