Life at № 42
You can’t understand The Time Before without understanding the dynamics. Slave Hill (Slave Miguel’s Hill, to be precise) was the town house. One day I’ll tell you how it got its name. This is where my paternal grandfather spent the most time because it was the most convenient for him to get to his office(s). It was also my favourite house. A mid-century affair built the same year as Brasilia, and in the same style. The ceiling in the living room was six metres tall, the floors were dark blue (Bahia) granite, and the house was, as the name implies, on a hill, perched on a cliff. Every room (except the kitchen, staff quarters and bathrooms) looked onto the ocean. It felt like being out at sea. There were only houses and green then, not a single high-rise.
The beach house was everyone else’s favourite. Jardim do Encantamento (The Enchanted Garden.) My grandparents built the house by the lighthouse with a surreal one acre garden. When things washed up on the beach, whale bones, pieces of boat wrecks, my grandmother would send people to go get them so they could be placed in the garden. Whale shoulder bones are shaped like giant fans. The ones from the spine are like propellers. There were also barrels and glass bottles, and huge glass containers filled with seashells. Everywhere you looked there was something strange, something strange and hibiscuses in every colour you could imagine. And hammocks tied to coconut trees. Wonderland. The cook there was Rosalia. She was tiny, four and a half feet tall, mother to ten children. Sometimes there were mosquitoes. It was Claudio’s job to close the bedroom blinds at sunset when mosquitoes were allegedly trying to get into the house. He also went from room to room (with a hand-pump insecticide spray) hunting for mosquitoes. My grandmother thought mosquito hunting was a perfectly reasonable task to give someone. The terraces went on forever. For a party you could easily seat 200 people.
Weekends were often in the countryside at Our Lady of Peace (Nossa Senhora da Paz), the fazenda. The house there was late 18th century. It still had the special paths for slaves not to walk too close to the house and although the pelourinho (whipping post) was taken down, a stump remained set in stone, near the tennis courts. Like many fazendas of the period the kitchen and dining room were separate from the main house. The cook there was Dona Rita. She was very old. Her grandparents had been slaves. Slavery was officially abolished in Brazil in 1888 (only 90 years before I was born), many slaves remained at the ranches and plantations where they worked, because they had no alternative. This place is where I discovered and fell madly in love with horses. I can’t find pictures of the house, but after some difficulty I was able to find it on Google Earth and get a picture of the gate house at the entrance. When I was little a farm hand named Luis lived there and his wife opened and closed the gates when we arrived and left. The main house, known as the Casa Grande, is 2km in on the private road.
Other than these places there was Itaparica island, known simply as The Island. That’s where people summered. One normally got their on one’s own boat. Just private houses, no tourists. In the 80’s you could be walking on the beach and suddenly see Khashoggi or Queen Sylvia of Sweden. We had a sailboat named Brisa.
When I asked my grandmother why we had a sailboat and not a more comfortable big motor boat like my uncle (from my mother’s side of the family, the one who owned the bank and the local Coca-Cola factory) she told me it was because we weren’t vulgar. Boats with motors are for vulgar people. My French grandmother did not like my mother’s family. She referred to them as people from the merchant classes. This was entirely accurate. In the run up to the Spanish civil war they decided it might be a good idea to have a foothold in the Americas, so they formed a little family conglomerate. Construction, hotels, cattle, a cheese factory, olive oil and even funerary services. Every single one of those things named after themselves. They married into local society families, including two sets of banking families. My great-aunt Ana Maria was by far the most glamorous of the women. She was once engaged to Baby Pignatari (one of the heirs to the Matarazzo fortune and known as the last of the playboys.)
And that’s the background to The Time Before.
Salvador is the city with the highest black population in the world outside of Africa; but basically everything belongs to the white people.
When slaves arrived in Brazil, they generally arrived in Salvador and were sold at the Mercado Modelo (Model Market). Approximately four and a half million slaves were taken to Brazil. That’s 40% of all slaves taken to the Americas.