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1 Excellent Rowers of the Navy Arsenal

Recruitment and Indigenous labor
in Rio de Janeiro (1763-1820)

Silene Orlando Ribeiro

1. Rowers in the service of the King: the historical formation of a socio-professional category

This text addresses the formation process of a socio-professional category within the scope of the Rio de Janeiro Navy Arsenal (Arsenal da Marinha do Rio de Janeiro), between 1763 and 1820: the indigenous rowers. The presence of this group of indigenous workers in an Atlantic port and colonial city such as Rio de Janeiro leads to several reflections. The conquest and occupation of the southern coast of Portuguese America exhibited dramatic sides, and this was no different in the Rio de Janeiro region.

Between the second half of the 16th century and the end of the 17th century, the urban space of the city of São Sebastião, in Rio de Janeiro, developed as a result of colonial wars and establishments, religious orders, the implementation of sugarcane plantations, and indigenous settlements. The indigenous areas, the ancestral territories of the Tupinambá ethnic groups, were gradually traversed by Portuguese projects and territoriality. These dynamics are inscribed in the European Maritime Expansion. Therefore, the birth of colonial Rio de Janeiro is part of a global dynamic encompassed within Maritime History.

According to Polónia (2010), Maritime History is a research field marked by a profound diversity of objects and interdisciplinary dialogues. Therefore, the trajectories of the indigenous workers recruited for the Navy Arsenal will be approached from a local perspective, although still considering a global scale to understand port and labor relations with the Portuguese Empire. Thus, this chapter required dialogs with other research fields. In this regard, this discussion is permeated by theoretical and methodological issues concerning Historical Geography, New Indigenous History, Anthropology, and Military History. Fusaro and Polónia (2010) argue that Maritime History’s interdisciplinary vocation is an important and fruitful aspect of this research field. Furthermore, understanding assessments based on the trajectory of Indian rowers at the Navy Arsenal (1763-1820) highlights other social and economic aspects of the city of Rio de Janeiro.

In the beginning of the 18th century, Rio de Janeiro’s geopolitical status, with its port and proximity to the Minas Gerais area, garnered the city prestige and centrality in the South Atlantic. The intense circulation of boats and goods, and the increasing African slave trafficking required the development of a bureaucratic, military and socio-professional apparatus to deal with the needs of this port city.

In a letter dated August 23rd, 1718, Bartolomeu de Siqueira Cordovil, Treasury’s Superintendent (Provedor da Fazenda) of the Rio de Janeiro captaincy, informed D. João V, king of Portugal, about his intentions of hiring natives for the rowing service of the longboats used by the Rio de Janeiro Customs in its port activities. Would it become common practice for port authorities to hire natives to reduce the shortage of workers? Another correspondence, dated May 18th, 1719, clarifies this regarding Bartolomeu de Siqueira Cordovil’s choice:

I sent for the oarsmen I needed at Your Majesty’s Warehouses, as there are always Indians capable for such ministry; and when I did, in fact, they would be ready on every occasion as soon as I asked for them. The reason for this was that buying black people, under their risk, would require spending two thousand cruzados plus their sustenance, while becoming a rower costs almost two cruzados a day. This would be avoided with the aforementioned indigenous persons, who normally earn six vints a day; while the cost of maintaining the aforementioned longboat, if black people are employed, would result in outstanding costs. The natives may, instead, supply the longboat service regardless of how much it is paid to them, as Your Majesty orders.[1]

This document contains important information concerning the workspaces of natives in Rio de Janeiro during the 18th century and indicates that natives were the best choice for “permanent jobs” in the royal warehouses, located close to Customs. These comprised storage areas for products belonging to the Portuguese Crown. Natives were, thus, among the heterogeneous worker population observed in the port of the city of São Sebastião, in Rio de Janeiro. Furthermore, Cordovil asserts that, compared to the purchase of two enslaved Africans for that service, it would be more economical to hire natives, whose daily payment (jornal) only amounted to twenty-six réis a day. This would save the Royal Treasury (Fazenda Real) the two thousand cruzados for the purchase of enslaved workers and the entire sustenance cost, i.e., food, housing and clothing. The letter also includes the argument of the natives’ suitability for that occupation, being “capable natives” prepared to carry out that sort of activity.

For six years, the employment of indigenous workers as customs longboat rowers remained under discussion and provoked a jurisdictional conflict between customs judge Manuel Vasquez and also auditor (ouvidor) Bartolomeu de Siqueira Cordovil. Vasquez pleaded for the purchase of the two slaves for the service. He claimed that indigenous people, being free natives, could not work during night shifts as required. After a long dispute, the case ended by royal orders issued in a letter dated August 31, 1724, which approved their hiring.[2]

There is strong evidence that the choice of natives over enslaved people was not based solely on economic aspects. Fernandes (2010) highlights that the customs was a space of social and political tensions, with numerous economic activities developed in parallel by its employees and other colonial agents. According to Cardoso (2010, p.71), the Rio de Janeiro customs was marked by “order and disorder, or, in other words, legal collection procedures and illegal fraud procedures.”

