Life and death in Rio

A Broome watercolour, of Rio and Sugerloaf Mountain.

Snippets 150 / Guest Post 14.  Henry Arthur Broome was born in 1857, the youngest child of the Vicar of Houghton in Norfolk. He was the perfect example of a Victorian “rolling stone”, seldom staying more than a couple of years in any one country, although he did return often to South Africa. His autobiography, published 1913, was justifiably entitled “The Log of a Rolling Stone”. 1889-90 found him working in Brazil as a clerk to a coffee shipper. He took the job in spite of knowing that British Post Offices and some other public places featured official notices posted up which warned against travelling to Brazil. Broome was based at Rio de Janeiro and wrote about the “intoxicating beauty of the environs of Rio”. As a keen amateur artist he painted a number of watercolours of the scenery. He was less enthused about the morals of the city, especially the openness with what he politely called the “oldest trade in the world” was accepted. He was also struck by the matter-of-fact way the locals regarded the issues of life and death. Until the city was fitted with proper drainage yellow fever was rife.

Calling on an acquaintance one day, I was informed by his clerk that he had not come down to business that day, not being well, and would I be so good as to step in again later in the afternoon? I did so, and the clerk then languidly told me his master had yellow fever, and was not expected to live that night, and, if he succumbed, would I care to attend his funeral on the following evening? A place would be reserved for me in the special tramcar conveying the party out of town to the ‘pauton’ or cemetery beyond San Cristovao. I need not trouble to call again, but as the tram-line passed my house, he would tell the hearse driver to stop there and pick me up, in case the death actually occurred, and I was to be so good as to please put on evening dress. At the appointed time I was ready, and sure enough there came an equipage drawn by six mules, with bells, at a fast trot, which pulled up directly the driver saw me at the door. The colour chosen for mourning in Brazil is scarlet, but I was not then aware of this, nor of the gorgeous trappings provided for the dead, and stood more amazed at what I saw, than even when the clerk had made me the weird arrangements to meet me. The six mules drew a handsomely fitted car with canopy of gold and scarlet, and a pall of the same colour enshrouded my friend’s coffin, placed in the centre and alone. Attached to this was a trailing car, with open transverse seats, which were occupied by the male friends of the deceased, all of whom were bareheaded in evening dress, and smoking cigarettes. Directly I took my place, the driver let go the fast little mules at a spanking trot, and with bells merrily ringing we proceeded on our four miles’ journey to the cemetery. There the deceased was interred, and, I understood, would be allowed to remain undisturbed for fourteen years, after which period the grave would be broken up, and the ground, which was valuable, would be used for someone else. Needless to say, everyone in Brazil is buried invariably in quicklime.

Much as Henry Broome waxed lyrical for several pages about the beautiful country that was Brazil, after less than two years living there he took a voyage on a little coffee brig to Cape Town and the country of South Africa where he spent more years of his life.

The guest post article above has been kindly contributed by Geoffrey A. Pocock, author of Outrider of Empire: The Life and Adventures of Roger Pocock (University of Alberta Press) and One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen (currently out of print).

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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