Thursday, July 7, 2016

"Millie Gone To Brazil" : Three Online Articles About Bajans' Migration To Brazil In The Early 20th Century

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a two part series on the Bajan (Barbados) folk song "Millie Gone To Brazil" (also known as "Poor Millie").

Part I provides extensive quotes from three online articles about the early 20th century migration of Bajans and other West Indians to Brazil to help construct a railroad which would transport rubber out of the Amazon jungle.

Click for Part II of this series. Part II provides information, lyrics, and a video of this early 20th century Bajan song.

The content of this post is presented for historical and cultural purposes.

I'm interested in helping to preserve and share the information that is found in these online articles.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

Editor's note: I've assigned numbers to these articles for referencing purposes only.

Article #1:
From Wednesday, March 2, 2011, 'Millie Gone to Brazil'": Barbadian Migration to Brazil in the Early 20th Century'
"On Saturday, February 26, 2011, Dr. Elaine Rocha, Lecturer in Latin American History, Cave Hill Campus, and MPhil Candidate, Frederick Alleyne presented "'Millie Gone to Brazil': Barbadian Migration to Brazil in the Early 20th Century. Co-hosted by the Department of History and Philosophy and the Embassy of Brazil, the Special History Forum presentation attracted over 100 members of the public to hear about this new area of research in migration history as part of the UWI's Research Week activities.

Audience members learned about the challenges Barbadians and other West Indian migrants experienced when they arrived in Brazil to work in the railway industry in the early 20th century. Holding on tightly to their English linguistic heritage, Barbadianos and their descendants were often ostracized and were victims of racism and classism in Brazil's so-called "racial democracy". Settling mostly in Porto Velho, the Barbadiano population established a settlement known as Barbados Town."...
"UWI"= University of The West Indies

Article #2:
From "Millie Gone to Brazil! Barbadian migration to Brazil in the early 20th century" by Elaine P. Rocha and Frederick Alleyne

[This article was published in the Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, v. 58, December 2012, p. 1-42]

"Millie gone to Brazil Oh Lawd,
poor Millie Millie gone to Brazil
Oh Lawd, poor Millie
Wid de wire wrap round she waist
And the razor cut up she face
Wid de wire wrap round she waist
And the razor cut up she face
Millie down in the well
Oh Lawd, poor Millie
Millie down in the well
Oh Lawd, poor Millie
Wid de wire wrap round she waist
And the razor cut up she face
Wid de wire wrap round she waist
And the razor cut up she face

These are the lyrics of a popular Barbadian folk songs, dated from the early 1920s. Although it tells the fate of a woman murdered by her husband, which according to the tradition is a true story, it is a lively song. The popular tale explains that Millie was about to leave her abusive husband when she was killed and her corpse hidden in a well not far from Bridgetown. To explain her sudden disappearance, the husband told everybody that Millie had gone to Brazil, until the strong odor revealed the location of her body.

The idea of somebody leaving Barbados and “disappearing” after going to Brazil was quite familiar at a time when many Barbadians were boarding ships to Brazil in pursuit of a better life between 1900 and 1930. With scant information on life in Brazil, many people sailed with dreams of a country of jungle and gold, a place to find fortune overcome poverty and come back home for a better life. But what did the Barbadians find when they arrived in Brazilian territory?

Life for Blacks in Brazil at the turn of the 20th century was not easy. Brazil was the last nation in the American continent to abolish slavery, with the elite managing to postpone abolition until 1888. For the Brazilian slave, freedom came in different waves, and assumed different meanings, through individual manumissions and runaway communities, until laws like the free womb law (1871), and the “Lei dos Sexagenários”, which granted freedom for those over 65 years old (1885), up until the definitive document of liberation. Abolitionist ideas and campaigns reached Brazilians relatively late during the second half of the nineteenth century, mainly during the 1870s; and they arrived at the same time as did scientific racism and the politics of eugenics. The rise of resistance to slavery had contributed to consolidate the image of the black peril , or the black criminal, that jeopardized the accepted way of life, as well as the future of Brazil as a modern nation. At the same time, increasing urbanization led to higher numbers of female and male slaves living in the cities away from the master’s strict control. As a result, the approach of abolition brought an increase of laws for social control and a reinforcement of police forces.

