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The black admiral and his silver battleship

The 100th anniversary of the Revolta da Chibata

Reproduction Sailor at his post next to one of the famous cannons of the Minas GeraisReproduction

As a take-off on scientific relativity, the pace of military time is slower than civilian time and one century might not seem to be a long time when the matter is a sensitive one for the Armed Forces. In 2008, when inaugurating a statue of the sailor João Cândido (1880-1969) in Rio de Janeiro, President Lula ratified the posthumous amnesty of the sailor, who led the Revolta da Chibata (Revolt of the Whip) in 1910. The law also gave an amnesty to the sailor’s followers. The Navy, however, issued a statement saying that “it did not acknowledge any heroism in the actions of that rebellion” and that “it was not opposed to the statue, provided that care would be taken to avoid offensive comments about the Navy and about the victims of the insurgents”. That was not the first time that a negative reaction was shown towards the insurgent sailors. “In the 1930s, Aporelli, a journalist also known as Barão de Itararé [the Baron of Itararé], tried to publish an article about the event and was assaulted by Navy officers who beat him up and left him lying naked on a sidewalk in Copacabana”, wrote Oswald de Andrade, in whose opinion the insurgence and the demands echoed The Battleship Potemkin, the film directed by Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. In 1964, journalist Edmar Morel was stripped of his political rights because in 1959 he had written the book A revolta da chibata [The Revolt of the Whip], which has become a classic. A second edition of the book was recently published by the Editora Paz and Terra publishing house because of the 100th anniversary of the naval mutiny.

“I woke up on a marvelous summer dawn in November 1910. The bay was resplendent with its hills and coves and in the bay I saw steel warships sailing in a single file towards the port’s exit. I recognized the battleship Minas Gerais, leading the line of ships. The ship São Paulo and yet another sailed behind it. All ships were flying a small red ensign. Was this a revolution at dawn?” Oswald de Andrade, who witnessed the event, asked himself. “All of a sudden I saw a flash on the hull of the Minas and a blast echoed near me, waking the entire city. Shrapnel from a grenade fell next to a lamppost of the Light & Power Company. The sailors were rebelling against the whip, the rotten meat. Their leader, João Cândido, immediately upgraded to the position of admiral, had proven to be a skilled ship’s captain. The revolt had a most infamous ending. Congress voted to grant amnesty to the rebels, but the prisoners were massacred and only admiral João Cândido was spared”. The mutiny described by Oswald de Andrade is surely the most extensively analyzed episode in the history of the Brazilian Navy. However, most of the studies in this respect focus, and understandingly so, on the social history of the event, especially on the historical roots of the recruitment, the life and the work conditions of the navy recruits and the Navy’s disciplinary rules. “Although these studies mention the ships that were part of the Naval Squadron of 1910, no in-depth study has been made of the relationship between the naval technical revolution at the end of the 19th century and the rebellion of 1910. This is why my theory proposes that the acquisition of the modern battleships Minas Gerais and São Paulo, which had just arrived in Brazil from England, was the ‘destabilizing’ element in the relationship between the officers and the seamen. The big ships had brought with them industrial work conditions and discipline that conflicted with the corporal punishment practices still in force in the Brazilian Navy; this unleashed the mutiny”, explains political scientist João Roberto Martins Filho, from the Federal University of São Carlos, who wrote A Marinha brasileira na era dos encouraçados, 1895-1910 [The Brazilian Navy in the era of battleships, 1895-1910], a study sponsored by FAPESP. The work is to be launched in March by the FGV publishing house. Martin’s study analyzes the internal and external impact of the modernization of the Brazilian Navy, which took place from 1904 to 1906. As a result of this, for a few months, Brazil was the only country in the world, other than mighty Great Britain, to own a dreadnought, a British warship that was the forerunner of the enormous battleships equipped with huge, standardized weapons.

Reproduction Daily movement on the ship – running the ship called for one thousand menReproduction

“Brazil’s naval policy reverberated not only in the region, where it almost led to a war with Argentina, which became concerned about the strengthening of Brazil’s war potential, but also at the major naval decision-making centers of those times, where there was speculation about the main transfer of the huge ships, the Minas and the São Paulo, for the navies of the world’s major powers. This is why it is not difficult to understand how the incorporation of high technology ships into a Navy that still used the whip to punish undisciplined sailors caused a mutiny in 1910”, says the researcher. It was impossible to relate the huge battleships’ state- of-the-art technology to the terrible spectacle of black sailors, naked from the waist up, tied to an iron ring on the ship’s deck, being punished brutally and publicly, in front of the entire crew. The punishment rules limited the whipping to 25 blows, but often the offenders were beaten with 100, 250 and up to 500 blows in a single day.

