Category Archives: Brazil

Brazil’s Economic Miracle

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 428-429, 435:

The reasons for the failure of the guerrillas are complex. With their predominantly middle-class, university-educated cadres they were unable to break out of their political isolation – the clandestine Communist Party disapproved of the guerrillas’ strategy and blocked their access to working-class organizations. The terrorist attacks on military targets precluded the emergence of any sympathetic groups within the armed forces who might have staged a coup d’état, this being the usual short cut to power for progressive movements in Latin America. But, decisively, the guerrilla campaign coincided with the long-awaited upturn in the economy. From 1968, while the guerrillas were robbing banks and bombing barracks, life was getting better for the middle classes and the skilled workers in the cities, which is where, in a rapidly urbanizing country, the political fate of the nation would be decided. In short, what finally put paid to the prospects of the urban guerrillas was the arrival of the Brazilian ‘economic miracle’.

As far as the generals were concerned, the ‘miracle’ obviated the need for an explicit political ideology to run the state. The tremendous popular enthusiasm generated by the idea of an economic miracle was manipulated by the junta to rationalize their continued suspension of full democratic rights. The economic upswing was ‘miraculous’ in that it seemed to be a sudden take-off into self-sustaining industrial growth, the hallmark of a modern economy. Brazil was at last on its way to world-power status from the doldrums in which it had found itself for the best part of the 1960s.

The Brazilian rate of economic growth was indeed amazingly good: in 1968–74 the economy grew at an average yearly rate of between 10 per cent and 11 per cent. Even after the sudden rise in the world price of oil in 1973, which seriously damaged all the industrial economies, the Brazilian rate of growth averaged between 4 per cent and 7 per cent a year. By the mid-1970s the volume of exports had quadrupled since 1967. Far more significant was the fact that manufactured goods had replaced coffee as the major component of exports: the stubborn Latin American problem of monoculture – the dependence on the export of a single primary commodity – had been solved.

Without doubt, a substantial industrial revolution had occurred in Brazil; and it had largely been engineered by technocrats sponsored by the armed forces. But this success was built on the programme of industrialization achieved over many years since the foundation of the Estado Nôvo by Getúlio Vargas in 1937. Underlying the intervening conflicts of parliamentary politics, there had been a remarkable continuity in the course of Brazilian development from the Getúlio Vargas era to the military governments of the 1960s and 1970s. Development continued to be based on a sustained drive for industrial growth largely financed by foreign loans and investment, but directed by the state. The military governments of the 1960s and 1970s kept all basic industries and utilities under state control; they largely retained the nationalist policy of import-substitution industrialization by selective tariffs; and they also preserved the core of the social welfare and labour legislation of the Estado Nôvo.

Brazil’s extraordinary drive to modernize in the twentieth century produced a powerful industrial economy in the space of little over three decades. The costs were enormous: acute dislocations of regional economies, the destruction of virgin lands, an imbalance between the countryside and the cities, and deep cleavages between the working class, industrial capitalists and the middle classes. And yet, industry did not become productive enough to absorb the potential labour force, while the countryside remained under-productive and socially divided. Successive governments tried to force the pace of industrial development, as well as increasing spending on welfare programmes to alleviate the social misery. The results were vicious circles of inflation and budget deficits, which spiralled uncontrollably, robbing governments of authority. In 1964 the armed forces intervened to try to restore order, but by the late 1970s they too had been drawn into the spiral of inflation and debt; their historic pursuit of ordem e progresso had led, paradoxically, to a situation where economic progress had become the enemy of social order.

The Brazilian crisis of the 1980s was as much a crisis of the state as of the economy. In the medium term economic improvement might come through an upturn in the world economy combined with a successful anti-inflation programme and international assistance with debt relief. But a lasting settlement of the crisis would require the emergence of a legitimate democratic state, whose representative institutions could command the confidence of the nation as a whole.