Politically, the elites were utterly divided over the issue, with some liberals defending the introduction of paid work, involving the use of European immigrants, and the old oligarchy arguing that without the slaves the plantation economy would not survive and the Brazilian economy would undergo a dreadful crisis. The end of slavery in Brazil brought about the import of immigrant workers, the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the republican regime (1889), inaugurating a new era in which Afro-Brazilians, now rejected by the new economy, would face marginalization, poverty, criminalization and invisibility.

The delayed abolition of slavery in Brazil occurred at the same time as the rise of theories of pseudo-scientific racism that justified and confirmed the inferiority of Blacks. These theories were present during the earliest debates (around 1860) about importation of immigrant workers into Brazil, as analyzed by Celia Marinho Azevedo and Thomas Skidmore who pointed out that the central point of the argument in favor of European immigrants was their superiority, not only over Blacks but over Brazilians in general. It also reinforced the stereotypes of instability, criminality, and laziness associated with the black population.

During the last decades of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth century, Latin American societies found in the racial debate that emphasized social and racial hierarchy the theoretical argument to justify and reinforce the need to exercise close control over the former slaves and all people of African descent. In Brazil, as in other countries, these ideologies soon took on popular form, and were found in newspapers, school books, magazines, etc., being soon part of the daily life in ways that constituted the basis of Brazilian culture. The racist propaganda favouring white (immigrant) workers also contributed to the ban on other immigrants like Chinese, Indians or Africans. In the words of George Andrews:
Facing insistent demands from their former slaves for new work regimens -shorter and more flexible hours, no work for women or children, increased autonomy and freedom from direct supervision -employers responded by seeking out alternative sources of workers. These could easily have come from within Latin American societies themselves, but dictates of scientific racism, combined with the availability of millions of European workers ready and willing to leave their native lands, led governments to invest state funds not in locally born nonwhites but in European immigrants.

The first republican constitution of 1890 brought a decree on immigration that specified that Asian and African immigrants were not freely granted entry in Brazil, and could only be admitted by authorization of the National Congress, and that diplomatic and consular agents and the police of the ports should prevent the disembarkation of those individuals, as well as beggars and indigents.

The European immigration was sponsored by some farmers who opted to substitute Black workers for immigrants, and by governments from south-eastern and southern states, with some support from the federal government. This was because at the end of the 19th century, the great economic development was in coffee production, concentrated in the south-eastern states, while the southern states claimed a need for colonists. In these southern states and in a few others groups of Italians, Germans, Spanish and Polish, among others, received land in unexploited areas in which they were to develop farms, a right denied to Brazilians on the excuse that European immigrants were better workers and would be able to bring civilization to those distant regions. The other side of the policies of immigration is found in the ideology of whitening. The Brazilian intellectual’s interpretation of the racist ideologies was that miscegenation would give the local population a racial “upgrade”, making them whiter by generations and in a few years (the numbers would change according to the politician or scientist) Brazil would be predominantly white. Those theories supposed that the European immigrant would marry darker Brazilians and that the choice of marrying lighter would erase the Black population. The ultimate result of this strategy would be civilization and modernization that would bring Brazil closer to the European countries. The desirable miscegenation was not only physical, but cultural.

During the first forty years of the Brazilian republic (1890-1930), when once again the government claimed to have a programme of modernization, many Europeans moved from the rural areas to towns and cities, seeking a better life away from the demands of farming or the difficulties of isolated areas. The efforts towards progress coincided with the apex of the thesis of scientific racism, and the immigrant workers found jobs in the recently opened industries. As for the northern regions, there was not enough money to import workers to those areas, except for Japanese immigrants, and the Union government to stimulate internal migration frequently resorted to moving people from drought stricken northeastern states to the states of Amazonas and Pará and the territories of Rondonia, Roraima, Acre and Amapá, a policy that lasted until the 1970s. The seringais of Amazonas were also the destination of unwanted people during the first decades of the republic. In 1906, black sailors in Rio de Janeiro rebelled against the Brazilian Navy authorities that denied them higher posts and maintained corporal punishments. The sailors received popular support but the government betrayed the agreement made with them and sent the rebels to prison or into exile as forced labour in the Amazon. About two hundred sailors convicted during the revolt and who made the long trip from Rio de Janeiro to Amazonas in the terrible conditions were offered to the railway company that was constructing the Madeira-Mamoré railroad in Rondônia, but were not accepted given their poor health. Some seringalistas, the entrepreneurs who invested in the rubber extraction, took those who appeared to be in reasonable physical conditions to work. Along with the rebels, were 292 others convicted of idleness and 44 prostitutes.

