18940220 See an image of this letter, http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/fbpc-xr64


Maranhão,                    20th/                                 Feby. 1894


My dear Mother,

One letter I left in Pernambuco to be posted by Roy. Mail Stmr. to you; another written in pencil, went on with the “Olinda” to Pará, meant to catch the mail there for Lisbon. I hope you got them both. It is now almost time to send you my best wishes for many happy returns of your birthday, as there will scarcely be another opportunity after this of sending a letter in time for the 17th March[1]. I hope this birthday will find you strong & well & jolly, & every succeeding one more so.

Praça Benedito Leite square in the historic center of São Luís, Maranhão. 1908 photograph by Gaudêncio Rodrigues da Cunha.
Praça Benedito Leite square in the historic center of São Luís, Maranhão. 1908 photograph by Gaudêncio Rodrigues da Cunha.

I did not give any address here so I do not expect letters before arriving at Pará. There is not much to write about from this place. It is as dull as Pernambuco is lively. There are no English people except a few factory managers, head-weavers, & the like, who have come out to superintend the fitting-up of various mills & factories & to teach the natives the practical work. For last year a craze took possession of the inhabitants of Maranhão for organizing limited companies to build factories for making everything under the sun; – among those that are completed are the concerns for producing jute bags, brown cottons, bleached cottons, shot, boots & shoes, clothes & shirts, stockings, & several other things I have forgotten. One & all these companies spent about three times as much money in their buildings & machinery as they had calculated beforehand, & now they have had to go borrowing money on mortgage & by various other means so as not to let their pet schemes fall to the ground.

The consequence is that there is very little money left in the town. The merchants owe in Europe & are being dunned by their creditors who must just have “paciencia”. Half of the circulation consists of debentures issued by the various companies, a most extraordinary condition of things. Of course the custom-house & government offices do not accept such currency, but the merchants are obliged to for there is so little cash to be had. I have seen these so-called “debentures” for various values down to 10 mil.reis, say 8/-, each, bearing interest at 10% & amortization of 20% yearly.

I don’t know if these “debentures” were subscribed for in the usual way. I expect they were merely launched into circulation, with the 10% interest as a bribe; but the financing going on at present in Brazil, national & commercial, beats cockfighting.

It is very doubtful whether many of these concerns will ultimately pay, in spite of the very high duties, monopolies, etc., by which they are protected. They are limited companies, – promoted by people who knew nothing whatever about what they were undertaking, – they have had to buy their experience, they have made lots of mistakes, & the factories have cost three times what they ought to have cost. Then there is the difficulty of training native operatives, &, in fact, of inducing them to work at all. If it is a wet morning half of them do not turn up, & the machinery is idle. But these difficulties might all be conquered if there were only one good businessman, as we understand the word, at the head of each concern, but these people have no more idea of business out of their own little grooves, than the man in the moon.

The wet season has begun here & it has rained heavily for the greater part of the last week. But the town is hilly & the streets mostly well paved so it soon dries under foot, but one’s clothes feel damp & everything of leather becomes blue-moulded. Fortunately this little hotel if very clean & comfortable. It is run by two Frenchmen who themselves superintend the cooking so we have decent food. The shower-bath is excellent, my room is large & fresh, & there is a hammock to swing in if I don’t feel inclined to go to bed. Here when the houses are built, hooks are fixed in the walls of all the rooms for slinging hammocks. In the country everyone uses them. In town the lower classes have hammocks only & the well-to-do people always have them in addition to beds in the rooms.

The other evening I dined on the English cable-ship “Norseman” which was in the port. I made the acquaintance of Mr Cummins, electrical expert & he took me on board & showed me the ship, with the appliances for laying cables, testing them, finding out when they are broken, where the break is, & so on, – all very interesting.[2]

Cable Ship Norseman, built 1893.
Cable Ship Norseman, built 1893.

This ship does duty between B. Aires & Pará & mends the cable on an average a dozen times a year. The most frequent cause of the cable breaking is friction on a sharp rock, but sometimes in or near ports vessels dragging their anchors foul the cable.

The “Norseman” has now gone to pick up the two ends of the cable where it is broken between this place & Ceará, about sixty miles from this end, as they have calculated by means of their “resistance” instruments, & having picked them up, to splice them & drop them again.

Cane-chairs are very destructive on certain garments. I have had to go to the tailor here to get a new “garment”, & to have armour plating put inside the old one, the effect of which latter, showing sky-blue through grey, like a rift in rain-clouds, is iligant intoirely.

In further encouragement of native industry I took my “trees” to the boot-factory & ordered a pair of boots. I had to explain what I wanted to six men & one girl, successively, who seemed never to have seen anything in their lives so fine & large as my foot. I am in fear & trembling that they will make the boots pointed & turned up at the toes, as the natives like them

thus! {a small sketch of the turned-up boot shape is inserted into the letter here. See image below.}


Sketch by JMcC within the letter of shoes with their toes turned up.
Sketch by JMcC within the letter of shoes with their toes turned up.

I go to Pará next week I hope, & then to the West Indies. Ho!

Best love to all.


  1. Her 58th birthday.
  2. This was probably the second Cable Ship to have the name Norseman. It was built in 1893 by Ramage and Ferguson, Leith, for the Western and Brazilian Telegraph Company. If it was indeed this new ship, Mr Cummins would have been excited to show it off. https://atlantic-cable.com/Cableships/Norseman(2)/index.htm


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John McCaldin Loewenthal: Letters Home from a Victorian Commercial Traveller, 1889 - 1895 Copyright © 2022 by Michelle Fink, Robert Boyd, Sarah Watkinson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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