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Latin American Industry in World War II

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle p. 332:

The Second World War turned out to be a watershed for Latin American industrialization. The worsening international situation had exacerbated the historic rivalry between the armed forces of Brazil and Argentina. Sensing the drift to war in Europe, the military establishments in both countries wanted to develop their own armaments industries instead of relying on imports. But the manufacture of arms required the setting-up of steel and electrical industries, and so from the 1940s the armed forces of Brazil and Argentina pressed their governments to develop an industrial base. Furthermore, as the outbreak of war created strong international demand for raw materials and foodstuffs, the Latin American export-economies boomed, and as wartime conditions abroad reduced the flow of imports, especially luxury goods, Latin American countries were able to build up large surpluses in their balance of payments: this enabled national debts to be paid off and led to the accumulation of domestic capital for investment in industrial projects.

The USA played a decisive part in fostering industrial development during these years. Needing Latin American raw materials for its war effort, it offered loans, technical expertise and equipment to assist the Latin American countries in their programmes of industrialization. During the early 1940s numerous US missions went to Latin America and signed trade agreements. The major republics duly declared war on the Axis powers and supplied the Allies with minerals and commodities. The notable exception was Argentina, where sympathy for Italy and Germany within the military junta caused it to adopt an awkward neutrality, for which it forfeited the kind of technical and financial assistance from the USA that Getúlio Vargas was getting for Brazil. The lack of US aid was an important cause of the economic difficulties which General Perón had to face in the post-war years and which contributed to his downfall in 1955. Still, even though the USA helped Latin American countries to initiate industrial development, the policy of industrialization as such was the late product of the nationalism that had evolved since the turn of the century, intensifying in the 1920s and 1930s.

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Brazil’s Path to Independence

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 229-230:

Brazil’s passage to independence, however, was not without its risks of political catastrophe. Though the attachment to monarchy was very strong, there had emerged here and there a considerable feeling for republicanism, as attested by the Inconfidência mineira of 1788–9 and intermittent republican revolts since. In the event of a sufficiently grave crisis of royal authority, these republican sympathies could have cohered to challenge the Catholic monarchy of Portugal. Such a possibility arose in 1820, when events in the Peninsula again placed the Crown in difficulties. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 Portugal had been ruled by a Regency Council in the absence of the king, but in late 1820 a series of revolts by liberals led to the establishment of a government committed to a constitutional monarchy. A Cortes was called in Lisbon to draw up a constitution modelled on the 1812 constitution of Cadiz, and the king was summoned to Portugal by the liberal government.

In Brazil there was extensive sympathy for the liberal revolution and John VI came to accept the principle of a constitutional monarchy, but he was torn as to whether or not he should return to Lisbon, fearing that he might lose Brazil if he did, or else Portugal if he did not. Finally, he decided to go back, but he left behind his son Dom Pedro as prince regent in Brazil. Thus the Portuguese monarchy put out an offshoot in its most important overseas colony in an attempt to span the political rift that was opening up between Brazil and the mother country.

That rift was to widen into an unbridgeable gulf once it became evident to the Brazilian delegates at the Lisbon Cortes that the peninsular liberals were determined to return Brazil to its colonial status prior to 1808. The liberal government proposed to cancel the political equality of Brazil with Portugal and the freedom of trade which the king had decreed for Brazil when he had first arrived in Rio. This the Brazilians would not countenance and, when the Lisbon government recalled the prince regent in October 1821, the Brazilians urged him to ignore the order. Perversely, Lisbon was pushing the mostly reluctant Brazilians towards some kind of separation, but it was still unclear what form this separation would take and how it might come about. At this juncture, in the final months of 1821, a political crisis arose which could have led to one of a number of outcomes – even to a republic, for which there was considerable support among radical liberals.

It was Dom Pedro’s chief minister, José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, a conservative monarchist who had spent over thirty years in the service of the Crown in Portugal, who steered Brazil towards independence. On 9 January Dom Pedro had declared that he would stay in Brazil, thereby asserting his autonomy from Lisbon. After his appointment a week later, José Bonifácio edged the country along an independent path, allowing indirect elections for a constituent assembly and disregarding orders from Lisbon. The final break with Portugal came when the Lisbon government tried once again to assert its authority over Brazil by recalling the prince regent. On 7 September 1822, on the banks of the River Ipiranga near São Paulo, Dom Pedro finally rejected Portugal and proclaimed the independence of Brazil.