During Ayres de Saldanha’s term as governor (1719-1725), illicit activities at the Rio de Janeiro customs became notorious. Some ships avoided the customs office altogether, landing and unloading at other anchoring spots along the coast of Rio de Janeiro to escape inspection. It was common for products landed at customs not to get the correct stamp, thus avoiding the payment of tithes and relevant taxes, while the loss or disappearance of cargo and goods stored in the customs warehouses was frequent. Located on the premises of the governor’s palace, the customs building occupied about 40 square meters, insufficient to properly accommodate the received cargo. In addition to structural problems, the Rio de Janeiro customs office lacked guards to ensure security. Kept in the open and unprotected, it was easy for goods to become lost. It was precisely during this period when the disputes between the treasury offices and the customs judge, concerning the employment of enslaved natives or Africans, took place. The consulted documentation suggests that índios aldeados as rowers could also be part of a strategy to control the illicit activities taking place in the customs complex or, at least, maintain a group of watchmen and/or informers concerning the movements of men and goods.

Map 1 – Indigenous resettlement villages (aldeias de repartição)
in Rio de Janeiro

Source: Adapted from Fridman (2011).

The indigenous workers employed in the royal warehouses, and later at customs, came from the aldeamentos established by the Society of Jesus in the Rio de Janeiro Captaincy (Map 1). This job was part of the so-called “real services”, public services for the State performed by indigenous individuals. Almeida identified documentation that requested ten natives from the Aldeamento of São Lourenço to act as paddlers in Fazenda Real longboats, in 1793 (Almeida, 2003, p. 202). A letter sent to D João V, dated February 12, 1740, included reports by the native Miguel Duarte on the vicissitudes that he and the natives living in Rio de Janeiro and in adjacent regions experienced in their daily work activities for the Portuguese monarch. Though lengthy, the documentary source is reproduced herein, due to the reachness of information it contains concerning the indigenous work regime:

Says Miguel Duarte, the Indian speaking for himself and on behalf of all the Indians, that the villagers in the district of the Captaincy of Rio, your loyal vassals, are always willing to offer themselves for your Royal Service, both in the works in said city and in the Captaincies of the Rio Grande, Santa Caharina Island, and Minas de Ouro, where the natives carry materials and other things belonging to Your Majesty’s Royal Service. These the supplicantsdo with much humility and obedience, leaving their women and children in their villages and many times lacking the support of their husbands. The pay of only two vinténs a day, which the supplicants receive, is barely enough for maintenance and little sustenance, as it does not equal even bread flour and some fish. At the same time, the Supplicantswill not leave the service all day and even many a night, rowing in longboats of the ouvidor and the government, since they have no other income than the work of their hands for their livelihood and that of their women and children, who cannot work in these occupations in the villages, where they profit the most from their fields. As for Your Majesty, considering that the supplicants are rustic and miserable people who have no other protection than Your Majesty’s greatness, so may Your Majesty’s royal clemency may consider, having been informed of the truth, to add to the payment of the supplicants who attending to the ever-present executive work of Your Real Service.[3]

Duarte reports the difficulties that the natives underwent in their displacement to Rio Grande, Santa Catarina and Minas Gerais; the royal service imposed a strenuous routine on these workers, impoverishing them and leaving their families in a vulnerable situation. Further information in Miguel Duarte’s letter corroborates the result of the dispute between the ouvidor and the customs judge. In 1740, the natives continued to receive the two daily payments (jornal). Their daily food allowance consisted of salted fish and a measure of flour distributed by the Fazenda Real. The consulted documentation does not detail the food delivery procedures for the indigenous workers during the trips, although there are indications that the military who escorted them took care of this. One specific issue raised by Miguel Duarte is particularly interesting. Almost two decades after being formalized by royal order as longboat rowers for the Treasury and the Government, a work regime that ignored the legal status of these natives as free men was established:

The Supplicants will not leave the service all day and even many a night, rowing in longboats of the ouvidor and the government, since they have no other income than the work of their hands for their livelihood and that of their women and children, who cannot work in these occupations in the villages, where they profit the most from their fields.[4]

The information presented by Miguel Duarte in this excerpt contradicts the recommendations for the use of indigenous workers living in the Rio de Janeiro Captaincy and its surroundings. Working on the longboats for the Treasury day and night, without the possibility of returning to their original aldeamentos, demonstrates the hardships these indigenous workers were subjected to in the royal service. Moreira (2013) draws attention to the fact that the status of natives settled in villages (indígenas aldeados) did not release them from having to work for others, and that being free always meant being linked to some type of labor for particulars or the State. The demand for these indigenous workers in the royal service increased in both the port area and in the Navy as the Rio de Janeiro Captaincy grew, due to its connection with mining regions and the Atlantic.

