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Notes on the Geography of Brazil: Olinda: Photo 1

world pictures Brazil: Olinda

Officially, Olinda has about 300,000 people, but the historic district is much smaller and mostly around this hill. The early Portuguese preferred cities in an Acropolis style; it made them feel secure, and living on a hill isn't a big deal if you have horses and slaves to carry you up and down. The Portuguese elite had both. In the distance, five miles away, is Recife, a hugely bigger city than Olinda now, but in the colonial period a ragged commercial excrescence that embarrassed aristocratic Olinda, proud capital of Pernambuco. Charles Boxer, who is about as authoritative a historian of Brazil as you'll find in English, contrasted Olinda, "a miniature and tropical Lisbon...dignified by massive churches and convents" with Recife, an "ill-built and overcrowded shantytown huddled on the swampy land around the harbor." Olinda, he wrote, was the "metropolis of the captaincy and seat of the senate or municipal council." Recife, in contrast, had "not even the status of a town (villa), but was a mere appendage of the latter.... The inhabitants of Recife naturally chafed at their legal and social subordination to the municipal councillors of Olinda." The chafing went on for two centuries but ended in 1837, when Recife became the capital of Pernambuco. Olinda went to sleep.

The term "captaincy" calls for some explanation. The Portuguese Crown initially divided Brazil among a dozen donitarios, hereditary lords or captains. As a device for increasing royal wealth, the arrangement was judged a failure, and in 1549 the Crown took over direct administration. Thanks to the wealth that came with sugarcane, however, the captaincy of Pernambuco was an exception. It had been assigned to Duarte Coelho, who had arrived in 1535, established Olinda, and lived there for 20 years before returning, terminally sick, to Portugal. His descendants continued as captains, at least nominally, until 1658--right to the end of the Dutch interregnum. The Dutch allowed this? Sure; they had the sense not to mess with the sugarcane industry. No point in killing the goose.

As for the name Pernambuco, it's Tupi for "hollow sea," a reference to the reefs offshore here, though not visible in this image.

See Boxer's The Golden Age of Brazil, 1695-1750.

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