During most of the Portuguese colonial era, Brazil was a culturally vibrant, economic behemoth of mineral and agrarian wealth. However, due to the colonial mercantilist system, the country had very little contact with the world beyond the Lusitanian sphere. The relatively few foreigners who visited the country were
often amazed at how such a vast and impressive land could maintain such a provincial outlook. However, that all suddenly changed after the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal in 1807, upon which the entire
Portuguese Royal Court moved en masse to Rio de Janeiro, making the city the capital of a global empire. Many sophisticated people of great wealth patronized the city, bringing about an unprecedented economic boom and the flourishing of intellectual projects. Within only a few years, Rio was transformed from a backwater into perhaps the most cosmopolitan place in the Americas, instigating the ‘Brazilian Enlightenment’. In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, Portugal attempted to return Brazil to its colonial servitude; however, in 1822, following a popular revolution led by the Portuguese king’s own son, Dom Pedro “the Liberator”, Brazil declared its de facto independence. The new Brazil was determined to open itself up the world and welcomed foreign traders, scientists and explorers to help the country realize its potential.
Enter Ernst Ebel, a wealthy merchant from an old Baltic German patrician family in Riga, then part of the Russian Empire. He was interested in exploring commercial opportunities in Brazil, with the knowledge that, in theory, Russia and Brazil were complementary trading partners, as the former had many tropical products to trade for latter’s northern bounty. In February 1824, barely 18 months after Brazil had declared its independence, Ebel arrived in Rio de Janeiro.
The Rio that Ebel encountered had been utterly transformed over the previous 15 years, experiencing rapid population growth (it then had almost 120,000 residents, making it the largest city in South America) and economic development. The harbour was full of foreign trading vessels, while its quays buzzed with people speaking all kinds of languages. While many of the exiles from Lisbon had returned to Europe, the city was still left with an amazingly refined elite class. However, it was also a pace of astounding inequality; half of its residents were slaves, and many of the freemen lived in dire poverty.
Ebel’s account comes in the form of eleven letters written to a ‘Dear Friend’, in which he engagingly relates his experiences in a very candid and ‘human’ manner. While he covers the territory that was the unusual province of travel accounts (ex, major sites, official customs, etc.), Ebel’s letters are of great academic value because he vividly describes the daily street life of Rio, including what it was like to visit crowded textile shops, or his opinion on raucous music, or his encounters with common people. His great accomplishment is that he makes the Rio of 1824 come alive again for readers even two centuries later!
His letters are also very revealing as to the economic situation of Brazil, as he was perhaps the first expert to seriously analyze the benefits of trade between the Baltic and that country. Ebel stayed in Rio for four months, departing for Russia in June 1824, armed with a vast wealth of valuable knowledge.
The work is augmented by two custom-engraved maps. The Plan von Rio de Janeiro 1824. Nach dem portugiesischen Orignal, a large folding map (43 x 55 cm cm), provides a superbly detailed and clear impression of the city. It is reduced from Michel Antonio dos Reis’s legendary, colossal Planta da Cidade de S. Sebastião do Rio De Janeiro (Rio, 1812), which was based upon the surveys commissioned by the exiled Portuguese royal court.
The map shows the entire city as it then existed, which only consisted of what is today the inner downtown core. The urbanized area is wedged betwixt highlands, in between the harbour and the great square of Campo Santa Anna. Rio is shown surrounded by numerous fortifications, which are all carefully outlined, while beyond are estates with grand gardens.
The legend in the lower left identified 23 sites by numbers, including churches, monasteries, the library, the museum, the government palace, the arsenal, the customs house and, ominously, the slave market. Another column to the right identifies 24 streets by letter (a – x), ensuring that the map meticulously labels every major aspect of the city.
Additionally, the work is illustrated with a frontispiece map, Skizze der Baÿ von Rio de Janeiro nach Der Englishen Ausnahme 1821, that depicts the entirety of the Bay of Rio, reduced from William Faden’s excellent A New and Most Correct Chart of the Entrance and Harbour of Rio de Janeiro (London, 1821).
Ebel’s work had an enduring legacy, as it had been oft quoted by writers for generations up to the present day, especially with regards the author’s candid observations on the daily life of Rio. It was first fully translated into Portuguese as O Rio de Janeiro e seus arredores em 1824 (São Paulo, 1972).
A Note on Rarity
The present work is very rare on the market, we can trace only a single sales record for another example from the last 25 years. Several examples are preserved in libraries, although, in this case, it is difficult to discern whether the listings are of actual examples or rather digital copies.
References: British Library: General Reference Collection 10481.e.17.; Staatsbiliothek zu Berlin: 8″ Kart. GfE M 3162, Harvard: SA 6168.24, OCLC: 1129436821; BORBA DE MORAES, Bibliographia Brasiliana, vol. I, p. 282; Bruno CARVALHO, Porous City: A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro (from the 1810s Onward) (2013), p. 30; Catalogo da Exposic̜ao de Historia do Brazil Realizada Pela Bibliotheca Nacional do Rio De Janeiro (1881), no. 1118, p. 110; Francecsa MILLER, Brazil’s Relations with Russia, 1808-1840: A Study in the Formation of Foreign Policy (1984), p. 109.