In Brazil, should we unbolt the statues of the "bandeirantes", the sinister Portuguese conquistadors?

LETTER FROM RIO DE JANEIRO

The symbolic unbolting of a statue of Borba Gato, on the occasion of the carnival in Rio de Janeiro, April 23, 2022.

Saturday, April 23, the sun rises over Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer as the last floats set off on the Sambadrome track. The Beija-Flor school, in blue and white, the last to march in this long night, chose the fight against racism as its theme. Its 3,000 dancers, dressed in feathers, but also in leather and chainmail, raise their fists and kneel in protest, evoking in turn the memory of slavery, discrimination in the favelas or the assassination of African-American George Floyd in May 2020.

When suddenly, at the end of the procession, the public sees several bronze-colored statues erected on a chariot. Three men, three “invaders, slave-crats and propagators of racism”, proclaims Beija-Flor. Girded with ropes, the latter are symbolically unbolted under the cheers of the crowd. Everyone here has in fact recognized Admiral Pedro Alvares Cabral, the “discoverer” of Brazil, the writer Monteiro Lobato considered by many to be racist, but also and above all, symbolically placed higher than the others, a figure despised above all: the by Borba Gato.

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For years this name, unknown in Europe, has unleashed passions in the tropics. Full beard, wide-brimmed hat, exalted gaze and musket in hand, Manuel de Borba Gato (1649-1718) is one of the most controversial figures in Brazilian history. While he was long considered a national hero, his memory is now being reviled, his opponents loudly calling for the unbolting of his statues and monuments. All in a global context of “cancel culture”, where public space has become a battlefield.

But who was Borba Gato? First, a bandeirante, literally a “flag bearer” or a “scout”. The term designates these Portuguese conquistadors of the XVIe and XVIIe centuries, from the Sao Paulo region to attack Brazilian territory. ” The captaincy of Sao Vincente [futur Etat de Sao Paulo] was then one of the poorest in the colony. Its economy is fragile and lacks manpower. Military expeditions were therefore mounted to capture native slaves in the interior, and then later set off in search of gold and diamonds.says Paulo César Garcez Marins, historian and teacher at the Paulista Museum.

Freshly Sliced ​​Ear Cuffs

Contributing to the exploration of the vast colony, the “scouts” are also guilty of many mass crimes. Veritable “infernal columns”, the bandeirantes also serve as henchmen to quell indigenous revolts or as African slaves. So it is with Domingos Jorge Velho (1641-1703). Considered a “monster of cruelty” by his contemporaries, he takes the lead of a small army of mercenaries, who loot, rape, decapitate, throw children into the fire, bury their victims alive, and make necklaces with their freshly cut ears…

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