Reinventing Brazil
Laura P.Z. Izarra



Among the first people to rewrite the imagery of Hy Brazil and contribute to the above-mentioned tales were Irish travellers. Hamilton Lindsay-Bucknall's A Search for Fortune (The autobiography of a younger son. 1878), for example, portrayed the author's impressions of Argentina and Brazil in the 1870s. Many works were also written by Michael Mulhall and his wife Marion who lived in Buenos Aires, but who travelled around Brazil on some occasions during their holidays. Michael was editor of the newspaper, The Standard, together with his brother Edward Thomas Mulhall, the founder of the publication. Michael and Marion kept diaries of their trips, where they recorded their impressions of the places they visited and the economic progress of the country. Their narratives, published in the form of letters in the newspaper, also incorporated elements of the founding myth that had produced historical inventions and cultural constructions about the geographic space and the people who inhabited it. While in Handbook of Brazil (1878), Michael Mulhall and his brother Edward showed a 'progressive Brazil', in Rio Grande do Sul State and its German Colonies (1873) Michael recommended the city of Porto Alegre for 'its beautiful scenery and kindly people, so little known to the outer world'. The adventurous outlook of Marion as the first 'English' woman [4] to 'penetrate the heart of South America' is evident in her book Between the Amazon and Andes; or Ten Years of Lady's Travels in the Pampas, Gran Chaco, Paraguay and Mato Grosso:  

the first Englishwoman to penetrate the heart of South America, travelling for thousands of miles through untrodden forests, seeing the Indian tribes in their own hunting-grounds, visiting the ruined shrines of the Jesuit Missions, and ultimately reaching that point whence I beheld the waters flowing down in opposite directions to the Amazon and the La Plata.

She recognised that her narratives had no literary merit as they were 'sketches of her travels and adventures in the countries between the Amazon and the Andes' written with the hope that they 'may call the attention of more learned travellers to a quarter of the world that so well repays the trouble of exploring'. Thus, the pastoral landscapes of Rio de Janeiro, which showed the Bay of Guanabara, contrasted with the exotic land of Mato Grosso, full of adventure. Her descriptions emphasised the natural beauty of the landscape, and despite the difficulties of the trip, 'the interest of exploring this terra incognita would not allow (her) to think of turning back'. She wrote:

It took twenty-four days from here to Cuyabá in canoes manned by tame Indians, the San Lorenzo being so shallow that they cannot row, but have to push up-stream with poles about thirty miles a day. If they come short of provisions they shoot monkeys, for the greater part of the voyage is through swamps and forest, destitute of human habitation. (192)

Marion McMurrough, Between the Amazon and Andes; or Ten Years
of a Lady’s Travels in the Pampas, Gran Chaco, Paraguay and Mato Grosso

(London: E. Stanford, 1881).

Marion's meeting with indigenous people reminds one of the paintings of João Maurício Rugendas, who depicts these meetings as being always peaceful, and lacking the tensions provoked by contact with wild nature itself, or by the unknown, and the cultural differences between Europeans and local natives. This mythical vision of Brazil-Paradise, with no history, is visible not only in Marion´s narratives but in her drawings as well. When she found some canoes with Guatos Indians fishing in the river, she described them as a 'very pretty race, and neither men nor women have tattoos' – a symbol of primitivism or the demon, from a Eurocentric point of view:

Each canoe had a man and a woman and sometimes one or two children, the latter so fair that one might take them for English. The women managed the canoes, while the men fished. They were a fine-looking race, and neither men nor women were tattooed. (196)

The drawings show the Guatos in clothes that remind one of a European culture (see opening illustration), beautiful, tall, simple and innocent, always showing exuberant and idyllic nature as a background landscape, without the intrusion of natural vegetation or wild animals from the local environment. However, this elimination of conflicts that Mary Louise Pratt (1992) identified as a result of the asymmetries of power in the contact zones and which contrasted with the image of the pure state of Nature and the beings that inhabited it, became evident in the representation that Marion Mulhall made of the uncivilised and more violent Indians, carrying with it the prejudice of the white man – she described them as addicted to drink and characterised by the wilderness:

We were obliged to keep a good look-out all well armed, because the Coroados might be hid on the banks within arrow shot of us. What we feared most were poisoned arrows. Only a few months before, they surprised some men in a canoe and cut off their heads for trophies. This tribe is very numerous, fearfully addicted to drunkenness, and beyond hope of civilisation at several places we passed deserted huts, the inhabitants of which were killed by these savages.