According to the Jesuit Félix Capeli, natives from São Pedro de Cabo Frio who worked in Rio de Janeiro and its surrounding areas spent about 320 réis on the round-trip transfer. The wage received by these individuals was equivalent to 1 conto and six hundred réis a month. As transportation, clothing and food expenses were not covered by the Fazenda Real, these workers faced numerous difficulties in providing to their families.

In 1754, during the Conde de Oeiras’ government, Father Félix Capeli held a position as attorney for the natives living in Rio de Janeiro. As such, he sent a petition to the king, informing him of the low remuneration received by this group in the service of His Most Faithful Majesty. At that time, the natives received 50 réis as daily payment (jornal). According to Balthazar da Silva Lisboa, this amount “was insufficient” and also comprised a “subsidy, especially for the individuals who were sent to Santa Catarina, as they had incurred in expenses during the journey until reaching their destination.”[5] He also mentions the difficulties faced by married workers and their families. A permit dated May 20th, 1754, established that the wages of natives who worked in public services should be increased to 100 réis per day. However, the available documentation does not indicate whether this recommendation and the new wage were applied, given the troubled times after the expulsion of the Society of Jesus from Brazil.

In view of the warlike atmosphere in South America, the recurring need to repair the ships and vessels that navigated the Guanabara Bay, and the remodeling of the European military forces, the Conde da Cunha created the Rio de Janeiro Navy Arsenal in 1763. This military enterprise highlighted the need for sailors and skilled workers. As soldier and sailor shortages were constant in Portuguese America, the indígenas aldeados were asked to render their services to the Navy. It is important to note that the Royal Finance Provider established the rowers as a socio-professional category in the first decades of the 18th century.

Located in the Santa Rita parish, the Rio de Janeiro Navy Arsenal acquired numerous functions in the context of the port area’s reorganization throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the Arsenal’s duties was inspecting the legality of the vessels arriving in Rio de Janeiro, providing logistical support, and supplying drinking water barrels for the crews. The ships that docked in Rio de Janeiro were verified and inspected by military personnel from the Arsenal. The inspection of cargo and merchandise was performed by customs. In this sense, the port complex included a commercial and fiscal dimension, represented by customs authorities, and a military, policing and enforcement dimension, in charge of the Navy Arsenal. Furthermore, the need to produce shipbuilding inputs led to the establishment of workshops, where worker literacy and socio-professional training activities also took place. Among other duties, these workshops had the function of “civilizing” natives and indígenas aldeados. Colonial indigenous legislation hints at a habitual and continuous use of coercive mechanisms to drive these individuals to work during the colonial period,[6] An important aspect of the legislative body created in the 16th and 17th centuries concerned the association between work and soul salvation. Following the Directory (Diretório) era[7], notably marked by secularization and assimilationism, the use of natives for compulsory labor was chiefly justified by the articulation of work, civilization, and integration of these individuals into national society.

By 1776, the indígenas aldeados were working as longboat rowers at the Santa Cruz Fortress, responsible for supplying water to vessels docked in the port of Rio de Janeiro. A shortage of workers led the governor to request two natives and another vessel for the adequate provision of water. Three years later, an ordinance established in February 1779 required the Royal Treasury (Provedor da Fazenda Real) to supply new uniforms for the indigenous rowers employed in the His Majesty’s brigantines. This source is important, as it indicates that, even after the establishment of the Navy Intendant post in 1770, the natives continued under the jurisdiction of the Provedor da Fazenda Real.

Norberto de Sousa e Silva (1842) identifies incentives set by the Marquis of Lavradio, in 1786, for 60 natives from the Aldeia of Itinga who would be sent for Navy services and longboat rowing. Concerning the first half of the 18th century, at least two documents mention the difficulty faced by natives employed in longboat services in terms of covering their transportation expenses to Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Santa Catarina Island, and Colônia of Sacramento. However, from the second half of the 18th century, certain mechanisms were created for these individuals to remain in the Navy. According to Barros (1922), the Conde da Cunha organized the military forces in colonial Brazil between 1763 and 1767, as the transfer of the viceroyalty’s headquarters to Rio de Janeiro demanded such changes.

The adoption of uniforms with specific colors and symbols for Navy troops and regiments was related to this process. The use of military uniforms in colonial Brazil dates back to the 17th century. In the case of Rio de Janeiro, the Marquis of Lavradio was responsible for reorganizing the two companies that comprised the viceroy’s guard,the three fourths of Rio de Janeiro’s soldiers, and the auxiliary cavalry, between 1767 and 1779. The ordinance issued in February 10, 1779, which ordered natives employed in longboat rowing to wear uniforms, is thought to have been part of the governmental effort to organize the various groups present in Rio de Janeiro. Therefore, unifying the natives would have the double effect of their militarization and guaranteeing their availability as labor for customs and the newly created Navy Arsenal premises.