Before that, in 1904, a popular riot against the mandatory vaccination imposed upon the population of Rio de Janeiro also ended with hundreds of those involved sentenced to exile in the Amazon region. Some of them went to the seringais some were employed in the construction of the railroad Madeira-Mamoré, in Rondônia. According to scholars like Francisco Bento da Silva, they were people from the lowest class, not exactly criminals, but also not citizens. Many of them died during the trip, others arrived there without being registered, not even named by official documents.

As stated by Barbara Weinstein and Warren Dean, during the rubber boom, people from different parts of Brazil and from other countries went to the Amazon, with a predominance of those from the Northeast recruited by the government. The main characteristic among the Brazilian workers was poverty, whether they were agricultural workers put out of work and displaced by the droughts that affected north-eastern states, or unwanted people from Rio de Janeiro. In a country in which abolition was fairly recent, poor people were never in shortage. The lack of governmental control and the characteristics of that vast region made it impossible to keep track of all the workers and adventurers who took the risks associated with living in such a hostile environment, and immigrants from neighbouring countries were among them. Another important characteristic of the Amazon occupation is that, unlike what happened in the other regions of Brazil, there were no official projects for colonization until around the 1940s. Working on a product of extraction, the rubber workers were expected to produce as much as possible, which implied moving from place to place enduring very difficult working conditions. The demand for infra-structure and urban planning, as well as for labour regulations came later to meet the needs of existing villages.

Cledenice Blackman registered the testimonies of descendants of West Indian immigrants who for a long time were believed to have arrived in Rondonia during the construction of the railroad, showing that many had actually moved to that region coming from the state of Amazonas. That is the case of Mr. Arthur Winter’s father, who moved from Manaus (capital of Amazonas state) to Porto Velho (Rondônia) in 1925 to work at the Estrada de Ferro Madeira-Mamoré.

The railroad project was in fact started in 1870, in response to the interest of the rubber traders in gaining access to the Atlantic coast. According to Lucia Lamounier, the challenges involved in such an isolated region interfered with the progress of the project and determined the type of worker needed for it to succeed, with preference given to those who had no place to go in a situation of crisis as opposed to local workers who would often leave the construction site to work on their small farms or to join those who combined hunting, fishing, farming and collecting latex for rubber as a means of surviving in the region:
... a great number of workers were imported to build the Madeira-Mamoré. The inhospitable conditions of the area made very acute the labour problem. At the beginning of the 1870s the engineers reported food deprivation, fevers and Indian attacks; the company in charge revoked the contract in 1873. That was just the beginning of other frustrated attempts to build the railway. In 1907 the American Company May, Jekill & Randolph started to build the road. The company had just finished a contract to build a railway in Cuba, in which they had employed circa 4,000 Galician workers accustomed to rough conditions. The company decided to bring them along to the Madeira region. From 1907 to 1912 were imported 21,783 workers, from all nationalities, the majority from the neighbouring Caribbean Islands.

The so called “Barbadians” started to arrive in the Amazon around the end of the nineteenth-century, probably coming through the British Guyana, trying to find their place among the seringais or, after a few years, to work in the construction of the Madeira-Mamoré Railway. Those strange foreigners were identified mostly because of one unexpected trace: they were Blacks. It was only about fifteen years after abolition, and they would face the same problems related to prejudice and exclusion that Blacks in Brazil did, unless they could prove themselves different from the national Blacks."

Article #3:
From By Miguel Nenevé and Rose Siepamann, "Caribbean In The Amazon-A Reading Of Marcio Souza's 'Mad Maria'".

'Millie gone to Brazil, oh lord, poor Millie” (Barbadian song)'

“During the “rubber boom” in the Brazilian Amazon, between 1880 and 1912, the construction of a railroad linking the Madeira River in Brazil to the Mamore River in Bolivia was undertaken to solve the problem of rubber transportation in that region. The railway would help to get the Bolivian rubber out of the jungle, past the rapids on the Madeira and then reach the navigable part of the river in Porto Velho, in the state of Rondonia. For the construction of the Madeira-Mamoré railroad, many African-Caribbean workers, especially from Barbados, were taken to that part of the Brazilian Amazon. The enterprise was first a British project but later was controlled by the American Percival Farquhar who had a Brazilian business empire.
This “adventure in the Amazon” brought about the death of about six thousand workers, caused by Indian attacks, malaria and many other diseases. Marcio Souza, a very well known Brazilian writer from Manaus, wrote an important novel, Mad Maria, based on this historical fact. In this article we intend to discuss the presence of Barbadians and the treatment they receive in this 1980 Brazilian novel.

