Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/May 1889/The Convict-Island of Brazil-Fernando de Noronha

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THE island of Fernando de Noronha[1] is in the South Atlantic Ocean, two hundred and fifty miles south of the equator, about two hundred miles northeast of Cape St. Roque, and near the track of vessels plying between European ports and those of South America lying south of the cape. It belongs to Brazil, and has long been used by that Government for a penal colony. In 1876, when a member of the Imperial Geological Survey of Brazil, I visited this island for the purpose of studying its natural history and mapping it. It was no part of my official duty to criticise the administration of the affairs of the island as a prison, yet it was but natural that I should take a deep interest in this administration, and should inform myself, whenever occasion offered, regarding the methods employed in dealing with a class of persons so new to me. The commandant and other officers spoke freely whenever they addressed me in regard to administrative measures, while from the prisoners themselves I learned much of the operation and results of these measures.

It will throw some light upon the character of the inhabitants of Fernando de Noronha to know how crime is looked upon by the common people in Brazil, and I can not better show this than by relating a bit of personal experience.

I had the misfortune at one time to wound a Brazilian laborer—in his dignity. He thereupon threatened to take my life, and was by no means careful to keep his resolutions to himself. As the carrying out of such a determination upon his part would have caused me much inconvenience, I called upon him in person, with the purpose, if possible, of dissuading him. I found that he did not look upon the condition of a criminal with dread at all. He told me frankly that, if he should succeed in carrying out his designs, he knew perfectly well what his career would be. "At present," said he, "I am obliged to work for a living; if I am sent to jail, my living will be furnished me, and I shall have nothing to do. If you are dead, there will be no one to appear against me in the courts as my accuser, and in the course of a year or less I shall be set free, well rested, and with the reputation in the community of being a man of courage."

In this case I saw to it that he had the opportunity of enjoying the coveted otium cum dignitate in jail without having to commit a crime. But in a country where wrong-doing sets so lightly upon the conscience, and where it so frequently goes altogether unpunished, the criminal class is large, as we should expect, though through a lax administration of the laws but a small part of it ever reaches Fernando. I refer to this phase of the subject because, in order to understand the class of people inhabiting Fernando de Noronha, it is necessary to know something of the source of supply.

The convict-island is visited once a month by a small steamer from Pernambuco. On one of the vessels I took passage, furnished with the usual and indispensable official letters of introduction from the President of the Province of Pernambuco; and, after a voyage of two and a half days, anchored in front of the village in which the commandant or governor of the island lives. Arrived at the anchoring-ground—for there is no wharf or pier, and no small boats are allowed on the island—I could see upon the beach about seventy-five half-naked men tugging at a huge two storied raft, trying to get it into the water. When this was launched, a large cable was secured on shore, and the great raft was paddled slowly in our direction, telling out the cable, the other end of which was finally made fast to the steamer.

The personal baggage, five or six newly arrived convicts with their guards, and myself and servant, were placed on the upper story of this peculiar craft, and it was then drawn in near the shore by means of the cable. When we struck bottom I was taken on the wet, slippery, naked back of a convict, who waded ashore and deposited me on the dry beach. Everybody and everything landed from the raft, I was escorted by a man who took me in charge, and whom I afterward found to be a convict directed by the commandant to look after all persons and all things landing, and escorted up the very steep hill, through the well-paved streets of the village, to the house of the commandant, closely followed by the newly arrived convicts under guard.

The commandant I found to be a very aged man, an officer in the regular Brazilian army. His thin gray hair was cut close to his angular head, and his mustache was white with age and yellow with tobacco-smoke. He received me indifferently for a Brazilian, for, though he placed the island itself and everything and everybody on it at my orders, in true Brazilian style, I could see that there was a coolness beneath his politeness. I afterward found that this was due to a suspicion that I had been sent here by the Government upon some secret mission. This impression removed, he became heartily kind to me, and did all in his power to aid me in my work. He gave me a room in the official residence, the seat of honor at his bountifully served table, and a motley crew of convicts for servants, while the slender resources of the island were in reality placed at my disposal.