2. Recruitment of Indians for the Navy Arsenal in the 19th century: legislation under John VI

In 1808, the relocation of the Portuguese court changed the role of Brazil and Rio de Janeiro within the dynamics of the Empire. The city’s relevance grew significantly, generating administrative, urban, military, and institutional reforms, but also demands and disputes over land property. The migration of the Portuguese Royal Family to Brazil had a special impact on indigenous populations. John VI waged a bloody war against the Botocudos; this people —deemed as “lousy Indians” in the documentation—, inhabited the banks of the Doce River, in the areas comprised by Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo and the Coropó and Coroados, in the fields of Guarapuava and Curitiba. The publication of the Royal Charter of August 1st, 1808, marked the beginning of the offensive war against the Botocudos.[8] This document established a 10-year compulsory service for indigenous people “who rise in arms in any attack” (Cunha 1992b, p. 65). The tragic war against these indigenous populations gave to Christian settlers, whose land property rights were guaranteed by letters of donation (sesmeiros) access to land for agricultural production. This, in turn, led to establishing a river navigation network with the main tributary located at the Doce River, followed by the construction of roads associated to these hybrid (fluvial and terrestrial) paths. The fate of the fierce natives who fell prisoner in the war was the Navy Arsenal.

According to the Royal Charter, part of the troops that participated in the wars against the Botocudos, the so-called Pedestrian Soldiers, should be composed of “domestic natives who would receive less payment than the other soldiers, about forty réis, so that the Captaincy expenses” (Cunha, 1992b, p.61), would represent no great onus for the Fazenda Real. The use of indigenous troops against the “fierce natives,” the Botocudos, reveals the tension and conflicts within Brazilian society at the beginning of the 19th century, and the continued colonial practice of using platoons of indígenas aldeados as a defensive system assembled to annihilate other Indians or contain foreign actions.

John VI’s reign (1808-1821) implemented a set of legislation to officialize the recruitment of indigenous people: the Ofício de 18 de agosto de 1808 (Cunha, 1992b, p. 61), the Aviso de 22 de novembro de 1808, and the Aviso de 19 de maio de 1809. The Charter of August 18 does not specify how many individuals should be used. However, it advised that “the number of natives used should be as much as it is customary for the Viceroys of this state at the time.” This information is important, as it signals that John VI’s legislation included formal and systematic recruitment practices that had been traditionally implemented, though in the absence of any legislative corpus, between 1763 and 1808.

The Aviso de 22 de novembro de 1808 regulated the duration of service and the number of natives recruited to the Navy Arsenal, recommending that the “Governors of Bahia, Pernambuco, and Ceará send 200 natives, destined to serve one or two years in the Arsenal, from the Aldeamentos of their districts.” The Ordem de 08 de novembro de 1808 granted an allowance of 200 réis to the Botocudos who served in the Arsenal. This order is particularly demonstrative of the crown’s unscrupulousness in obtaining indigenous labor, opting to recruit ethnical groups that had been conquered through war and not yet adapted to the colonial society. Through the Aviso de 22 de novembro de 1808, the daily payment (jornais) for the natives was fixed at six vinténs, with four extra vinténs for meals (daily food stipend).The use of uniforms was also specified in this legislation, through the Ofício de 19 de maio de 1809.

According to traditional practices, the employment of indigenous workers in public services could not exceed two months and was paid daily, by jornais. The legislative corpus that emerged under John VI’s rule created formal coercive mechanisms to recruit natives for the Navy Arsenal and the Armada, with significant increases in the time stipulated for military service in the Navy. The two-month period which, following the common practice of the 18th century, could be extended up to six months was afterwards lengthened to a year or two, and finally fixed at two years or more.

Map 2 – Indigenous villages in Rio de Janeiro (19th century)

Source: Bessa & Malheiros (2009, p.72).

Natives were not always sent from their aldeamentos indígenas to work in the Navy as free men with paid wages. In 1807, the natives Luiz da Costa, João Ribeiro, Manoel José, and Valério were taken prisoner and allegedly sent by the chief captain of the Aldeia de Nossa Senhora da Guia de Mangaratiba, Bernardo de Oliveira, a native himself, under the status of “prisoners of the Royal Power.” The aforementioned Manoel José was possibly Manoel José the younger, son of Manoel José the older, brother of Pedro Galvão, former chief captain of Aldeia de Mangaratiba, a leader and member of one of the most influential families involved in land disputes during the second half of the 18th century in Mangaratiba. Manoel José had blood ties to two leaders of the political struggles inside the Aldeia de Nossa Senhora da Guia, who were opposed to Bernardo Oliveira, chief captain of the natives at that time. The arrest of Manoel José and the group of natives may indicate that sending indigenous prisoners as public workers for the city of Rio de Janeiro may have been a way to tackle the shortage of labor, remove local political enemies or opponents, and use the rigor of the law to punish individuals considered harmful to society.

