O Rio Antes do Rio

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While my greatest personal interest lies in 19th and 20th century Rio de Janeiro, I’m sure I’ll find my way to reading up on it’s early history, that is, around the era of “discovery”. Luckily, I may have just come across the best book to teach me. Below is an interview with the author, written by journalist Juliana d’Arêde for the site Vai Lendo.


The book above shows the origins, beauty and interesting points of the Wonderful City. In O Rio Antes do Rio, by journalist Rafael Freitas da Silva, we have the stories and disputes between the indigenous and Europeans which culminated in the formation of the city of Rio de Janeiro. With front and back cover texts by historian Luiz Antonio Simas, in addition to journalists Sidney Garambone and Pedro Bial, the book, according to Rafael, “tries to piece together the history of the defeated, because that of the victors we already know.”

In an interview with Vai Lendo, the journalist emphasizes that in history books about Brazil (and not just about Rio de Janeiro), “there isn’t the smallest effort to take into account what existed previously and the ‘history’ of our native peoples.”

“There’s this very ethnocentric concept of our history as a nation and as a people, that everything began with the arrival of the Europeans (Portuguese), that Brazil was a huge empty place for occupying (and I believe this deep-rooted concept still exists)”, affirmed Rafael. “The very theory of the ‘discovery of Brazil’ already reveals this part. In Rio de Janeiro, this way of seeing history simply erased the ‘Tupi’ origin from names like CARIOCA, IRAJÁ, TAQUARA, PAVUNA and so many others that are ‘explained’ as if they were Portuguese ‘creations’. They were large Tupi villages. There are long-standing historians in Brazil that never considered studying the indigenous civilizations, that never studied old Tupi and that base their works on recounting the European colonization of our lands as being ‘heroic’, as if these actions were part of Brazil’s very one ‘development’. Of course there are some other authors, at least, tried, back in the 20th century, to combat these conceptions and sought to study our origins in a more theoretic and general way, searching out our deeper origins. However, even today, no one has even tried to make a Rio Antes do Rio, the Rio of the Tupinambás.”

In total, there are 432 pages whose goal is to “fill this gap in the education of Carioca readers and other interested people in the origins of Guanabara.” In four chapters, Rafael portrays the life of a man and woman in the primordial stages of the city, as well as trace an informative panorama of the village names and the morubixabas (chieftans) that were the chiefs of Guanabara, since the arrival of the Tupis, around 2 to 3 thousand years ago.

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In the last two chapters, the journalist reconstructs the history of the city with information capable of helping readers to deeply understand the origins of the formation of Rio de Janeiro. In spite of all the extensive research, the desire of telling this story came about by chance, from a book that showed the city through a foreigner’s eyes. And from there, Rafael says, he realized the need of having a complete and exclusively Brazilian content about our own origins.

“Around three years ago, I found a pocket edition of Viagem à terra do Brasil, by Jean de Léry, a Calvinist protestant who was in Rio de Janeiro in 1557, with a preface by anthropologist Levis Strauss”, he explained. “I was already familiar with this book because it’s a Brazilian history classic (mainly on Rio de Janeiro). But I hadn’t really ever had contact with the French edition. The book is a story of the passage of this European through a totally indigenous Guanabara: it’s very interesting to think that all that oddessy, those French from França Antártica and their incredible contact with the Tupinambás, happened in the same place we live today. Anyways, around the end of the book (which is huge), in a really strange chapter which seems more like a play, Léry provides two lists of villages in Rio de Janeiro of that time (he already pointed out 35 of them). I had never paid attention to that detail, I think very few people have. And then, I thought ‘wow, how is it that I never knew about all these names? Why have I never seen a book that spoke of what these village names meant and where they were located? Am I just crazy or has no one really ever been interested in discovering more about this information, which can’t be refuted’?

So, I started to dive into the subject, and it took a long time for me to put together all the sparse information that I found. It was only by the end of the research period that I really realized that I had put together all the necessary elements to write a book about how the real Rio before Rio was. Fundamental for this were the books of Florestan Fernandes about Tupinambá society, the research of Maurício de Almeida Abreu (UFRJ geographer) on the origins of Rio de Janeiro, the modern publications on old Tupi by Navarro de Almeida (USP professor), and as the work from the 1960s from the Tupi specialist Frederico Edelweiss, as well as the arqueologial research of Maria Beltrão (and others like her), and so many other important authors that helped here and there to reveal some mysteries that had placed enormous difficulty on my continuing.”

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Rafael said he’s happy with the result and the reception and highlighted the journalistic character of the book, developed from historical sources, pointing out that all the content and presented material are absolutely real and unedited.

“In no moment did I try to ‘invent’ anything or improve upon our history in search of showing a lighter or falsified chapter in it”, he declared. First and foremost, I try to be a journalist supported by (historical) sources to write about any topic, always in search of the truth, as we know there are many ways to face it. Ruy Castro, who I admire a lot, went to the book launch and confided in me that what he most liked about the book was exactly the fact that it was journalistic and that I didn’t try to write a novel, or a story ‘based on real facts’, which is quite in vogue these days. So, I stress that there has never been a book that told everything we know of the huge Tupinambá villages of Rio de Janeiro, and this, on its own, should already be reason enough to commemorate our Karióka culture, a name that already takes us away to O Rio Antes do Rio.

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