Bahia, And The Diamond Mines
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
HOW THE PRECIOUS STONES ARE DUG OUT OF THE RIVERS OF BRAZIL—MINED BY NATIVE INDIANS, WHO DIVE FOR THE DIAMOND GRAVEL—CONCERNING THE CARBONS, OR BLACK DIAMONDS, FOUND NEAR BAHIA—THE GOLD MINES OF MINAS GERAES, AND THE NEW GOLD REGIONS OF NORTHERN BRAZIL—THE OLD CITY OF BAHIA, ONCE THE BRAZILIAN CAPITAL—ITS 200,000 PEOPLE, MOST OF WHOM ARE COLOURED—AMERICAN GOLD DOLLARS AS VEST BUTTONS.
From Rio de Janeiro I came by steamer two days north to Bahia, the former capital of Brazil. It is still a large city, only surpassed by Rio in size and in business. Bahia is situated on a bay as large as that of Rio de Janeiro. The bay is of the shape of a horseshoe, 10 miles wide at the entrance, 27 miles long, and in the centre about 20 miles wide. On the east side of it are huge bluffs, and on these Bahia is built. You see it as you enter the harbour, its white buildings rising out cf palm trees over a wall of dense vegetation. There are two parts to the city, one down on the shore and the other built upon the bluff. The part on the shore is the business section, occupied by the importing and exporting. houses. This section is worse smelling than the slums of Naples. There is a distinct and separate bad smell to every house, but the smell disappears to some extent as you mount the bluff; altogether the city is insanitary in the extreme.
Among the most familiar features of the city are the negroes, who are everywhere. Nearly every one you meet shows traces of negro blood ; if not in complexion, then in the wide nostrils and semi-flat noses. There are many blacks, and the women have become famous for their size throughout Brazil. They are the fattest women I have ever seen. Some weigh three hundred pounds, and their dress is usually so light that you can easily see that their forms are not padded. It consists of a long white chemise, without sleeves, cut low at the neck so that their satiny black arms and bosoms are somewhat exposed. In the neck of her chemise each woman has a lace-edging of beautiful design, through the meshes of which the black skin shows out. Nearly all have on white or gay-coloured turbans, and not a few wear shawls about their waists, which form overskirts to their chemises. Many go barefooted, but more wear heel-less slippers, and so short that they can get little more than their toes into them, so that the heel of the shoe rests just under the instep. Among ordinary Caucasians such shoes would never do, but the Bahia black women have insteps that make you think of the old darkey's song about his sweetheart, wherein he says:
"And de hollow ob her foot makes a hole in de ground."
Many of the Bahia negresses are rich. Sonic wear half a dozen gold bracelets on each arm, a few display diamond rings, and many wear gold chains about their fat black necks.
Bahia has perhaps as many negroes to the population as has any city in Brazil. It was long the centre of the slave trade. The kidnappers ran their cargoes of slaves from Africa into its harbour and from here distributed the human freight to all parts of the Republic. Thousands of negroes were sent from Bahia to New Orleans. They were smuggled into the United States after the slave trade was prohibited, and into Brazil long after the importation of slaves was forbidden. Slavery existed in Brazil up to about ten years ago, and the result is that there are now more negroes in Bahia than whites. Nor is the colour-line distinct, the whites of Brazil have so intermarried with the negroes; indeed, you can now find few white families who have not some negro blood.
Negroes in Brazil have an absolute equality with the whites. No one thinks of objecting to their presence at the tables in the dining-rooms of the hotels or the steamboats. On the coasting vessel on which I came to Bahia, two-thirds of the passengers were coloured, and many of the coloured men were better dressed than I. Some of them were very intelligent, and not a few were property-owners. I find the coloured people in all sorts of positions. The editor and proprietor of one of the daily newspapers of Rio de Janeiro is a coal black African, and at one of our American minister's receptions I met the bishop of Amazonas, whose face is a mahogany brown. His Blessedness was dressed in a beautiful cardinal gown; he had a cardinal skull-cap on his head; and his hands, on one of which was the big ring of office, were covered with a pair of cardinal gloves. He spoke French fluently and proved to be a very intelligent man.
The walls of the Bahia houses look like mashed rainbows, for they are painted in all colours. There are scores of white houses, houses of rose pink, and houses of sky blue. There are some buildings which make you think of the old song:
"I once knew a fellow,
There are houses here the exact hue of the palm trees which shade them, houses as red as blood, and houses as yellow as gold. There are houses faced with porcelain tiles imported from Europe. Many of the windows are covered with a lace work of wrought iron, and over the doors are decorations of the same metal. The designs are original, and the negroes are the de-signers. These features make Bahia picturesque. Many of the houses are ancient, for the city is one of the oldest on the continent. Its babies had grown up and become gray-haired men be-fore New York or Boston sprang into existence. Its bay was discovered eight years after Columbus first crossed the Atlantic, and it was settled by the Portuguese. Then the Dutch came and tried to drive the Portuguese out. They built houses and left their marks on the town. The English also tried to take possession, but the Portuguese finally conquered, and Bahia is a Portuguese-Brazilian city to-day. It is a city of considerable culture. It has some of the best schools in Brazil, and its people pride themselves on its medical colleges and hospitals. The country about is but little settled and not much developed, though in the future it will probably have a much larger population.