At the house of the commandant certain ones of the convicts were admitted freely and treated with more or less indulgence. The chief amusement of the officers of the garrison and their wives was to assemble during the evening around the big table in the reception-room in the official residence, and there to play kino. On such occasions (and this game was played every evening during my stay save two) there were from one to five privileged convicts standing about the room as lookers-on, and some of them were even invited to take, and did take, part in the game. At meal-time they frequently dropped into the dining-room, and gently encouraged the old governor to scold them while at his meal. Some of them, being ready conversationalists, were permitted to talk freely, and were even asked, before the meal was over, to take places at the great dining-table; and, though they always sat below the wine, were generally given some sweetmeats or a cup of coffee at the end of the meal.

Among the convicts thus specially privileged about the house was a tall, handsome Italian, apparently a man of education. He spoke, besides his native language, Spanish, German, some English, and Portuguese almost perfectly. I asked his story of the son of the commandant, who also told me the personal history of many of these men, and learned that he had killed five persons in less than five minutes, including the young lady to whom he was betrothed, because she had followed the advice of her father and mother, and had broken off the match upon the morning of the day on which they were to be married. As the narrator ended the story, which was told in all its dreadful details, he remarked, "And so you see he was almost justified."

This instance, which is simply an example out of a great many of a more or less similar nature, is mentioned for the purpose of illustrating one of the most deplorable facts connected with the administration of the affairs of the island—that is, the inevitable influence upon its inhabitants of familiarity with crime. This young man, neither a criminal nor an executive officer, had come, by constant contact with criminals, to look upon crime with pity in some cases, and with actual approval in others.

It is not my purpose to repeat here in detail the stories of the lives of these people, for those stories are sensational to the last degree, and should be looked upon simply as so many facts in a social study. But, while some of the convicts were indulged, others were treated with unnecessary severity, which merged into cruelty. This unequal justice, or rather the disproportionate punishment meted out to offenders, and over which the officers in charge had full jurisdiction, was, in itself, demoralizing to the great body of convicts, and held out no hope or encouragement to any one to be anything short of the most abandoned criminal. No effort was made to fit the punishment to the crime. Flogging was the one remedy for everything, and, as it always took place in the presence of the assembled prisoners, this became a new element of degradation to the entire community. A convict having stolen a pig, was sent for and flogged. The very next morning the commandant was called to the front door, and there on the veranda stood a man horribly mangled by an assassin. "What does all this mean?" said the commandant. "Fulano has killed me," said the convict. "Away with you to the hospital"; and, turning to an officer, he continued, "and bring Fulano here to me." And Fulano was brought and flogged.[2] The influence of such a system of treatment upon the less depraved classes of criminals may readily be imagined.

Postscript.—The "Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society for July, 1888, contains an article upon Fernando by a gentleman who visited that place in 1887. The convict

The amusements of the inhabitants were cock-fighting and kino. I suggested to the commandant that cock-fighting was a degrading pastime for his protégés (I did not mention kino, because that was the favorite amusement in his own house). His reply was: "I know it isn't good; but then—"

Often in private conversation these men would discourse to me upon the moral and social condition of their companions. On such occasions I frequently heard such expressions as these: "You must look out for Fulano." "Some people have no consciences." "The Lord deliver us from a convict!" "These convicts are a bad set, I tell you!"

Society was as varied among these men as in other parts of the world. There were all classes and grades, though they all met on the common level of crime. Social distinctions among them were based upon money first, and second, other things being equal, upon the nature of the crime committed, certain crimes being regarded as indicative of courageous manhood.

While about my work one day, my attention was attracted by a young man who was posing near by and disdainfully watching me. He was not more than twenty years of age, good-looking, and well dressed. A fine felt hat sat jauntily upon the side of his head, and he wore a blue cloak, the bright red lining of which he displayed to good advantage by tossing it back over his shoulder, I saw that he was a type, drew him into conversation, and finally asked him for what he was sent to Fernando. Bridling up and throwing back his shoulders, he struck his left breast with his right hand closed, as if upon a dagger, and exclaimed proudly, "Mor-r-rte!" (murder).

