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8 São Luís in Iberian Imperial Politics

From conquered land to seat of the State of Maranhão and Grão-Pará (Brazil)

Helidacy Maria Muniz Corrêa[1] & José Damião Rodrigues

São Luís, imperial city

In the past few decades, various fields have produced studies aimed at explaining the dynamics of urbanization and globalization waves. Nevertheless, these studies have often stemmed from antagonistic models, contributing to the sense of miasma that sometimes seems to affect the social sciences. Beyond the ongoing debates, however, it is generally acknowledged that contemporary hierarchies and scales do not reflect the historical reality and collective imagery of the centuries that preceded the modernity of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In this context, historical studies have contributed to illustrating the dynamics of succession and coexistence of imperial cities, commercial emporiums, and centers of pilgrimage – cosmopolitan urban worlds which, in their multiple dimensions, became objects of admiration and cupidity for their coevals. These urban poles were presented and represented in countless works of travel literature or fairly well-known maps or paintings. As a social construction, they shaped the territories and regions over which they exerted – or aimed to exert – their capacity of attraction by playing a world-leading role (Brockey, 2008; Keene, 2005; Metcalf, 2013).

Stemming from this framework, and based on the case of São Luís do Maranhão as an imperial city, this text aims to analyze the city’s structuring forms of political and social organization as a center of power at a local and regional scale, and as the producer of an identity – Portuguese and Catholic – primarily originated through symbols and the segregation of differences, enforced over a territory with undefined borders. Accordingly, this text contributes to reevaluating the concepts of “territory” and “border” based on the conceptual proposal of ‘border city’ (Gitlin, Berglund and Arenson, 2012), insofar as São Luís was an imperial city and laid on the border of Conquest and the Portuguese empire, founded in a period when Portugal and its possessions integrated the Habsburg Catholic Monarchy.

Figure 00- Albernaz I, João Teixeira. Pequeno atlas do Maranhão e Grão-Pará [ca. 1629]

Source: Biblioteca Nacional Digital (Brazil): https://bit.ly/3V02BcX

Upaon-Açu, Saint-Louis, São Felipe, São Luís: from taba to city

Before considering the fortified Saint-Louis (1612) or the commercial city, products of the so-called “Pombal Reforms” (1755), we should assess the existence of the indigenous villages of the Tupinambás, who inhabited Upaon-Açu Island. Several studies indicate that, before the French invasion, there were about twelve thousand Tupinambás living in twenty-seven villages, led by Chief Japiaçu (Meireles, 2012, p. 25). The European presence profoundly changed the configuration of Tupinambá life, from the rationale of occupation to foreign relations. The first impact was the implementation of the territorial domination process by the French, whereby they implanted the cross, constructed the Fort and projected the idea of a city.

By looking into the conflictive process of transforming the tabas into villages, towns and neighborhoods, we may bring to light the vibrations and organizations of indigenous populations before and after the invasion, departing from the supposedly natural view that the Europeans found nothing when they landed on the beaches in the north of Brazil. This new perspective questions the Eurocentric view of the creation of São Luís, which privileges the idea of a ‘blank slate’, and reconsiders elements of the Tupinambá rationale in the process of territorial and urban formation, as the city did not appear out of thin air. The rare cartographic records produced in the 17th century (Figure 01) point to the transformation and integration of the village’s outlines for the foundation of the city of São Luís (Sbrana, 2020, p. 57).

Figure 1 – Map by João Teixeira Albernaz (1612) containing representations of the Tupinambá villages on the Island of São Luís do Maranhão

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Source: Arquivo Digital CM-Porto (Portugal): https://bit.ly/3HDfLcH

Owing to the dispute for territorial domination in the north of Brazil, particularly Maranhão, many indigenous villages were fragmented, regrouped, integrated into the missionary efforts, or established exclusively to forward the Conquest efforts. This movement that resulted in the elimination, transformation and incorporation of villages can be observed in the 17th-century cartographic representations of Maranhão by João Teixeira Albernaz (Sbrana, 2020, p. 69). In the early decades of the Conquest, maps still identified several villages, and the name of São Luís was directly associated with the Fort. However, from the end of the 1620s, the city of São Luís started to be represented as a much bigger location, while the names of other villages on the island started to fade. Little by little, the drawings indicate the ‘cidade de São Luís’ [city of São Luís] projected beyond the Fort, almost undistinguishable from the island itself. Thus, the original Upaon-Açu Island was gradually giving way to the city. However, what did that toponym actually refer to?

