Chapter 1
Brazil, 16th Century
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Hygiene was poor on the trips between Europe and America and death haunted the ships. Around 20% of the people boarded on the ships were boys, the majority of them were cabin boys, who were at the basis of the hierarchy of the crew. They were recruited amongst the miserable of Portugal and their pay would contribute to the livelihoods of their families. The children of Jewish families were sometimes taken from home by force with the intent to restrain the growth of this population, since the trip was risky and dying was a concrete possibility. These children did the hardest work and received half the pay of an adult.
Families felt detachment and indifference towards the childhood, which could be explained by the low life expectancy (14 years of age at that time), and the high child mortality (50% died before completing 7 years of age).
Above the cabin boys were the pageboys, who did a lighter job, close to the officials. Cabin boys and pageboys were victims of sexual violence, whereby prostitution was a means of obtaining protection (even though sodomy was a punishable offence). The cabin boys often ended up perishing after the violence committed by the sailors, many of which were boarded in exchange for the penalty of a crime they had committed in the kingdom. The cabin boys were also subjected to whiplashes and could be clung onto iron (chained in the basement).
The “orphans of the King” also boarded. They were intensively monitored, as they had to get to the colony as virgins in order to get married. Some settlers and their kids benefited from the privileges of the ships, since they were seen as passengers. Around 20% of the ships sank and, in case the French or the Dutch robbed them, the adults were murdered and the children enslaved. In the wreck, each one was responsible for their own safety and the children were forgotten.
The Portuguese occupation until the 18c mainly took place on the coastal region, which enabled an easy communication with the Metropolis. The trade; which was mainly carried out in the triangle of Europe, the African coast and the Brazilian coast; was also facilitated by the strategic coastal occupation of Brazil. The raids, which took place in the countryside, aimed at capturing Indians, “drugs of the hinterlands” (clove, guarana, cocoa, and urucum), gold and precious gems. The real occupation of the hinterland took place only in the early 18c with the discovery of gold.
There were not many options for the first Portuguese who got here: they could only adapt what nature was offering them to the habits brought in from the Kingdom. Thus, cassava, corn and meat of hunted animals substituted the bread, the oats porridge and the pork consumed in Portugal. The wine, expensive beverage due to importation, was substituted by cachaça. The manners were also ruder. There were no cutleries and one would eat with their hands. Knives were seen as weapons or tools to open ground in the woods.
The relationship between the settlers and the native population varied from place to place. On the coast of São Vicente, for instance, the tupinambás were trading partners of the Portuguese, even though the latter also captured the first. The bandeiras were expeditions that explored the inlands to capture wild Indians and force them into slavery. Jesuits, however, used catechesis as means of convincing the children to live in schools, where they learnt agricultural techniques alongside with formal education. Indian children and adolescents, already softened by catechism, were sometimes used as helpers of settlers in small services.
The villages that had a priest of another churchman had them as authority and representative of the Holy Faith, the Vatican. He imposed a moral surveillance and monitored by the canon of Catholicism using catechesis and the curbs on practices considered as witchcraft.
The colonial towns were organised around the square where a chapel/church was to be found. It was a space that gathered the religious and commercial functions. In theses spaces, parties were thrown and processions were carried out (for instance Corpus Christi, the visitation of Saint Isabel).
The first houses built by settlers were too simple. They were made of wood built on stilts, a rudimentary technique learnt from the Indians. It was a structure, which consisted of twigs and trunks filled with clay. The windows were small to pre-empt the entrance of insects and other animals. It was a common practice to sleep in hammocks, which were deemed safer than mats.
During the labour, it was common for people to have an image of Our Lady of the “O”, or Our Lady of the Good Birth. The worship to Our Lady of the “O” dates back to the 12th and 13th century in the Iberian Peninsula, which praises the birth of Jesus Boy. The image of Our Lady of “O” shows her with the palm of her left hand lying on her increased womb at the final stage of pregnancy. The right hand may also appear symmetric to the other, but lifted. Images like that are to be found with the hands holding an open book or a fountain, both symbolising the spring of life. In Portugal, such images used to be carved in stone and in Brazil, in wood or clay.
The belly of the parturient was covered with relics and colourful threads to facilitate the birth. The relics were objects taken as sacred, holding miraculous powers because they belonged to a saint. So, supposed thorns on Christ’s crown, pieces of the arrow that killed Saint Sebastian, a piece of Virgin Mary’s mantle and a piece of the cross were traded and used in all sorts of rituals for protection, such as in the case of the birth.
In the first centuries of Portuguese colonization, like Portugal, there were barely any doctors in Brazil. The knowledge of birth care was shared amongst women and concealed from men. Midwives watched the women at the birth of their children by saying prayers and making rituals. The parturient could be standing, squatting (like the Indians) or lying on the mat. From the 18th century onwards, with the opulence brought in with the discovery of gold, birthing chairs became popular. The hygiene conditions were precarious. The birth used to be carried out at the homes, which, usually had dirt floors.
Chicken broth, cachaça and wine were offered to the parturient by means of alleviating the pains.
Also, by means of alleviating the pain and facilitating the birth, a liver of a freshly slaughtered chicken was tied to the parturient’s left leg.
In order to facilitate the baby’s exit, the mother’s genitals were lubricated with fat, lily or olive oil.