The secrets of Niterói’s foreign cemetery – 09/19/2023 – Science

The secrets of Niterói’s foreign cemetery – 09/19/2023 – Science

Cimetiere. Cemetery. Friedhof. Cemetery. Kirkegård. Cimitero. Cemetery. French, English, German, Spanish, Danish, Italian and Portuguese sailors and travelers, when they disembarked in Rio de Janeiro around 150 years ago, certainly did not want to have such a place as their destination.

But, as an archaeological study that has been carried out by researchers in Niterói proves, this was practically the only experience on national soil reserved for hundreds of foreigners, mainly Europeans, who arrived in Brazil in the second half of the 19th century.

Interestingly, it was called by a name that had nothing foreign about it: Jurujuba, borrowed from the cove where the cemetery was located. The word is derived from the Tupi expression “ajuru juba”, which means “yellow parrots”, as indigenous people of the region ended up referring to the French who arrived there in the 18th century — because they were blond and talkative.

On January 1, 1851, the then president of the Public Hygiene Board, Francisco de Paula Cândido (1805-1864) ordered a lazaretto to be installed at the site, with an initial capacity to house 30 people. Lazareto is a place designed to keep people with a contagious disease, or any suspicion of the same, in quarantine.

It was a measure taken by the Empire, under Pedro II (1825-1891), to prevent diseases such as smallpox, yellow fever, typhus and tuberculosis from spreading throughout the region. This lazaretto was opened and, in the event of the arrival of any symptomatic vessel in the port of Rio, the sailor or traveler in question was quickly taken to quarantine.

“But what was created in those surroundings as a lazaretto, to welcome people who arrived by sea with infectious diseases, in 1856 became a hospital, the Hospital Marítimo Santa Isabel”, historian Victor Andrade de Melo tells BBC News Brasil, professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

Melo is one of the researchers who, hired by the Brazilian Archeology Institute (IAB), are dedicated to studying this area.

But we were talking about the cemetery. These were very precarious times for the treatment of infectious diseases, in that 19th century without antibiotics and other contemporary medicines. Therefore, going to the Maritime Hospital meant, in a large proportion of cases, joining death row.

“In this lazaretto, later hospital, many people died. Because they were infectious diseases, epidemics, and there were still no major advances in medicine to treat. As there were a lot of people, many foreign seafarers who came to transit goods by sea to the Brazil, people who arrived without family, it was unthinkable to take the body back [ao país de origem]”, contextualizes Melo.

Niterói only opened its first public cemetery in 1856, Maruí. “On the other side of the city”, says the historian. “Before, whenever someone died of an infectious disease in the lazaretto, they had to cross Guanabara Bay to bury them in the Caju Cemetery, in Rio de Janeiro. This began to become difficult, a nuisance for the population, who thought it was a risk of having bodies with infectious diseases transported across the bay.”

According to historian and archaeologist André Leonardo Chevitarese, a professor at UFRJ who took over the coordination of this IAB research project, it is estimated that from the 1850s to the end of the 1870s, 1,000 to 2,000 foreigners were killed. after hospitalizations in this lazaretto or in the hospital that followed it.

“We are talking about travelers who arrived here in Rio not necessarily because they dropped their anchors here. They could be coming to stay or passing through, going to another destination”, says Chevitarese to BBC News Brasil.

In 1858, it was decided to open a cemetery next to the Santa Isabel Maritime Hospital. The Jurujuba Cemetery was born, with the vocation of being the last home for sailors and foreign travelers.

“In most cases, Europeans, mainly English and French travelers, but also Germans, Swedes, Poles, Italians, Portuguese, Spanish”, says the historian. “They were sick with measles, typhus… Whatever the disease, the health inspectorate ordered the boat to come here.”

This is precisely the ground that researchers are turning over. And in addition to bones, they are finding other elements – or lack thereof – that help tell the story of the place.

Jurujuba Chronology

Exactly where the lazaretto was, today there is a school, the Colégio Estadual Matemático Joaquim Gomes de Sousa. When Santa Isabel Hospital closed its doors at the beginning of the 20th century, a shelter began to operate at the address for children who needed to isolate themselves from family members with tuberculosis. Later, the place was transformed into a nursing school. Then, a school for underprivileged children.

Throughout all this time, the nickname remained: Casa da Princesa. The reference is to Isabel (1846-1921), the eldest daughter of Pedro 2º. Especially because the old hospital was called Santa Isabel also with the idea of ​​revering her.

“These facilities have been renovated [ao longo do tempo] but they are there around the cemetery”, points out Melo.

The cemetery itself had another trajectory. “It operated until 1898, but since the 1880s it was already known that it was not enough. The land was not very suitable for burials, it was very close to the sea, the sea was constantly invading, flooding the region”, reports the historian.

In 1898, another cemetery was opened, that of São Francisco Xavier, which still exists today. “And the one in Jurujuba was in the process of being deactivated, it was being deactivated over time”, he adds.

“Some structures were transferred to the new one and a public call was made for families to collect the remains [de seus parentes] and take it to Saint Francis Xavier.”

Evidently no one worried about the foreigners buried there, an ocean away from their families.