After his famous Grito de Ipiranga the prince regent was crowned emperor and the former colony became a constitutional monarchy in its own right. Portuguese troops in various captaincies in the north and north-east put up violent resistance to independence, but by 1824 the whole territory had been won for Dom Pedro’s regime. In the following year Portugal, under pressure from Britain, recognized the independent state of Brazil; Britain also extended recognition, in return for a promise from Brazil to abolish the slave-trade and a commercial treaty which accorded imports from Britain a preferential tariff.

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Elite Unity of Portugal and Brazil

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 208-209:

It was generally recognized in Portugal that Brazil was the engine of the imperial economy. Though Portugal might have reversed her trade deficit with Britain, it was only because she was herself in chronic deficit with her largest colony. The imbalance, however, did not lead to political frustration in Brazil. The Portuguese had been conspicuously successful in creating a unitary sense of empire in which the colonial élites could strongly identify with the mother country. In contrast to Spanish America, there was no great resentment against peninsular Portuguese: there existed little by way of a separate Brazilian culture for the élite; the involvement of sugar planters in the export-economy made for a common interest with Portuguese merchants, slave-traders and royal officials; finally, the massive presence of Africans and mulattos reinforced the identification of white Brazilians with their European cousins (family ties were, indeed, close).

The political value of this unitary sense of empire was well understood by Portuguese statesmen. Pombal, for instance, was careful not to alienate the Brazilian élites by his reforms. Posts in the bureaucracy and in the newly founded militias were open to Brazilians; local oligarchies were allowed to invest in the monopoly companies; the introduction of new crops into hitherto unsettled areas and the general expansion and liberalization of trade were designed to favour American as much as European Portuguese. Even the expulsion of the Jesuits, who had always opposed the white settlers’ Indian slaving and occupation of native lands, met with Brazilian approval – the large, well-managed estates of the Jesuits, as well as the Indian labour released by the destruction of the missions, provided excellent economic opportunities for wealthy merchants and planters. Brazil was considered to be fully a part of Portugal, even though it happened to be situated on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean; so much so, that the possibility of transferring the imperial court to Brazil in a time of peril had been mooted in Lisbon as early as the middle of the seventeenth century.

The American and French revolutions were to plunge all of Europe, Portugal included, into ideological and military turmoil.

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Evolution of Slavery in Brazil

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 172-173:

In practice, the royal legislation concerning the enslavement of Indians was ignored virtually in its entirety by the Portuguese in Brazil. The hunting of Indian slaves was to continue throughout the colonial period. However, the nature of slave-holding in Brazil underwent a slow but eventually decisive change after about the middle of the sixteenth century. Indians along the coast were becoming scarce: as hostilities between settlers and natives grew fiercer, tribes withdrew into the hinterland; at the same time diseases started to thin their ranks. The available labour force was drastically depleted, intensifying the competition between missionaries and planters for Indian manpower.

An obvious solution lay in the importation of African slaves to work on the Brazilian plantations. The Portuguese had been operating a slave-trade along the African coast for nearly a century, and they were splendid mariners, so there was therefore no impediment to extending the trade to the New World. Even though African slaves were more expensive than Indian, there were two distinct advantages to the owners: the Africans had the same immunities to viral infections as the Europeans, and they were reputed to be better suited to the kind of hard labour required on the plantations. The demand for labour in the burgeoning sugar industry of Brazil was to lead to an enormous expansion of the African slave-trade (and demand would grow a few decades later in the 1580s when planters in the islands and coastal areas of the Spanish Indies began to seek a replacement for vanishing Indian manpower).

How many slaves were imported into Brazil is not reliably known, and what figures there are remain in dispute, but it is clear that the numbers were very high. By the end of the sixteenth century there may well have been between 13,000 and 15,000 black slaves in Brazil, constituting some 70 per cent of the labour force on the plantations. The white population of Brazil in around 1585 has been estimated at 29,000. During the first half of the seventeenth century about 4,000 slaves a year were imported into Brazil; from about 1650 to 1680 this figure rose to about 8,000, after which it began to tail off. In the eighteenth century the volume of imports began to increase once more when the gold-mining industry pushed up overall demand – Bahia alone received some 5,000 to 8,000 slaves a year. In the north-east as a whole slaves made up about half the population – over two-thirds in the sugar-growing areas. So many were imported partly because the mortality rate of the black slave population was so high and because its rate of procreation fell consistently below the level of replacement – an index of the tremendous demoralization and physical strain that afflicted the slaves. Philip Curtin estimates that in the course of the seventeenth century Brazil took a 41.8 per cent share of the total number of slaves transported to America.