Many other examples appear in these travel narratives at the turn of the nineteenth century. It will be interesting to analyse how these elements of the founding myth are interpreted and rewritten, or contested, at the end of the twentieth century. In what way do they transform in the formation of a global imagery within the current context of economic migrations, or of transnational movements or displacements, when the image of a 'giant by its very nature' still remains? What is its impact on dominant global ideologies? How do they become constituent elements in the construction process of hybrid identities or of 'new ethnicities' (Hall 1996)? To answer these questions, this article will analyse the Irish poet Paul Durcan's book Greetings to our Friends in Brazil (1999).

Paul Durcan registers his impressions of Brazil as if they were from a travel diary, and portrays daily activities in his poems using colloquial and direct language, making an aesthetic journey to recover his own cultural tradition from a pluralistic perspective. According to Charlie Boland (2001), 'Durcan's poetry may be seen as both inward search and outward journey' (124). In this way, his poems always present a certain level of cultural introspection. On the other hand, however, in these displacements in space and time, Durcan makes use of icons and myths from various cultures to resignify them and to transform the global imaginary. The founding myths of Brazil, which had been incorporated into the narratives of the travellers in the past, are deconstructed and demystified in his poems – not only the sacredness of nature but also the culture of so-called verdeamarelismo ('greenyellowism' ), [5] the sacredness of history and of rulers, and the respective effects that they have on the process of identification of a society, which had been clearly indicated already by Chauí.   

Nature is present in several of his poems, as for example, in 'Brazilian Presbyterian':


I sat on the dune

Under a coconut tree;

Diving in and out

Of the South Atlantic;

At fifty years of age

A nipper in excelsis.

However, when Nature appears as sublime, what really is really taking place is an internal corrosion of the paradisical image constructed by the persona; for example, young Evandro's answer to the question of how he imagines heaven:

How would you – a young

Brazilian Presbyterian –

Imagine heaven?


'Heaven ... is a place ...

That ... would surprise you.' (32)

Nature is also an agent in the contexts of the poems 'The Geography of Elizabeth Bishop' and 'Samambaia', where Paul Durcan describes Brazil through the eyes and the voice of Elizabeth Bishop: geographic space is precisely 'life before birth on earth'. It is paradise, however, it is also the country of the painful discovery of the I:

There is life before birth

On earth – oh yes, on earth –

And it is called Brazil.

Call it paradise, if you will. (23-24).


This land is not bound up with the image of Eden, but with the pain of passion and with life. Nothing lasts forever: the location is sometimes Brazil, sometimes Ireland, 'Nothing stays the same. / Everything changes/ (...) Nothing should stay the same. / Everything should change' (22); the choice between love and fame will make the difference: 'I, Elizabeth, / do take you, Lota, / For my lawful, wedded cloud.' (22). Paradigms are dismantled in the repetitions and in the syncopated rhythm of samba, and cultural and sexual borders are transposed in the counter-rhythm of the metres of the verses:

Reared in New England, Nova Scotia,

I was orphaned in childhood.


Until aged forty on a voyage round Cape Horn

I stepped off in Rio, stayed, discovered

My mind in Brazil. Became again an infanta!.

A thinking monkey's companero! (sic) *

Fed, cuddled, above all needed.


At forty I discovered that my voice –

That cuckoo hymen of mine, mine, mine –

Was a Darwinian tissue:

That in God's cinema vérité

I was an authentic bocadinho.


Back in Boston, a late-middle-aged lady,

I became again an orphan,

...                                           (23)

How is the belief that Brazil is a warm-hearted country constantly renewed? To answer this question the origin of the culture of verdeamarelismo will be examined:

Verdeamarelismo was elaborated over a period of years by the Brazilian ruling classes as a commemorative image of an 'essentially agrarian country' and its elaboration coincided with a period during which the 'principle of nationality' was defined by the extension of the territory and demographic density of the country. (Chauí 32)

* Misspelling of companheiro.


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 July 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Izarra, Laura, '
Reinventing Brazil: New Readings and Renewal in the Narratives of Irish Travellers' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" Vol. 4 N° 3 (July 2006). Available online (, accessed .


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