Caribbean in the Amazon: A reading of Marcio Souza´s Mad Maria

Arts on Sunday presents another in a series of articles revealing the Caribbean interest in Brazilian literature, and Guyanese writers’ engagement with Brazil. These comparative discussions assume greater importance because of the growing impact of Brazilian culture in Guyana and the long history of cross-border associations. Miguel Neneve is Visiting Professor of Portuguese in the Department of Language and Cultural Studies at the University of Guyana. Rose Siepamann is a Brazilian literary critic. –  ALC
By Miguel Nenevé and
Rose Siepamann

Millie gone to Brazil, oh lord, poor Millie” (Barbadian song)
During the “rubber boom” in the Brazilian Amazon,  between 1880 and 1912, the construction of a railroad linking the Madeira River in Brazil to the Mamore River in Bolivia was undertaken to solve the problem of  rubber transportation in that region. The railway would help to get the Bolivian rubber out of the jungle, past the rapids on the Madeira and then reach the navigable part of the river in Porto Velho, in the state of Rondonia. For the construction of the Madeira-Mamoré railroad, many African-Caribbean workers, especially from Barbados, were taken to that part of the Brazilian Amazon. The enterprise was first a British project but later was controlled by the American Percival Farquhar who had a Brazilian business empire. 

This “adventure in the Amazon” brought about the death of about six thousand workers, caused by Indian attacks, malaria and many other diseases. Marcio Souza, a very well known Brazilian writer from Manaus, wrote an important novel, Mad Maria, based on this historical fact. In this article we intend to discuss the presence of Barbadians and the treatment they receive in this 1980 Brazilian novel.

Using a satirical tone, like in many of his novels, Marcio Souza, in some ways, mocks the foreign businessmen who believed they could control the jungle as their personal domain. The author tells the stories of many people from different countries, looking at the enterprise from different positions, all of them in some way connected to the railway. Mad Maria becomes a very significant work as it offers the readers many opportunities to revise concepts about the Amazon and the regional development.  The readers meet for example, the Amerindian who saw his land invaded by the workers; the naïve American doctor Finnegan, who could not prevent the workers from dying of malaria; the railroad builders who had worked on the Panama Canal; the British engineer and the low wages paid to workers such as the Germans, the Chinese, the Italians and a large number of Barbadians.

The term “Barbadian”, in fact, was used as a globalizing identification attributed to the foreign Blacks who went to the Amazon from several parts of the Caribbean, mainly Barbados, but also from Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago and even the Guyanas. They migrated, or rather were taken, to the Brazilian state of Rondonia which was a wilderness in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Therefore, it was a migration motivated by work, by the search for a new life, causing the rupture of family roots and culture as well as producing a feeling of displacement and lack of emotional ties. Marcio Souza´s novel introduces these workers at the beginning of the novel: “the Barbadians had already begun to sweat heavily, their black muscles gleaming as they worked, wading into waters up their knees.” Their job was “to cut the railway through the mainly terrain of Rio Abuna: seemingly not an impossible operation. After all, hadn´t six Barbadians just hugged a rail over to where still others were hard at work opening trenches with picks and spades?”(10) Under the order of the English engineer, Collier, the Barbadians worked hard for the American enterprise. The narrator reveals that the “Barbadians” were treated with respect by the engineer, because they had a history of railroad building in other countries. They had the knowledge and the resistance to bear the difficult conditions in the jungle: “The Barbadian was a bloody good worker” (11). For the narrator, the Barba-dians are different, “they know the work they do, they are professionals.”

M   ad Maria describes in vivid details the suffering of the working force:  “The heat by now was burning into the backs of the Barbadian workers, although they at least had the sense to protect themselves… The metallic luster of the tracks was nearly blinding in the sunlight.” (10)  Further on the narrator tells us about the conditions that the “Black English” had to face under the pressure of the work. The place they slept in was a “crude structural framework, built of tree trunks” where they strung up their hummocks. The narrator affirms: “They slept there, yes but to characterize the place as a dormitory was to euphemize rather cynically.” The hummocks were lined up in parallel rows with the “dormitory” itself divided into two wings. “They had problems with mosquitoes and the rain was another matter as the ‘dormitory’ was roofless.” The infirmary was always full of people with malaria, injuries and several diseases. The American doctor, Finnegan, could not accept the culture of the people who did not want him to perform autopsies on the dead people. A Barbadian warns him: “No. You profanin´de corpses! Goddom white mon always haves to scomble up de dead!” (40). According to the belief of the “Barbadians”, one had to preserve the integrity of the dead. Unlike the doctor, the engineer Collier was sympathetic to the Barbadians reaffirming that they were excellent workers and that they “never start any fight. They just defend themselves.”  However, no one should touch their dead.

If the engineer respected “the Black English,” they had, however, to suffer  the prejudice from the workers of other nations, mainly the Germans. These workers seemed to have a “natural inclination” to dislike the Black West Indians : “The German workers had paused in their digging to look up at the Barbadians carrying the rail. The Germans had come to manifest a particularly hostile regard to these Negroes. (22)” Inexplicably they disliked the Barbadians, although not  the Chinese, the Spaniards, or any other nationality or race present on the line of construction. On the other hand, from the Barbadians “there came only a hostile indifference” towards the Germans. They lived together not mixing with anyone from the other races.  

Perhaps it is possible to say that the Barbadians´ history of slavery, the conditions of the lives they had before, the suffering, the striving for survival, made them able to prevail over those harsh conditions of life. As the narrator says, “they were men who cared little of being there or in any other place (326).

However, when the young German, Hans, accuses them of being thieves, “dirty swines” and tries to hit the Black with a pick ax, the Barbadians react and kill the German: “One of the Barbadians nearest to the galloping German drew his machete from his belt and with a precisely timed movement swung the blade with all his strength, adroitly beheading his attacker” (25). This was the beginning of a long fight which caused five deaths (3 Germans and 2 Blacks). The disagreement between the two groups of workers will last until the Germans decide to escape through the forest and die.

 Marcio Souza invites the reader to go further into the history of the ‘Barbadians’: “… the Negro population of Barbados was made up of slaves garnered from a multiplicity of African tribes but predominantly Congo, Aradas, and Nago. A great number of such slaves were originally Moslems but over the generations had lost all ties to their faith and adopted in their stead the religious practices of the masters”(101). As Jonathan says to the American doctor when referring to their religion and culture: “Is not too common. I tell you dot, Doct Finnegan, but then I figure de history bout Barbados not too familiar to you most wise anyway. .. but you probably knows dat most of dem islands dere is inhobitd by the Africans. When the African slave come to de islands he find de Indians already long dead, decimated by the white mon” (122).

By reading Souza´s Mad Maria one is offered the opportunity  both to see a little of history of the building of the “Devil´s Railroad” and to reflect on the conditions of the Caribbean workers who were transplanted from the West Indies to the wilderness in order to live under so many adverse conditions. One can conclude that besides satirizing the dream of bringing “progress” to the jungle, Marcio Souza reveals himself to be sympathetic to the Caribbean (“Barbadian”) workers and perhaps a critic of the prejudiced Germans.

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