Tracking the Confederates of Brazil

Sao Paulo, Brazil — Bob Sharp is thoroughly Brazilian, though he could pass easily for your ordinary, American Southerner.

For starters, there’s the name. Nothing particularly Brazilian about that. (And we’ll come back to that later). Then there is the accent, which, though not exactly Southern, is not exactly Brazilian either. Then there is the giveaway, the one thing that makes Sharp seem as much or more of a child of Dixie than anyone I know: The guy’s a NASCAR nut.

The other day during lunch at the cafeteria of the massive Embraer aircraft factory where he’s employed, Sharp, a former race car driver, talked at length about the sport, offering an at-length discourse on the nuances of Formula I racing versus the amazing derring-do of NASCAR drivers. He prefers NASCAR, he said – though he rarely sees a race – and went on to compare the late, great Dale Earnhardt to the Brazilian racing legend Ayrton Senna, who died just a few years ago in a freak accident and whose likeness is found on nearly any street corner and bus panel you might pass down here.

And what makes all this utterly fascinating to this visiting Americano is the fact that Sharp comes by some of his Southern inclination naturally – he is descended from a group of Americans (actually unrehabilitated Confederates) who went South to Brazil in the 1860s after the planter’s life many of them had known so well in the mid-19th century was washed away during the American Civil War.

Like most of those 3,000 or so of those who immigrated to Brazil in that time, at the urging of Brazilian monarch Dom Pedro II, Sharp’s family has by now been completely assimilated into Brazilian culture and lifestyle. Sharp gave his own children Portuguese names to offer them a stronger Brazilian identity, yet he does not forget his American heritage. “My great grandfather was John Sharp, and he came to Sao Paulo from Richmond, Va.,” says Sharp. “Many of them assimilated right into Brazilian culture. My grandfather married a Brazilian woman and went to live in Rio (de Janeiro) with a smaller group of Confederates. The majority of them stayed around here, in Americana.”

The group that settled in Americana was of course the best known, and has been the most written about. Sao Paulo historian Ana Maria S. Costa, who runs an independent educational and cultural arts project in the city, a few years ago published the definitive study on the issue, entitled O Destino (nao) Manifesto: Os Imigrantes Norte-Americanos no Brasil. Loosely translated, No Manifest Destiny: The Immigration of North Americans to Brazil.

“They came to Brazil searching for the recreation of a civilization they had known back in the antebellum South, an empire built on slavery and the myth of the planter class,” said Ms. Acosta, who spent part of her high school years in Virginia. “Most of them didn’t find that. Nevertheless, they brought with them the seeds of liberal thought and democracy that have added to greater Brazil.”

According to Ms. Acosta, Dom Pedro II recruited the expelled Americanos because, in part “he wanted to whiten Brazil,” a country which to that point had seen most of its immigration come from Portugal and from the African slave market. The ex-Confederates came mostly from Alabama, Georgia and Texas and settled in three main areas in Brazil – Para, near the bottom edge of the Amazon region; Espirito Santo; and Sao Paulo, where the Americana colony flourished because of the fertile soil not unlike that found in the Alabama Black Belt.

Cotton, of course, was the Americans’ crop of choice, and it fit nicely with the plans of British entrepreneurs who were building a railroad in the area at the time. The immigrants also planted sugar cane and, according to legend, brought watermelon seeds into the country in their pockets. Watermelon is still enjoyed in Brazil and the harvesting of sugar cane led to the making of cachaca, which today is the primary alcoholic ingredient in the caipirinha, the national drink of Brazil. According to Ms. Acosta, the Americans’ contributions are also felt today in more substantive ways. For instance, there was the Confederates’ formation of Protestant churches and schools, which were not accepted at all to begin with. Ms. Acosta believes the formation of these Protestant schools and churches fueled liberal education throughout the nation and eventually helped in the fight to make Brazil an independent republic.

“They brought with them a much different educational philosophy and methodology than had been here at the time,” she said. “At the time, all the schools were Catholic. Today, because of them we have a much more diverse educational system. We owe two of our most outstanding universities (McKenzie University and Methodist University) to them.”

In the end, the great majority of the ex-Confederates never exactly found the antebellum lifestyle many of them had known before the Civil War. (The trade of slaves across continents, after all, had been prohibited in 1867). Yet just like their forefathers who had to learn to adjust when they came to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, these expatriates to Brazil found ways to survive.

“They came here with the idea of colonizing,” Ms. Acosta said. “They didn’t realize the country had already been largely settled. They had to rethink the Southern myth and adjust to a new land. They altered their plans, showed a hard-working spirit and learned to persevere.”