Many of the prisoners were known among themselves by what seemed to be very odd names, and I learned that they were nicknames taken from some circumstance connected with the crimes they were expiating. Sometimes there was a ghastly sort of humor about these names. One, who had murdered a priest, was called "O Padre," the priest; another, who had murdered a man for his money and had found but half a pataca upon him, was called "Meia Pataca," half a pataca, about sixteen cents; another, for a similar reason, was called "Quatro Vintens," four cents.

These are simply instances of how the minds of these people dwelt constantly upon crime, how they admired crime, and

quently gravitated toward it. About their work in shop or field,

the daily bread of their minds was to think and talk of crime in every shape that diseased minds and perverted natures can conjure it up. One would entertain his companions by detailing to them the story of some crime committed by himself, or of which he had knowledge, while every one listened attentively, like so many experts. The story ended, criticism began, and each one would indicate what he considered the weak points in the plan and its execution, and would suggest improvements here and there. One story always led to another, and, as might be expected, minds accustomed to this highly seasoned food soon rejected all other.

The total population of the island at the time of my visit was 2,562, about seven hundred of whom were not criminals, but the wives and children of convicts who were, by necessity or choice, accompanying husbands or parents in their exile and imprisonment. As already stated, the great majority of the convicts had been sent here for murder, and belonged to a low, brutal type of men. The general tendency of this intermingling of the innocent with the criminal, and of the less depraved of the convicts with the worst, is to reduce all to a common level, and that level the lowest.

In the ordinary experience of life a man seldom or never sinks so low that there is no hope for him, hope both subjective and objective, but of the worst of these convicts this is not true. The only priest of the island, after j'-ears of labor, went through his sacred, duties in a perfunctory manner, for, as he gave me to understand, he had long since come to realize that the seed he sowed fell into the fire. Speaking to him one day regarding the peculiar charm of the place, he replied: "Ah me! I can't see these things now, for though it is, externally, all that you see and say of it, this quiet, this seclusion, this beautiful and bountiful nature are turned by man into a stifling, suffocating hole—a stench in the nostrils of God."

But fortunately the attractiveness, the beauty and grandeur of nature as seen in the delightful landscapes, the tropical vegetation, the peculiar fauna and flora, the majesty of the ocean, the violence of the tempests, the charming caprice of clouds and sunshine, prevent one from brooding too long over these dark pictures of human depravity, while the convicts themselves not infrequently come like quaint figures in the foregrounds of beautiful pictures. But to see this beauty one must look through the eyes of a lover of nature.

For the true-hearted naturalist there is no such thing as solitude, but to those who see but little or nothing companionable or intelligible in landscapes, in forests and fields and oceans, and above all to the ignorant, Fernando de Noronha doubtless seems a lonely, desolate, and forbidding place. A phrase in common use among the inhabitants of that island expresses better than anything else could the general feeling of the prisoners in regard to their isolation and separation from all that is interesting and attractive to them on earth. For them, and in their minds, the earth is divided into two parts, one of which—that inhabited by themselves—is known as Fernando, the other part is known and usually spoken of as "the world." This term was in constant use, and I frequently heard among them such expressions as these: "When I was in the world," "This came from the world."

It is often asked whether there was not great danger in trusting one's self with men so many of whom were known to be desperate characters. This question can not be answered for every one at the same time, because whether there would be danger would depend almost entirely upon how one conducted himself. The commandant was so solicitous regarding my personal safety, when I first began my work on the island, that he wished to send an escort of soldiers with me in order to secure me against possible danger, and it was with difficulty that I persuaded him to allow me to dispense with such cumbersome attendance.

When working in parts of the island remote from the village I sometimes found it necessary to pass the night in the huts of the convicts. At such times I was never treated otherwise than with respect by them, and I never had the least reason to feel disturbed about my personal security. One day, when alone in my room in the house of the commandant, a tall mulatto came to the door and handed me a begging letter, written in very poor Portuguese. In this letter he called himself my "afflicted fellow-countryman." Addressing him in English, I found that he had been an American sailor, and was here for murder. As he seemed eager to be in my service, I employed him; but, when I informed the commandant of the arrangement, he endeavored to dissuade me from having him about me, assuring me that he was the most unconscionable, incorrigible criminal in the entire settlement. In spite of these protests, I took my "fellow-countryman" with me, and for three days his services gave entire satisfaction. At the end of that time he was discharged for the only impoliteness shown me during my stay upon the island.

