In the year 1556, Dom Pero Fernandes Sardinha – Brazil’s first bishop – took the ship Nossa Senhora da Ajuda [Our Lady of Help] accompanied by ecclesiastics, aristocrats, and entire families, sailed to Portugal.
A fatal shipwreck ensued shortly after they left Salvador. Those who escaped the shipwreck – and there were many – were eventually captured and devoured by the fierce Caetés Indians on the left bank of the São Miguel River, a place still known today thanks to popular belief.
This is a typical event that shows the state of Brazilian Indians as our early settlers and missionaries arrived.
To give an idea of the change brought about by the influx of Christianity and civilization, in this first article of a three-part series we will present a general picture of the situation of the Aborigines at the time of the discovery of Brazil.
Nomadism and promiscuity
Perhaps the greatest discovery of the Portuguese when they landed on our coast was the Indians themselves, a human type they had not seen anywhere in the world. The Indian’s only knowlege was about living in the forest. The purpose of their lives was to eat, drink, hunt, fight and kill.
The villages they built, called tabas, lasted no more than four years: the wood rotted, the palms covering their huts had fallen off, and all the game in the vicinity had been hunted into extinction.
If some tribe precariously engaged in agriculture, the arable land would become exhausted, forcing the Indians to move. Besides being predators of nature, with their nomadic customs, our Indians never saw any kind of development.
The social ties that united them were so loose that those small tribes became more and more fractious. Mutual and constant wars of extermination caused them to weaken and diminish in number.
In those poor souls, the instinct for revenge prevailed. Once feuds begun, they were transmitted from parents to children; no sense of self-denial for the sake of the common good or posterity could be expected.
Contrary to certain idyllic visions of tribal life that some indigenist authors seek to convey, it is characterized by a most complete promiscuity that causes all kinds of moral vices and diseases.
Several chroniclers of the time report that before their conversion the Indians lived in long houses – the ocas – huts whose surface was three hundred or four hundred feet long and fifty feet wide; their walls were made of straw and the ceiling was covered with the leaves of palm trees. Between one hundred and two hundred Indians lived scattered in them. As you entered the hut, you saw everyone and everything in it. Some sang, others laughed, others wept, some prepared flour, others cauim, etc. There were small fires on all sides, giving the appearance of a maze or a little hell.
These huts were dark, smelly and smoky. As beds, the unfortunate natives used a kind of net that exuded a horrifying odor, for they were so lazy that they would not even rise to relieve themselves.
They were entirely rudimentary, ferocious, shrewd, lying, and treacherous human beings. Even worse, they were cannibals.
Ceremonies of public slaughter served as a pretext for parties and gatherings. Hence they were called “ritual anthropophagy”. Aborigines ate their enemies out of revenge. Their war expeditions were also intended to provide for human flesh.
During the fighting, the Indians sought mainly to capture prisoners. After a preliminary fight, the warriors on both sides rushed against each other striving to disarm the adversary and catch him alive. The dead and wounded on the battlefield were decimated and devoured immediately, many of their parts were roasted and taken home. The victorious expedition made a triumphant entry into all allied tabas along the way. Upon arriving at the village of origin, the troops forced the prisoner to shout: “I, your food, have arrived!”
None of them could escape the ritual sacrifice for which he was intended. If he fell ill, the natives carried him into the woods and broke his skull, leaving his cadaver unburied. Duration of captivity varied greatly; old men were always killed on return from the expedition, while young men could remain captive for several months and even years.
Once the date of execution was set, all neighbors and allies were invited to take part in the feast. They would spend the night before in a mock vigil dancing, singing and drinking. At dawn, several women would lead the victim tied around the waist to the execution square in the center of the village amidst a great uproar. Then the executioner would dance into the courtyard with a huge machete in his hands and break the prisoner’s skull with a powerful strike.
As soon as the victim fell dead, old Indian women would rush over him with a gourd to collect his blood and brains, which were swallowed still warm. Then the corpse was roasted like a pig and quartered, its parts taken to the huts amid shouts of joy. The savages believed that by eating the flesh of the enemy they appropriated his qualities and showed their superiority over him.
Some tribes ate members of their deceased family for worship, thinking to give them a worthy burial in their own stomachs.
It was frequent to find this domestic, magical or participatory cannibalism in the tribes that practiced anthropophagy. It comes from the belief that by ingesting the flesh of an individual one has the closest possible union with him and therefore participates in his qualities: courage, vigor, dexterity, and so on. Hence in solemn feasts they had sacred banquets in which they ate characters regarded as superiors: a chief, shaman, and warriors or heroes, often of the same tribe.
Accordingly, in order to clothe themselves with the desired qualities of their ancestors, various tribes adopted the custom of ingesting their ashes with special drinks in funereal rituals.
A month after a relative’s funeral they dug up his corpse in a very advanced state of putrefaction and placed it in a large pot over the fire until its soft parts disappeared. The fetid odors emitted during the act completed that macabre ritual. When the bones became charred they were crushed and ground into a powder. This, in turn, was placed in large wooden gourds full of drinks. The whole group then drank this mixture to the last drop, believing the virtues of the dead had passed onto everyone who ingested it.
Foundation of villages
This was the sinister panorama encountered by the first missionaries who came to Brazil with the intention to cathechize these aborigines and establish Christian civilization.
According to generally accepted estimates, at the time of the discovery, Brazil had about five million Indians. The great merit of Portugal was to turn catechesis into the basis of its colonizing work. “However, to me it seems that the best fruit to be drawn from it is to save these people, and this must be the main seed that Your Highness must plant.” wrote Pero Vaz de Caminha to the King of Portugal, Dom Manuel, narrating the discovery of the Land of the True Cross.
The greatest obstacles to their conversion were anthropophagy, polygamy, drunkenness, intermittent nomadism, wars between neighboring tribes, and inconstancy in their resolutions.
If the missionaries contented themselves merely to go through the villages of the natives, other than facing all kinds of risks, the result would be precarious. For lack of example or practice, what they taught in one month would be lost in the next. With the intermittent nomadism of the Indians, when the missionaries returned to a tribe they had taught shortly before, they would only find ashes.
They needed to settle the natives on the ground as soon as possible while removing those already baptized from the influence of those who remained pagans. Otherwise, the hesitation and returns to their old customs would not be extirpated.
The catechesis of the Indians would be a chimera until the settlements were organized with their own government and authority. The first attempts to form indigenous villages occurred in Bahia. They were the most effective and original mode of colonization applied in Brazil, and the first seed of the famous Jesuit reductions.
To be effective and complete, missionary activity needed the support of public authorities. The third Governor General of Brazil, Mem de Sá (1558-1572), granted all moral and material support to the first Jesuit missionaries, led by Father Manuel da Nóbrega.
Under the influence of the Jesuits, the Governors General gave those villages quasi municipal privileges. In fact, they had special legislation regulating the assets of the Indians, their separation from the Portuguese, trade, and the labor system among them, all based on Portuguese institutions.
Thus began the great work of catechesis with Brazilian aborigines, whose development will be discussed in the next article.
1. Father Serafim Leite, História da Companhia de Jesus no Brasil, Livraria Portugalia, Lisbon, 1938.
2. Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen, História Geral do Brasil, Edições Melhoramentos, São Paulo, 1959.
3. Alfred Metraux, A religião dos tupinambás, Cia. Editora Nacional, São Paulo, 1979.
4. Allcionilio Bruzzi Alves da Silva, A Civilização Indígena do Uaupés, Libreria Ateneo Salesiano, Roma, 1977.