Saint-Louis, founded by the French (1612), was a small settlement spanning “little more than a kilometer” and located between the Fort (today, the Lion’s Palace) and Saint Francis Convent (near the Rosário Church and Saint Teresa School). Located in the vicinity of the current Pedro II Avenue, the city extended to Egito Street (Meireles, 2012, pp. 28-29). The integration of Saint-Louis into the great political milestones of European imperial expansion began with the first actions of the Capuchin friars and other French authorities, when they set the “Fundamental and Inviolable Laws” (Abbeville, 1975, pp. 126-129) on how to lead a good life on the island. These general rules issued by the clergymen constituted the fundamental principles of what would be the creation of the French “State and Colony” in Maranhão and adjacent lands, and the conversion of the natives to Christianity. These rules show how much the Catholic policy was in tune with the project of building Equinoctial France.

It was an ordinance, a kind of political-religious statute with specific dispositions on the moral conduct of the inhabitants, the recognition of religious authority and the typification of a series of crimes, such as disturbance to the work of the Capuchins’ mission; lese-majesty; patricides; attacks, betrayals, monopolies, insults to the inhabitants; concealment of crimes; cowardice; disloyalty to the king; disobedience to the authorities; disturbance of the public peace; homicides; false witness; theft; beatings, injury, outrage or death to indigenous people; adultery or rape against indigenous women; and theft from the natives. The document also establishes penalties for those crimes, such as death penalty; equal penalties for offenders and accessories after the fact; scourging at the foot of the gallows, at the sound of the trumpet; obliged public services for one year; and loss of dignities, wages and privileges.

The Fundamental Laws of Saint-Louis also defined the terms of the relationship between the new inhabitants and the native population, recommending them to instruct the natives on the knowledge of “human and divine laws with gentleness” and preventing anyone from “beating, insulting, outraging, or killing them”. Moreover, the inhabitants could not practice “dishonest acts with the daughters of the natives” or steal their crops or anything else from them. The penalties for these crimes included the enslavement of the offenders, having their feet pressed in iron shoes, or even punishment after a “fair trial.” However, this care for the natives did not necessarily mean an appreciation of their way of living; instead, it was a strategy implemented by the French, based on rapprochement, meant to co-opt the natives to their cause. The attempt to avert abuses against the natives, as well as all the “humanity and gentleness”, were actually effective ways to avoid possible reactions and the natives’ resistance, overcoming conflicts and rebellions that could in turn could jeopardize the French mission. Behind the soft-spoken methods, the establishment of friendships (bonds) and limited legal recognition was the project of Equinoctial France. The guidelines of the French Catholic policy contained in the Fundamental and Inviolable Laws directed the new inhabitants according to ethical and moral standards, helping them to lead a good life in the colony, and aligned conquerors and vassals with the precepts of “good governance”.

We intend to highlight two features of this document. The first is that the directives were not addressed to Crown representatives (captains, governors, or even clergymen), as was the common practice of the Portuguese in their conquests, but to subjects, the “habitantes da Ilha do Maranhão e circunvizinhança” [inhabitants of the Island of Maranhão and the surrounding area]. This practice was different and unusual in the Portuguese colonial experience, since a regiment was never allocated to a fortress, state, captaincy, city, or town (Meireles, 2012, pp. 33-34). The second distinctive feature of French laws was the designation “State and colony,” precociously conferred on the “Island of Maranhão.” At the same time as it institutionalized Fort Saint-Louis as “head of an Equinoctial France” (Meireles, 2012, p. 34), the identification of State and colony in the document reaffirmed the French pretensions to a new government of the land.