I see many American gold dollars here in Bahia. They are used by the dandies of the city for buttons on their white vests, and the demand for them is such that they are far above par. Our consul tells me that there are probably ten thousand of them so used in Bahia alone. The people are crazy for them; the black women want them for chains, charms, and bangles, and they are especially in demand to be hung around the waists of newborn babies. These coloured people have an idea that such charms bring good luck. The poorer babies have silver hung about their waists, and nearly every little boy I see on the streets has a string of charms about his neck or loins, although he often has nothing else.
Speaking of coins, all kinds of hard money are at a premium in Bahia. Even the nickels you find in Rio and farther south are not common; their places are taken by street-car tickets, railroad tickets, and private shinplasters. You see gold and silver only in the windows of the banks or on the counters of the money-changers. The bank notes in circulation are those of Brazil, which are in denominations of tens of reis. It now takes one thousand reis to make fifteen cents in our currency, but exchange goes up and down every day, and many people make money in speculating.
Bahia is the starting-point for the chief diamond fields of Brazil. The diamonds are found in the wilds far back of the city, along the sources of the Paraguassu river. They lie in the gravel in the bed of the stream, and are dug up by native divers, who scoop up the gravel and carry it to the shore. The shallow places have long since been worked over, and those left are so deep that it is only during the low water of the dry season that any mining can be done. At such times the divers select a place where the current is not too rapid, and drive a pole down into the centre of the river. They then row out to the pole, and one of them who is naked dives to the bottom. He takes a sack with him which is kept open by an iron ring sewed in the top. There is usually a lot of mud or silt above the diamond gravel ; the man has first to scrape this off; he then fills his sack with the gravel, removing all he can down to the clay. As soon as the sack is filled, he signals to the man in the canoe above and is pulled up by a rope, aiding himself in his ascent by the pole. After two or three bags have been emptied into the canoe, it is then rowed to the shore and the gravel is dumped out, far enough away to prevent any loss by a sudden rise in the river. More gravel is taken out from day to day during the dry season, and when the rains begin, the deposit is all washed over for carbons and diamonds.
Bahia is one of the chief diamond markets in Brazil. It is also the chief market for carbons, and it is the best place in Brazil to learn about the diamond trade. Brazil was for many years the chief diamond country in the world. It was in 1727, in the province of Minas Geraes, that diamonds were first discovered. They were being used there by the negro slaves as counters in playing cards. Later on, mines were discovered in Bahia, and for a time Bahia produced some of the best stones.
For years something like a million dollars' worth of stones annually came from Brazil. Most of the stones were small, rarely exceeding twenty carats, although the " Star of the South," discovered in 1854, weighed before cutting 254 carats. When the South African diamond fields were discovered, in 1867, the Brazilian mines dropped into insignificance. At present they do not compare with the African mines. Still diamonds are being taken out every year, and with modern machinery no one can tell what may yet be found.
There is now more money in carbons than in diamonds. Car-bons are impure diamonds of a black or brown colour. They are about as hard as a diamond, but more porous. They are used to make fine boring-machines and for polishing hard substances. They are found in all sizes, from little ones as big as a grain of sand to some that weigh hundreds of carats. A carat is a weight so small that it takes more than 160 of them to make one ounce troy. Not long ago carbons were selling for $z0 a carat, and one recently found was so large that it brought $25,000. This weighed, I am told, 3,000 carats. It was sold in Bahia and sent off to Europe. Another, discovered more recently, weighed 975 carats. It was sold in Paris for 1,000 francs. These large stones have, however, to be broken; this always involves great loss, as they have no line of fracture, so that in proportion to weight the smaller carbons are more valuable.
Mining for diamonds and carbons is like gambling. Sometimes many bushels of gravel are washed over before a stone is found, and often a man may wash for a whole season and not find more than two or three. The washing is chiefly done by negroes, who use wooden bowls, looking the gravel carefully over as they wash it. The divers usually work naked, although one American proprietor has recently imported diving suits for his men. In some places the diamonds are found in the gravel near the river and are washed down by hydraulic means.
We think of Brazil more as a land of coffee and rubber than of gold, silver, or iron. Parts of the country are full of metals. The State of Bahia, where I now am, has gold mines, and there are rich mines of manganese near here awaiting some one to develop them. In Minas Geraes there is a gold mine which has been worked for more than fifty years. There are also rich gold-diggings in Matto Grosso, and gold-washing goes on along many of the tributaries of the Amazon.
Out of the Ouro de Morro de Fogo mines at Minas Geraes, about 20,000 pounds of gold were taken before Brazilian independence was proclaimed, and there is reason to believe that there is a vast amount left. The mines have never been sunk more than 75 feet on account of the water; this could easily be pumped out, and, if done, would probably result in much profit.
The gold mine I spoke of as having been worked for fifty years is the Morro Velho, which is now annually producing 5,000 ounces of gold. It is one of the most important mines in Brazil and is managed after modern methods. It takes out about 200 tons of ore a day, using 100 California pistons. It has five great stamping mills, and it reduces the gold to bars on the spot where it is taken from the mines. The mines are far back in the country and the gold output is sent to the railroad on carts. There are no soldiers with it, and it is evidence of the safety of property in Brazil that, so far, none of the trains has been robbed. The gold-bars each weigh eight ounces troy; they contain about one-half per cent silver, and are each worth about $3,000.
Of late considerable interest has arisen in regard to the gold mines north of the Amazon. In the corner of Brazil next to French Guiana, there is a territory which is said to be rich in gold. About $2,000,000 worth was taken out of the mines in one year, and at present there are many Frenchmen mining gold in that section. The country is a wilderness, without any government but that of the gun and the revolver. The climate, more-over, is bad, and those who go there often suffer from fever.