The arrival of Africans in such huge numbers was to add a new demographic dimension to the Portuguese colonies in the New World. Since such a great part of the population was non-white, race mixture soon produced, as in the Spanish Indies, very many people of intermediate ethnicity – mulattos or pardos (white-black), mamelucos or caboclos (white-Indian) and cafusos (Indian-black). Brazil would become an extremely colour-conscious society, and racial features were an important element in social ranking and cultural identification. The inescapable reality was that the sugar economy, as created in the middle of the sixteenth century, made slavery a founding fact of Brazilian society.

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Okinawan Emigration Destinations

From Liminality of the Japanese Empire: Border Crossings from Okinawa to Colonial Taiwan, by Hiroko Matsuda (U. Hawaii Press, 2018), Kindle loc. ~840:

Before migration to the US mainland became popular in Okinawa, anti-Japanese sentiment spread across the West Coast, where the Japanese population had increased rapidly at the turn of the twentieth century. After the enactment of the Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1908, Okinawans were unable to enter the United States as migrant laborers. Thus, very few Okinawans followed the thousands of Japanese who had migrated to the US mainland. The few who did so during this period were youths pursuing higher education. Some went to the US mainland via Hawai‘i, Canada, and Mexico; a few traveled directly from Okinawa. As the Gentlemen’s Agreement allowed only families of migrants to enter for the purpose of reuniting with husbands and fathers, some female Okinawans arranged to immigrate and join their grooms in the United States as picture brides.

Elderly Okinawans have a saying that best sums up these migration trends: “The richest people were able to immigrate to South America; people with some money migrated to the Philippines; and the poorest worked on mainland Japan.” Indeed, when it proved too difficult to enter the United States as migrant workers, the Japanese turned to South America—especially Brazil—and the Philippines as alternative destinations. Later, the South Sea Islands [Micronesia] became popular as the South Seas Development Company (Nan’yō Kōhatsu) targeted and recruited Okinawan laborers for its sugar industry. While Brazil, the Philippines, and the South Sea Islands were under different governments and Okinawan immigrants there worked in different industries, there are some commonalities among them. First, the initial immigrants in these countries worked in manufacturing and commercial crop industries such as coffee (Brazil), abaca [aka “manila hemp”]  (the Philippines), and sugarcane (the South Sea Islands). Second, Okinawan immigrants accounted for the majority of Japanese immigrant communities in these countries despite their treatment as “second-class Japanese” and “the other Japanese.”

Japan sent the first indentured migrant farmworkers to Brazil in 1908. Okinawans accounted for more than 40 percent, 325 of the 781 immigrants, of that inaugural group of economic immigrants to Brazil. In fact, many of the first Okinawan immigrants left the plantations to which they were allocated shortly after their arrival. This gave a negative impression to both the Japanese and Brazilian governments. In 1913, the Japanese government refused to accept Okinawans wishing to travel to Brazil as indentured laborers, citing their propensity to leave the plantations and their cultural difference from Japanese workers from the other prefectures, but when migration agencies were unable to recruit enough laborers from the other prefectures, Okinawans were once again permitted to go to Brazil as indentured migrant workers. However, as was the case in the United States, Okinawan migration to Brazil was prohibited in 1919, and only immigrants who were currently in Brazil were allowed to send for their families.

In addition to Brazil, Okinawa sent a significant number of immigrants to other Latin American countries. For instance, Peru quickly became one of the most popular destinations for Okinawan migrant workers after the first group of Okinawan immigrants arrived there in 1899. Between 1899 and 1941, Okinawa sent 11,461 immigrants to Peru, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the total number of Japanese immigrants. Although the immigrants were initially employed on plantation farms, many later moved to urban areas, where they became grocery store or restaurant owners.

