After the War of Northern Aggression, a few thousand southerners accepted Emperor Dom Pedro II’s invitation to come even further south, to Brazil.
As I sat down, Judith handed me a frosted mug garnished with a sprig of mint just picked, she pointed out, from her garden “ovah yonda.” She smiled so warmly and was so disarming in an innocent, almost naive sort of way, that I thought somehow Judith Jones must have known me. Or must have known my family. Or, at the very least, must have known of my family. Why else would she be so welcoming to a stranger — a Yankee stranger, no less — who just happened to show up unannounced at her doorstep minutes earlier?
For the next two hours, Judith and Jim talked in the same disjointed meter about their lives and the lives of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. She and Jim were mighty pleased that I had taken up to pay them a visitation. I got the distinct impression that they had been waiting for someone like me to come by for quite some time.
Judith told me that more than ninety Confederate descendants still lived in the area, and although none had been born in the United States and relatively few had ever visited, many spoke the same anachronistic variant of English among themselves. Their speech was a linguistic phenomenon, a language spoken nowhere else in the world but in and around Americana, a municipality of then 120,000 residents, mostly of Italian descent, within the Brazilian state of São Paulo.
Judith, a practiced storyteller, related the Confederate colony’s history as though I was the first to hear it. After the Civil War, Brazil had been as much a land of opportunity for American Southerners as the United States had been for Europeans. Instead of stomaching life under Yankee rule, as many as 7,000 Confederates opted to set sail for Brazil, a country twice the size of the U.S. at the time, and a nation where slavery was still legal. The Brazilian government, under the rule of Emperor Dom Pedro II, recruited the Confederates, taking out advertisements in U.S. newspapers and sending representatives to the American South to persuade proud Southerners to live out their dreams in Brazil.
The Brazilian government was eager to import the Confederates’ cotton-growing knowledge, and in return guaranteed them arable land at twenty-two cents an acre. Most went to areas surrounding São Paulo, but others set sail to Rio de Janeiro. At least one shipload of Southerners docked in the port of Belém, set sail down the Amazon River and survived on berries and monkey meat, but perished from malaria. The only community of Confederates that survived was the group that got to the place they called Americana, which they chose because it most closely paralleled their home in Georgia.
The Jones’ story seemed to make sense, but I knew a little about American history, and I’d never heard anything about southern migration to Brazil. No one left the United States; America was the place people came to.
My eyes must have betrayed me, because when I told Jim that I hadn’t read much about this Southern Shangri-La, he looked at me kind of pitifully, then put his hands out, palms up. The reason for my ig-nor-ance, as Jim put it, was plain and simple. “It’s becuse ya his-to-ry buks don’t whant ya Yan-keys ta know what hour brave Con-fed-a-rit ancestahs dahd. Dat’s dah reason. Doze ah Yan-keys who wroht doze buks—dint ya know dhat, Stephen? Ain’t dhat right, Ju-dith-a?”
Judith nodded in a keeper-of-the-secrets kind of way, which demonstratedbeyond any doubt that she knew everything there was to know about the Southern Migration to Brazil after the War of Northern Aggression — from family names, to birth and death dates, to who owned which plots of land, to who slept with whom and who wasn’t worth a doodly damn, as she put it. Judith and Jim and some four score more descendants scattered around these parts were keepers of a flickering flame — flick-er-in Jim said. “Whe’re dah ox-y-gin dat keeps dah flame fruhm goin’ out,” he said.
Judith pulled up her chair next to mine. I needed a lesson, by golly, and she was about to deliver one. Those who left the American South after the Civil War had the most to lose by staying. Among the Confederates who set sail for Brazilian shores were attorneys, architects, plantation owners, physicians and businessmen, all fine men from fine families, most of them landowners, educated at the best Southern institutes of higher learning. They owned slaves, and by God, they were good to those slaves — “Don’t go makin’ out hour ancestahs to be mean, not fer one secon’,” Jim warned. “Day treated dehm slaves as though day was fam’ly.”
The migration to Brazil, Judith said in a voice growing more emphatic, was one of the largest exoduses in “dah his-to-ry of dah U-ni-ted States.”
Jim wasn’t about to let his wife go on without putting in his two cents. After the War of Northern Aggression, leaving America for Brazil meant that thousands of Confederates could survive with honor, something in small supply to Southerners at the time. “It’s even in Gone Wit Dah Wind, by golly, dhat book dhat Margarit Mitchell writ about dah wahr. Didja even know dhat dah O’Hara fam’ly thought of leavin’ Tara fer Brasil? It’s right dhare in dhat buk o’ hers. She mentions it twhice. Ju-di-tha has it insihde,” Jim said, chin and forehead down, peering over the top of those black-frame glasses.
With Mrs. MacKnight on a swing now, Judith filled up my glass with more ice tea, which she proudly called “sun tea, brew’d rhight here on dis ver-an-dah.” Judith disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared with a plate of neatly cut triangles of white-bread toast with the crusts cut off and topped with whisked dabs of soft white goat cheese. As we munched on the canapés, I found myself alternatively charmed and baffled, thinking I had stumbled upon a long-lost battalion of Confederate soldiers who never quite figured out that Appomattox was more than just a town in Virginia.