This post is part of an ongoing series which seeks to introduce the readership of this blog to the many fascinating aspects of one of Brazil’s best-kept secrets–the city of São Luís.
About an hour–by boat–from downtown São Luís is a little peninsula called Alcântara. Although seemingly unimportant when seen on a map, the history of this “finger” of land is intricately wound up in the history of São Luís itself. Back in the days of “King Cotton”, when the prosperity of Maranhão was wholly dependent on slave labor, Alcântara was the stopping-off point for slaves en-rout from Africa to São Luís. It was in Alcântara that they were disembarked, inspected, “trained”, and sold. And the island of Alcântara grew rich because of this horrific trade.
The end of the slave trade marked the beginning of the end of the prosperity of Alcântara. Today, many once-proud mansions lie in ruins. Others have been preserved as museums. A fort that once projected the power of the Portuguese Crown, and later, the newly-formed Brazilian Empire, is now a soccer field with only the crumbling remains of bulwarks and cannon as testament to its glory days.

The crumbling wall of a mansion, with the skyline of modern São Luís in the distant background.

Mikey sits on one of the semi-interred cannon at the ruins of the fort.

Intricate “azulejos”–ceramic tiles–from two centuries ago. These are so prevalent in colonial construction here that São Luís is known as “City of the Azulejos”.

This avenue was once lined with the mansions of those who profited from the slave trade.

In 1859 word came that Dom Pero II–then emperor of Brazil–would be visiting Alcântara. The peninsula went into a frenzy of preparations. It became known that whoever built the nicest house would receive a special position from the Emperor himself. Two brothers began construction projects. When it became evident that one house (pictured above, with Mikey in the window frame) was much nicer than the other, the owner of the less fancy house killed his brother in a fit of jealousy. Both houses remain in an unfinished state to this day.
Dom Pedro II never visited Alcântara.

The pelourino, symbol of Portuguese power and whipping post for recalcitrant slaves.

The beautiful common square in Alcântara.
Mikey looks out over the ocean towards São Luís.

The ride back to São Luís affords amazing views of the city. Here is the Palácio dos Leões, as seen from the sea.

Alcântara is an obligatory stop for anybody visiting São Luís–especially if you are at all interested in the history of this magnificent city.