Similarly, most Japanese immigrants to Argentina were Okinawans. This is despite the fact that Japanese immigrants had been arriving in Argentina since 1910. There were 1,831 Okinawans in Argentina in 1940, accounting for approximately 45 percent of the Japanese population in the country. Not all Okinawans in Argentina had migrated directly from Okinawa; in actuality, many ended up in Argentina after traveling to Brazil and Peru. In Argentina, many Okinawans initially found work as factory laborers or porters. A sizeable number eventually set up small businesses such as coffee shops and laundries.

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World War I Spreads, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 297-298:

By the end of 1917 most of the world’s population had entered a state of belligerency. Even during the Napoleonic Wars this situation had no precedent. Two impetuses to the process came from the unrestricted submarine campaign and from American entry. The first threatened death and destruction to almost every country; the second made neutrality less attractive and joining the Allies more so. Yet the new belligerents made their own decisions, which were frequently contested. In China intervention led to civil war, and in Greece to something close to it; in Brazil it prompted civil disorder and repression of the German-Brazilians. In China, the issue became embroiled with the contests between Duan and Li and between the northern Chinese warlords and the Guomindang. Intervention became a gambit in a domestic struggle, with Duan holding the advantage. Brazilian public opinion was always pro-Allied in tendency, but it took the submarine sinkings to create a Congress majority for belligerency. Finally, in Siam the government had no legislature to contend with, and once the king insisted on intervention his foreign minister assented.

None of the four countries envisaged an all-out struggle, which makes their interventions easier to comprehend. So does US entry, which made the Allies more likely to win. Indeed, America also initially envisaged a limited commitment, but unlike the other new arrivals it subsequently expanded it. China, Brazil, and Siam were remote from the Central Powers and therefore ran little risk. Greece ran a bigger one, as a fighting front ran through its northern territory, and of the four it made the biggest military contribution. But the costs and risks should be set against the prospective gains. For Brazil these were primarily economic. For Siam and China the additional incentive was gaining traction against the unequal treaties, the Chinese being particularly focused on the Shandong lease. In Greece Venizelos wanted Bulgarian and Turkish territories that might support a glittering future in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean. The prize all sought was a voice in the peace settlement.

These objectives would be satisfied unequally and tardily; and in Greece’s case scarcely at all. But the widening of the war through new interventions weakened European pre-eminence. Siam and China challenged the unequal treaties in a manner impossible before 1914; Chinese nationalism strengthened and became more anti-Western; Brazil and other South American countries turned away from Europe. China’s intervention was determined more by Japan than by the European Allies or the United States. Moreover, the war’s prolongation undermined not only informal European dominance in East Asia but also formal control elsewhere. This was most evident in the August 1917 Montagu Declaration, promising ‘responsible government’ in India, the grandest empire’s biggest possession. But if European control was under challenge in Asia, it was still expanding in the Middle East, and 1917 was the decisive year for establishing British authority over Palestine and Iraq. These developments too would figure among the lasting consequences of these crowded months.

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Public Health in Rio, 1918

From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 52-54:

At the time that Nava fell sick, Rio was the capital of a young republic. A military coup had brought the reign of Emperor Dom Pedro II to an end in 1889, and with the abolition of slavery the previous year, it had seen a massive influx of freed black and ‘mulatto’ slaves. The poorest moved into cortiços or slums in the city centre. The cortiços–the Portuguese word for ‘beehives’–often lacked running water, sewers and proper ventilation. Living conditions were better there than in the subúrbios, the shanty towns expanding on the outskirts of the city, but the cortiços were more visible. White, middle-class cariocas saw them as parasitising the city proper. Aluísio Azevedo conveyed the fear that they inspired in his novel O Cortiço:

For two years the slum grew from day to day, gaining strength and devouring newcomers. And next door, Miranda grew more and more alarmed and appalled by that brutal and exuberant world, that implacable jungle growing beneath his windows with roots thicker and more treacherous than serpents, undermining everything, threatening to break through the soil in his yard and shake his house to its very foundations.

