São Luís do Maranhão

São Luís do Maranhão (World Heritage)

The city, founded by the French in 1612, is located on an island in the Bay of São Maranhão. The old town is considered a particularly beautiful example of a Portuguese colonial city. The house facades decorated with Portuguese tiles (azulejos) are typical.

São Luís do Maranhão: facts

Official title: Historic city center of São Luís do Maranhão
Cultural monument: today’s capital of the state of Maranhão, including with the Palácio dos Leões (Lion Palace), built on the foundations of Fort Saint Louis, the Catedral da Sé, the Cafua das Mercês, the old slave market, together with the Museu do Negro
Continent: America
Country: Brazil, Maranhão
Location: São Luís, southeast of Belém, south of Alcântara
Appointment: 1997
Meaning: an outstanding example of a Portuguese colonial city from the 17th century.

São Luís do Maranhão: history

1494 by the treaty of Tordesillas division of the New World into Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence
1500 Discovery of Terra da Vera Cruz, today’s Brazil, by the Portuguese Pedro Alvares Cabral
1538 Beginning of the slavery to the New World
1612 Founding of the city by the French
1615 Expulsion of the French by the Portuguese
1624 Dutch invasion of parts of what is now Brazil
1636 Johann Moritz von Nassau (1604-79) becomes Governor General of the Dutch possessions in South America
1641-44 São Luís in Dutch hands
1763 Construction of the cathedral
1771 For a transfer fee of 8 million guilders, the Dutch waived their properties in South America
1776 Construction of the Lion Palace (Palácio dos Leões)
1888 Abolition of Slavery in Brazil

Legacy of the slaves and capital of Brazilian reggae

During an evening stroll through the picturesque, but almost deserted-looking maze of alleys, you suddenly come across spontaneously organized festivals, eagerly rehearsing samba schools and sect members who have fallen into euphoria and ecstasy. Somewhere there is always someone playing a flute or saxophone in the pleasantly warm tropical air. With its scent of exotic spices, dried crabs and sugar cane schnapps, the Praia Grande market district is reminiscent of old Lisbon – it is no coincidence that São Luís is the most important Latin American ensemble of bourgeois Portuguese architecture. In the eighties, angry artists and intellectuals started their “revival project” in the rotting alleys by the water, with which they wanted to prevent that monuments worth preserving are falling into irreparable ruins and that the city and region are culturally incapacitated – a consequence of the throwaway culture that is breaking in from the “progressive” south, especially via television. And the little bunch of upright people was strikingly successful.

The reopened Arthur Azevedo Theater from 1817, probably the oldest in the tropical country, recalls the times when São Luís was in all seriousness a national cultural metropolis and was even called “Brazilian Athens” because of its poets and thinkers. Instead of a “colonial robe”, the Catedral da Sé, which has been rebuilt several times, is now wearing its “neoclassical dress”. Azulejos, those blue painted Portuguese tiles, decorate the multi-storey houses of Portuguese traders who once lived here. On some facades there are French tiles in shades of pink, on others Dutch tiles in yellow – memories of brief episodes of colonial history: once thousands of Tupinambà Indians had to face the French King Louis XIII. Swear allegiance and go into battle for him against advancing Portuguese soldiers. Nevertheless, Fort Saint Louis fell on the hill where the governor’s beautiful neoclassical “Lion Palace” stands today. The invading Dutch were also unlucky, but also left traces, including on faces.

The plain white painted slave market Cafua das Mercês, the only one in the country to have survived, is depressing. Instead of windows, it has narrow slits – behind them human goods from Africa crouched in the dark. The cultural influence of these slaves can be felt in the carnival and other folk festivals – only in São Luís are drum rhythms from Benin and Ghana, highly erotic dances such as the Tambor da Crioula or the Bambae de Caixa kept alive. What is striking is the multitude of African cults and rites that “Maes de Santo” celebrate in certain houses in the old town. The Convento das Mercês had Josè Sarney, former president and poet, and also the richest and most powerful man in the Maranhão state, restored and erected a tomb for himself there. In the evenings, crowds of lovers visit the romantic Lago dos Amores in front of the baroque Igreja dos Remedios. Beggar women, sometimes over a dozen, wait at the portal of the Igreja do Carmo on the always lively, incredibly loud Praça de João Lisboa. Staircases and hidden alleys, the so-called Becos, such as the Beco da Baronesa, or the less elegant Beco da Bosta, also known as “Kuhfladengasse”, lead into the lower town. With this name she reminds us that through her slaves once dragged their masters’ excrement in baskets to the sea to dispose of there.

According to programingplease, music-obsessed Brazilians think of São Luís as the smoky voice of Sambastar Alcione, whose hometown has become the national reggae capital. The predominantly young »Regueiros« keep in close contact with the idols of Jamaica, but dance their rhythms in a typically Brazilian way – in pairs, tightly embraced, skin to skin.

São Luís do Maranhão