In that same spirit, Alexandre de Moura, after the battle of Guaxenduba, whereby the Portuguese took the land back (1615) (Lacroix, 2008), held a ritual of possession to legitimize Portuguese sovereignty, announce the military and religious character of the Conquest, and impose the Portuguese government on that territory. As a result, Fort Saint-Louis was renamed and officially became São Felipe [Saint Philip], in honor of the King of Spain and Portugal. The inauguration ceremony, a precise symbolic, political and military apparatus, followed by a Company of about eighty soldiers, infantry, clergymen and other officials, marked the second moment of the city-fortress of São Felipe’s integration to the imperial Iberian policy. However, although the Fort had received a new name, custom prevailed and ‘São Luís’ continued to refer to the island, the Fort, and the city continued to be referred to as “São Luís.” But how did the city integrate into the vast Hispanic empire?

The island’s geographical location made São Luís strategic and attractive to those who ventured into the conquests of northern Portuguese America. The island, embedded in a gulf between two bays (São Marcos and São José), connects the territory directly to the Atlantic. The Mearim, Itapecuru, Pindaré and Munin rivers, the main natural pathways into the territory, were the most distinguished features in the scarce cartographic representations of 16th-century Maranhão. The river network connected the island and the continent to the commercial interests of the Hispanic monarchy like few other places known to the conquerors until then. However, for the fringes of the empire to extend to those parts, the urban network had to be necessarily expanded.

Figure 02- Detail of the representation of the city of São Luís in Albernaz’s map

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Source: Albernaz I, João Teixeira. Pequeno atlas do Maranhão e Grão-Pará]. [c. 1629]. Biblioteca Nacional Digital (Brazil): https://bit.ly/3V02BcX

The cities of São Luís, Filipeia (1585) — now João Pessoa — and Natal (1599) derived from the Hispanic monarchy’s need to build a vast defensive urban network along Brazil’s east-west coast. This was an essential measure to define and consolidate the legal framework of sovereignty in the north of the Iberian overseas domains in America. However, this budding São Luís, still only a fortress, would be considered an urbs only after the granting of the first government regiment of Maranhão to Jerônimo de Albuquerque, in 1616, and the appointment of Francisco Frias de Mesquita, the chief engineer of Brazil, todraw up the city’s layout. According to the Regiment, Jerônimo de Albuquerque, capitão-mor of Maranhão, had to follow the drawings made by the chief engineer to attain the “acrescentamento desta cidade de São Luís, fazendo que fique bem arruada e direita, conforme a traça que lhe fica em poder, e para [que] a seu exemplo o façam todos os moradores [expansion of this city of São Luís, ensuring that the streets be well-ordered and follow a straight plan, according to the layout that is in his power, so that following his example all the residents do the same].” The capitão-mor also had to build his house within the city limits, following the lines left by the engineer, so that the other residents would see in his attitude an example to follow and understand that everyone should follow the established urban pattern. The guidelines determined that under no circumstances would the capitão-mor make a home inside the fortress, except on occasions of serious enemy threats which would require his presence there (Biblioteca Nacional do Rio de Janeiro, 1905, p. 232).

Among the inhabitants who remained after the war of reconquest, there were some French married to natives, more precisely “ferreiros e gente de préstimo à conquista e os que melhor sabem a terra [blacksmiths and people of service to the Conquest and those who know the land best]” (Silveira, 1979, pp. 30-31). Founding and building a city was linked to the goal of creating an urban nucleus that would be the hub of the political and social organization of space. For this purpose, it had to be shaped according to “a regular forma de Republica [the standard form of a Republic]” (Berredo, 1905, p. 116).

