One Hundred Years Ago, they were looking for the Center of Brazil – September 1922: Brasília

Zur deutschen Fassung.

As you know, I am currently searching for the geographical center of Europe, which, over the next few months, will take me to obscure villages from Ukraine to Sweden, from France to Belarus, from Estonia to Belgium.

“Why would you do that?” some will wonder, until they read about the even more nonsensical alternative ideas.

But such a geographical center can also have practical relevance, as we will learn today, using the example of Brazil. Like Germany, Austria, Mexico, the USA and a number of other countries, Brazil is a federal republic. As in many federal republics, the individual states can’t always see eye to eye with each other. There are always some who believe that they generate all the revenue, while the others are scroungers.

Often, these differences can be traced back to geography. Alaskans aren’t rich because they are ingenious and hard-working, but because there is oil and because they live far away and in sub-zero temperatures, which means that nobody will move there and the revenues get shared among fewer people. Hence the annual check. Or let’s take solar energy: It just can’t work in the USA, because they don’t have as much sun as Germany.

Which explains why so many Americans like to spend their winters in ever-sunny places like Grafenwöhr, Vilseck, Hohenfels, Kaiserslautern or Baumholder.

And then there is the long-lasting impact of history, for which I point you to the episode about Black Wall Street.

In Brazil, there have been and still are major differences between rural regions (where large landowners act like lords of the manor) and cities (where people are aware of their civil rights). Between mining areas (Minas Gerais even has the mines in its name), which dump mercury into the rivers, and coffee states, which need clean water. Between logging states and beach states, the latter ones worried about declining tourism if too much of the rainforest is cut down. Between German-dominated states like Santa Catarina and African-dominated states like Bahia.

We also have these geographic and historical differences between states in Germany and in Austria, but they rarely turn into anything serious. Because sooner or later, somebody looks at the map of the world and realizes that we are teeny-tiny countries. Globally irrelevant. Brazil is 100 times the size of Austria and 24 times the size of Germany.

Brazil is also older. It gained independence from Portugal in 1822 and became an empire. Almost 50 years before the German Reich was founded.

Incidentally, the first emperor was the son of the Portuguese king, who had enjoyed his vacation in Brazil so much that he didn’t want to return to Portugal. The empire lasted for two emperors, Pedro I and Pedro II, until 1889, when a military coup established the republic. (30 years before Germany finally became a republic.) Fortunately, just before the demise of the empire, Crown Princess Isabel had taken advantage of her father’s vacation to act as regent and abolish slavery.

For once, that was something useful done by an heir to the throne. Not some stupid assassination like the Austrian crown prince in Sarajevo. Not to mention the Hohenzollerns, who went on to campaign for the Nazi Party. By the way, about the latter, there will be a fun event at the end of September, where we can finally meet in person. Please show up in large numbers and in good spirits!

But back to Brazil: Because the new republic was a federal republic (“the United States of Brazil” was its official name), there was a dispute about the capital. Until then, Salvador and Rio de Janeiro had been capital cities, each for about 200 years. But of course they were/are also the capitals of their respective states, Rio de Janeiro (now I mean the state of the same name, not the city) and Bahia, respectively.

Not being a fan of huge cities, I haven’t been to Rio de Janeiro. But in Salvador, you can clearly see that it was once the capital. However, you also notice that this era has been over since 1763. Slowly the paint peels off the plaster, little trees are growing on the roofs, and the history is long forgotten. Until this blog brings it back to life.

By the way, just left of the house in the last picture was where I was staying. It was affordable.

Because Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, São Paulo and many other cities were fighting over who would be the capital, they asked the people who should always be consulted in the event of a dispute: the lawyers. In 1891, these experts on everything and anything wrote into the constitution that a new capital should be established on neutral territory that does not belong to any state. A tried and tested solution. This is how, for example, Canberra in Australia or Washington in the USA came into being, which also do not belong to any of the previously existing states.

And where should this new capital be?

Well, of course, right in the middle of the country, in its geographical center.

What the lawyers didn’t know because, unlike me, they were not world-traveling or at least Brazil-traveling lawyers: In the center of Brazil, it looks like this.

Well, if you always hang out in FlorianópolisBlumenau or Pomerode, you can’t even imagine what the rest of the country looks like. And thus, the midpoint-finding commission got to work. A task which was complicated by Brazil changing its shape and size, because it kept attacking its neighbors and gobbling up territory from Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia. (The latter is a particularly tragic case, because Bolivia lost not only large parts of its territory, but also the sea.)

