“The village of Pirapora consists of 30-35 small grass or coconut palm thatch-roofed houses, inhabited by fishermen and their families, who engage in catching fish, hanging them to dry in the sun and selling them to troops who come looking for it to take mostly to the cities, towns, camps and mining services of the Diamantina District.”
That is how German engineer Henrique Guilherme Fernando Halfeld (1797-1873) described the type of settlement – today a city of 60,000 inhabitants – from where he and his team left to conduct a meticulous cartographic survey of the São Francisco River, from 1852 to 1854, at the request of the Brazilian imperial government. Published in 1860, his report and maps describe the differences between the various sections of the river in precise detail and recommend the construction work needed to make them more navigable.
“They are maps for study or feasibility projects that served to estimate the costs of construction, much like those he had made on other stretches,” says Jorge Pimentel Cintra, professor at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (USP) an expert in historical cartography, who examined the work of Halfeld at the request of Pesquisa FAPESP. “The maps contain no geographical coordinates, a factor that would not only have made the work more expensive and were not justified during that phase, but would have also made the process even more time consuming. However, they are rigorously to scale, oriented due north and totally fulfill their representative function, which was most important during this phase of study.”
“The São Francisco River had strategic importance for the Empire, since it was able to connect the southern provinces, especially Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro, with those of the north, mainly Bahia and Pernambuco,” says historian Gabriel Oliveira of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) who in 2015 completed a study about the Northeastern region’s major river. Imperial government officials took an optimistic view of the river because they knew little about it and pictured it as perpetually calm and favorable to steam navigation, which turned out not to be the case.
Halfeld arrived in Brazil in 1825 to join the Brazilian Imperial Army Corps of Foreigners and conduct scientific and technical projects. “He is a good example of the way in which engineering and military know-how combined in the 19th century to help the Brazilian Empire become a modern nation,” says historian Regina Horta Duarte, professor at UFMG who served as Oliveira’s advisor. Hired as head engineer of Minas Gerais in 1836, Halfeld distinguished himself as an expert in road construction and was appointed by the imperial government to map the navigable stretches of the river between Pirapora and its mouth, on the border between the provinces of Sergipe and Alagoas.
The engineer traveled 382 maritime leagues, or close to 2,100 of the 2,800 kilometers of the river’s length. He described the types of vessels and fish in each section, detailed the variation in the height of the ravines (from 12 to 60 palms; a palm equivalent to 22 centimeters) and noted which stretches were narrow or wide, deep or shallow, and calm or more agitated. River banks were lower and the waters swifter in the vicinity of the 80-meter-drop Paulo Afonso Falls, largely undone by construction of five power plants that are part of the Paulo Afonso Hydroelectric Complex, inaugurated a century later, in 1955. Faced with obstacles to navigation, he concluded that the river’s stretch of waterfalls required “a correction that would lend itself to a safe and easy passage” and he proposed the construction of locks and channeling and the removal of rocks from a branch of the river.
At the end of Atlas e relatorio concernente a exploração do rio de S. Francisco, desde a cachoeira da Pirapora até ao Oceano Atlantico (original title) [Atlas and report concerning exploration of the S. Francisco River, from Pirapora falls to the Atlantic Ocean], he proposed making use of the “existing forests on both banks of that river and of its tributaries” as fuel for future steam-powered craft. He completed the report July 20, 1858 in the town of Santo Antonio de Paraibuna, in what is now Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais State, where he lived, bought iron-ore-enriched land at a low price (since it was of no use in agriculture), served three consecutive terms as city councilman and died at age 76, leaving his third wife (the two previous wives had already died) a widow with 16 children.
In 1862, also at the request of the imperial government, French astronomer Emmanuel Liais (1826-1900) completed the work of Halfeld by mapping the Pirapora River to its headwaters. In the late 19th century, Bahian engineer Theodoro Sampaio (1855-1937), as a member of the Imperial Hydraulics Commission, mapped the opposite direction, from the mouth to Pirapora, returning by land to map the rivers and settlements of the Diamantina Plateau (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 214). “The work by Sampaio would also serve as a study for an alternative to the river – the Railroad – which was actually implemented in another section, from Salvador to Juazeiro,” notes Jorge Pimentel Cintra.
On the São Francisco River, only the minor construction work such as the removal of stones from the riverbed were implemented during the 19th century. “The imperial government prioritized the construction of railroads and fortification of the port of Rio de Janeiro instead of furthering Halfeld’s proposal for re-routing the waters of the São Francisco to the Jaguaribe River in the state of Ceará, something that had been suggested since the late 18th century and presented by a lawyer from Crato, Ceará State, Marcos Antonio de Macedo, on a map published in 1848,” Oliveira says. The cost, technical limitations and political disputes prevented any progress on a project whose discussion was taken up again during the administrations of Getúlio Vargas (1930-1945), João Figueiredo (1979-1985), Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002) and Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010). Construction work to re-route the waters to the driest areas of the Brazilian Northeast finally began in 2007 and is ongoing.Republish