São Luís and Belém: twin cities

Continuing the policy of expanding the Conquest of the north, Alexandre de Moura engaged Francisco Caldeira Castelo Branco, Captain General of Grão-Pará, to advance the Conquest of the Amazonia. While Caldeira was fighting in Grão-Pará to carry out his mission, Moura was determined to turn São Luís into a city, initiating the work of Frias de Mesquita. Mesquita was an experienced engineer with a solid education acquired in Lisbon, under the best masters of the kingdom — including Nicolau de Frias and João Batista Lavanha, chief cosmographer, from whom he learned architecture and geometry (Corrêa, 2011). Since the original plan of the city of São Luís has not been found, the drawings included in the 1647 work of Gaspar Barlaeus (Figure 03) are the earliest accessible references to the urban form of the city. Based on the engravings of Barleus’s book, other drawings of the city of São Luís were made, with minor changes (Reis, 2000). In Figure 03 we can see clearly the concern to reaffirm the strategic position of the city and the rivers, which grant inland access and provide a connection with the Atlantic.

Figure 03 – “Urbs S. Lodovici in Maragnon” (1641-1644)

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Source: Reis, N. G. (2000).

By zooming on that image, the outline of the city designed by Frias de Mesquita is becomes more evident. However, while the chessboard layout of São Luís is a nod to its possible Iberian influence, the urban topography reaffirms the Portuguese pragmatism and style of the colonial cities (Bicalho, 2003, p. 175). The city of São Luís was designed to boost the Iberian (and specially, the Portuguese) imperial policy, focusing on defense, the expansion of territorial dominions, and the implementation of maritime trade. Similar to the urban networks spread throughout the Portuguese empire –Angra, Luanda, Bahia (Bicalho, 2003, p. 169)–, the city of São Luís had two central urban areas: the upper part, where political, administrative, military and religious institutions were concentrated; and the lower part, the residential and commercial area.

In the upper part of the city, the prominence of the Fort showed its status as the irradiating center of urban life and security in the Portuguese imperial dominions (Camilo, 2009). Measuring about 200 meters wide and 300 meters long, the Fort was protected by a large wall that surrounded approximately 45 units. Said units resembled the houses of the lower city, implying that part of the population lived inside the building. Did local officials live there? Deeper within the Fort, in the background, was the convent of the Jesuit priests. Facing the sea, at the building’s entrance, stood Saint Philip Castle, the warehouse where supplies were kept, and, at the foot of the hill, the batteries that protected the residents. The Fort had three gateways: the main gate, facing the sea; a side pathway connecting the fort to the lower part of the town; and another pathway that led to the main road (Reis, 2000).

The city sprawled symmetrically outside its walls to the west and the north, connecting the upper and lower parts by means of two main roads intersecting at various points. The drawing shows 31 blocks with some 163 houses that could shelter between 600 and 800 residents, in addition to the people living inside the Fort. The houses painted with different colors (Figure 03) represent different types of constructions and roofs. Other buildings also stand out in the image, such as Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s Church, in the central and high part of the city; Saint John’s Church; to the south, further inland, Saint Francis’s Convent; Saint George’s Church, in the lower part of the city, by the sea, near the Dutch docks; the batteries, in front of the sea (Reis, 2000, p. 43).

Regarding the layout of the houses, the urban population was concentrated in the vicinity of the religious buildings and the port, but there were more inhabitants near the latter, in the lower part. The town had three streets with direct access to the sea, but anyone arriving or departing would have to go past Saint George’s Church or the batteries by the sea. The precise location of the religious buildings (at the port’s entrance in the city center, inside the Fort, and in the area that stood between the city and the inland area) denotes the direct relationship of the Catholic policy with the defense system, urban planning and economic life of the city and its territory. Being hubs of colonial cities (Araújo, 1998), the forts needed them to act as fundamental political and social cores, as nuclei of occupation, diffusion and consolidation of power; conversely, the cities needed military protection: an essential interdependence in the expansion of Iberian urban networks, both Portuguese and Castilian.

Following the organization of São Luís’s urban layout, the house of the Captain General of the Fort was transferred to a specific location, indicating a vital distinction between military, political, and residential areas in the city. Forts served explicitly to protect and ensure the safety of the inhabitants and the land, while the house of the Captain General represented the center of local power, in charge of governing the land and its inhabitants. Thus, the city of São Luís, besides being a nucleus of occupation, became the seat of local government and a center for the “distribution of power” (Araújo, 1998).

