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Espírito Santo, Brasil

Versão em Inglês

Luiz Guilherme Santos Neves
Renato Pacheco
Reinaldo Santos Neves


I know not how to sing or tell you
Of this matchless land’s wonders:
Waterfalls in their strength and beauty,
Mountains sparkled with light.
(My land. Lyrics by Cyro Veira da Cunha, music by Henrique Vogeler.)

Espírito Santo, Brazil. What is it? What is it like? What does it have in common with El Dorado, Shangri-la, and Canaan? We will speak first of the land, because it has always been there.

Geographers would state that Espírito Santo has an area of 17,605 square miles in the tropics, between 17º 55′ 21″ and 21º 17′ 59″ south latitudes. But, if we were to write a chronicle, we would say that, on a map, it represents no more than a strip of land wedged between the state of Minas Gerais and the deep blue sea. It seems — be it ironically or symbolically — like an inverted Portugal, with Minas playing the role of Spain whereas the ocean is the same. It is the Atlantic, both here and there. We find the difference in the sun. Here it rises, drenched by the sea, and there its settles into a watery bed at dusk.

This is a land forged from the mountains and sea, basking in the sun most of the year.

Its beaches lie along more than two hundred miles of coast, alternating between long, sandy stretches and small bays. Some have retained their primitive, Edenic features while others have become sophisticated resorts of world renown.

During the summer, those beaches are stormed by tourists, attracted by the clear, warm waters. And the demand grows for typical local dishes prepared from the fish, shrimp and lobsters taken from the sea or crabs from the mangrove swamps along the coast. The matchless specialty there is fish moqueca, served boiling in earthenware pots with a side of pirão de farinha — a spicy cassava flour mush.

The continental shelf, which begins 16 miles offshore, is by far the best spot in the world for marlin fishing. A 1,404-pound blue marlin caught there was duly granted an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

Mountains heighten central Espírito Santo’s beauty. Those green highlands enjoy a mild climate, where the temperature may drop to zero degree Celsius on winter nights. In an area that is home to hummingbirds and orchids, peaceful rural towns abound where there is no hurrying time. And we can find scenes that remind us of Europe, in a magical transposition of geography.

The region features good hotels with lakeside chalets. You can catch a carp for your lunch or take advantage of the golf course built for fans of that particularly relaxing sport. And we have not even mentioned the rustic restaurants and inns scattered on the slopes of tree-covered hills.

There is no shortage of streams in the area. Their chilly waters rush over numerous falls and wash along valleys drenched with the history of the European immigrants who once settled on their banks. Some of their names — Jucu, Itapemirim — remind of the land’s original inhabitants, the Indians. Others, like Benevente, express the Portuguese colonists’ longing for their homeland.

The state’s greatest river is simply called the Rio Doce — Fresh Water River. With its headwaters in Minas Gerais, it flows eastward to the Atlantic ocean and divides Espírito Santo into two halves, almost identical in size but with quite different contours.

In the south lie the foothills of the Mantiqueira range, which approach the coast as if to peep at the sea. They culminate at Bandeira peak in the Caparaó range, forming a wall that separates the backyards of Espírito Santo and Minas Gerais. At 9,462 feet, you can easily see much of Espírito Santo on a clear, dry day.

A vast expanse of rolling tablelands stretches north from the Rio Doce, displaying beautiful, solitary peaks that crop up among granite massifs. Rio São Mateus, also know as Cricaré — Lazy River in Tupi — flows across those areas at a sluggish pace that accounts for its earlier name.

Today, we find cattle farming, intensive reforestation, and oil production in this northern region where São Mateus was once a booming port, thanks to cassava flour.



We have talked about the land, so let us now turn to the history of those who live there.

We can imagine the history of Espírito Santo as being a three-movement symphony. The first movement — vivace con brio — spans the first century of European colonization, as the Portuguese and Indians faced each other in a battle of contrasts over a lush, tropical country. The founding of the first settlements, introduction of permanent agriculture, exploration of the land, preaching of Christianity by Jesuit missionaries, and attempts to settle the Indians and reduce them into slavery gave rise to inevitable conflicts between the native population and the colonists, thus stamping this overture with a high pitch of violence. The forced arrival of Africans to work in the fields aggravated and deepened those hostilities.

Vasco Fernandes Coutinho, who received the first grant in Espírito Santo, was the outstanding figure during this period. His long life had two very different phases. He began as a typical Portuguese hero in the style of Camoëns’s Lusíadas by braving unknown seas and conquering the East Indies. As a middle-aged man, however, he took part in a Shakespearean tragedy of failure, misery, and death on Brazilian shores. He invested both his property and health in the colonial effort, only to die almost penniless after twenty-five years in the country.

