Murder & robbery

Remarks of the Laws of Brazil

Thus, my dear mother, have I endeavoured to give you as good an account of the political events which have happened, at Rio during our stay there, according to the best of my powers, and as the revolution was the prominent subject of attraction to me & to every one, I have presented it to your attention first of all, leaving deferred all other matters until I had finished with it. It is now time to take notice of several particulars which had occurred to me as worthy of contributing to your amusement and instruction – as thus.

England is possessed of a code of laws, in which, it has been the anxious desire of the legislators, to settle the rights of man and man to uphold the distinction of meum and tuum – and in short to administer even handed justice in every possible case. Brazil also does not want a good system of laws – and the Theory of them is excellent. But there is not a greater difference between day and night than there exists between the administration of these in England and in Brazil. There you can always hope for impartiality and justice – here bribery, corruption and mal-administration persist and destroy the truly admirable intentions of the written law. The original written laws are found[ed] on the plain and broad basis of eternal justice, but there are so many bye-laws and exceptory clauses, that “might and wealth will always make right.”

Laxity of the laws in respect of Murder

These general statements I have been led to make from one particular point, where the intentions of the laws and the demands of justice are seldom, very seldom, fulfilled – I mean in the case of Murder, a crime of the deepest dye. Not one in a thousand, you may say, ever suffer the penalty of death. The criminal either escapes altogether from human punishment, or after a few months imprisonment is let loose again upon society as much inclined as ever to commit the same crime. No one then will be so foolhardy as to maintain that there is no harm in this impunity, and that it does not lead to any dangerous consequences. Let us suppose that a man knows that stabbing or shooting is not punished with death – will such a person, whenever his anger is excited not seek the readiest and most efficient means of revenging him upon the object of his anger – assuredly he will and does. Hence it is that a foreigner ought to be particularly careful in his intercourse with Portuguese, and be always sure to let them know that he has the mastery of them, for they and their descendants the Brazilians are a set of the most cowardly dogs in existence. It is astonishing for how slight an offence murder is perpetrated – nay sometimes before you are aware that you have done anything to displease, the knife is drawn and has pierced your heart. The story of an occurrence so common, excites no curiosity or interest – it is forgotten almost as soon as told – but thank heaven, we live in a country where such a monstrous event is attended with the execration of all, and where all are pleased when the last sentence of the laws is executed upon the murderer. I since my visits abroad have heard enough to make me shudder but with a few exceptions to the circumstances have been similar. I shall however relate to you one or two instances which occurred to Englishmen, within our knowledge.

Murder of a Miner

One of the first stories which I heard when I landed on our return from Buenos Ayres was a most melancholy. The sufferer was a Cornishman of the name of John Gibbs, and was one of a party who had reached Rio only days before, and in a short time would have gone up the country to work in M.r Oxenford’s mine. The whole party had been lodged by the Agents in a butcher’s house – and there in the evening while the unfortunate Gibbs was quietly smoking his pipe at the door, he received a stab in the right side, which penetrated the liver. He immediately acclaimed ‘I am stabbed,’ and ran up stairs, holding his hand to his side to stop the effusion of the blood, which swelled out of the gaping wound. He had just power to reach the room up stairs, when he dropped down, and in a few minutes was a corpse. This melancholy event completely paralysed his companions, and when they had recovered themselves, the[y] procured the apprehension of several persons. No one however could account for the reason of the murder. The man had been only two days in the Town – was of a remarkably quiet inoffensive disposition – and could not possibly have given offence to any one. One of the men, however, who were apprehended confessed the murder, but was exceedingly sorrow for it, as the object of his vengeance was the butcher himself, and from the darkness, had made the deplorable mistake. Yet confident of impunity, the villain declared that he would still effect his original object, as soon as a short imprisonment should have atoned for the unhappy blunder – and there is little doubt but that he will ultimately succeed, unless the butcher should forestall him. What rendered this murder the more melancholy was that the poor man had brought out a son a boy [sic] from Falmouth, who was thus left to the world without his natural protector and dependant upon strangers.

