Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Pilgrims of the Southern Cross

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Pilgrims of the Southern Cross

Article excerpt

Pilgrims of the Southern Cross

IN 1817, in the villages of the undulating countrysideknown as the Swiss plateau, barking dogs and tolling funeral bells provided a grim accompaniment to disease, harvest failures and food shortages. The villagers were beginning to experience the crises of industrial society. Some of these reputedly sedentary people decided to try to find a way out of adversity overseas, in places which were coloured green on the map, and where lettuce was said to grow five times a year.

So the Swiss went to seek their fortune elsewhere. Theybecame hotel managers in Manila, Hong Kong and Singapore; cattle ranchers in Argentina; farmers in Quebec; wine growers on the Santa Monica hills in California, or in the Ukraine. Wine cares little for ideologies.

A century and a half ago, the sound of therecruiting drum brought a response from impoverished small farmers, debtors dependent upon their village, the homeless without civic status, who eked out a living as basket weavers and had virtually ceased to be peasants. Was this a beggars' transhumance? Far from it, for among those who "left for good" were aristocrats dreaming of new domains over which they would rule by the will of God, merchants who foresaw the prospects of import-export trade and of investment in the New World.

For all these people, the opportunity "to livebetter elsewhere" was a powerful incentive to set out across the world, through storms and catastrophes, to shores where today their descendants lead the lives of peaceful Brazilian citizens with exotic names: Thurler, Curty, Boechat, Dafflon, Simon, Jordan, Ansermet... Did they find a Promised Land? Alas, it turned out to be as harsh as the hills of the home they had left behind them. The migration southwards was a grim, often tragic experience. Embarking in pathetic craft, ill-prepared for life at sea, most of them in precarious health, the voyagers to the South Atlantic paid a heavy price. Out of 2,006 candidates for happiness, 389 died before reaching their goa. Many brief nocturnal funerals were held on board the Urania, the Daphne, the Elisabeth-Marie and the Heureux-Voyage. And on the stony earth tracks leading out of Rio de Janeiro into the green vault of the subtropical forest, death also stalked the immigrants' wagons.

At the end of the exodus the immigrants builttowns and villages with names like Nova Friburgo, Cantagallo and Duas Barras. Their Eldorado bore shades of poverty and failure. There was no gold in the rivers they found, only mud. The pilgrims of the Southern Cross were back with their village quarrels, their domestic feuds, but at the same time they hoped for a rebirth, a new flowering.

In 1920 the cartographers wrote on their maps:Nova Friburgo--22[deg.] 16' 42" latitude South, 42[deg.] 31' 54" longitude; altitude 847 metres. A Swiss historian, Martin Nicoulin, has given a fully detailed description of this fabulous human adventure in his book La genese de Nova Friburgo ("The Genesis of Nova Friburgo").

About ten years ago, a group of people fromthe Swiss canton of Fribourg went in search of the descendants of their former compatriots. I was fortunate enough to go with them. We left a European autumn and found a southern summer. A fine but steady rain was falling over Rio, as it does in the Swiss Jura between the seasons. …

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