Abandoned and unscrupulous as so many of the convicts were, I found them susceptible to the ameliorating influences of fair wages and reasonable treatment—a susceptibility due to some extent, perhaps, to the general absence of considerate treatment in their present lives—and when I left Fernando some of those whom I had employed manifested their good-will toward me in a way of their own. On the morning upon which the steamer was to sail for Pernambuco, my collections and baggage had all, as I thought. been placed on board, when, previous to my taking leave of the officers and their families, I was called to the door by a visitor—one of my convicts. He stood barefooted and uncovered, his warped, reddish-brown hat held in his left hand behind him, his coarse shirt of dirty cotton cloth hung, in the customary fashion, outside his coarse trousers, and these were rolled half-way up his bare, brown legs. He laid his right forearm across his forehead like a timid child, and when asked, "And what is it, Feliciano?" he said: "My patron, pardon me, eh? but it is all I have. Here are some squashes I have brought for your lordship to take back to the world with you," and he pointed with his leather hat toward six enormous squashes that lay upon the floor of the veranda, and which he had brought during the night from a distant part of the island. My embarrassment may be realized in some degree when I say that I knew that, excepting only the clothes he wore, these six squashes were the sum total of that poor fellow's earthly possessions. I knew, too, how serious an offense it would be to decline his present, so there was nothing to be done but to accept it and take his squashes "back to the world" with me. If the matter had ended here, it would have caused me no serious inconvenience; but, before the steamer sailed, a whole wagon-load of squashes had accumulated on the floor of the veranda, and all of them had to be accepted and taken away.

When the time for my embarkation had arrived, the officers of the station accompanied me to the beach, where they bade me farewell in that affectionate and touching manner so characteristic of Brazilian gentlemen. After these had withdrawn, there came about me seven men with rough clothing—what there was of it—rough, hard hands, and hard faces. They stood uncovered, and, without speaking a word, one after another held out to me a thick, horny right hand. One of them then stooped and took me on his back, and, wading out to the great raft, left me to be transferred to the steamer. That afternoon I saw this lofty, beautiful, but sin-cursed Fernando sink slowly into the ocean; and the last sight I had of it was when, as the sun went down, it touched with crimson and gold a cloud-banner that streamed away like a pennant from the summit of its majestic peak.[3]

  1. system is there spoken of as "almost unique in its excellence," and a convict of seventeen years' standing is called "our dear old guide." The great number of verbal errors in the article lead one to conclude that its author knows little or nothing of the Portuguese language, without the easy command of which he could get no clear insight into the working of the convict system. He states also that one of the prisoners was flogged during his short visit. Flogging continues, therefore, in spite of the order of the Minister of Justice made in 1879 and referred to above.

  2. The name is also erroneously written—Fernam de Loronha, Fernão de Noronha, Fernando Noronha, Ferdinando Noronha, Fernand de la Rogne, etc.
  3. I undertook to witness a flogging once, but, as I did not get through it with credit to myself, the less said of that occasion the better. I was informed by one of the officers that, not long before, one convict had been so severely flogged that he had died of his injuries. In the light of these facts it is interesting to read article 1879, section 19, of the Brazilian Constitution of 1824. It is as follows: "From this time forth flogging, torturing, branding, and all other cruel punishments are abolished." It should be added, however, that in 1879, since my visit to Fernando de Noronha, the Minister of Justice of the Brazilian Empire has directed that corporal punishment of the convicts should cease.
  4. In view of what I have said of the moral condition of the convicts confined on this island, it is but just that I should add that in the year following my visit, that is, in 1877 the Imperial Government of Brazil appointed a commission for the purpose of elaborating a prison system for the country. The President of the Province of Pernambuco held out to the Legislative Assembly of that province the hope that Fernando de Noronha would not be overlooked by this commission. Said he, "The grave social, economic, and moral questions here involved will be settled." It is to be hoped, too, that the transfer of this penal colony from the Department of War to that of Justice will also be conducive to a better prison system.