According to the same rationale, the city of Santa Maria de Belém, founded in 1616 soon after São Luís was taken, was another significant step in the expansion of the defensive urban network in the north. Although we have no records of the authorial drawings of Belém’s urban project, the representation of the city (Figure 04) published by Nestor Goulart Reis, one of the rare records of Belém in the 17th century by an unknown author, and the drawings of the first buildings of Belém presented by Renata Malcher de Araújo (Figure 05) allow us to think about the features that relate these two cities.

Figure 04 – “dw stat ende fort van grand para”. Original manuscript of the Algemeen Rijksarchief, The Hague [ca. 1640]

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Source: Reis, N. G. (2000, pp.266-267).

Figure 05 – Plan of the city of Belém. Urban implementation, 17th century

Source: Araújo, R. M. de (199, p. 82).

In Figure 04, we can see Belém’s urban core clustered in the east, on flat terrain, surrounded by the Guamá River, the Guajará Bay, a flooded area (the Piry), and a canal that divided east from west. This geographic feature delimited the urban area (to the east), making it an “island fort” of sorts, which placed the city “on a curve drawn by the contours of the rivers” (Araújo, 1998, p. 81). Inside this natural circle, formed by flat terrain, a few elements stand out: the fort, the pillory, the Parish Church (1619), Saint John’s Church (1622), and Mount Carmel Convent (1626), besides three blocks with about 106 houses connected by the main street (Rua do Norte), continuing past the canal, to the west (Campina District). In this part of the city, the number of houses and streets is much smaller, and at the end of Campina is located Saint Anthony’s Convent (1626). Still on the west side (to the reader’s left), by the sea, the land appears to be walled up to the end. This was the city of Belém around 1640. In Figure 05, besides a more accurate placement of the previous representations, we can see the urban evolution of the city of Belém, with more buildings indicated and the increased number of blocks and streets in the first five decades of the 17th-century occupation of Grão-Pará (Araújo, 1998, p. 82).

While, on the one hand, we have no documents naming the engineer or even the original plan of the city, on the other hand, Belém has more ancient records concerning its evolution in the 18th century. Besides these cartographic records, chroniclers like the Jesuit priest João Felipe Bettendorff left important descriptions of both cities. About Belém, the clergyman revealed the evolutionary stage of the city still in the second half of the 17th century: Saint Alexander School, belonging to the Society of Jesus; the square; the wattle and daub Fort built on a rocky hill, with its artillery pieces; Saint Christ and Our Lady of the Rosary Chapel; Our Lady of Mount Carmel Convent; the Town Hall; the New Mount Carmel Convent; Saint John’s Chapel; and the whitewashed Governor’s Palace, made of stone. According to the missionary, there was also a school in Campina; the King’s warehouse; Our Lady of Mercy Convent; Holy House of Mercy; and Saint Anthony Convent (Bettendoff, 1990, pp. 22-23).

Bettendorff also had something to say about São Luís, disclosing the limited urban picture of the first fifty years of that urban nucleus. According to the Jesuit, não era a cidade de S. Luiz cousa de consideração, se não mais que uma fortaleza cercada de um muro grosso para banda do rio Mony [there was not much to see in the city of S. Luiz, it was little more than a Fort surrounded by a thick wall, placed by the Mony River].” In it “encerrava o Colégio, e por banda da rua ia fechando-se com um portão feito pelos primeiros conquistadores com umas poucas casas espalhadas por várias ruas pouco povoadas [the Jesuit School was enclosed, and the street was closed by a gate made by the first conquerors, with a few houses scattered through a few little populated streets].” After revealing the city before 1641, in the second part of the text, the clergyman provided a detailed description of São Luís after the Dutch invasion:

But after the expulsion of the Dutch, it grew little by little, both to the east and to the south, so much so that today it is a city with more than six hundred families, mostly poor, but so fertile that their children are enough for another settlement; it has its own parish church, which Dom Gregório dos Anjos, the first bishop of the State, wanted to erect as the See of the Bishopric, in addition to the See in the square; it has the House of Mercy on its fringes. Right there, the Governor’s Palaces, and the New Town Hall, with its dungeon underneath near the sea; there are other four religious houses, namely: the School of the Priests of the Company of Jesus; Our Lady of the Light, right behind the See; Saint Anthony Convent to the east over the river Acoty (sic); Our Lady of Mount Carmel Convent, on a little altar almost in the center of the city; and behind it, to the west, Saint John the Baptist’s Church, which the Governor Ruy Vaz de Siqueira ordered built at his expense and for the soldiers. Finally, to the south, there is Our Lady of Mercy Convent, and further upstream, by the river Abacanga (sic), at the end of the city, all through the south, Our Lady of Exile Chapel. All these churches are very beautiful, but the most beautiful of all due to its grandness and its stone and lime structure is Our Lady of the Light Church, with its altarpiece commissioned by priest João Felipe (Bettendorf, 1990, p. 18).

After the recapture of Maranhão from the Dutch, in 1644, the city of São Luís gained new momentum, with increased demographic growth and the construction of public buildings. This “increase” was also reflected in the Conquest and is evinced by the revenues of the Council of São Luís throughout the second half of the 17th century. In 1650, the House received 53:860 reis; in 1668, it added 178:230 reis, reaching 180:700 reis by 1671. This growth can also be observed in the second map published by Barleus in the 17th century (Figure 06), where urban growth becomes quite apparent in relation to Figures 04 and 05, for example.

Figure 06 – Map showing the expansion of the city of São Luís (land demarcation) [c. 1640-1660]

Source: Reis, N. G. (2000, p. 142).

In fact, both the images presented and the priest’s testimonies show us that the city of São Luís and the city of Belém had expanded the landmarks of Portuguese domination by the end of the 17th century, going beyond their primary function and defensive purpose as mere fort cities. Since then, there was a deepening of their dimension of “city-territories” extending into a vast and unknown land, the sertão [backland]. Finally, at the dawn of the 18th century, they became port cities with harbors integrated into the North Atlantic trade routes. Such characteristics brought them together and made them identical in their purpose, despite their peculiarities.

The City and the Council of São Luís

The city of São Luís was also kept in line with imperial dynamics through the actions of the City Council, the main channel of political communication, essential in the institutional ordering of the conquests (Corrêa, 2011). In effect, and according to the already celebrated formulation by English historian Charles Ralph Boxer, the Councils, together with the charitable institutions called Misericórdias, had constituted “os pilares gémeos da sociedade colonial portuguesa desde o Maranhão até Macau [the twin pillars of Portuguese colonial society from Maranhão to Macau]” (Boxer, 1981 [1969], p. 263). Indeed, from the very beginning, the councilors of the city of São Luís demonstrated an awareness of their position within the Portuguese imperial fabric.

In a letter to the King announcing the start of the Council works in the city of São Luís, officeholders confirmed their willingness to follow the example of past conquerors, offering their lives in the service of the King to “fundar aqui um novo império [found a new empire here].” With the installation of the “República e cidade [Republic and city],” they were complying with the King’s and the Governor-General of the State’s orders. In their letter, they expounded on the organization of urban life in São Luís, asking for the means to renovate streets and build fountains, churches, the commissioner’s house, a jail, and other buildings; all of this required the exploitation of indigenous labor, without whom “não haveria o acrescentamento [there would be no addition]” to the city (Studart, 1904, p. 236).

According to the newly appointed officials, the only way to demonstrate the zeal required to “fundar uma nobre cidade [to found a noble city]” would be the freedom to “reduzir-se os gentios a nossa santa fé católica e haver nele as grandezas e utilidades [reduce the gentiles to our holy Catholic faith and derive from them the greatness and utility]” (Studart, 1904, p. 238). For the principais da terra, the principal families of the land, the political constitution of the res publica would not be complete without the urban organization needed to give life and vitality to the dominion, just as they saw it impossible to build the city without the support of the Crown and resorting to indigenous work, essential for many other works in the entire State of Maranhão and Grão-Pará.