When President Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves came to power in 1902, he launched an ambitious programme of urban renewal with the goal of turning Rio into a showcase of modern, republican civilisation. In his vision of the cidade maravilhosa, the marvellous city, there was no place for the cortiços, those nests of disease whose inhabitants, condemned by their biology, were ‘locked into a vicious cycle of malnutrition and infection’. They were razed and their inhabitants forced out. Six hundred homes were destroyed to make way for the magnificent Avenida Rio Branco, so that by the time the American travel writer Harriet Chalmers Adams described the city in 1920, she could write that ‘This portion of the city has been cooler ever since, as the breezes sweep through the wide avenue from waterfront to waterfront.’

But the easy mixing of the different classes that had once characterised Rio, their coming together in the seeking of pleasure–especially when it came to music and dancing–had gone. Now there was no area of carioca life in which rich and poor were not divided by an impenetrable gulf. The president also set out to rid the city of infectious diseases, and in this he was aided by a doctor, Oswaldo Cruz, who in 1904, as head of the General Board of Public Health, had ordered a campaign of compulsory vaccination against smallpox. At the time, the vast majority of Brazilians had no grasp of germ theory. For many it was their first experience of state intervention in public health, hence something extraordinary, and poor cariocas rioted. The ‘Vaccine Revolt’, as it was called, was about more than one perceived violation, however. It was an expression of a broader class struggle over whom the city should serve–the Brazilian masses, or the European elite.

A decade later, vaccination had been accepted by most Brazilians, but Cruz’s unpopularity survived his death in 1917, and it was this legacy that shaped cariocas’ response to the new disease threat in 1918. On 12 October, the day that the flu spread through the elegant guests at the Club dos Diàrios, the satirical magazine Careta (Grimace) expressed a fear that the authorities would exaggerate the danger posed by this mere limpa-velhos–killer of old people–to justify imposing a ‘scientific dictatorship’ and violating people’s civil rights. The press portrayed the director of public health, Carlos Seidl, as a dithering bureaucrat, and politicians rubbished his talk of microbes travelling through the air, insisting instead that ‘dust from Dakar could come this far’. The epidemic was even nicknamed ‘Seidl’s evil’. By the end of October, when half a million cariocas–more than half the population–were sick, there were still those among Rio’s opinion-makers who doubted the disease was flu.

By then, so many corpses lay unburied in the city that people began to fear they posed a sanitary risk. ‘On my street,’ recalled one carioca, ‘you could see an ocean of corpses from the window. People would prop the feet of the dead up on the window ledges so that public assistance agencies would come to take them away. But the service was slow, and there came a time when the air grew filthy; the bodies began to swell and rot. Many began throwing corpses out on the streets.’

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Other Names of the Spanish Flu

From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 63-65:

When the flu arrived in Spain in May, most Spanish people, like most people in general, assumed that it had come from beyond their own borders. In their case, they were right. It had been in America for two months already, and France for a matter of weeks at least. Spaniards didn’t know that, however, because news of the flu was censored in the warring nations, to avoid damaging morale (French military doctors referred to it cryptically as maladie onze, ‘disease eleven’). As late as 29 June, the Spanish inspector general of health, Martín Salazar, was able to announce to the Royal Academy of Medicine in Madrid that he had received no reports of a similar disease elsewhere in Europe. So who were Spaniards to blame? A popular song provided the answer. The hit show in Madrid at the time the flu arrived was The Song of Forgetting, an operetta based on the legend of Don Juan. It contained a catchy tune called ‘The Soldier of Naples’, so when a catchy disease appeared in their midst, Madrileños quickly dubbed it the ‘Naples Soldier’.

Spain was neutral in the war, and its press was not censored. Local papers duly reported the havoc that the Naples Soldier left in its wake, and news of the disruption travelled abroad. In early June, Parisians who were ignorant of the ravages the flu had caused in the trenches of Flanders and Champagne learned that two-thirds of Madrileños had fallen ill in the space of three days. Not realising that it had been theirs longer than it had been Spain’s, and with a little nudging from their governments, the French, British and Americans started calling it the ‘Spanish flu’. Not surprisingly, this label almost never appears in contemporary Spanish sources. Practically the only exception is when Spanish authors write to complain about it. ‘Let it be stated that, as a good Spaniard, I protest this notion of the “Spanish fever”,’ railed a doctor named García Triviño in a Hispanic medical journal. Many in Spain saw the name as just the latest manifestation of the ‘Black Legend’, anti-Spanish propaganda that grew out of rivalry between the European empires in the sixteenth century, and that depicted the conquistadors as even more brutal than they were (they did bind and chain the Indians they subjugated, but they probably did not–as the legend claimed–feed Indian children to their dogs).