“From 1910 onwards, we no longer heard about this cemetery. Those who collected the bodies collected them, those who didn’t collected them stayed there. And everything was abandoned, especially because there were a series of concerns regarding soil contamination, since the space was mostly used to bury people who were victims of infectious diseases”, says Melo.

In the 1950s, the land was ceded to the Association of Public Servants of the State of Rio de Janeiro. The objective was for them to build a hospital there.

“It took five years of construction before the hospital was opened. It is possible that in this process they found some evidence of the old cemetery, such as bones and tombstones, but in those years of 1950 the concern with archeology in Brazil was still very early”, laments Melo. “Then they must not have been careful, they left it alone, they threw it away.”

The hospital operated until the 2000s, when the city of Niterói took control of the address and transformed it into the Alzira Reis Municipal Maternity.

Last year, work for extensive renovation and expansion began. When the land was opened for construction, bones were found. That’s when the archaeologists and historians were hired: now we need to verify this whole story.

In cases like this, legislation determines that archaeological prospecting work be carried out. The Municipal Housing, Urbanization and Sanitation Company (Emusa) of Niterói then commissioned the Institute of Brazilian Archeology (IAB) to carry out the work. All with authorization from the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute (Iphan).

“It was already known that there had been a cemetery there, but no one knew exactly where it was and how it worked. My job was to look for evidence in newspapers and documents, everything there was about the cemetery, to compare it with what we found and found in the excavations”, explains Melo.

The archaeological work was divided into three phases. The first, in the months of April and May. The second, from July to September. And a third that should still occur in the coming months.


All the material found is being taken for laboratory analysis, which may reveal more details about the history of the old hospital and the cemetery.

“The curation of the collected collections is still in its infancy and only confirms the function and antiquity of the site, a 19th century cemetery, but we hope that the findings will bring relevant results, especially for the identification of the diseases that led to the death of so many people” , comments archaeologist Josefa Jandira Neto Ferreira Dias, vice-president of the IAB, in the report.

“Expectations have already been partially met, as with the discovery of the remaining graves, the existence of the late 19th century cemetery was confirmed”, says archaeologist Cassandra Ribeiro, one of those working on the excavations, to BBC News Brasil.

In conversation with the reporter, archaeologist and historian Lydia de Carvalho noticed a curiosity: the lack of ornaments normally found in cemeteries.

“At the beginning of the research, we were hoping to find signs that referred to the sacred, like the cross, things like that. But we didn’t find them,” she says. “We ended up finding fragments of very common elements that give us relevant information. There is great analytical potential there.”

Research is still in its infancy. But perhaps this lack of ornaments and symbols typical of an environment like this is explained precisely by the condition of those buried: foreigners far from their families, with no one concerned about paying their last respects.

“The discovery of the remaining graves is in fact the [conclusões] most important, although several types of archaeological material have also been identified at the site”, adds Ribeiro. “We have faience [tipo de cerâmica] and Portuguese ceramics, metal coffin handles, marbles with inscriptions, in addition to the traces of human bones.”

The archaeologist emphasizes that she was surprised by “the presence of the remaining graves”.

“The construction of a hospital greatly impacts the area where it is located. Not only the building itself, but the entire hydraulic and electrical structure necessary for its operation”, he comments.

“The area of ​​the archaeological site is in an urban environment, so in addition to the hospital we have businesses, homes and highways. All of this contributes to the imminent destruction of archaeological sites and the discovery of the graves is, in itself, simply surprising.”


In the IAB laboratory, the pieces are still in the preliminary cleaning and analysis phase. “The forecast is that we will finish in six months”, historian Alessandro Silva, laboratory coordinator, tells the report.

“Because it is a historic site where reports indicate an old cemetery, our focus ends up focused on this context. But our main objective is to fill in some historical gaps”, he comments.

Historian specialized in bioarchaeology, João Gustavo Alves Chá Chá tells the report that from the material found it will be possible to discover “the sex of the individuals, their age, the type of life they had, the type of diet and even some diseases”.

“With this, we hope to understand a little more about the lazaretto that operated at that location”, says he, who works in a team of seven people in the laboratory.

Chá Chá states that the signs are that the bones were disturbed a lot, probably due to the work that took place on the land throughout the 20th century.

“We found the bones but noticed that they were turned over and scattered. But a grave with a practically complete skeleton was found”, he reports.

The problem is also geographical. As in the region, close to the sea, water is already found at a depth of 130 centimeters, this characteristic contributes to accelerating the deterioration of the remains.

“But we are going to extract important information. Many teeth appeared [nas escavações]a material that we are starting to look at now”, explains Chá Chá.

In parallel to the findings, so-called heritage education occurs. And this can also help even with new discoveries.

As historian William Cruz tells the report, information about the ongoing study was first shared with maternity employees and workers working on expanding the complex.

“A worker may suddenly find material while carrying out his activity and, as he has already gone through the heritage education process, he will pay attention and call the person responsible for archeology”, says Cruz.

Soon, schools in the region and the surrounding community should also be informed about the archaeological and historical research work.

The text was originally published here.

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