In November 1910, a sailor who had attacked a corporal on the Minas was punished with 200 blows of the whip. According to an officer, “his back resembled a gutted fish ready to be salted”. “Corporal punishment ensured the domination of the white navy officers on board and at the garrison; the practice of torturing slaves was now being applied by Navy officers to freemen 12 years after slavery had been abolished”, points out historian Álvaro Pereira do Nascimento, from Unicamp, author of Cidadania, cor e disciplina na revolta dos marinheiros de 1910 [Citizenship, color and discipline in the sailors’ revolt of 1910] (Mauad/Faperj, 264 pages, R$39). “Few men wanted to go into the navy and so sailors were recruited by force on the streets or in jails. Enlisted men included poor minors, orphans and worthless individuals, sent to join the navy by parents, tutors, and judges. The government encouraged this kind of enlisting by paying out money to the parties responsible for the young men. The disciplinary measures used by the officers caused great aversion among the potential recruits”, the researcher explains.

The government of Marshal Hermes da Fonseca (1910-1914) took office in 1910, when the Navy was waiting for the ships that had been ordered from British shipyards in Newcastle as part of the Navy’s equipment updating. Brazilian seamen traveled to Europe to sail the new Minas and São Paulo back to Brazil and became acquainted with a new reality, devoid of whippings and severe punishments. The mutiny began on November 22, driven by the 200-blow whipping of the sailor who had beaten the corporal. The sign was the blow of the bugle at 10:00 p.m. “We sailors, Brazilian citizens, republicans, can no longer bear the slavery of the Brazilian Navy; the protection that our Nation refuses to grant us; we tear apart the black veil  that has hidden us from the eyes of the patriotic and misled people of Brazil. All the ships are in our hands. All the officers are our prisoners – the officers who have denigrated the Brazilian Navy – we send this message to Your Excellency. We ask that Brazilian seamen be entitled to the sacred rights that the laws of the Republic grant us, we demand that the incompetent officers be removed so that the whipping, the post and other similar punishments disappear; we request that our pay be increased (…). Your Excellency has a period of twelve hours to send us a satisfactory answer, under penalty of witnessing the annihilation of the nation. Signed, Sailors.” The marshal took advantage of the situation and declared the country under state of siege, suspended constitutional guarantees and persecuted his enemies “At Congress, the stand taken by Rui Barbosa was victorious. Amnesty was granted to the rebels, and the rebellion ended. Soon thereafter, however, the Navy disobeyed the decision and expelled dozens of ex-rebels. A new rebellion occurred in December and the rebellious sailors of November and December were sent to prison. Many of them were sent off to die in a dungeon on Ilha das Cobras [the Island of Snakes]. Other rebels were deported to the territory of Acre, where they were forced to work on the rubber tree plantations and on the building of the Madeira-Mamoré railroad. João Cândido was one of two survivors of the jail on Ilha das Cobras. He spent two years in solitary confinement and was released only after a long-drawn-out military court proceeding”, says Pereira do Nascimento. By 1911, most of the insurgents had been expelled, killed, or had run away. “Because of racism in the Navy, blacks could not become officers. Even though they would never achieve officer rank, the sailors of 1910 wanted to build a new reality, to be able to leverage their professional careers, to guarantee the conditions that would ensure provide them with happier days in their lives”. The living proof that these hopes never materialized was the life led by admiral João Cândido, who, after the terrifying period spent in jail- the jail was whitewashed every day under the pretext that it had to be kept clean; (the whitewash was a mixture of lime and water – the water would evaporate and only the lime would remain) was transferred to a mental institution and then spent forty years working at a fish market.

Reproduction Most of the crew consisted of Negroes and mulattoesReproduction

It was difficult to imagine all of this in April 1910, when the Minas Gerais sailed triumphantly into Rio de Janeiro. The ship’s arrival was described very vividly by the newspaper O Paiz [The Country]: “The arrival was a happening that stirred vibrant patriotic feelings in the national soul. It was not only Rio de Janeiro that welcomed the formidable dreadnought in the waters of its beautiful bay. All of Brazil hailed the giant shape of the colossus of the South American seas, the sovereign symbol of the nation’s power, the true expression of its energy as a nation”. The dreadnought was the symbol ship of the 20th century and the century’s modern innovations. “The predominant idea was that the industrialization of war transformed battleships into places of business comparable to modern factories. This was felt very vividly on the dreadnoughts, whose crew members numbered close to one thousand men. In addition to the number, one must take into account the concentration that the arrival of the Minas and the São Paulo brought to our naval forces. In a single leap, one third of the garrisons was concentrated on only two ships”, Martins Filho points out. For the sake of comparison, the ship Riachuelo, the former pride of the national fleet, measured 98 meters. The Minas measured an impressive 165 meters. “Going on board the ship was like entering another world with twelve 12-inch cannons, placed in six revolving turrets, all of them run on electricity, with other shooting mechanisms moved by hydraulic force; the ship was powered by triple extension engines housed in two engine rooms; each engine room was roughly 19 meters long and 7 meters wide; propulsion was provided by 2 pairs of 5-meter high propellers ; the condensers could cool an area of 8 thousand square meters and the water running through them weighed 23 tons; there were dozens of compartments for machinists, stokers, sailors and officers. The Minas had two upper decks, four covered decks and a basement”.