Therefore, internal disputes among indigenous communities were not always a problem for the Crown, as arresting some people was a mechanism to obtain labor for public works. These men were usually sent to the Cobras Island prison, and from there taken in chains to carry out their imposed service. There could be sentenced to work at the dry docks, the Arsenal workshops, or else, sent to pave public roads or to public building constructions. The consulted sources does not indicate the existence of specific spaces for sentenced natives; indeed, the different social strata that coexisted at the Arsenal were separated by a fine line. Still, free men, indigenous individuals, slaves, and prisoners were not to be confused. For example, the natives serving as forced labor never acted as Arsenal longboat rowers. However, being stationed at the Navy Arsenal meant living in an environment marked by hardship and violence, inhabiting a universe governed by a precarious, provisional way of life and a set of rules that were not always precise. In other words, the difficulties inherent to labor in the Old Regime society were even more pronounced for those recruited to Navy services. The restriction and repression of individual freedom, the punitive dimension, the strong discipline of bodies and habits, the physical punishments, and the military hierarchy: all of this affected more severely those who were not part of the states or the pure-blood strata. Absenteeism, desertion, drunkenness, malfeasance, or any kind of political action, such as associative action or socio-professional groups’ struggles for better working conditions, could turn individuals into prisoners. Individuals worked in a precarious atmosphere governed by changing and interchangeable social places.

According to the documented sources consulted herein, there was an inflow of natives from Rio de Janeiro who were recruited for the Navy, during the first decade of the 19th century. Mangaratiba, Cabo Frio and São Lourenço were systematically and fully settled. An Arsenal inspector’s office contained information about Rio de Janeiro, such as a list of the “Natives’ places of origin,” which indicates that these people were also sent from two other localities, called São Gonçalo and Vila Nova. We could not identify whether the first region was part of Rio de Janeiro or if it refers to cities in other provinces. However, concerning Vila Nova, another document identifies it as a Macacu district located in Rio de Janeiro. In the case of external flows from Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, the fields of Guarapuava, and Curitiba, many indigenous people came after the offensive against the Botocudos.

All Brazilian provinces, according to the model adopted in Portugal, had to send indigenous people to the Navy Arsenal. The Navy Archive documentation consulted herein is quite dispersed and fragmented, and did not allow for the identification of Botocudos among the Navy rowers. No records identify indigenous workers by ethnicity, but simply by location. This could mark the application of strong ethnic erasure mechanisms for anyone who entered the Navy ranks.

According to the Relação de Pagamentos Feiros aos Indio por José sé de Souza Neto of March 20th, 1809, about 144 natives worked in the Royal Warehouses and in vessel services.[9] It is important to note that the number of natives engaged in the various Navy Arsenal services was surveyed after the publication of five of the laws that regulated indigenous recruitment during the first year of John VI’s reign (1808-1821).[10] Table 1 identifies the socio-professional occupations of the natives and the number of workers during this period.

Table 1 – Socio-professional occupations of natives and number of workers (1801-1821)

Socio-professional occupation

Number of Workers in 1809

Royal Warehouse Servants


Gelota rowers


Savana rowers


Escaleres and (?) da Ribeira rowers




Source: Relação de pagamentos feitos por José de Souza Neto. Contadoria da Marinha, 1809. Documento 20,4,2 nº 8. Seção de Manuscritos. Biblioteca Nacional.
*Due to a gap in the document, it was not possible to verify whether it was a name, or another note from the Accounting Office.

It is important to note that the larger number of indigenous individuals was allocated to Ribeira longboats. Another gap in the sources made it impossible to transcribe the name of the second type of vessel at the time. The mapping of socio-professional occupations based on the payment list also revealed different spaces and work dynamics, with some continuities which worth highlighting. The sources revealed that, at least since 1718, indigenous workers acted as servants, inspecting cargo, policing the space, and possibly working on goods transportation. Thus, the first insertion of natives in the Rio de Janeiro port area was through Royal warehouses. Almost a century later, they were still working at this port, and the engagement of these indigenous recruits continued in the following years.

In 1810, correspondence between the Arsenal Inspector and the Prince Regent revealed that the number of natives employed in the Navy Arsenal was still high:

I have the honor to place the requirements of the main ferry pilots, João Pereira Marcelino, Francisco José Fernandes Barbosa, Manoel Francisco de Oliveira, Luíza Ma. Do Sacramento, Joaquim Antonio da Cruz, and Antonio da Cunha in the presence of Your Highness. I should inform Your Serene Highness that in this Arsenal there are one hundred and eight oarsmen, excluding the brave natives and those who are in the service of the Warehouses: sixty belong to His Royal Highness’s galleon, fifteen to Your Serene Highness’s longboat, nine to the longboat that serves Uxaria, six to the longboat that is available at Paço — which is designated on the weekly map as Terceiro —, six to the longboat that goes almost every day to send potable water to his Royal Highness, called da Ribeira, and five from the Brigade dinghy, so that only seven indigenous workers remain to guard the Barca longboat and dinghy; the first of these two vessels is only enough to supply water to the different workshops of the same Arsenal, consequently the longboat called Barca is equipped with two men to provide all the other services that take place in the aforementioned Arsenal (…).[11]

Table 2 identifies the socio-professional occupations of indigenous workers in 1810, according to the data contained in the Navy Arsenal Inspector’s Ofícios, dated March 24th. A relevant piece of information in this document is the mention of “fierce natives” among the Navy personnel, although they were not classified according to ethnicity or region of origin.

