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Contested Waters: Rio de Janeiro’s Public Water Supply and the Social Structuring of the City

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CONTESTEDWATERS (Contested Waters: Rio de Janeiro’s Public Water Supply and the Social Structuring of the City)

Reporting period: 2015-05-01 to 2017-04-30

The action investigated the social and political history of colonial and imperial Rio de Janeiro (16th to 19th centuries) along the lines of its water supply. Although not particularly scarce in its occurrence, due to the special geological conditions, in Rio de Janeiro the water was more contested than in many others. The action helps us to understand how European rule in the overseas empires was constantly and substantially challenged by local circumstances, and it discloses the character of changes in urban society produced by the transfer of the Portuguese court to Rio de Janeiro and later by Brazilian independence. The action also seeked to demonstrate the relevance and applicability of environmental topics to other fields of history, and to encourage a more reflected and socially engaged thinking concerning some of the most pressing problems of today’s world: the property, control and management of water.
The general objective was addressed in the following thematic threads:
2.1. Water, environment and their perception
Even though the general assessment of climate and vegetation changed from paradisiacal to injurious in the second half of the eighteenth century in accordance with Enlightenment ideas, this had no effect on the locals’ appreciation of the city’s drinking water. The criteria to evaluate the quality and quantity of available water were based on works from classical antiquity and remained essentially unchanged from early colonial times to the end of the empire. Not even the population growth and the increasing susceptibility to epidemics in the nineteenth century did induce the authorities to reform the water supply system since they were confident that the city was provided with good and abundant water by virtue of its natural disposition.
2.2. Imperial designs of civilization, good government and urban water supply
The authorities in the New World adhered closely to European concepts of urbanity without taking into account the massive presence of people of indigenous and African origin. The often used term “the people”, whose interests, benefit and welfare were to be met with the urban infrastructure, in general excluded non-whites, let alone slaves. Relying on Ancient Roman traditions of republicanism and expansionism of the civilized world, architectural designs of the aqueducts and fountains were copied from models of the Iberian Peninsula which experienced a revival in the Early Modern Period. With the advent of the Age of Reason, the Pombal reforms and Brazilian independence the official discourse gradually changed, calling for the implementation of allegedly more rational principles of governing and infrastructure.
2.3. The local government and its struggle with the crown
Up until the nineteenth century the city council was composed by the descendants of the early conquerors, who had been endowed with important property in land and disposed of indigenous and later African working force. Its members were primarily driven by personal interests regarding the setting up of the water infrastructure, its financing and the assignment of labor. In the seventeenth century the city council was not very effective in the construction of a working water supply system. In the eighteenth century, however, the funding regime was altered and the position of the royal representatives strengthened which lead to a more consistent acting and eventually the completion of the Carioca aqueduct and several fountains. With the transfer of the Portuguese court to Rio de Janeiro in 1808 the old friction between royal and city government was superseded by the general aim of furbishing the city in accordance with its eminent position as an empire’s capital.
2.4. Slavery, fear and the water distribution
Slaves (and forced laborers) were in charge of the construction of the water infrastructure as well as the distribution of the water from the fountains to the individual households. This did not happen without frictions, it rather consisted in a continuous, though latent struggle between workers and white elites. Although there was a constant anxiety among the white population that a slave uprise might happen, the city of Rio de Janeiro was never hit by one. Instead large numbers of water carrying slaves escaped to the near hinterlands, forming so-called quilombos which gave them shelter. Others were able to buy their freedom with the money they had earned or organized otherwise. Thus, working for the city’s water supply meant an important instrument for slaves to attain control over their own lives.
2.5. Experts as brokers and stakeholders of the water supply
Military engineers, architects and artists did not only pave the way for the implementation of the water supply infrastructure. They also played an active role in the forging of the urban society due to their function as mediators. Different types of experts can be distinguished depending on their national, ethnic and educational backgrounds. The colonial government often appointed officials who were limited in their mediating skills, thus maintaining control over the process of urbanization. Yet even in imperial times experts were often severely hindered in fulfilling their task of implementing their works. This was notably the case with the Afro-Brazilian engineer André Rebouças, who eventually had to succumb to the plans of a rather dubious foreign businessman in the matter of the modernization of the urban water system.
2.6. Water and the spatial structuring of the city
Before the construction of the aqueduct slaves fetched the water from outside the city were they could hardly be watched by their masters. The construction of the conduit and a central fountain made observation easier but created a hub where all the slaves met and possibly might disturb public order by fighting or by uncontrolled exchange of information. More fountains were built at strategic points to disperse the encroachment. In the nineteenth century private tabs deviating water from the main lines started to be installed. Better-off people increasingly moved to the upper parts of the city, where they either had their own wells or easy access to the main lines of the public water supply.
Recent historiography has criticized the traditional approach of understanding Brazilian colonial history as being just a part of Portuguese overseas expansion. Starting from the debate about the concept of Absolutism António Manuel Hespanha initiated a revision which called attention to the existence of local autonomy in the city councils. Yet the focus of this new approach remained restricted to the traditional elites, while the importance of indigenous and African actors in the concert of city life remained concealed. The present action expanded this perspective by studying the interactions between all these groups in one specific field of city development, namely its water supply. By focusing on an aspect of environmental history it thus integrates the investigation of a Brazilian city into the field of Atlantic History. Through its comprehensive approach it includes all three major ethnic groups engaged in the city life. The action hopes to raise awareness about the historical and current social complexity (and injustice) regarding the handling of fundamental issues of communal life like the water supply of a city.