What sounded like an advantage, however, could become a problem because, as a British diplomat pointed out, “the Brazilian officers didn’t know how to handle the complicated mechanisms of the new ship”, and, in his opinion, when the so-called ‘guarantees’ (the British officers who had come to train the Brazilian crew) returned to England, the machines would soon fall into a terrible state”. This was coupled with the disciplinary problems and the racism of the officers, expressed in the way in which they maltreated the sailors, who were generally black. All the misfortunes of the garrisons were attributed to these black sailors, as attested to by the words “false pity for the uncouth Negro who kills and steals” expressed by the Navy, in a reaction to the uproar of society after the 1910 rebellion. “The naval force that received the Minas and the São Paulo was characterized by sharp contrasts and paradoxes. On a smaller scale, it reflected the nation’s dilemmas”, says the researcher. “In this case, one can also see that the symbolic importance of the new ships provided its sailors with a new sense of dignity”. Another aspect of the influence of technology, Martin Filho adds, is the power of the dreadnoughts’ cannon – in the course of the rebellion, the phantom of the revolving turrets hovered over the city. The firing power of the cannon, which had been widely discussed at the time of the ships’ arrival, was still remembered by the city’s inhabitants. “The technological issue also kept the government from attacking the ship, as it was unthinkable to risk destroying it, after the government had announced to the entire world that it was the owner of one of the world’s biggest battleships and had celebrated the ships as national symbols. This feeling was so strong that the government and the Navy chose to be humiliated to preserve the dreadnoughts”.

Reproduction The day of the mutiny: sailor in the middle is holding a banner saying “God and freedom”Reproduction

In December 1908, the news that the Minas was almost ready led the Argentine Congress to, in despair, approve the budget for the construction of two dreadnoughts, the objective of which was to equip the Argentines with the same naval power as that of the Brazilians. This desire was further driven by rumors that a third, even bigger ship (the Rio de Janeiro) was going to be built. This stirred suspicion that foreign shipyards were interested in encouraging a naval race between the South Americans to reap the benefits from Brazil’s enthusiasm for the extravagant and expensive dreadnoughts. Brazil was unaware that modern naval construction had a transitory quality that rendered ships obsolete even before they had left the shipyard. The big shipyards also knew that the markets of the less developed countries were especially attractive for huge ships such as the dreadnoughts – more so than the markets of the global powers. “The fact that Brazil was the only owner – other than England – of dreadnoughts’ gave rise to worldwide controversy on how our acquisitions would fit into the naval balance of that time. American newspapers published rumors that, in the case of war between Japan and the United States, Brazil could sell its ships to Japan, as Argentina had claimed”, says the researcher. Plans for a world war were discussed taking Brazil and its ships into account. British diplomats worried about the visits of Brazilian presidents to the German Kaiser, who would take them on tours of Krupp and its cannon. “Wouldn’t it be prudent to schedule a visit for Hermes da Fonseca so that he could take a look at our fleet in Portsmouth?” pointed out the head of the British delegation in Rio, after the president had come back from Germany. This was similar to the present-day courting of president Lula by the foreign governments that want Brazil to buy their fighter planes; back then, the British government wanted Brazil to buy ships and cannon from England rather than from Germany. This would avoid problems in the upcoming war, the profits would be restricted to a friendly nation and the circle of influence of enemy nations would be reduced.

“In the case of Argentina, the appointment of a minister of foreign affairs that was an enemy of Barão do Rio Branco did actually take place. This minister preached the invasion of Rio de Janeiro if Brazil chose not to “share” its new fleet with the Argentines. Luckily, he was replaced and the possibility of a war over the dreadnoughts was defused. The ship of fools was called down to earth”. The end of the vessels was a melancholy one. The Rio de Janeiro, the last of the fleet, was not purchased by Brazil, but by the Turks instead. Confiscated by the British during the war, it was renamed renamed the Agincourt and took part in the Battle of Jutland. Less glorious, the Minas did not fight in World War I. In 1922, it bombarded the Fort of Copacabana and two years later it confronted its sister ship, the São Paulo, during the lieutenants’ rebellion. It was taken to Salvador in the Second World War, where it remained as the main defense ship of the port. The Minas was retired in 1953, a few years after the São Paulo. It was towed to its death bed and dissembled. It was far from resembling the mighty ship that had been so efficiently sailed by the black admiral 100 years ago and  had got Oswald de Andrade out of bed.