Table 2 – Socio-professional occupations of indigenous workers in 1810

Socio-professional occupation

Quantitative of Workers in 1810

Galeota rowers


Royal longboat rowers


Uxaria longboat rowers


Ribeira longboat rowers


Brigade longboat rowers


Ferry rowers


Dinghy rowers




Source: Ofício do Inspetor do Arsenal de 24 de janeiro de 1810. Arquivo do Arsenal da Marinha/SDGM.Livro17025. Ofícios do Inspetor do Arsenal (1808-1814). folhas 104-105.

The document is neither specific about where the “fierce indigenous” workers were inserted. Was there a special regime for the civilization of these men in workshops or Royal Warehouses? Were they held at the Cobras Island prison or in the presiganga[12]? What was the point in sending them to the Navy Arsenal? Enormous gaps concerning these issues are noted in this documentation.

According to the sources, about seven vessels were staffed exclusively by indigenous workers at the Navy Arsenal around 1810. The legislation implemented by John VI’s Government formalized practices dating back to the aldeamentos indígenas period, under the administration of the Society of Jesus. The native workers faced a series of adversities in the exercise of their professional functions. On March 13th, 1810, it appears that a group of men comprising Bernardino José Freire, Miguel Alvares, Antonio José Mafra, Januário Miguel Antonio, and their royal rope officers, the two oarsmen from Barra Fortress, sent requests to the Regent in the Arsenal Inspector’s Offices. The first three individuals were ship guardians and there is no mention of what motivated their requests. Such is also the case of Januário Miguel, master of the rope workshop, and his officers. However, according to the Inspector, “they deserve to earn the grace that they beg for.” Generally, ship keepers and workshop masters were men of Portuguese descent. Their names appear on the document. However, cordage officers and natives did not have their names mentioned in the document; nevertheless, their claims are included explicitly:

Regarding the two native rowers from Fortaleza da Barra, according to the information gathered by the Sea-and-War Captain, it appears that the petitioners do not have a daily stipend equal to most indigenous workers’ in the service of this Arsenal, and judge them with less work; but attending to their greater need for food, they seem to deserve a higher remuneration for their subsistence[13]

The “Fortaleza da Barra” is very briefly mentioned and cannot be identified. However, a complex system of forts and fortifications existed in Rio de Janeiro between the 16th and 19th centuries. The fortresses located at the Barra entrance were, respectively, the São João da Barra Fortress, in Rio de Janeiro, located at the foot of the Cara de Cão Hill, in the present-day Urca neighborhood. This fortress protected the access to the Guanabara Bay, as did the Santa Cruz da Barra fortress, located on the other side of the bay, in Niterói, and the Laje Fortress, located in the middle of the bay’s entrance. It is likely that the two indigenous rowers may have been assigned to the São João da Barra fortress, given their proximity to the Navy Arsenal. In this particular case, the question of a different remuneration for the natives at the Barra fortress must be problematized, as it highlights the hierarchies established by the Navy for its body of indigenous workers.

What is observed is that those who served at the Barra fortress were considered less important, worked less and, hence, their wages were not enough even to cover their food. Reflecting about the two aforementioned oarsmen reveals that they were many miles away from the Navy Arsenal and their journey form one point to the other must have been extremely exhausting, as only the two of them were employed in that service. In this episode, the demands of the two indigenous workers also reveal a precarious situation regarding daily food (meals). The use of legal dialogue channels with the government, such as the submission of requests, demonstrates the plurality of actions/strategies that arose among Navy Arsenal workers.

According to the consulted sources, the natives sent to the Navy Arsenal often deserted due to a series of problems, among them lack of payment, violence, and the search for better working conditions at other establishments in the Rio de Janeiro Province. The trajectory of Manoel da Conceição is quite telling about the issue of desertion. In Portuguese military tradition, workers at the Ribeira das Naus de Lisboa Arsenal were considered military too, and the non-fulfilment of their duties was punished with imprisonment and convictions. Their low wages and precarious working conditions fostered escapes[14]. Costa (2010, pp.321-322) describes the effects of the permit of September 6, 1765, on Portuguese society, and relates that desertion became a “heinous offense.” But even after establishing regular wage payments, desertions continued. The repressive apparatus also reached those who sheltered deserters, with fines of up to 200.000 réis, denaturalization, death penalty, and a prohibition to appear before the King as some of the deterrents imposed in Portugal.

