(Two days ago, on March 1st 2017, Rio turned 452)
For centuries, Rio’s anniversary was celebrated on January 20th. In the 1960s, the celebration went from St Sebastian’s Day, the patron saint of the city, to the day of the Portuguese arrival.
On March 1, 1965, on Carnival Monday, 10,000 people packed Maracanãzinho looking for a piece of cake. Not just any cake: the delicacy made for the 400th anniversary of Rio de Janeiro was five meters high, 16 meters wide and weighed three tons (200 kg of just icing). At 4PM, it was Carlos Lacerda’s turn, the governor of Guanabara, a city-state that Rio turned into when Brasilia came about. The politician “blew out” the 400 lightbulbs that took the place of candles and served the first piece to a boy from São Paulo – who had sent a letter expressing this desire. It was up to 200 boy scouts to hand out the rest to the public. The leftovers – yes, some was left – went to orphanages and charities.
The cake consolidated the 1st of March of 1565, the date of the arrival of the Portuguese in Urca, as the anniversary of the city. It consolidated it because, for centuries, the date of its birth was another: January 20, 1567, the day of the Portuguese victory over the Tamoio Indians and French invaders, and additionally, St. Sebastian’s Day, patron saint of the city.
Historian Cláudia Mesquita, an expert in the 400th anniversary of the city and co-author of the book “Rio 400+50“, explains:
“The final decision was made in the 1960s. There was a consensus among exponents of the era. As is everything in history, it’s one interpretation.”
In the middle of the confusion, clarification: the name of the city does not necessarily have to do with the [month of the] first anniversary date. “Rio de Janeiro” is the name that the Portuguese navigators gave to Guanabara bay when they discovered it, on January 1, 1502. They only officially returned by this area on March 1, 1565, to expel a foreign colony, France Antarctique.
The arrival between Sugarloaf and the Morro Cara de Cão was recorded by Father José de Anchieta in a letter. “They began to clear the land with great fervor and cut wood for the fence, without wanting to know about the Tamoios or the French,” wrote the Jesuit. And the new settlement was named São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro in honor of the king of Portugal at the time – the legendary Dom Sebastião (1554-1578).
There is no lack of reasons for considering this episode as the founding of Rio. Anchieta’s letter, the only official record of the event, came to the general knowledge only in the 1920s. During this long period, it remained January 20, 1567, when Estácio de Sá’s troops subdued the Indians and French.
Paulo Knauss, historian and director of Rio de Janeiro’s Public Archive, explains the symbolism of the date:
“The battle isn’t just important because it was won. Estácio de Sá is injured by an arrow and dies soon after. A warrior killed by arrow, like Saint Sebastian, patron of the city, whose day is the same as the battle. They are very dense military and religious matters.
Historian Milton Teixeira goes further:
“During the colonial and imperial period, January 20th remained Rio’s birthday. It was the only religious holiday maintained by the Republic, it marked the start of the city government”, he says.
This was until Anchieta’s letters were published, raising controversy over the founding of Rio. But for the story to be rewritten, an external factor was still needed. In 1954, São Paulo celebrated 400 years. And the question came up: when would Rio turn 400? If the story of the arrival is held to, it would be 1965. If it’s the victory, then 1967. A committee opted for the arrival, a decision ratified by Carlos Lacerda, who saw the 400th anniversary as a means to showcase his candidacy for the presidency.
During his government (1960-1965), Lacerda made a cake, a museum, a tunnel and even a landfill. It made no difference: the 1964 military regime continued, and the civilian Lacerda never ran for president. The State of Guanabara was merged with the State of Rio de Janeiro in 1975. The anniversary was kept as March 1st. Knauss stresses the change of values:
“Instead of placing value on the day of the saint or the battle, what’s valued is the civilization. It is a city for those who want to “clear the land”, to build a new life.
The truth is that many locals remain confused about the two dates. That’s okay: it can be celebrated twice.