O Mestre-Sala dos Mares

Lyrics for “O Mestre-Sala dos Mares” by Aldir Blanc and João Bosco (1974)


[Lyrics as released; for uncensored original lyrics, see below]

Há muito tempo nas águas da Guanabara // Long ago in the waters of Guanabara Bay
O dragão do mar reapareceu // The Sea Dragon reappeared
Na figura de um bravo feiticeiro // In the figure of a fierce sorcerer
A quem a história não esqueceu // Who history has not forgotten
Conhecido como o navegante negro // Known as the black navigator
Tinha a dignidade de um mestre-sala // He had the dignity of a standard-bearer
E ao acenar pelo mar na alegria das regatas // And upon signaling on the sea in the joy of the regatas
Foi saudado no porto pelas mocinhas francesas // He was saluted at port by the little French girls
Jovens polacas e por batalhões de mulatas // Young Polish ladies [harlots] and by battalions of mulatas

Rubras cascatas // Ruby cascades
Jorravam das costas dos santos entre cantos e chibatas // Gushed from the saints’ backs between calls [or corners] and whips
Inundando o coração do pessoal do porão // Flooding the hearts of the men in stowage
Que, a exemplo do feiticeiro, gritava então // Who, following the sorcerer’s example, began to scream

Glória aos piratas // Glory to pirates
Às mulatas, às sereias // To mulatas and mermaids
Glória à farofa // Glory to farofa
à cachaça, às baleias // To cachaça and whales
Glória a todas as lutas inglórias // Glory to all the inglorious struggles
Que através da nossa história não esquecemos jamais // That throughout our history we’ll never forget
Salve o navegante negro // Hail the black mariner
Que tem por monumento as pedras pisadas do cais // Who has, as his monument, the trodden stones of the port
Mas salve // Yes hail
Salve o navegante negro // Hail the black mariner
Que tem por monumento as pedras pisadas do cais // Who has, as his monument, the trodden stones of the port

Mas faz muito tempo // A long time ago…


[With original, uncensored lyrics]

Há muito tempo nas águas da Guanabara // Long ago in the waters of Guanabara Bay
O dragão do mar reapareceu // The Sea Dragon reappeared
Na figura de um bravo marinheiro // In the figure of a fierce sailor
A quem a história não esqueceu  // Who history has not forgotten
Conhecido como o almirante negro // Known as the black admiral
Tinha a dignidade de um mestre-sala // He had the dignity of a standard-bearer
E ao navegar pelo mar com seu bloco de fragatas //And upon sailing the sea with his pack of frigates
Foi saudado no porto pelas mocinhas francesas // He was saluted at port by the little French girls
Jovens polacas e por batalhões de mulatas // Young Polish ladies [harlots] and by battalions of mulatas
Rubras cascatas jorravam das costas dos negros pelas pontas das chibatas //Ruby cascades gushed from the black men’s backs at the crack of the whips
Inundando o coração de toda tripulação // Flooding the hearts of the whole crew
Que a exemplo do marinheiro gritava então…// That, following the sailor’s example, began to scream…

— Commentary —

Joao_Candido_26 november_final day of mutiny
João Cândido (tallest sailor in center) stands with members of the press and navy officials on Nov. 26, 1910, the final day of the Revolta da Chibata, or Revolt of the Lash. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

*This song is the second in a series on Aldir Blanc, who died on May 4, 2020, from Covid-19.*

From November 22-26, 1910, low ranking and mostly Afro-descended Brazilian sailors staged a spectacular revolt in Rio’s Guanabara Bay.  Their manifesto, directed to the newly inaugurated president, Marshal Hermes da Fonseca, began: “We, sailors, Brazilian citizens and republicans, unable to bear any longer the slavery of the Brazilian Navy…”

Slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, but the sailors’ mutiny — known today as the Revolta da Chibata, or Revolt of the Lash — reveals the extent to which its violent legacy persisted decades after abolition and the 1889 transition from empire to republic.

This song celebrates the best-known leader of the uprising, João Cândido (1880-1969), a son of slaves who entered the navy at age 15 in the hopes of pursuing a military career. Cândido was the talented helmsman of the dreadnought Minas Gerais, a warship central to the revolt. His death in 1969 inspired this samba.

The following section tells the history of the revolt.  For details on the song and the censors, see below.

