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An Introduction to Recife

June 19, 2009
 Boa Viagem Beach at Low Tide

Boa Viagem Beach at Low Tide

Recife: Tropical Escape

Recife is on the northeast coast of Brazil and enjoys a tropical climate and 12 month summer (by European standards). It is in the state of Pernambuco, where some of the best beaches in Brazil are to be found (according to Brazilians). It is here the Brazilians from Rio and São Paulo holiday in what they consider to be their cold winter months, from May to October, still equivalent to a good summer for most Europeans.

Being just 8° 06′ South of the equator topical means hot, but the humidity is not too bad, and Recife benefits from onshore trade winds that make things more comfortable most of the time. These great weather conditions can be enjoyed along the 190 km coastline of the state and beyond in neighbouring states. Many beaches are protected from the Atlantic ocean by reefs that create natural swimming pools at several points during low tide. It is these reefs that gave the city of Recife its name.

Sea temperatures make you feel you are in a tropical aquarium. Often a mask  and snorkel are all you need to enjoy the abundant ocean life. The region also offers good deep sea diving experiences for the more adventuresome.

In Recife Boa Viagem beach is the place to enjoy these conditions. Close to Recife you will also find many other beaches, each with their unique beauty.

 Antique Map of Recife

Antique Map of Recife

History of Recife

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries Pernambuco state, of which Recife is the capital, was the richest in Brazil, thanks to sugar cane. It remains one of the largest cities on the northeastern coast of Brazil, occupying an important strategic position as one of the closest ports to North America and Europe.

In 1534, the Portuguese settled in the coastal area of Pernambuco to the north of Recife. To guarantee the possession of the new lands, the Portuguese king divided Brazil in several strips, called capitaincies, and donated each one to rich Portuguese entrepreneurs, who would have the job of developing the colony, with their own resources, on behalf of the king.

The Capitaincy of Pernambuco was assigned to Duarte Coelho Pereira, who, in 1534, founded the villages of Igaracu and Olinda. The capitaincy prospered, exploring first the pau-brazil (brazilwood, used to dye fabrics), then the sugar cane (white sugar was much appreciated in Europe, where beet sugar was more common). At this time Olinda was the capital, and Recife was just a small village with a port, from which commodities were exported.

Maurice of Nassau

Maurice of Nassau

Not until 1637, with the Dutch invasion under Prince Maurice of Nassau, was Recife founded, largely to exploit the sugar trade potential. They conducted an urbanization plan, defined a layout for the streets, built several bridges and brought architects, artists and engineers from Holland to erect dykes to drain the marshes and to build the city.

The Dutch were expelled in 1654, leaving a much (physically and intellectually) improved Recife behind. Recife kept growing, thanks to the port. The businesses generated by it turned Recife into a major trading center (of sugar cane and slaves mostly, and later of cotton).

During the 19th century, Recife consolidated the position of a regional commerce center; people from several states came to sell their products and the port grew in importance. The production of cotton as an export item became so central it was called White Gold (Ouro Branco).

After the collapse of the sugar and cotton markets, Recife fell into a decline from which it has never fully recovered, but evidence of the grand old days still exists in its architecture, people, and rich cultural heritage. Prosperity is also returning as the economy diversifies. Currently the economic growth is far greater than in Brazil as a whole. The use of ethanol is also likely to help a great deal.

Slaves Cutting Sugar Cane

Slaves Cutting Sugar Cane

Brazil and Slavery

Brazil formally abolished the institution of slavery in 1888, the last nation in the western hemisphere to do so. Almost 40% of all Africans seized and enslaved were sent to Brazil.


The scale and duration of slavery in Brazil meant African culture became an integral part of the country’s culture and identity, especially in Rio and the northeastern provinces. Sugar plantations in the Northeast sucked in slave labour; the first Africans landed in the region in 1538, a year after the city of Olinda was founded in Pernambuco province.


Although Salvador in Bahia is the region where the African culture is most apparent, there is still plenty of evidence of it in most major cities, especially in the Northeast and, unfortunately, in most favellas (shantytowns) of the country. The African influence is often expressed in a positive way during carnival, but the legacy of slavery lives on and will continue to do so as long as Brazil´s extreme inequality of wealth distribution persists.

Oldest Synagogue in the Americas

Oldest Synagogue in the AmericaJews in s

Jews in RecifeThe History of the Jews in Recife is an interesting one. The first synagogue in Latin America was built here and from the very beginning, Duarte Coelho, the first Portuguese ruler, was friend to many New Christians, as descendants of converted Jews were known. These New Christians ran about half of Brazil´s sugar mills.

More than half the Jewish community were secret Jews supporting at least ten clandestine synagogues. Small groups met in private homes for Shabbat, while larger groups gathered in secret chapels on the sugar plantations.

The Inquisition came to northeastern Brazil in 1591, and many of the colony´s secret Jews were sent to Lisbon for trial. But the community experienced a revival after the Dutch captured Pernambuco in 1630. Jews came into the open, and by 1641 the first synagogue in the Americas was built. Kahal Zur Israel was constructed in Rua dos Judeus (Street of the Jews), now known as Rua Bom Jesus. Despite anti-Jewish agitation from Dutch Calvanists and Portuguese Catholics, the ruler of Dutch Recife, Maurice of Nassau, saw to it that Jewish rights were upheld. 

The city has a very rich and diverse cultural heritage still clearly evident in its architecture, people, music, carnival and other cultural traditions.

Much of the history of Brazil can be explored by taking a Tours recommended by Recife Guide. We also recommend guided tours of the historic city of Olinda and others to Porto de Galinhas.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 20, 2009 09:37

    I enjoyed hearing about Recife; putting together the unique bits of history reminds visitors that the city has cosmopolitan polish that people forget about. And I had no idea the Inquisition had an effect in the New World. What a fascinating detail.

    Who would have thought that at the time of the Pilgrims, new synagogues were being built there?

  2. December 19, 2009 17:04

    Thanks for this excellent post! I really like your type of writing.

  3. paulbarnett permalink*
    December 19, 2009 17:57

    Thanks for your comment. Much appreciated. I hope you will enjoy the work I am currently doing to upgrade the information, and presentation of it, on:

    Fernando de Noronha
    Olinda
    Porto de Galinhas

    The changes will be made in the order listed.

    Soon we will also be adding details of many more themed tours such as History and Culture tours focused on the history and influence of the sugar industry on Brazil´s cultural development, especially it´s afro-brazilian culture. Also: the Official Jewish tours, in association with the Oldest synagogue in the Americas; the Clarice Lispector tour (Brazil´s most important female writer of the 20th Cebtury), and the Mangue Beat Music Tour, telling the story of a music movement that changed the mood of the region and influenced that of the country.

    All of this is just the start. To know Brazil is to love it!

    Best Regards
    Paul

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