São Salvador da Bahia lies thirteen degrees south of the equator on the southernmost tip of a small triangular peninsula, which separates the Bay of All Saints from the Atlantic Ocean. It began as a fortress on a steep hill and became Brazil’s colonial capital, exporting dye woods, animal skins and gold to Portugal. The upper city was built on a bluff and now has many baroque churches, large squares and museums. Some of the elite families still live there in luxury apartments with balconies that overlook the bay. The former custom house, now the model market, the church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia, and the marina are connected to the upper city by an Art Deco elevator called the Lacerda. Narrow roads snake round the escarpment connecting the large municipal square of Campo Grande, the artificial lake known as the Dique, and the Fonte Nova football stadium.
A little way down the hill below the Praça da Sé and the old medical school is a prettified neighbourhood mainly made up of two-floor adobe brick houses with iron balconies painted in pastel blue, vermilion and lemon colours that line a labyrinth of narrow streets, which fan out from a wide cobbled slope leading up to the old Carmelite convent. Over time the city has spread down the hill to the lighthouse, which together with the island of Itaparica, guards the entrance to the bay. Each beach on the city’s Atlantic shore has become a neighbourhood, starting with Barra, Ondina and Rio Vermelho, then extending north to Amaralinha, Pituba, Jardim de Ala, on for another thirty kilometres to Armacão, Pituaçu, Itapoa, Stella Maris and Ipitanga.
From time to time a humpback stranded on one of the beaches reminds the city of its whaling history. The heartbeat of the lower city is the São Joaquim market, where one can buy sacrificial guinea fowl and goats, herbal medicines and African musical instruments. Further round the bay is the container port and the working class neighbourhood of Boa Viagem. The church of Our Lady of Penha and the fort of Monte Serrat stand on the point of the Itapagipe peninsula and behind them perched on a low hill is the church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, a place of intense devotion. North of the fishing village of Ribeira, below the surrounding hillside, are large slums contained within valleys or built on platforms by the bay. Salvador, or Bahia as it is still often known, has a population of three million, with a demographic created by five hundred years of interracial marriage between Africans, Europeans and Native Americans. It has a Lusitanian face, an American figure and an African soul.
Long ago I read a book with a fawn-coloured hard cover that told of the exploits of a black orphan born into poverty in a large city by the sea. A voodoo shaman, who through divination healed the mentally disturbed, countered bad luck and reconciled tortured lovers became his father figure. After leading a gang of street children, the boy grew up to become a troubadour, a champion boxer and finally a leader of dock workers. His heroic resistance against the bosses was recognised in emotive lyrics, published in pamphlets that hung on strings in the street market.
As time passed, this storyline shrunk to a negligible figment, but the sketchy descriptions of the port, home to at least three African nations and over ninety shades of negritude, remained firmly anchored in my memory. Some days if I closed my eyes a large wide-mouthed bay guarded by an elongated island beamed in from the uncommitted cortex. There was a line of motionless freighters out at sea, several sloops unfurling their sails close to a circular fort built on a reef, and a small cruise ship berthed at the anchorage. Youths with caramel, cocoa, peach-white, copper, chestnut, cinnamon and charcoal skins jumped from rocks into the turquoise water and flew kites high on the hillside. A white church with two towers was an inviolable feature. At night the thunder of drums rose from the labyrinth, and on the inclines that sloped up behind the docks, electric lights flickered in the moonlight. Ships disappeared never to return, children were killed in the slums and a phantom spirit haunted the back streets, revealing the port’s mystery to the initiated. On December 8th every year the souls of dead lovers were heard wailing as they were carried out to sea.
As a child I experienced an unforgettable image as I stood on the edge of the Irish Sea. In soft focus on the western horizon I saw a green hill, a lighthouse and several shadowy church towers looming above the ocean. This involuntary recurrent memory gradually melded with the pictures I had retained from the book and transformed into a lucid dream of a languid seaport with dark avenues lined by imposing trees, mansions decorated with fading blue and white tiles, and a basilica on the top of a giant termite mound. Fishermen headed out in the evening to cast their nets in the inlets of the great rivers that drained into the bay, dug-out canoes returned to port loaded with sugar cane, coffee and dried tobacco leaves, and close to the port was a long sandy palm-lined beach that skirted a dark-water lagoon.
In the fullness of time encounters with strangers convinced me that I was not the only one who had seen mysterious cities floating above the sea. In the Caledonia, a run-down public house on a corner in the Georgian Quarter of Liverpool, a merchant sailor described to me a tumbledown citadel he had watched flickering just above the horizon in the Straits of Messina. Sicilian sailors he had met in a bar in Palermo had told him that his vision was an ocean mirage believed to be the creation of the enchantress Morgan Le Fay. Not long after that I had read that a woman from St Helens had seen communication towers, ominous high rises, cathedrals and city lights from the top of Billinge Lump.
The other place became a port in a storm that often called me and which I could return to whenever I needed to drop off the edge of the world; when I grew up I tried to track it down. I studied photographs in the National Geographic and flipped through pictures in old encyclopaedias but nothing comparable came up. The voodoo clue led me to New Orleans and Havana then back across the Atlantic to the tribal lands of the Yorubas. A university librarian wondered if the book I had read might have been The Kingdom of this World by Alejo Carpentier, a story set on the island of Santo Domingo at the time of a successful rebellion of slaves and Maroons against the French colonists. The place that would become the capital of the newly independent republic of Haiti was described in the book as located on a gulf with a magnificent natural harbour and many islets. In the past it had been ravaged by earthquakes but there was a fort, a palace, a palm-fronted promenade and a few gingerbread mansions in the plazas. In the neighbouring countryside there were many sugar and coffee plantations. The black slaves in the story were connected to their ancestors and their gods through their African religion. But although there were tantalising similarities, I knew immediately Port au Prince was not the chocolate port.
In 1984 I was invited to lecture in a place that I had never heard of but which I read had been visited by Charles Darwin on Leap Day 1832. After a long flight south across the Atlantic, followed by a domestic connection, I drove from its airport under a canopy of bamboo canes, which arched over the road like praying hands and created a corridor that sheltered the tarmac from the flaring sun. The road wound through a few remaining patches of disconnected woodland before dipping down and round the corner to the strand. I then followed the coast road for twenty kilometres, driving past neighbourhoods each defined by their own beach, on round the corniche where, as I glanced down I saw, close to the water’s edge, a large bleached colonial building with narrow windows, a few outhouses, a palm grove and a small church. A lighthouse with striking zebra markings stood prominently on a hillock above the road. Finally I came to the old custom house, the harbour and two towering concrete columns connected by a cross piece, one of which had been built into a steep escarpment that rose out the water. I stopped the car and looked up to see a domed palace already veiled in semi-darkness, clusters of discoloured high-rise buildings separated by patches of vegetation and some villas with their own cable cars nestled high on the rocks. To the right, at the foot of the bluff, was a monumental church with two diagonal towers whose sombre bells were calling the faithful to Mass. It was here in a kiosk close to the electric elevator that I bought my first large map of the city.
I drove, on skirting the blue-green waters of the bay, noting a dilapidated railway station, a flourishing bus depot and a vast crowded hospital for the poor. I arrived at the foot of a knoll at the top of which stood the church I had seen when I stared out to sea. On its steep stone steps I stopped to wrap three blue cotton amulets around my wrist to pay homage to Our Lady, Star of the Sea, protector of Sailortown. Inside the church in the nave I lit a candle to illuminate the darkness and then in the antechamber where ex-voto plastic body parts hung from the roof I prayed silently to remind me of Jesus in his pain, and to ask him for a good death. For a few moments I felt an unalloyed happiness and an intense feeling of being loved.
Soon after dawn on the following morning the sun reappeared and lit up the sky following a path perpendicular to the horizon. I sailed past the white fort with circular turrets on the point that I remembered from the book. Close by was a small church surrounded on three sides by the water of the bay. In the distance on the hillside I could see the bell towers of the church of Good End. I drifted past beaches where the poor of every colour and shape waved to me to come closer. Captains of the sand jumped off wooden jetties and made love to alluring girls waiting in the water. Buoyed by a gentle breeze I then skimmed past the dock piers under the lowering shadows of sea giraffes. In the container port behind I could make out silos loaded with wheat, rows of shiny new cars and open outhouses filled to bursting point with drums of petrochemicals.
I next moored in a creek by the market and through an open door in the Palace of the Gods I saw sacrificial guinea fowl, goats and white doves. The smells that filled the narrow passages and gangways of the market wafted onto the water, the juicy sugariness of cane, the sickly sweetness of jack fruit, the rotting ripeness of genipap, the palm oil scent of hot buttered carrots. There were shops selling hand drums, agogos and musical bows and others specialising in herbal barks, roots and freshly picked leaves, sacks piled high with cloves, chillies and cinnamon, baskets full of passion fruits, soursops, custard apples and mango, large plates piled high with coconut and cassava cakes, mounds of manioc and cashews, boxes full of charms and candles
I set off again ghosting past the circular fort close to the shore and on towards the lighthouse. The freshly laundered sky gave off a pale vibrant blue that enlarged the horizon. The piercing sun created rainbow scintilla and teichopsia that danced like fireflies on the surface of the water and the sunbeams were now as thick as golden syrup. The crashes of the white-topped rollers against the cliffs and the yelp and howl of the sea seemed to be telling me that I had not been carried here by chance. I had arrived in a place after my own heart.
As I entered the ocean from the bay the water became choppier and changed colour from bottle green to a rich blue. The sea breeze warmed by three days of fine weather slid and puckered, stroking my brow and helping to fend off the malign spectacle of congeries of ugly concrete excrescences that loomed up beyond and behind the statue of Jesus on the Hill.
The lives of the people of this chocolate port were governed by the tides and an unshakeable faith in the divine. Perennial contemplation and an understanding that no ocean wave ever returned to the exact same source had given them a serenity that slowed time. Lazy afternoons were crafted into an art form and there were some days when they barely stirred from their torpor. At other times they awoke brimming with delirious exultation, their heads full of grand schemes. They weaved fantastic unforgettable stories with their rounded phrases, long telling pauses, gentle smiles, calm prose and subtle oratorial gesture, occasionally interrupted by loud outbursts of laughter.
Time was their own. They broke appointments without apology but in return offered their esteem. They were hospitable, musical, joyful, mystical, cordial, somewhat disorganised, talkative, rather evasive and always relaxed and casual. They were a resilient people who knew how to dribble round impediments and avoid unpleasant confrontation, but when necessary they were also capable of extreme violence. They were also shrewdly political, by nature conservative with libertarian leanings and a penchant for obsolete formulas. The women were proud voluptuous and sensuous. Some were stunningly beautiful, with a Levantine sweetness. Shame was unheard of in relation to sexual affairs. If they met someone in the street who was not family, then they were either neighbours or fellow sisters-in-arms. They were disinclined to leave their birthplace because they knew it was the village at the centre of the universe.
The most beautiful views of the bay were the prerogative of those that have been driven to the ocean edge. These vagabonds of the sea were the only ones who felt Africa in their soul and knew that the mother of the waters could lessen their pain and set them free. The sea was their mother and had the power to wash away unhappiness. Many looked forward to death in the confidence that it would be the most beautiful moment of their life.
On the narrow roads that snaked up and round the city I discerned flashes of the journey’s end that I had mapped in my dreams. There were streets full of vendors and military police, many beggars curled up on patches of wasteland like stray overheated mongrels. Collapsed buildings, abandoned houses and garbage dumps were visible on the hillside. Cripples in rags were braving the endless traffic to sell batteries, nuts and fruit. Women on their way to the factories and the big houses were crossing the roads on the narrow pedestrian bridges. On the slope where the slaves had been pilloried I saw what was either the sun’s reflection or a smear of blood on a dark cobble. That evening the sun sunk rapidly below the horizon and the orange rays converged in the sky above the sea.
The people in the chocolate port talked with an effusive openness about the many religious holidays and festivals. On December 5th the image of Santa Barbara would be carried from the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks through the narrow sloping streets decorated with red petals to the central fire station. This day was also dedicated to Iansã, queen of the winds, storms and lightning and patron saint of the firefighters. Then, on New Year’s Day, the effigies of Good Jesus of the Navigators and Our Lady of Conception would be carried on the shoulders of the devout from their churches to be united again at the dock gates. From there the Good Jesus would be taken to the bay and lowered into the sacred gondola to be escorted by the fishermen as far as the lighthouse before coming back to the point on the bay near the fort where the image of Our Lady of Good Journey would be waiting the return. On the second Thursday each January, women dressed in white turbans and laced petticoats carry pails and earthenware jugs of water from the basilica near the elevator through the lower city to the Church of Our Lord of the Good End. To the tumultuous beat of the drums and clapping of hands Oxalá, the Father, cleanses the feet of the Lord, the first a Yoruban deity, the other a saint from Portugal.
February 2nd is the day of Iemanjá, the Great Mother of the five names, who controls the destiny of all those who are chained to the sea. People wait in lines to leave scents, combs, mirrors, cowrie shells, white gardenias and roses, soaps wrapped in transparent paper, purses full of money, dolls, necklaces, rings and amulets at the fisherman’s hut on the promontory by the beach of Rio Vermelho. On the evening tide the wicker baskets are loaded onto the fishing sloops and taken out to sea. Iemanjá, dressed in transparent blue shells, holding her sceptre, waits in the deep waters to receive her gifts. After that come the pre-Lenten carnival parades with the decorated floats blaring popular music flanked by the African blocs and then on my birthday in late September the twin physician saints Cosme and Damião, known also as the Ibexi, are celebrated with a leisurely dinner of okra, shrimp, palm oil, onions and roasted cashews and the distribution of sweets and gifts to the poor children.
It has rained every day this last week but finally the blanket of clouds has grown paler and split to reveal a glimpse of distant milky blue. Although I feel that I already know the drumbeat of this port better than many of those who hide away in its gated condominiums and apartments with sentry boxes, after perusing the map laid out on the table in front of me I have been forced to concede my ignorance. The neighbourhoods with which I have become slightly familiar are minuscule in relation to the totality. There are vast zones of this port that I still need to penetrate, distant ancestors to unearth, palimpsests to peel away and forgotten cemeteries still to haunt.
The chocolate port, like Liverpool was born between slavery and hunger. When Iemanjá’s breasts burst open its bay was created. One night she came out of the sea, full of fury, wearing her long white dress and blue necklace and wielding a copper gun. The following morning storms battered the shoreline, tore down bridges and lifted the rivers over their banks. The canoe men knew that only human sacrifice would appease her fury. Today is her day to rise up, spread her golden hair on the sand, promise the fishermen fair winds, full cargoes and beautiful women. Their wives who wait behind chant ‘Sailor, it’s the fish in the sea that taught me to swim that taught me to swim.’ Iemanjá will enter their bodies and the nostalgic songs of the port will be banished forever. They will return to Aiocá, to the forests of freedom where Nagó is spoken and be reunited with their men who have died at sea.
Sometimes in the fragile light I would look down the tree-lined hill at dilapidated colonial buildings and watch this unsettled and turbulent port, with its last cabarets and carnivals, slowly come into view. I was in two ambiguous confined places at the same time, home and away, joined by the ebb and flow of the Atlantic breakers. The chiaroscuro of the streets and the blinding light that irradiated the squares had reignited those fugitive traces of time when I felt all at sea. I have travelled from a primal place of belonging to one of two accepted equal identities. Here in this other place, incidents keep colliding and short-circuiting, helping me to get closer to an unrecognisable twin dressed in white wearing a string of blue and white beads who keeps my mind company. I feel the influence of saints and spirits opening doors and protecting me from harmful influences. One day I saw what looked like ocean waves up in the sky. The chocolate port has given me a fresh start, created new dreams and a faith in something far greater than myself. Its divine mystery promises incalculable future happiness.
The book that I read as a teenager and which I finally retrieved was Jubiabá by Jorge Amado.
Professor Andrew Lees is a neurologist and is the world’s most highly cited Parkinson’s disease specialist. He is the author of The Hurricane Port: A Social History of Liverpool (2011). His most recent publications, from Notting Hill Editions, include Brazil That Never Was (2020) and Brainspotting: Adventures in Neurology (2022).