Using a satirical tone, like in many of his novels, Marcio Souza, in some ways, mocks the foreign businessmen who believed they could control the jungle as their personal domain. The author tells the stories of many people from different countries, looking at the enterprise from different positions, all of them in some way connected to the railway. Mad Maria becomes a very significant work as it offers the readers many opportunities to revise concepts about the Amazon and the regional development. The readers meet for example, the Amerindian who saw his land invaded by the workers; the naïve American doctor Finnegan, who could not prevent the workers from dying of malaria; the railroad builders who had worked on the Panama Canal; the British engineer and the low wages paid to workers such as the Germans, the Chinese, the Italians and a large number of Barbadians.

The term “Barbadian”, in fact, was used as a globalizing identification attributed to the foreign Blacks who went to the Amazon from several parts of the Caribbean, mainly Barbados, but also from Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago and even the Guyanas. They migrated, or rather were taken, to the Brazilian state of Rondonia which was a wilderness in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Therefore, it was a migration motivated by work, by the search for a new life, causing the rupture of family roots and culture as well as producing a feeling of displacement and lack of emotional ties. Marcio Souza´s novel introduces these workers at the beginning of the novel: “the Barbadians had already begun to sweat heavily, their black muscles gleaming as they worked, wading into waters up their knees.” Their job was “to cut the railway through the mainly terrain of Rio Abuna: seemingly not an impossible operation. After all, hadn´t six Barbadians just hugged a rail over to where still others were hard at work opening trenches with picks and spades?”(10) Under the order of the English engineer, Collier, the Barbadians worked hard for the American enterprise. The narrator reveals that the “Barbadians” were treated with respect by the engineer, because they had a history of railroad building in other countries. They had the knowledge and the resistance to bear the difficult conditions in the jungle: “The Barbadian was a bloody good worker” (11). For the narrator, the Barba-dians are different, “they know the work they do, they are professionals.”...

The infirmary was always full of people with malaria, injuries and several diseases. The American doctor, Finnegan, could not accept the culture of the people who did not want him to perform autopsies on the dead people. A Barbadian warns him: “No. You profanin´de corpses! Goddom white mon always haves to scomble up de dead!” (40). According to the belief of the “Barbadians”, one had to preserve the integrity of the dead. Unlike the doctor, the engineer Collier was sympathetic to the Barbadians reaffirming that they were excellent workers and that they “never start any fight. They just defend themselves.” However, no one should touch their dead.

If the engineer respected “the Black English,” they had, however, to suffer the prejudice from the workers of other nations, mainly the Germans. These workers seemed to have a “natural inclination” to dislike the Black West Indians : “The German workers had paused in their digging to look up at the Barbadians carrying the rail. The Germans had come to manifest a particularly hostile regard to these Negroes. (22)” Inexplicably they disliked the Barbadians, although not the Chinese, the Spaniards, or any other nationality or race present on the line of construction. On the other hand, from the Barbadians “there came only a hostile indifference” towards the Germans. They lived together not mixing with anyone from the other races.
Perhaps it is possible to say that the Barbadians´ history of slavery, the conditions of the lives they had before, the suffering, the striving for survival, made them able to prevail over those harsh conditions of life.”...

Marcio Souza invites the reader to go further into the history of the ‘Barbadians’: “… the Negro population of Barbados was made up of slaves garnered from a multiplicity of African tribes but predominantly Congo, Aradas, and Nago. A great number of such slaves were originally Moslems but over the generations had lost all ties to their faith and adopted in their stead the religious practices of the masters”(101). As Jonathan says to the American doctor when referring to their religion and culture: “Is not too common. I tell you dot, Doct Finnegan, but then I figure de history bout Barbados not too familiar to you most wise anyway. .. but you probably knows dat most of dem islands dere is inhobitd by the Africans. When the African slave come to de islands he find de Indians already long dead, decimated by the white mon” (122).

By reading Souza´s Mad Maria one is offered the opportunity both to see a little of history of the building of the “Devil´s Railroad” and to reflect on the conditions of the Caribbean workers who were transplanted from the West Indies to the wilderness in order to live under so many adverse conditions. One can conclude that besides satirizing the dream of bringing “progress” to the jungle, Marcio Souza reveals himself to be sympathetic to the Caribbean (“Barbadian”) workers and perhaps a critic of the prejudiced Germans.

This concludes Part I of this two part series.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment