Keeping in touch

Traces of the past

The DAAD Regional Office Rio de ­Janeiro is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022. Its director, Dr Jochen Hellmann, recalls an event that even dates much further back: the start of German immigration to Brazil around 200 years ago.

Issue 1 | 2022

It is said that one in ten Brazilians has German roots. Nobody knows exactly how many really do, and the line separating individual memories from a past that has become gradually buried is not clearly marked. For many people, the only reminder of long-lost ancestors who once immigrated is their surname, and the author of these lines has not infrequently come across students at Brazilian higher education institutions whose decision to learn German stemmed from the fact that they were called Schmidt or Lehmann. They were keen to trace their origins and learn the mysterious language they had occasionally heard their grandmother speak when children.

Brazil became independent from Portugal in 1822. A sparsely populated country, it was reliant on exporting tropical crops that were produced using the labour of slaves who had been shipped from ­Africa to Brazil under barbarous conditions. The emperor of Brazil and his consort wanted to change this. Their idea was that the country could use free European peasants to farm the farrow land (and soldiers for the understaffed army …). Agents were sent to the fragmented German empire to round up anyone willing to migrate. Consequently, in 1824, the good ship “Anna Louise” arrived from Hamburg with the first 39 German immigrants on board.

Admittedly, Germany supplied only the fourth-largest number of immigrants – Italy, Portugal and Spain being the main three European countries of origin. Nonetheless, German migrants appear to have produced the largest average number of children: over eight per woman in the first generation, while second-generation German immigrant women even had more than ten on average. This was enough to ensure that Germans could long keep to themselves in rural areas (and indeed most families of migrants did work in agriculture).

Their descendants today are perfectly assimilated Brazilians who in some cases are visible in public life, such as Ana Hickmann (TV host), Vera Fischer (actor), Gustavo Kuerten (tennis pro), Gisele Bündchen (model) and Rosa Weber (constitutional court judge), to name but a few. It would be interesting to know if these well-known (not to mention all the many unknown) people of German descent can still speak German. Perhaps the odd one can. But above all they are Brazilians with fading mem­ories of the time when their ancestors set off on their arduous journey from Hamburg to this obscure tropical world and began farming ­initially unfamiliar plots of land. —

Dr. Jochen Hellmann is Director Regional Office Rio de Janeiro at DAAD.