After travelling for nearly 21 hours from Mumbai, there was more anticipation than fatigue, as we descended on São Paulo’s Guarulhos–Governador André Franco Montoro International Airport, popularly referred to as GRU Airport. We were received by the 72-year-old Marlene Kocher, who would be our guide for one of the two days in São Paulo.
São Paulo (pronounced Som Paulo) is both a state and a city. The city of São Paulo, fondly called ‘Sam Pa’, is situated in South-East Brazil. It is the capital of the state and is also the most populous city in Brazil. Brazil has a chequered past, and what started as a missionary outpost has now become an economically important centre of Brazil. The city is a melting pot of cultures with various miners from Europe coming in the 17th century due to the ‘Gold Rush’; followed by African slaves who were brought in to work in the coffee and sugarcane plantations; the 19th century brought more Europeans and the 20th century brought in the Japanese.
Perhaps, nothing represents an important part of the history of Brazil than the ‘O Monumento às Bandeiras’ (Monument to the Bandeiras or Monument of Flags). This huge granite sculpture is situated in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park or Parque Ibirapuera, which is an amazing sprawling urban park. Marlene tells us that this land was indigenous land and was originally a large swamp. In 1920, the municipality of São Paulo took ownership, and trees were planted to firm up the ground. The spacious park was designed meticulously by agronomist Otávio Augusto de Teixeira Mendes and was opened to the public in 1954, in the Villa Mariana neighbourhood to commemorate the 400th birthday of São Paulo.
Parking the car at the entrance of the Ibirapuera Park, at the Armando Salles de Oliveira square right in front of the Nove de Julho Palace, the seat of the Legislative Assembly, a small walk across the road brings us to the large granite structure called the O Monumento às Bandeiras (Monument to the Bandeiras or Monument of Flags). Marlene tells us the history of the monument. Sculpted by artist Victor Brecheret using 240 blocks of granite weighing 50 tonnes each, this sculpture is 50 metres long and 16 metres high, and took 33 years (1921-1954) to complete.
The statue represents an important part of history that shaped Brazil as a nation. In 1554, the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries arrived to convert native South American Indians to the Catholic faith and the landscape changed forever. Later, in the 17th century, more Portuguese settlers arrived who led expeditions called bandeiras, which means ‘flags’ in Portuguese. São Paulo became the primary settlement for the most bandeirantes. They penetrated the interior of Brazil for their expeditions, by capturing and enslaving the natives.
It is recorded that the bandeiras used to sing hymns while disguising themselves as Jesuit priests to lure the native population out.
If that did not work, they would surround the settlements, set them on fire to force the inhabitants out. The bandeiras would sell natives as slaves at a cheap rate when African slaves were sold at nearly 500 $ at that time.
While the Jesuit missionaries wanted to ‘civilise’ the natives, the bandeirantes sought to capture and sell them. The contact of the indigenous population with the Portuguese also resulted in disease and death amongst them. The Bandeiras took advantage of the fact that different tribes often fought with each other for territory or revenge. They allied with one tribe against other tribes and hence expanded their territory. The book Brazil - a novel, authored by Errol Lincoln Uys describes in detail the first bandeira that was led by a Portuguese immigrant António Raposo Tavares in 1628.
John M Monteiro, in his book Blacks of the Land: Indian Slavery, Settler Society, and the Portuguese, says that this expedition was by far very large in both scale and structure as compared to other slaving missions in the seventeenth century.
In one of the records, a Jesuit priest says, “One is astounded by their boldness and impertinence. They go without God, without food, naked as the savages, and subject to all the persecutions and miseries in the world. Men venture for two or three hundred leagues into the sertão, serving the devil with such amazing martyrdom, in order to trade or steal slaves.”
The bandeirantes later shifted the focus of their expeditions to the exploration of gold, silver and diamond mines. Very early in their expeditions, they found modest amounts of alluvial gold, south of São Paulo leading to new settlements in the seventeenth century. And that is why some scholars chose to call the bandeirantes as path-finders and not as colonists. The discovery of extensive amounts of minerals and metals, especially gold, in the state of Minas Gerais in 1690, justified the quest of the ‘path-finders’. As they ventured into unmapped regions in search of profit, they also expanded the borders of the Brazilian colony.
Most bandeirantes were the descendants of first and second-generation Portuguese who settled in São Paulo, but their numbers also included ‘mameluco’ background (people of both European and indigenous ancestries).
As they made their way into the interiors of Brazil, they spread the Portuguese language, integrated African and indigenous cultural traditions that resulted in the emergence of a new South American way of life and a new Brazilian identity.
The O’ Monumento as Bandeiras or the Monument to the Flags in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park represents this chequered history of bandeirantes.
The statue represents all the ethnicities such as the Portuguese (Barbados), Blacks, Mamelucos and native Indians with crosses hung on their neck pulling a canoe used in the river expeditions.
You can also find interspersed in the midst of trees and lawns in the Ibirapuera Park, the Obelisco do Ibirapuera or Obelisk of São Paulo; the Museum of Modern Art; Museum of Contemporary Art; and the Afro-Brazil Museum.