The Revolt

Encouraçado Minas Gerais_
When it launched, the dreadnought Minas Gerais was the largest warship ever made. Image via naval.com.br.

In mid-November, 1910, a slew of battleships, Brazilian and foreign, gathered in Guanabara Bay to hail the inauguration of President Hermes da Fonseca, a military man who had been Minister of War under the administration of Afonso Pena (1906-09). As Hermes da Fonseca and his circle immersed themselves in the pomp of the November 15 inauguration celebrations, at dawn of November 16, sailors on the new Brazilian dreadnought Minas Gerais were called on deck, forced to witness their companion Marcelino Rodrigues Menezes receive 250 lashes, ten times the legally permitted 25.

Such punishments were common in the Brazilian navy, which mirrored the dramatic inequalities of Brazilian society: Officers came from Brazil’s wealthiest white families, while lower ranking sailors were almost all descendants of slaves or from poor mixed-race backgrounds. Officers and government officials considered these sailors the dregs of society. Many were forced recruits — from places like jails and orphanages — bound to 12-year terms. Those who registered through apprenticeship schools, like João Cândido, served 15-year terms. While serving, they were forbidden from marrying — a right held dear to freed people and descendants of slaves — and suffered frequent corporal punishment, including brutal whippings.  Their pay was paltry and their food barely edible. Enslaved men had served in the Brazilian navy up through abolition, and officers were accustomed to treating Afro-descended sailors as such.

Potemkin-still6
A still from Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 classic Battleship Potemkin. The uprising against the czarist regime was considered the first major step toward the Russian Revolution. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet meanwhile, these sailors found themselves at the fore of their country’s push to modernize its navy, in an early-twentieth-century arms race against Chile and Argentina. In turn, Brazilian seamen gained ever greater exposure to the experiences of sailors from all over the world. By his late twenties, João Cândido, who served as topman and signalman, had been in ports all over Europe, including, by his account, the Russian port of Kronstadt in late 1905, where authors suggest he may have learned of the recent mutiny on the Russian battleship Potemkin. (In a 1968 interview for Museu da Imagem e do Som, João Cândido does not mention Potemkin, but makes broad reference to inspiration from movements in Europe.)

Christening_Minas Gerais_Elswick_10 September 1908_DF.CLR-8-29_The_Launch_of_the_Minas_Geraes.tif
Christening of the Minas Gerais at Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne, on September 10, 1908. Image via Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

In 1906, the Brazilian navy ordered two dreadnoughts — the top-line British warship that would be central to the war at sea in World War I — and in the following years sent scores of sailors to England to accompany the construction of the ships, the Minas Gerais and the São Paulo, and train on their operation. Cândido was among them, training as a helmsman on the Minas Gerais in England.

Shortly after the Minas Gerais was christened in England in late 1908, Scientific American published a profile of the ship, “The Most Powerful Fighting Ship Afloat.” When the ships arrived in Rio in early 1910, the local press spared no superlatives in hailing the new Brazilian dreadnoughts’ unrivaled destructive power, which would soon be turned against the capital city.

Sailors on the Minas Gerais_Btw 1910-1915_via LOC
Sailors on the Minas Gerais, ca. 1910-1915. Image via the Library of Congress.

As Brazilian sailors took part in their nation’s push to be a world naval power, and heard more and more about the successes of their European counterparts in organizing to demand better treatment, they began forming what Cândido called secret “revolutionary committees.” They attempted peaceful means to achieve reform first, delivering letters with their demands to the local press. But those were ignored. Meanwhile, just a month before the revolt, much of the crew of the São Paulo was in Lisbon with Hermes da Fonseca, where they witnessed the largely naval October 1910 revolution that overthrew King Manuel II of Portugal and established the Portuguese republic. This likely served as another source of encouragement for the sailors.

They had plotted to revolt at the end of November. But the brutality of Menezes’s punishment set the uprising in motion earlier than planned.

Screen Shot 2020-05-16 at 2.24.06 PM
On Dec. 1, 1910, the illustrated weekly A Ilustração Brazileira published an editorial on the revolt, including these images of the four leaders. Reflecting a common and persistent concern among Brazilian elites, the author focused on the effect the revolt would have on Brazil’s international reputation, lamenting the mutineers’ failure to recognize that “to the foreigner, the humiliated party was not the officers, nor the congressmen, nor the administration. It was the nation.” Image via A Ilustração Brazileira, Dec. 1, 1910.