Further from the theatre of war, people followed the time-honoured rules of epidemic nomenclature and blamed the obvious other. In Senegal it was the Brazilian flu and in Brazil the German flu, while the Danes thought it ‘came from the south’. The Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, the Persians blamed the British, and the Japanese blamed their wrestlers: after it first broke out at a sumo tournament, they dubbed it ‘sumo flu’.

Some names reflected a people’s historic relationship with flu. In the minds of the British settlers of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), for example, flu was a relatively trivial disease, so officials labelled the new affliction ‘influenza (vera)’, adding the Latin word vera, meaning ‘true’, in an attempt to banish any doubts that this was the same disease. Following the same logic, but opting for a different solution, German doctors realised that people would need persuading that this new horror was the ‘fashionable’ disease of flu–darling of the worried well–so they called it ‘pseudo-influenza’. In parts of the world that had witnessed the destructive potential of ‘white man’s diseases’, however, the names often conveyed nothing at all about the identity of the disease. ‘Man big daddy’, ‘big deadly era’, myriad words meaning ‘disaster’–they were expressions that had been applied before, to previous epidemics. They did not distinguish between smallpox, measles or influenza–or sometimes even famines or wars.

Some people reserved judgement. In Freetown, a newspaper suggested that the disease be called manhu until more was known about it. Manhu, a Hebrew word meaning ‘what is it?’, was what the Israelites asked each other when they saw a strange substance falling out of the sky as they passed through the Red Sea (from manhu comes manna–bread from heaven). Others named it commemoratively. The residents of Cape Coast, Ghana called it Mowure Kodwo after a Mr Kodwo from the village of Mouri who was the first person to die of it in that area. Across Africa, the disease was fixed for perpetuity in the names of age cohorts born around that time. Among the Igbo of Nigeria, for example, those born between 1919 and 1921 were known as ogbo ifelunza, the influenza age group. ‘Ifelunza’, an obvious corruption of ‘influenza’, became incorporated into the Igbo lexicon for the first time that autumn. Before that, they had had no word for the disease.

As time went on, and it transpired that there were not many local epidemics, but one global pandemic–it became necessary to agree on a single name. The one that was adopted was the one that was already being used by the most powerful nations on earth–the victors in the Great War. The pandemic became known as the Spanish flu–ispanka, espanhola, la grippe espagnole, die Spanische Grippe–and a historical wrong became set in stone.

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Monitor-class Gunboats in WWI

From African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi (Caliber, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4586-4635:

In 1913, the Brazilian Navy, eager to dominate the upper reaches of the Amazon, had ordered three curious, old-fashioned gunboats from the Scottish shipyards at Barrow-in-Furness. These vessels, called monitors because of their resemblance to the original ironclad warship (that “cheesebox on a raft,” the USS Monitor of the American Civil War), were little more than floating gun platforms. An unusually shallow draft of about six feet allowed the monitors to work close inshore and navigate rivers impassible to deeper-hulled warships. Their heavy armaments—two 6-inch and two 4.7-inch guns—made them formidable opponents. Indeed, these guns were as large as anything carried aboard German battle cruisers like Königsberg.

The monitors, 256 feet long and 1,256 tons unloaded, sported a single prominent funnel and an 80-foot central mainmast. Projected top speed of a painfully slow twelve knots proved much slower in practice. Each carried a minimal coal supply and so could not manage long voyages, which was just as well: Waves crashed over their narrow freeboard at stem and stern; with a direct wind from either port or starboard they wallowed and threatened to swamp—all obvious liabilities for any oceangoing vessel. But for river wars, they were just the thing.