Why it’s always the enormously huge countries who believe that they have to own yet more land, I don’t know. Maybe Russia can answer that.

At any rate, Brazilian geographers found an approximate central point, which was, of course, in the middle of the jungle and far away from all cities, people and politicians. There, the new capital, creatively named Brasília, was to be built. For this purpose, a new territory was created that did not belong to any state, but was directly subordinate to the federal government. Like the District of Columbia in the USA or the Australian Capital Territory in Australia. Why the German federal structure, which prides itself on being the most complex one, hasn’t picked up on this idea yet, is beyond me.

When the government asked the military, two men volunteered for the long and arduous battle towards not-yet-existent Brasília.

Jair Bolsonaro, a rather simple minded man, was on fire: “I will burn down this whole fucking forest!”

Cândido Rondon, of indigenous descent, engineer and positivist, was also enthusiastic: “I will use the search for the geographical center to lay telegraph lines, survey the country, discover previously unknown indigenous tribes in the Amazon, tell them about the blessings of the republic, and thus unite the country.”

Fortunately, Rondon got the job.

For 24 years, he traveled through the most remote areas of Brazil, laying 4000 miles of telegraph lines. While he was at it, he extended the lines to Bolivia and Peru. He encountered indigenous communities, for whom he was the first representative of the Brazilian state to come in contact with. Bolsonaro would have shot them all; Rondon set up a gramophone and played the Brazilian national anthem, informing them that they were now citizens of the republic, with equal rights to everyone else. He created a foundation and a national park to protect indigenous peoples and their ecosystem.

In between, he was considered lost in the jungle for a few years, brokered a peace agreement between Colombia and Peru, mapped newly discovered rivers, collected plants and animals for research and saved Theodore Roosevelt’s life. A man straight out of a novel.

The only tragedy was that when Rondon returned from the jungle after 24 years of laying telegraph lines, the radio had been invented. Hardly anyone needed a telegraph anymore.

On 7 September 1922, the centenary of Brazil’s independence, the foundation stone of the new capital Brasília was laid at the point which had been carefully measured and calibrated. More or less.

And then – nothing happened.

The constitutional mandate to build a new capital was simply ignored.

For decades, Brazil was otherwise occupied. Military coup. World Cup. Another coup. Carnival. In between, Brazil defeated the Nazis in World War II. (Many people don’t know that.) Another military coup. Until in 1956 – 34 years after the foundation stone was laid -, construction of the new capital finally began. The plan was bold and modern, but unfortunately the 1950s were the age of the automobile. City planners at that time did not think about people, but about vehicles. So there were eternally long distances between buildings, plenty of parking spaces, but no streetcar. It was not until 2001 that a subway was finally added.

As I said, quite modern. But also artificial and sterile, like the depressing new buildings around Canary Wharf in London. No corner pubs, no spaces for culture, for informal meetings, no retreats in overgrown parks, nothing that touches the soul or the heart.

Even a military coup, like the one in 1964, looks kind of ridiculous there.

Maybe it was just a coup against the bleak architecture?

But I don’t want to judge too harshly. After all, I haven’t been to Brasília myself. If you have been, I am curious about your impressions!

Anyway, Oscar Niemeyer, the architect, said in 2001: “This experiment was not successful.”

That’s okay, ideas fail. But if you fail, it’s still better to fail in style. Like in Salvador.

By the way, if the 34 years from the laying of the foundation stone to the beginning of the actual construction seem long to you: The coup plotters who overthrew the emperor in 1889 and proclaimed a republic recognized that this was not the proper way of doing things and stipulated that, ultimately, the people should vote on the form of government (monarchy or republic). That referendum took place in 1993, a mere 104 years later. The republic won against the monarchy by 7:1.


Another event that will have its centenary this month is the fire of Izmir, the catastrophe of Smyrna.

This would be a good opportunity to rehash the whole Ottoman-Hellenic-Turkish-Greek history. If anyone of you knows their way around this and wants to tell the story, please step forward! As you can see, this series is open to unusual and personal approaches to complex topics. Likewise for October 1922, if someone wants to write about the fascist march on Bolzano or on Rome. Or about the discovery of Tutankhamun in November 1922. After all, I can’t be an expert on everything myself.

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About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
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1 Response to One Hundred Years Ago, they were looking for the Center of Brazil – September 1922: Brasília

  1. Pingback: Vor hundert Jahren suchte man den Mittelpunkt Brasiliens – September 1922: Brasília | Der reisende Reporter

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