On the night of November 22, sailors killed the officer of the Minas Gerais who had ordered Menezes’s whipping, João Batista das Neves, and took captive the rest of the officers on the dreadnoughts Minas Gerais and São Paulo; they were joined by the crews of the destroyers Bahia and Deodoro, along with several smaller ships. In total, nearly 2,400 sailors joined the revolt; another 2,600 remained ostensibly loyal, but with almost all the mutineers concentrated on the most powerful four ships, any loyal members of the squadron were forced to capitulate or face bombardment.

The mutinous sailors aimed dozens of massive canons toward downtown Rio and the presidential palace in Catete, and issued their call for better treatment. Their manifesto requested the dismissal of incompetent officers; an end to whippings and other forms of corporal punishment; better pay, instruction, and amnesty for participating in the revolt. The government’s failure to concede would result in “annihilation of the fatherland.” (A full transcription of the manifesto is copied below this post.) Low caliber warning shots were fired at military forts and the presidential palace that night and the following day.

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Crowds gathered to watch the ships in the Bay. Image via A Ilustração Brazileira, Dec. 1, 1910.

By November 23, the popular daily Correio da Manhã reported that the city was “completely in panic.” Wealthier cariocas left the city for mountain retreats. Other residents meanwhile swamped the beaches to watch, awestruck, as the massive new warships, now flying red flags of rebellion, maneuvered spectacularly back and forth through Guanabara Bay.  The ships had only recently arrived in Rio to much popular acclaim; their seizure made for a dramatic, albeit frightening, show.

João Cândido, the skillful pilot of the Minas Gerais, had emerged as a natural leader among the crewmen before the revolt. His connections through patronage networks to elite families in his home state of Rio Grande do Sul — also the home state of President Hermes da Fonseca — may have contributed to sailors’ confidence in his leadership. At 30, he was also much older and more experienced than most of the rebellious sailors. The British ambassador to the United States, James Bryce, was in Rio at the time of the rebellion, and praised Cândido’s aplomb, writing that he showed his “grasp of the situation by ordering all of the liquor on the Minas Gerais to be thrown overboard” when the revolt began. Historian Mário Maestri reports Cândido and the other sailors acted impeccably with the bodies of officers who were killed, and demonstrated tight organization and remarkable restraint throughout. (Maestri believes they had studied the Potemkin revolt and learned from the Russians’ mistakes.)

Screen Shot 2020-05-16 at 2.31.11 PM
João Cândido reads news of the amnesty in Brazil’s Diário Oficial, the official journal of the federal government. Cândido and other leaders demanded to see the publication before returning the warships to officers. Nevertheless, the government did not respect the amnesty. Image from A Ilustração Brazileira, Dec. 1, 1910.

On November 26, the federal government granted the sailors their demands, including amnesty for participation in the mutiny; in turn, the sailors returned the ships to their officers. The government quickly reneged on that amnesty, however. Just a few days later, 22 sailors were arrested for conspiring against the nation; brutally tortured, only two survived. João Cândido was one of them. He was put into solitary confinement and then transferred for several months to a psychiatric ward, before he was officially amnestied (again) by the Brazilian War Council in 1912. Other mutinous sailors who survived the initial days after the revolt were soon rounded up and exiled to work as seringueiros, or rubber-tappers, in the Amazon region; some were executed on their way. The sailors had been successful, however, in winning better treatment, including the legal abolition of floggings and other forms of corporal punishment.

Cândido continued to suffer persecution throughout his life, as did his supporters. Leftist journalist Edmar Morel published the first history of the revolt in a 1959 book that gave the uprising its popular name, A Revolta da Chibata. Morel’s political rights were abrogated immediately following the military coup of 1964.  In the early 1960s, João Cândido had been granted a small monthly pension by the left-leaning administration of João Goulart; that pension was also immediately revoked after the military coup. Cândido, unable to secure a steady job because of constant opposition from military officials, spent the last decades of his life as a fish vendor in Rio’s Praça XV.

