By Chris Hieatt, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL Gamboa, along with Santo Cristo and Saúde, is one of the oldest boroughs of Rio. It was originally settled by the aristocracy, due to the attractive position on the shores of Guanabara Bay, but lost its glamour when the docks were built. Along with this history, the area also hosts The English Cemetery at Gamboa, one of the oldest British institutions in Rio.
In 1809 Dom João VI ceded to the British two and a half acres of farmland along the shore of the bay. Lord Strangford, British Ambassador to the Emperor’s court, founded the cemetery, and the first burial took place in 1811.
The cemetery administration (the British Burial Fund) makes a point of obeying the local law, which forbids the trading of graves. In 2011 a family took the BBF to court in an attempt to sell a grave, and lost.
This is a serious issue, as emphasized by an August 2011 article in O Globo with the headline “Six feet under costs more than a view of the sea”, followed by “Price per square meter of graves, the commerce of which is forbidden, can reach double that of deluxe real estate on the beach-front”.
It goes on to describe the buying and selling of graves that takes place in Rio’s public cemeteries, and quotes prices in Caju of from R$40,000 to R$150,000 for a grave.
Not so in the “Cemitério dos Inglezes” – as the sign says on the gate to this beautiful private cemetery in the borough of Gamboa. The buying of a plot and the building of a grave is not cheap, but nothing like the prices quoted above.
Maria Graham, artist and writer, said of the Gamboa cemetery: “One of the most pleasant places I have ever seen, with wonderful views in every direction, and some magnificent trees…”
It is still a beautiful place, though the views are now a mixture of “Samba City” and “favela”. The cemetery is listed under the city’s Cultural Heritage as an historic site.
The cemetery nestles on the side of the hill known as the Morro da Providência, which is otherwise occupied by the Favela da Providência, the first favela in Rio. It was originally occupied by soldiers returning from the Canudos war (1893-1897), who were allowed to camp there as they had nowhere else to go.
The word ‘favela’ was also coined by these settlers, in memory of a hill they defended in Bahia, where a certain plant called ‘Favela’ (Cnidoscolus quercifolius) grew.
The cemetery is reached either from the Avenida Rodrigues Alves, along the docks, or through the Gamboa tunnel – the first urban tunnel in Rio – from the Avenida Presidente Vargas and the Central railway station. The district is about to take a leap into the future, with the city’s plans for revitalization of Rio’s docks and surrounding area.
Chris Hieatt has been in Brazil for 57 years, works as a translator/narrator (since retiring) and is a long-time member of The British & Commonwealth Society of Rio de Janeiro and Contributing Editor of The Umbrella Magazine.