The episode involving Manoel da Conceição began on June 3rd, 1809, as follows:

Most Serene Sir,
I have the honor to place in your presence the letter that was addressed to me by the General Administrator of the Administration of Whale Fisheries, claiming that the native Manoel da Conceição, for the reasons stated in said letter, was arrested by the colonel of the competent district, and afterwards sent to me, as a deserter from this Arsenal.[15]

It was quite common for indigenous workers to desert and seek jobs in fisheries and wharfs in the vicinity of the Rio Janeiro Port, in the area called Prainha and its surroundings. If they were recognized and arrested, they had to return to the hostile environment of the Arsenal under police custody. There is evidence of an existing network of district authorities, workspace administrators, and Arsenal inspector, meant to trace workers and develop control mechanisms even when working in non-militarized spaces. A month later, Manoel da Conceição was arrested and sent to the Navy Arsenal again:

Honorable Sir,
Realizing that the blacksmith Manoel da Conceição was no longer working at Master José Maria’s store, in charge of the works for the Royal Residence carriages, I sent for information, and in fact, upon finding him working in another store, I drove him to prison under the guard of this Arsenal, where he still remains while you determine whether you wish him to remain exempt from the service of the same Arsenal.
God guard Your Excellency for many years. Royal Navy Arsenal, August 14th, 1809.[16]

This second escape and subsequent imprisonment is also enlightening as it demonstrates the migration of the Arsenal’s working sailors to other activities in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Manoel da Conceição, professionally specialized as a blacksmith, was in charge of the “works for the Royal Residence carriages”, probably in a smithy workshop under the supervision of Master José Maria. Brasil Gerson (2013) identifies a Blacksmiths’ Alley near the lower part of Castelo Hill, close to the Navy Arsenal, located in the extinct Misericórdia neighborhood; this was an area for workshops that would be later inhabited by the Chinese, famous for its opium houses in the second half of the 19th century. According to the Arsenal plan drawn up by Master Ignácio Pinto in 1809, the area included a workshop that supplied the Navy with materials and craftsmen for ship repairs. Indeed, blacksmiths, carpenters, and caulkers were highly sought-after professionals.

Manoel da Conceição’s employment for the Royal Residence carriages denotes that he was a competent craftsman. Though indigenous and a “deserter” under surveillance, surrounded by different authorities, he still remained a practicing professional. This marks that his superiors considered it useful to keep him for the Arsenal, as they could benefit from specialized and expensive labor for small amounts. It is also evident that there was a communication and collaboration network between different royal power agents, the district police apparatus, workshop owners, and Navy authorities who acted to regulate the work of individuals like Manoel da Conceição, maintaining them under state power control and exploiting them as permitted by law.

This desertion process also highlights the limited freedom of these workers. Studying military institutions and desertions in Minas Gerais during the second half of the 18th century, Mello (2004) observed the existence of a pact between local and royal powers to operate in support of “military regimentation”. with mechanisms for controlling and punishing deserters. The pact must be understood as a “bilateral exchange relationship between the subjects’ fidelity and obedience to the Crown, and the protection and maintenance of their properties and privileges” (Mello, 2004, pp.67-84). These relations between the different instances of local and royal political power are patent in the case of the Manoel da Conceição. We believe that there were also pacts and agreements among Rio de Janeiro’s surrounding society, military organizations, and political elites —a microcosm of the Old Regime society— to discipline certain social groups and keep them under the control of the Navy Arsenal. In parallel to the pacts between hegemonic groups, the indigenous workers had their own agencies, sociabilities, and strategies to deal with the typical hardships of this society.

Final considerations

In Rio de Janeiro, the demand for a workforce of indígenas aldeados took on new meanings after the 18th century. The increasing traffic of African captives altered the scenario of the existing labor in the Rio de Janeiro Captaincy. However, this process did not result in the suppression of indigenous workers from the various occupations in and around the city. The presence of these natives was made invisible by the discourse of royal power representatives and the ethnic classifications of the 19th century. Miguel Duarte, an indigenous voice that echoed in the 18th century, gave visibility to a group of indigenous workers in Rio de Janeiro who demanded better wages and better working conditions. In fact, the deletion of native presence belittled their innumerable works in the Rio de Janeiro region, in rural areas and in Minas Gerais. Miguel Duarte highlighted, among other issues, the performance of Navy workers.

Cotta (2007), Gomes (2010) and Jeha (2011) perceived the militarization process of indigenous labor as a tradition dating to the colonial period. Indigenous militias were essential in the occupation and colonial construction processes of the later imperial society. Moreira (2013) demonstrated how the insertion of natives in the Navy and the other armed forces was an important social organization mechanism. Throughout this research, it was possible to establish a dialogue with these theoretical perspectives to understand the process of recruiting natives for the Rio de Janeiro Navy Arsenal between 1763 and 1820. Navy recruitment was also understood by the royal authorities as a process to organize and discipline the natives. However, the sources analyzed herein demonstrated that other issues could also be at stake.