In fact, time would show the difficulties faced by Council officials to organize the city, especially regarding the maintenance of public buildings. An example from São Luís illustrates the dilemmas of administering colonial cities all over Portuguese America. Already during the Restoration period, in 1646, the Council Solicitor set out before his peers the need to repair the water fountains and the senate building itself, which were in a sorry state (Maranhão, 2015, pp. 72, 96, 184, 185, 190, 193). Just like in other Portuguese Councils —and notably those of Brazil, Maranhão and Grão-Pará—, income in São Luís basically came from meat revenues, land rents, and taxes on wine, brandy, sugar, tobacco, cotton, salt, mechanical services, and transport (to Tapuitapera, now Alcântara). However, by then, the small trade of these products did not allow the Council to provide for its own needs.

On the other hand, the collection of pecuniary penalties resulting from the constant transgressions of municipal rules was meagre, and the Council’s accounts were constantly in the red. Throughout almost a decade (between 1646 and 1654), Council Solicitors put on the agenda the problems of public building maintenance, especially the fountains and the Town Hall. During this long period, the solutions proposed by the Council to solve the problem ranged from collecting levies due to the House; increasing taxes on products (wine and brandy); alms; going to the house of the State Governor to ask for money; and resorting to freed Indian labor. When the Council obtained thirty thousand reis from the Royal Treasury in 1649 to undertake those works, half of that money was embezzled and there was no further news of it (APEM, 1651). The ordeal of maintaining public buildings in the city of São Luís dragged on until the second half of the 17th century, with several solicitors presenting this item in the sessions and always alerting the Council that they should “tratassem do conserto da Câmara e seu telhado visto estar caindo [repair the Town Hall and its roof since it is falling down]” (APEM, 1651). Eight years later, the Council finally bought wood to build the roof; but in March 1654, the solicitor reported that half of the wood cut for the works of the Town Hall was on the city’s beach, while the other half lay scattered elsewhere, and, so he requested sending blacks from the land – local Indians – to get the wood and the tile (APEM, 1654).

Judging by Father Bettendorff’s description of the buildings of the city of São Luís, we believe that the “new Town Hall” was built only in the 1660s, and it is also likely that, until then, the building’s roof had been covered with palm leaves, the popular pindoba, just like most houses in Maranhão. While these structural problems point to the great difficulty of maintaining buildings in colonial cities in the tropics, those situations did not prevent the Council of São Luís from preserving the jurisdictional precepts of the Portuguese empire. An accusation brought before the Council of São Luís by ouvidor geral António Figueira Durão, the general chief magistrate of the State of Maranhão, confirms our argument. According to Durão, the city’s judge for orphans, Félix de Holanda, had violated the Ordenações Filipinas [King Phillip’s Code] by carrying a white stick without authorization from the House, “visto não poderem alçar varas brancas julgadores que não fossem bacharéis ou tivessem alçada de Sua Majestade [as judges who were not bachelors or lacked the authority of His Majesty could not carry white sticks].” Lest any doubts of the transgression remained, Durão told the local officeholders how officials of the same rank acted in other places: Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, Angola, Cape Verde, and the kingdom of Portugal, the town of Tomar, the University of Coimbra, and so on. None of them carried a stick “por não serem letrados nem terem alçada [because neither were they jurisconsults nor had any authority].” Only the judges of orphans that were bachelors could carry them, as provided in the Ordenações Filipinas. In view of the explanation, the magistrate requested that the Council order Félix de Holanda not to carry a stick (Maranhão, 2015, p. 97).

In the arguments of the ouvidor geral, we can notice that the magistrate establishes a significant parallel by equating São Luís to important cities of the kingdom and the Portuguese Atlantic world: Coimbra, Tomar, Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, Luanda (Angola), and Cape Verde. In the chief magistrate’s view, São Luís should follow the same jurisdictional rules respected in the main cities of the realm and the empire. Furthermore, for this hierarchical society, carrying a white stick was a privilege reserved to jurisconsults, magistrates who knew the laws of the monarchy. Therefore, only those trained in law, i.e., judicial authorities, could carry them. Moreover, São Luís, like other important cities, should integrate with the jurisdictional rules of the empire.