Another instance of attempted murder which occurred while we were lying in Harbour was that of a M.r Sykes Midshipman on board H.M.Ship Warspite. A Portuguese rascal was horsewhipping a little fellow of a midshipman, who was on horseback ahead of M.r Sykes, and when the latter reproached the Portuguese for thrashing a mere boy, the man in a rage drew his knife, wounded the Midshipman in the fleshy part of the thigh, and also the horse so dreadfully that he died. I could mention several other instances – where the most atrocious unprovoked murders have been perpetrated, and where no punishment has followed. I am persuaded that a little severity would have a most salutary effect – and that the well merited deaths of a score or two rascals would save the lives of hundreds, who would/will otherwise be sacrificed. Why cannot the government of Brazil pursue the same plan which was adopted with such success by Buonoparte in Italy. There assassinations were frequent, because – they were unpunished, but when he came they decreased in a most extraordinary ratio, because it was his plan as soon as he caught the assassin, to execute him without mercy, whatever might be his rank or connections. Such an excellent result would surely be brought about here by a similar process – and it must [be] the earnest desire of every friend to humanity that a stop should be put to such a piece of barbarity.

Robbery in Rio

If thus murder can be committed with impunity, it is almost natural inference that robbery will not be visited with a heavier punishment. The character of Rio is rather notorious – not so much for housebreaking, which is almost unknown as for street robbery. The blame for this even however is hardly to be attached to the natives, but rests almost solely upon those crowds of villains and ragamuffians, who prowl about the palace square and beach by day, and pounce at night upon any unfortunate straggler, who is passing unprotected to his abode. These men are called beach rangers. They are all foreigners and the very scum of all nations. Their subsistence in a great measure depends upon theft and robbery – and they are always on the watch to decoy to their destruction the sailors of their respective nations who have obtained liberty to go on shore and are generally well supplied with money for a spree. Of all men in the world sailors are the least suspicious and most easily gulled. They are frank, free, and generous – and the appearance of a friendship or a fictitious tale will make them your friend at once. While we were at Rio one of the liberty men [was] completely and cleverly robbed. A man dressed like a seaman, and professing to be a country man of his, offered to show him the place, and after taking a glass or two off they set on a spree. Their road was purposely by the seaside – the day was hot – and the stranger proposed a bathe to cool themselves. Jack agreed, and after both unrigging they enjoyed the pleasing amusements of swimming, ducking &.cc After a short time the beach ranger professed sudden illness, and came out, requesting his companion not the mind him but continue the sport. As soon as he got on shore he dressed himself hastily and decamped with all the clothes, which were new, and some dollars in them and copper. Jack meanwhile had been so occupied that he took no notice of what was going on and when he landed, he found that he was minus his clothes, and must of necessity proceed as he was to a place of shelter, vowing all the time the severest vengeance upon the robber who had robbed him.

I saw another instance where the villainy of these desperadoes had been exhibited. Passing with the Master one of those shops which are the resort of seamen, we there saw some of our men – and along with them the poor unfortunate Carpenter of a merchant vessel, with nothing on but a shirt and trowsers. This person was holding forth to the others, and he was easily persuaded to tell his story. It appeared that he had obtained [liberty] to spend the preceding day on shore, and after a pretty good jollification, he, against the advice of his companions, had left the Grog Shop about one in the morning, with an intention of going on board his vessel. When he had come near the beach, four men started from their hiding place, and planting their knives against his breast, swore that they would murder him, if he made the slightest alarm. As the Carpenter valued his life more highly than his property, he promised to keep quiet, while in the meantime the robbers proceeded to strip him of all his new clothes, and left him only what I saw him in. Hardly a night passed without a robbery or murder and still no means were taken to put a stop to these outrages – nay some of them were committed within a few yards, of those very military police, who were paid to preserve the public peace. Heaven grant that our happy country may never be reduced to such a state of [imbeultity?] and misery as this.

Read on … Easter