“As striking as Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf are to Rio’s landscape, so are the favelas that spread out through the city. Today, there are (officially) around 763, according to data from the Pereira Passos Institute (IPP). The first of Rio’s favelas, Morro da Prividência, started to crop up around 120 years ago.
Two important historic factors contributed to the first occupations in the region: the large number of victorious soldiers coming back from the Canudos War, who disembarked in Rio on November 5th, 1897, without housing, and the large concentration of blacks that filled up the city after the abolition of slavery.
With the “ventre livre” law of 1871 (thenceforth “freeing” the offspring of enslaved women), the city of Rio started to become overran with ex-slaves in search of work (this is false, considering it wasn’t until 1888 that slaves would become ex-slaves). At the time, a large number of so-called cortiços (slum tenaments) started to pop up in and around downtown, which until then was considered a noble area of the city and had become an important region for the concentration of work with the construction of Central Station, in 1858.
Mansions that no longer had a way of sustaining themselves without slaves were transformed into tenement housing. At the same time, in the second half of the 19th century, the largest and most famous cortiço in the city was created, known as Cabeça de Porco (second image). It was a monumental tenament, with 4,000 residences. The exact location where it was is where the João Ricardo Tunnel is located today, next to Central Station.
Cabeça de Porco was destroyed in 1893 by order of mayor Cândido Barata Ribeiro, forcing many families to live on the street (ironically named Felicidade alley). It was right in this area where the first community sprung up, then called Morro da Favela (first image, aka Morro da Providência).
The origin of the term came about after the Canudos War, where the original Morro da Favela was, due to a locally abundant plant known as faveleira. Some of the soldiers, upon their return, didn’t receive their promised pay and decided to invade an old ranch, with the support of an official, on the Morro da Prividência, which then earned the nickname (favela) in reference to Canudos.
It was with the abolition of slavery (in 1888) that the city became crowded, without available housing for everyone. All the slaves from the Paraíba Valley – 200,000 – invaded the city of Rio de Janeiro. Morro da Providência became an ideal place for low-rent families, surrounded on one side by a stone quarry, factories and by train tracks from Central Station’s Estrada de Ferro, and having a protestant cemetary and the port area on the other side, the land was, at the time, undervalued and open.
The first houses on Providência started to be built on the lower half of the hill, in the same manner as those in Canudos. Currently, none of these residences still exist, as this area of the hill was used to extract stone for use on construction works downtown.
Providência was the first “self-consuming” slum in the world, as it consumed itself when its very residents went to work extracting stone which in turn partially destroyed the hill they lived on. It wasn’t until 1968, when an unplanned explosion buried 36 people, that the hill stopped being destroyed.
In 1904, the government made its first attempt to remove the favela, then frustrated by a popular revolt known as “Revolta da Vacina”, in which many slum residents participated fighting government troops. After this, the situation calmed down. The government itself realized that the population was fundamental as cheap labor to extract stone, or to work construction, at the port and in factories and plants in the region.”