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Day 23: São Luís to Alcântara

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Houses of the rich and poor in Alcântara; the poor houses still lived in, the rich now just a shell.
Michael Palin - BrazilThe road up to the town is called Calçada do Jacaré – Alligator Street, because of the grey and white overlapping pattern of its paving blocks. On either side are a range of fine old houses, some painted and with attractive wrought-iron balconies, others fallen into ruin. At the top of the hill the road forks on either side of a little church and runs along the ridge, past once-grand houses with azulejo-tiled facades until it opens out onto a spacious grassy plaza dominated by the mottled, coffee-coloured remains of a church. In the shadow of its high, dismembered wall stands a white limestone post, its surface chipped and weathered. It's been here a long time. This is the pelourinho, the whipping-post, where slaves came to be bought, sold and punished. Its proximity to the cross and bell-tower behind it says much about the relationship between the Church and the slave trade.

And yet there's no denying this is an idyllic spot. A breeze disperses the sticky humidity of the shoreline, and blows the flags and bunting set up for Festas Juninas celebrations. And the views are spectacular. On one side of the promontory a ragged banana plantation fringes a secluded, seductively empty beach and on the other side out across the bay can be seen the Miami-like skyline being constructed for the affluent of the new São Luís.

There were once some rich people here too. Plantation owners who would come to Alcântara in the winter to escape the hardships of the interior. The French proprietor of La Maison du Baron, where we have lunch, shows us around the Portuguese house he has carefully restored. It's beautiful inside, with cool, well-shaded rooms which still smell of the rich, dark timber from which they were constructed.

For Alcântara, the golden days of European comforts came to an abrupt halt with the abolition of slavery in 1888. The sugar plantations, deprived of their mass bonded labour, could no longer survive the international competition. The lunatics took over the asylum as the freed slaves moved in and Alcântara became a quilombo. On all sides there are remnants of fine old buildings either pulled down or left to rot. A convent beside the cathedral must have been very beautiful. Now it's in pieces, razed to the ground in anger at the old monarchy when Brazil became a Republic in the year following abolition.

The demise of Alcântara mirrors the predicament of Portuguese Brazil. The subjugation of a huge slave workforce to a relatively small number of Europeans couldn't last. A nation which has the whipping-post as a symbol of its power is never going to enjoy consensual rule. Slavery continued in Brazil for much longer than most countries, so it's hardly surprising that when it went it left a correspondingly deeper power vacuum. Alcântara must once have been a fine place to live. A ruler's town. Now the best they can do is to gather the old stones and leave them for the tourists to wonder at what went right and what went wrong.

However there is a postscript. And it came from the proprietor of the Maison du Baron. He's booked out for the foreseeable future. Not by a flood of tourists but by executives of a French/Ukrainian construction combine building a rocket launch site a few kilometres up the coast, which will employ some 2,500 people. Alcântara could yet become a rich man's town again.
click to enlarge 
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Houses of the rich and poor in Alcântara; the poor houses still lived in, the rich now just a shell.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 23: São Luís to Alcântara
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Alcântara
  • Book page no: 106

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