It was not the first time that São Luís was compared to other cities of the kingdom or the Portuguese empire. Since 1619, Council officials had been asking the Crown for the same privileges as the citizens of Porto; this was granted only when Belém associated itself with São Luís and their solicitors filed a petition to the King. In the document they claimed that the favor had been promised to them since the time of the expulsion of the Dutch (AHU-ACL-CU-009, cx. 3, doc. 361). Lest any doubts should remain, they attached the provision of 20 July 1655, which afforded them such privilege.

In effect, the desire to be of like standing with the citizens of Porto not only gave the local notables, the “good men,” an absolute advantage over the other residents, but it also placed São Luís among the cities of the Portuguese pluricontinental monarchy which had received this privilege for services rendered (Rodrigues, 1994, p. 52; Krause, 2014, p. 219). The motive for the request was obtaining the benefits in terms of honor and privileges: the license to bear arms; avoiding arrest or, at least, being liable only to house arrest; avoiding any punishment with iron or royal tortures; and even exemption from military service (Silva, 1988). On the other hand, the justification for receiving such benefits always derived from the services rendered by their ancestors during the conquest of São Luís and its recovery from the Dutch, but also from the efforts of preserving the sertão by fighting against the indigenous populations (Lisboa, s/d, p. 48). It is no wonder, then, that another imperial city, São Salvador da Bahia, the seat of the State of Brazil, claimed and obtained the same privilege by invoking the example of São Luís (Krause, 2014, p. 219).

São Luís was the seat of government until the 18th century. However, the creation of the State of Maranhão and Grão-Pará (1621) triggered heated debates among their political elites, especially from 1625 to 1654, over the definition of the seat of government. São Luís claimed the leading role of the general government, while the more commercially promising Belém defended the implementation of two independent governments. Nevertheless, throughout the back and forth of decisions, the Crown maintained São Luís as the State’s political center (AHU-ACL-CU-009, cx. 1, docs. 94, 104, 107; AHU-ACL-CU-009, cx. 3, docs. 277, 303, 339). This centrality of the city of São Luís in political decisions across the State was decisive, as along with its role in the territory’s administrative and economic organization. With the creation of the State of Grão-Pará and Maranhão by the royal charter of 6 August 1753 (Meireles, 1980, p. 76), Belém took on the pre-eminence of communications and decisions between the State and the Crown.

Final considerations

São Luís, from the very beginning of the colonizing process in Maranhão, was at the center of the political interests of the great modern powers, notably France, Portugal, Spain, and the United Provinces. Focused on the sea but embraced by the contours of the mainland, it experienced this dual function – maritime and continental – intensely from the outset. Moreover, as both subject and object of conquest, it became an important nucleus resulting from political mediations between Portugal and the Hispanic Monarchy, precisely because it was located between important Iberian domains: on the one hand, the State of Brazil and, on the other hand, the Spanish domains. The difficulty in defining the contours of these vast worlds further increased the importance of São Luís. Conquering it meant breaking through the barriers of the unknown towards El Dorado and, at the same time, defending the frontier on the fringes of the empire. In this sense, few colonial cities experienced the intensity and significance of Iberian imperial politics like São Luís.


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  1. The starting point of this chapter is Helidacy Maria Muniz Corrêa PhD Thesis. See Corrêa, Helidacy Maria Muniz, Para aumento da conquista e bom governo dos moradores: o papel da Câmara de São Luís na conquista, defesa e organização do território do Maranhão (1615-1668) [To increase the conquest and good government of the residents: the role of the Council of São Luís in the conquest, defense and organization of the territory of Maranhão (1615-1668)]. PhD Thesis in History. Federal Fluminense University, Institute of Human Sciences and Philosophy, Niterói, 2011, 299 f. This work is financed by Portuguese national funds through FCT – Foundation for Science and Technology, I.P, in the scope of the projects UIDB/04311/2020 and UIDP/04311/2020.

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