The Portuguese landed on May 23, 1535, Pentecost Sunday — Domingo do Espírito Santo in their language — which explains the origins of the name. They also christened their first settlement on the backwaters of the bay — Prainha, or Small Beach — with the same name. Fifteen years later, it was changed to Vila Velha — Old Village, but not because the village had aged. Rather, they moved the colonial administration to a safer location — a mountainous island in the bay. Since that time, the new village — Vila Nova de Nossa Senhora da Vitória — has been the seat of government in Espírito Santo.

Dispersed settlements sprang up north and south of Vitória — São Mateus, Nova Almeida, Serra, Guarapari, Reritiba — all along or near the coast. Poor and few in number, the colonists would not budge, even though they suffered from chronic shortages of supplies and were terrified of Indians from the backlands and pirates from the sea.

The pirates coveted brazilwood and sugar, but their raids in Espírito Santo caused little more than great alarm. Neither the French nor the English — the latter led by the famed privateer Thomas Cavendish in 1592 — were able to take enough loot to justify their effort.

The Dutch tried and almost succeeded where others had failed. They twice fought their way up the island’s slopes. In 1625, they had to deal with Maria Ortiz, a young heroine who became a local legend. They were driven off in 1640 after a series of wild skirmishes that gave Fire Street its name.

In Bahia, Father Antônio Vieira commemorated the Protestants’ defeat with a play on words: “This Victory of the Holy Spirit was one of the most remarkable victories ever achieved by Catholic arms in Brazil.” In Portuguese, Vitória do Espírito Santo can mean both the name of the city and, literally, the victory in question.

And with these words of exaltation, the first movement of our historic symphony comes to a close.

Our second movement is an adagio. Gold was discovered in the hinterlands, which led the Portuguese to separate it from Espírito Santo and create the captaincy of Minas Gerais. So zealous were they about protecting their newly-found mines that they forbade the opening of roads westward, under the penalty of forfeiture of property and banishment to Angola.

Though destitute, Espírito Santo’s inhabitants would not risk being transported overseas. They even regarded the official threat as another reason to stay the way they were. They quietly remained on the coast, coupling fear of their nights with the emptiness of their days while contenting themselves with crops of corn, beans, and cassava. The protein in their daily diet came from fish they caught at sea or in the rivers, which they boiled in earthenware pots, thus strengthening the tradition of moquecas.

Our third symphonic movement — presto — brought with it the flowering of a new Espírito Santo in the nineteenth century, which is still in progress. With the depletion of gold in Minas Gerais, the Portuguese government encouraged the opening of new routes to that captaincy. The backlands, formerly barred, were now opened and the Botocudo Indians living there defended their land as best they could.

At the time, coffee groves were planted in southern Espírito Santo on formerly forest-covered lands. Farmers from Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais established plantations in and around Itapemirim Valley and a new economic axis was soon centered on the village of Cachoeiro de Itapemirim.

By mid-century, new waves of European immigrants had begun settling in the central highlands and along the rivers running through its valleys. The immigrants were from Central Europe — Germans, mainly from Pomerania, as well as Austrians, Swiss, and Dutch. But the greatest numbers came from northern Italy in a never-ending flow.

The immigrants and their descendants, planting and harvesting coffee, gradually occupied new areas for agriculture. They spread beyond the Rio Doce into northern Espírito Santo, where people from Minas Gerais and Bahia had already put down roots.

By mid-twentieth century, Espírito Santo’s territory had been fully occupied. The rural population out-numbered that in urban areas, but Vitória, the state capital, had grown into a major Brazilian port.

This demographic pattern was reversed in subsequent decades. Today, roughly, half of the state’s three million inhabitants live in cities, particularly in Cariacica, Viana, Vila Velha, and Vitória.



If Espírito Santo’s history arrived by sea, its culture was forged on land from other cultures.

Indians gave us place names and enriched our everyday language. The very word capixaba serves as an example. Originally a Tupi word meaning a small corn field, capixaba now signifies anyone born in Espírito Santo. They also contributed hunting and fishing skills, cassava flour, techniques for making earthenware pots used for cooking and decorative purposes. As a bonus, they taught the Portuguese the graceful art of fishing with throw nets.

The Africans, on their part, also contributed folk dances replete with colorful costumes and warlike choreography, such as the Congo and Ticumbi. In addition, they gave us the cult of St. Benedict, excellent cassava-based culinary, a seafood pie traditionally served during Holy Week, and the delicious moqueca, concocted with typically African spices and oils.

The Portuguese brought their language, administrative organization, colonial architecture, and the Catholic religion. The convent of Our Lady of the Rock, atop a hill overlooking the entrance to Vitória bay, is the most notable example of colonial church architecture on Brazil’s coast. Founded by the Franciscan friar Pedro Palácios, it became the shrine of Our Lady of the Rock, Espírito Santo’s patron saint.

