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Bananal started In 1783, when a small chapel was erected in the rough lands along the Bananal River in the old Captaincy of São Paulo. It became one of the richest and most influential cities of the region during the 19th century “coffee cycle”.
The valley of the Paraíba River has always been one of the main travel routes in Colonial Brazil, for the transport of gold and diamonds from the mines in Minas Gerais to the port town of Paraty, from where everything was shipped to Rio de Janeiro and further to Portugal. Towards the end of the 17th century, small villages emerged all along this gold and diamond route, providing lodging for travelers and drovers.
In 1708, a new route, that connected the mines in Minas Gerais directly to Rio de Janeiro, was opened. This new road (known as “caminho novo”) was not only less precarious, but also reduced the travel time to Rio de Janeiro from three months, to only one month. Because of the opening of this new road, the small villages in the Paraíba Valley lost their reason of existence and almost disappeared, but thanks to the cattle trade, coming from Rio Grande do Sul, to supply the mining region, the valley again became an obligatory passage.
In 1770, the road connecting Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo was completed, and to populate the region along this road, Sesmarias (grants) were given to people who were engaged in the construction of the road. This is how a man called Joao Barbosa Camargo and his wife, became the owners of the Sesmaria of the Bananal River, and the city of Bananal was born.
During the first decades, the agricultural activity in the region was predominantly subsistence farming (Growth of crops only for consumption by the farm family), but the situation started to change with the arrival of the coffee culture, with its much bigger farms, fuelled by slave labor.The name Bananal is believed to be derived from the indigenous word “Banani” which means “with lots of curves” referring to how the Bananal River makes its way across the landscape. Another explanation of the name refers to the many banana plantations that existed in the region.
The profits from the coffee trade were used to buy more slaves and expand the farms up to the point that the fazenda homes had become large estates surrounded by workshops, senzala’s (slave quarters) and a coffee terrace (large open space to dry the coffee).
Around 1840, Bananal had become the second largest coffee producer in the province of São Paulo and a lot of the richest farmers of the Paraíba valley were concentrated in the region around the city. These farmers began to refine their way of life and the fazenda’s main houses were transformed into palaces, decorated with imported furniture and frescoes of European painters on the walls. They also started to use slaves in domestic service.
The “coffee barons” of Bananal formed the elite of the Empire, and with their money deposited in banks in London, they extended loans to the emperor to finance the war in Paraguay. They also financed the construction of a railway that passed through most of the fazendas and went all the way to Barra Mansa in the Province of Rio de Janeiro.Since 1822, Brazil was no longer a colony of Portugal, and the influence of the presence of the emperor in Rio de Janeiro made that the farmers, who were also given noble titles, started to adopt the way of life of the French court. They erected luxurious houses in the city to spend time during festivities or between harvests. At one point, Bananal even had two orchestras, consisting of slaves, specialized in European opera music.
For some time, the city had its own currency, and one of the most powerful landowners in the city, Vallim Manoel de Aguiar, had when he died in 1878, only in public debt bonds, almost 1% of all paper money issued in Brazil.
But the prosperity based on the “green gold” didn’t last very long. Towards the end of the 19th century, the land began to show signs of exhaustion and the opening of another railway (Santos-Jundiaí) facilitated the flow of products from further inland to the coast, allowing the expansion of coffee plantations in western Sao Paulo.
In the 1950’s, the region suffered yet another setback: the construction of the “Via Dutra” highway from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. This new highway replaced and deactivated the old “Estrada dos tropeiros” passing through Bananal, Arreias, Silveiras and São José do Barreiro, which became almost like ghost towns. (According to the writer Monteiro Lobato, who lived in Areias and witnessed the decline of the region)The final blow came with the abolition of slavery in 1888. The children of the landowners could not keep the wealth inherited from their parents and pastures for cattle took the place of coffee. The power, influence and wealth of the families of Bananal and the rest of the valley, was forever lost and all that remains are memories of this glorious period.
Today, Bananal is becoming more and more a touristic hotspot, attracting tourists from all over the world, not only to learn about its history, whose testimonies are the beautiful townhouses in the city and the many preserved and restored coffee farms in the region, but also to enjoy the natural beauty of the Serra da Bocaina (Bocaina mountains), holding the largest Atlantic rainforest reserve of Brazil.