By Oliver Bazely, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – On Thursday 6th July 1922, the Republican government of Brazil had heard the army was on the verge of revolt, and pre-emptively shut several army bases. One army base, Forte de Copacabana, remained in the hands of the revolutionaries, and the government told the men surrender or die.
After letting the enlisted men leave, the remaining eighteen Lieutenants, each carrying a piece of the Brazilian flag, left their stronghold at the Copacabana Fort, and marched towards Catete Palace.
They were intent on making their demands for social and political reform heard by the Executive Power, at any cost. Blocking their path were 3,000 Republican troops. By the end of the day, only two Lieutenants were left standing.
The Old Republic, which was dominated by members of the old coffee growing families, congratulated themselves on having quelled the rebellion. But the legend of the Lieutenants did not fade into history, and when Getulio Vargas finally overthrew the Old Republic in 1930, the ‘revolt of the eighteen’ was cited as a landmark event.
For those drifting tourists that do reach the end of Copacabana beach, it is possible to find out more about the revolt, and other aspects of Rio’s military history by visiting the Forte de Copacabana. After paying the R$4 fee, visitors will have access to a museum, as well as some large mobile and fixed artillery pieces.
One the seaward side of the fort, visitors can enter the main defensive structure, built in the early 20th century. The primary weapon is a huge, double-barreled 305mm cannon, that was capable of firing a 445kg shell over 20km, although it has now been decommissioned. There is also a smaller, 190mm cannon that continues to function.
Neither weapon has seen much action, although the guide tells stories of an unsuspecting Nazi ship that was successfully sunk during the Second World War. The other exhibits include original furniture, workshops and rooms full of motors that powered the massive turret.
For the less military-minded, there are two cafes that offer peaceful views back towards Copacabana. One of these is a scaled-down Confeitaria Colombo, which serves reasonable lunches, but, more importantly, the same delicious pastries available in the main downtown restaurant. For some, the thought of a Pastel de Belem with sea view is worth the R$4 fee alone.
In addition to the coastal defenses, the fort includes a small military museum, where visitors can learn about the history of the military in Brazil. The display shows colonial explorers, clad in thick leather armor that must have been hellishly hot in the Brazilian summer. There are further uniforms from Brazil’s history, such as those of the dashing Imperial officers and their ornate medals.
There is a small display about the Brazilian expeditionary force, which sent more than 25,000 Brazilians to Europe during the Second World War. Brazilian troops fought alongside the allies as part of the Italian Campaign. Although not reflected in the underwhelming exhibit, over 900 Brazilians died in the war, with infantry recording several victories in battles in the Po valley.
Finally, tucked away in a dark room on one side of a staircase, are portraits of the various presidents of the military dictatorship. These stern looking men were responsible for the economic miracle of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, but also committed some heinous crimes against leftist subversives, leaving a dark stain on the national memory.
As you leave the museum, and head back out onto Copacabana beach, the laid-back Carioca attitude may seem less of a vice, and more of a finely-tuned adaptation to a tumultuous past.