Joaocandido_status_Praça XV
João Cândido statue at Praça XV. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2008, when president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva signed a law granting posthumous amnesty to Cândido and other leaders of the revolt, and inaugurated a statue for João Cândido at Praça XV, the Navy issued a statement that it did “not recognize heroism in the acts of that movement,” but that it would not oppose the statue as long as “proper measures are taken to avoid language offensive to the Navy and to the victims of the mutineers.”

A bust memorializing Batista das Neves, the officer whose order for 250 lashes sparked the revolt that led to his demise, stands prominent in the main entrance of Brazil’s Colégio Naval in Angra dos Reis.

The Song and the Censors

João Bosco and Aldir Blanc_1970s
João Bosco and Aldir Blanc. Image via O Globo.

Aldir Blanc said this song exposed him for the first time to the official, state-sponsored racism of Brazil’s military regime. In the 2004 documentary Dois pra lá, dois pra cáJoão Bosco and Blanc recall making trip after trip to the federal censorship office for this song. It was never approved, and they had no idea why. Finally, they got to know a young censor (a rarity) who told them, for one thing, that they needed to give their song a new name: If a censor saw that a song by the same name had been blocked recently, they were likely to just keep vetoing it.  And even more importantly, he told the composers they’d have to remove references to “negros,” or black men: “That guy tipped us off that ‘negros won’t get through,'” Aldir recalled. Brazil was, by the official line, a nation free of racial divisions and strife, and suggestions to the contrary were unacceptable.

The pair changed the song’s name from “Almirante Negro” to “O Mestre-Sala dos Mares,” Standard-Bearer of the Seas (in Carnival parades, the male mestre-sala, technically “master of ceremony,” along with the female porta-bandeira, leads the samba school’s procession, bearing the school’s standard) and made the further changes highlighted above in the lyrics. As I’ve noted in the translation, “cantos” in the revised lyrics can be interpreted as songs or calls, but also potentially as corners — i.e., something like “cornered by the whips.” The original lyrics read “at the crack [or point] of the whips,” which would not pass the censors.

“O Dragão do Mar” – the Sea Dragon – refers to Francisco José do Nascimento (1839-1914), a northeastern boatsman who was celebrated in abolitionist circles for his refusal, in 1881, to transport slaves from the port of Fortaleza to Rio de Janeiro.  The lyrics mix the history of this popular revolt together with “hails” for anti-heroes of the sea, mermaids, and the eminently popular fare of farofa, or toasted manioc flour, and cachaça. Polacas refers specifically to young Jewish immigrants who worked as prostitutes in Rio in the early twentieth century.

Main sources for this post include: Brasil, uma biografia, by Heloísa Starling and Lília Schwarcz (2nd edition, 2015); The Revolt of the Whip by Joseph Love (2012); Legacy of the Lash by Zachary Morgan (2015); “O Almirante negro e seu encouraçado prateado,” by Carlos Haag; this series of interviews with historian Mário Maestri, author of the 1998 book Cisnes Negros: Uma história da revolta da chibata; the 2004 documentary Dois pra lá, dois pra cádirected by Alexandre Ribeiro de Carvalho, André Sampaio, and José Roberto de Morais; “Os bordados de João Cândido,” by José Murilo de Carvalho (1995); segments of João Cândido’s 1968 interview with Museu da Imagem e do Som.

Sailors’ Manifesto (From Joseph Love, The Revolt of the Whip, 33):

We, the sailors, Brazilian citizens and Republicans, no longer able to bear slavery in the Brazilian navy [and] the lack of protection that the Fatherland affords us, are rending the dark veil that covers the eyes of the patriotic and deceived people. Finding all the ships in our power . . . we [ask] Your Excellency to secure for Brazilian sailors the sacred rights that the laws of the Republic grant us . . . [including] removing incompetent and unworthy officers . . . ; reforming the immoral and shameful code that rules us, abolishing flogging, hand-paddling [bolo], and similar punishments; raising our pay, according to the latest plans of [Deputy] José Carlos de Carvalho; educating the sailors who lack the ability to wear the uniform with pride; [and] putting into effect the work schedules that accompany [Carvalho’s] program. Your Excellency has twelve (12) hours to send us a satisfactory reply, under the threat of seeing the Fatherland annihilated. Aboard the São Paulo, 22 November 1910. Note: The free movement of the messenger cannot be interrupted.
The Sailors

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