Immigrants from Italy and Central Europe also left their mark on local cuisine and architecture, as shown by Italian polenta and tall, sloping roofs. Their millennial legacy included agricultural techniques, handicrafts, mechanical skills, and a taste for concertina music. Many large commercial and industrial ventures bear witness to their entrepreneurial abilities, an aptitude they share with the descendants of Syrians and Lebanese who arrived here in the early twentieth century.

Espírito Santo’s cultural profile has not yet been completed. It is still undergoing economic and social transformations. The Japanese, recent newcomers, are integrating themselves in this great cultural melting pot. They are being employed as technicians in expanding industrial projects, especially in port facilities, iron ore mills, and state-of-the-art technology.



And, finally, let us speak about what has been and can be done in this land.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, Espírito Santo’s economy was restricted to rudimentary fishing and cattle ranching, lumbering, subsistence level agriculture, sugar cane and cassava.

Coffee, which became the basis of the economy, changed this picture altogether. It made Vitória evolve into a major port for exports.

Coffee remains an important item in the state’s gross domestic product, as there are millions of productive coffee plants. A new line of products, however, is now being fully expanded to include, among others, garlic, tomatoes, Queensland nuts, and black pepper. The cultivation of tropical and temperate fruits has been rapidly increased. Other fruits, such as pineapples, papaya, and bananas, are being exported to several Brazilian states. Improved cattle ranching has opened the horizon for the meat processing and dairy industries.

The state’s economic profile began to change drastically in the early sixties due to the implementation of so-called major projects. The Vale do Rio Doce Company inaugurated the port of Tubarão in 1966 to export iron ore, including in the form of pellets.

The Brazilian government opened the Tubarão Steel Company near the port in conjunction with Italian and Japanese partners. This company has since been privatized and now has an annual output of over three million tons of steel plates.

The large Praia Mole port was constructed near Tubarão, which, with the Aracruz Celulose industrial complex north of Vitória, rounds out the list of the state’s major projects.

The Vitória Industrial Center (Civit) in the municipality of Serra now houses nearly one hundred industries. Among these, we find JDR, a joint-venture established by Xerox and two of its former employees to manufacture peripherals for electronic printers. Another two industrial centers have been planned for Vila Velha and Linhares, and others are being considered for Cariacica, Cachoeiro de Itapemirim, and Colatina. Colatina, on the banks of the Rio Doce, just witnessed the inauguration of a federal technical school to train middle level technicians. This school has been integrated into the network of specialized education that includes the Federal Technical School in Vitória, the National Service for Industrial Apprenticeship (Senai) and the Federal University of Espírito Santo.

However, it is undoubtedly the transport corridor in Brazil’s central-eastern region that has brought the state incomparable perspectives for growth. Products from the Brazilian cerrado — a vast and fertile area including the states of Minas Gerais, Goiás, Tocantins, and Mato Grosso do Sul — are carried along the corridor by rail, which is why the Tubarão terminal was given all of the equipment it needed, in addition to special facilities for storing grain, particularly soy beans. The Vale do Rio Doce Company has contributed its Vitória-Minas railroad to this transportation network.

Vitória has become Brazil’s largest port facility, focussing on importing goods like coal and exporting iron ore, steel, and grain. It is thus on its way to becoming an important international commercial and financial center because of its highly developed port, which is closely integrated with the states of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and São Paulo — Brazil’s greatest income-producing region.

Measures are being taken to balance Greater Vitória’s economic growth with that of the state’s rural areas. These projects are varied in nature and are linked to the natural resources and economic potential of the state’s municipalities. As an example, we can cite the processing of granite and marble. The state’s marble — in great demand overseas — has been ranked equal to that of Carrara.

Tourism, which links the highland and coastal regions, has already brought about public and private investments aimed at the state’s capacity to accommodate five million tourists per year.

Furthermore, development in the state is being carried out with an awareness of the need to make environmental protection a priority.

Espírito Santo is different altogether from the humble province it was at the turn of the century. The daring and diversified economic development project now under way is being carried out in accordance with sensible, carefully thought-out guidelines. It is geared toward the coming century, certain of realizing the dream spoken of in the state’s anthem: to reach the promised star.

Luiz Guilherme Santos Neves

Luiz Guilherme Santos Neves (Vitória, ES, 24/9/1933) é filho de Guilherme Santos Neves e Marília de Almeida Neves. Professor, historiador, escritor, folclorista, membro do Instituto Histórico e da Cultural Espírito Santo. É autor de várias obras de ficção, didáticas e paradidáticas, sobre a História do Espírito Santo.

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