The main motivation for their recruitment was the low cost of maintaining natives, widely recognized for their river navigation and wood selection capabilities. In other words, the incorporation of natives followed a tradition originated in the colonial period and guaranteed state control over a specialized workforce that could be further improved in the workshops of the Navy Arsenal itself. Under the ruse of civilizing and assimilationist ideals, natives were gradually subjected to increasingly repressive and sophisticated practices to capture their workforce. The indigenous legislation of the first half of the 19th century[17] granted the necessary legal support for seizing natives and sending them to the Navy Arsenal, far more efficiently and violently in previous centuries. Indigenous freedoms were, therefore, obstacles to effective recruitment.


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  1. AHU_ACL_CU_005, CX.10, D.1097. Correspondência de 23 de agosto de 1718 entre o Provedor da Fazenda, Bartolomeu de Siqueira Cordovil, e o D. João V, rei de Portugal.
  2. AHU_ACL_CU_005, CX.14, D.1541. Correspondência de 31 de agosto de 1724 entre o Provedor da Fazenda, Bartolomeu de Siqueira Cordovil, e o D. João V, rei de Portugal.
  3. AHU_ACL_CU_005, Cx32, D.3398. Requerimento do índio Miguel Duarte.
  4. AHU_ACL_CU_005, Cx32, D.3398. Requerimento do índio Miguel Duarte.
  5. Lisboa, Balthazar da Silva. (1835). Annaes do Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Tip. Imp. e Const. de Seignot-Plancher, v.6 p.22.
  6. For a discussion of the Indigenous legislation of the colonial period, see: Domingues (2000) and Perrone-Moisés (1990).
  7. The Diretório was created for Maranhão and Grão-Pará in the second half of the 18th century, and later applied to the other captaincies. According to Almeida (1997), the Directory of Indians should be understood as “a work regiment” In relation to indigenous labor, the document follows the initial line given by the indigenous legislation in the 17th century. Afterwards, the laws granted settlers an ever-greater control over indigenous workers. Thus, the Diretório proved to be marked by continuities. For an accurate historiographical analysis of the Directory of Indians, see: Coelho (2005).
  8. On the subject, see: Cunha (1992b); Morel (2018); Mattos (2004); Resende & Langfur (2008); Moreira (2017), Sposito (2012); Paraíso (1992; 2014).
  9. Relação dos pagamentos. Contadoria da Marinha.1809. Ms. BNRJ,20,4,2n.83
  10. Cunha (1992, p.317) identified that the process of recruiting indigenous people for the Navy Arsenal of Rio de Janeiro during the reign of John VI (1808-1821) was regulated by a specific set of laws, unlike in the 18th century.
  11. Arquivo do Arsenal da Marinha. Ofícios do Inspetor do Arsenal. 24 de janeiro de 1810, Livro 17025, fls. 104-105.
  12. According to Paloma Siqueira Fonseca (2008, p. 95), the presiganga constituted “a Portuguese warship that served as a prison in Brazil, anchored in the port of Rio de Janeiro between 1808 and 1831. This floating prison was like the tip of an iceberg comprising ancient and long-lasting practices that persisted for centuries, updated in a very specific context up to Brazil’s independence process: traversing various structures and conjunctures, the presiganga emerged from the deep seas to the surface of events associated with the formation of the national state. Among those old practices, forced labor and corporal punishment made of the presiganga a vessel in the mold of the old Roman galley. Therefore, this prison ship was a receptacle, an ark that added ancient signs concerning legal punishment.”
  13. Arquivo do Arsenal da Marinha. Ofícios recebidos dos Juízes e Política, 13 de março de 1810, Livro 17025, fl. 110.
  14. Ofício do Inspetor do Arsenal de 1º de agosto de 1812. Apud. Greenhalgh, Juvenal. O Arsenal da Marinha na História. 1763-822. Rio de Janeiro: Editora A Noite, 1951. p.100.
  15. Ofício do Inspetor do Arsenal de 03 de junho de 1809. Arquivo do Arsenal da Marinha/SDGM. Livro17025.Ofícios do Inspetor do Arsenal (1808-1814). folhas 76-77.
  16. Ofício do Inspetor do Arsenal de 14 de agosto de 1809. Arquivo do Arsenal da Marinha/SDGM. Livro17025. Ofícios do Inspetor do Arsenal (1808-1814). Folha 82.
  17. Comprising the Carta Régia de 1° de agosto de 1808, the Carta Régia de 13 de Agosto de 1808, the Carta Régia de 05 de novembro de 1808, the Aviso de 22 de novembro de 1808, the Aviso de 19 de maio de 1809, the Ordem de 04 de Agosto de 1809, and the Resolução 3a de 23 de novembro de 1811; published in Cunha (1992b, pp. 61-172).

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