Brazilian Navy officials eagerly awaited delivery of their new warships. They had already been christened Solomos, Madeira, and Javery and were undergoing acceptance trials when war broke out in August 1914. An ocean voyage being impossible under their own steam, the monitors would soon be towed across the Atlantic to the Amazon by oceangoing tugs. Suddenly, the Admiralty stepped in and confiscated the three ungainly vessels; their use was immediately required for Great Britain’s war against Germany and the Central Powers. The Brazilians’ reaction to this seizure must have been utter dismay: They had spent freely on lavish interior fittings and other cosmetic niceties. Indeed, the Brazilian monitors were perhaps the most luxurious naval vessels anywhere in the world.

When British officials came aboard for an inspection tour, they looked around aghast: Behind the monitors’ steel bulkheads, painted a jaunty Coast Guard white, the interiors resembled a posh gentleman’s club—or a high-class bordello: Captain’s cabin and officers’ quarters, ready room and gun room were done up in glossy oak paneling agleam with brass touches. Persian carpets decorated the decks. Blue linen tablecloths flecked with white embroidered anchors, monogrammed china, and chairs with interchangeable seats (wicker for hot weather, velvet for cold) had been specially made for the officers’ mess. Chandeliers hung from the ceilings. The British Navy inspectors allowed themselves a moment of envious awe, then took to the interior with crowbars and sledgehammers. The monitors’ gleaming white hulls—calculated to dazzle any Amazonian Indian approaching in a canoe—were immediately covered in wartime gray; any remaining brass fittings ended up a tarry black. All the luxurious accoutrements—carpets, tablecloths, interchangeable chairs—ripped out and discarded, ended up in a heap on the docks. Renamed Humber, Severn, and Mersey, the squat little ships were made ready for war.

Now dubbed the “Inshore Flotilla and Squadron,” they engaged in early action along the Belgian coast in 1914 and 1915 and played an appreciable part in the “Race to the Sea” campaign of the first weeks of the war: As trenches were dug in a frantic burst all the way across Flanders to the English Channel, the monitors lying just offshore supported the action on land with their big guns. Coming under fire from German field artillery, they sustained damage and casualties, but played their role well. Churchill credited them with preventing the fall of Calais, Dunkirk, and Boulogne and saving what was left of the Belgian Army….

Flotilla officers, an odd mix of merchant marine and naval reservists, suited their curious ships. Most, getting on in years, had already pursued a variety of nonmilitary careers—including the stage and the teaching of German to high school students —before being recalled to service in August. Captain E. J. A. Fullerton, first of Mersey, then Severn, the flotilla’s commander, had been a gym instructor at the Royal Naval College, Osborne, and had served aboard King Edward VII’s yacht, HMY Victoria and Albert, in the last days of the Belle Epoque. When promoted to captain in January 1915, he provided a pint of beer to every sailor in the flotilla for a toast to his health.

Following action in Belgian waters, the Admiralty ordered the monitors to the Dardanelles to take part in the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign. There, along with several of the most obsolete vessels in the British Navy, they were to help force the straits—the goal of the campaign being the capture of Constantinople from the Turks by naval action alone. Made as seaworthy as possible, with topmast stowed and hatches battened, the monitors wallowed down the European coasts and through the Straits of Gibraltar in heavy seas, towed by their tugs at the punishingly slow speed of six knots. They arrived at Malta in March, next stop Turkey. All officers and men of the Inshore Flotilla and Squadron had been sent ahead as passengers aboard the HMS Trent.

But by this time, the Turks under the famous Mustapha Kemal—later Ataturk—with German help had sunk three British battleships off the Dardanelles and disabled three more. British Admiral John de Robeck, in charge of naval operations, abruptly called off his battered fleet, in favor of an amphibious invasion force. Now, suddenly, the monitors had become redundant. They languished in the fortified harbor at Valetta for weeks—until Admiral King-Hall, from his watch on the far-off Rufiji Station, got wind of their presence in the Mediterranean. These clumsy, powerfully armed, shallow-draft vessels might have been made expressly for his ongoing battle against Königsberg.

After some wrangling with the Admiralty, King-Hall secured the use of Mersey and Severn and their officers and crews, though not Humber. The pair of monitors, again fixed to their oceangoing tugs via steel cables, began another long journey—this time 5,000 miles across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, and to the clotted, crocodile-infested channels of the Rufiji Delta.

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