It was then: Pernambuco, Brazil


The Brazilian state of Pernambuco could be geographically compared to Massachusetts: a small, populated Atlantic coastal state shaped like a rectangular slab (rather), sporting about 100 miles of eastern coastline. Our Boston is their Recife, a bustling seaport right in the middle of their east coast. Like the Bay State, Pernambuco even has the most famous seaside resort in the country: Fernando de Noronha.

Pernambuco, the “Leão do Norte” (Lion of the North), is located at the eastern end of the most eastern nose of land in the Americas, the Nordeste do Brasil. The state is actually closer to West Africa than to the southern and western borders of Brazil itself. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Recife was a global hub for cotton and sugar exports. It was also one of the busiest ports for Americans buying and selling enslaved Africans, even after Brazil banned its international slave trade in late 1831.

Pernambuco was a common watering stop for Vineyard whalers. When the first news arrived of a Brazilian movement for independence from Portugal, an 1817 incident known as the Pernambucan Revolt, it was from a ship calling at Holmes Hole that the American press learned of the ‘story. (Brazilian independence was declared in 1822; its subsequent war with Portugal ended in 1824.)

When old Captain Warren Luce of Vineyard Haven, a whaler who sailed six times around the world, boasted to a Boston Post reporter in 1904 of all the ports he had visited during his long career , Pernambuco was sufficiently familiar to the reading public to be understood among Madagascar, New Zealand, Bangkok, Cuba and the other well-known destinations he had frequented.

It’s no surprise, then, that 27-year-old Captain Moses Adams Jr. of Chilmark (1803-1874) visited Pernambuco, more than 4,000 miles south-southeast of the vineyard. What is not known are all the details regarding his subsequent arrest there.

Early in 1831 Captain Adams, along with another American by the name of Mr. Foster, was arrested and imprisoned for a “violation of tax laws” – or, as another captain called it, “the smuggling charge” (sic). Adams spent his time in prison writing letters to American newspapers declaring his innocence. It’s hard to guess exactly what Adams might have been convicted of smuggling. Its cargo was probably not enslaved Africans; while this unforgivable importation would still be legal in Brazil for a few more months after Adams’ arrest, the transatlantic slave trade had by then been banned in the United States, and the conviction of an American citizen for these accusations would probably have attracted more press. Adams’ arrest more likely concerned something like the export of timber from Brazil (also known as “Pernambuco timber”) over which the Brazilian government claimed a monopoly.

In 1831, more than a quarter of Pernambuco’s population were enslaved Africans, most of them working on plantations owned by light-skinned Portuguese landowners. Brazil’s military forces in Pernambuco, which relied heavily on a skewed demographic of the poor, dark-skinned and ex-convicts, were seething with dissent. They were poorly paid, poorly fed and harshly disciplined.

Then, while Adams was serving his sentence in prison, Pedro I, Brazil’s first emperor, abdicated in Rio de Janeiro, leaving his 5-year-old son, Pedro II, the nominal head of state. The country entered an era of chaos that would last for more than 15 years. Covered in racial and class inequality, Pernambuco simmered on the brink of another revolution and international trade stagnated.

Adams and Foster were imprisoned for over 8 months when a “disruption occurred” from which, according to newspapers at the time, the duo “benefited more than most other people”. He would later be known as “Setembrizada”. On September 10, 1831, three battalions of soldiers revolted in Pernambuco. For three days, anarchy reigned in the city of Recife as more than 1,000 mostly black and brown-skinned soldiers rebelled against their Portuguese officers, eventually taking control of the city. Foreign merchants from the United States and Britain found themselves on the wrong side of their wrath. Some 200 to 300 soldiers were killed in the fighting and businesses were looted for over $2 million in damage, mostly from foreign merchants, before the uprising was put down.

Captain Adams, who like most American merchants sided with the Portuguese ruling class, wrote: “The troops…fired maliciously on the prison and killed several prisoners. The jailers fled to take refuge. The soldiers then returning to their work of looting, the prisoners sawed through the door and fled. I went out with English gentlemen who were also in confinement. Adams and Foster escaped through the gates and quickly found refuge at the port.

“I found a welcome reception on board an English brig commanded by Captain R. Dixon,” continued Adams, “where I intended to remain until the arrival of the American sloop of war, which was expected each day; but a whaling schooner (the Breakwater) stopped there to take on water, which was bound for Stonington, Con. The American and English gentlemen then advised me to board, which I did.

The breakwater, newly arrived from a sealing expedition in the Falkland Islands, returned to Connecticut in early December, where Adams sent his letter to the New York Journal of Commerce. (His smuggling supercargo, fellow prisoner and traveling companion, “Mr. Foster”, might have been Henry Foster of Boston, merchant of Pernambuco, who would soon return to operate a financially prosperous sugar cane plantation in Pernambuco.)

Captain Adams returned to the vineyard and to his family home on South Road, near Nab’s Corner, which Moses’ great-grandfather, Eliashib Adams, had had built. He married a woman from New Hampshire, Susan Redfield. Their life together was short; Susan died of anemia at the age of 23, nine months after giving birth in Boston to their only child, Edward.

In the spring of 1849, Adams left his young son behind and sailed from Edgartown to San Francisco on the ship Walter Scott as chief manager of the Edgartown Mining Co.—an ill-fated gold rush enterprise that took some 50 men from the island. But within a year or two, Adams and the other ’49ers were back home, none wealthier. Adams briefly became master of the whaling brig March of Mattapoisett before remarrying and settling down as a farmer in Chilmark. Moses and his brother Mayhew became Chilmark’s first two patented inventors. From 1869 to 1870, Adams patented a combination lock, a seed-planting machine, and a belt buckle.

Moses and his new wife would have six more children, including son James (“Jim”) Adams, who would operate the South Road dairy known as Oak View Farm, and granddaughters Lucy and Sarah Adams, the famous ” Adams Sisters” who performed for years with the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Moses’ eldest son, Edward, who had been raised by his grandparents while his father was out of gold mining, became a sailor like his father. He sailed on the Samuel and Thomas whaling bark in 1863, and as coxswain on the Sea Ranger bark in 1866. (While on the Sea Ranger, with a number of sailors from Vineyard, Edward was possibly the ‘Adams’ artist who helped draw a one-off comic called ‘Scraps’, a 30-page booklet documenting their globe-trotting adventures, which is now in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. ) In 1871, Edward joined the crew of the barque General Scott of Fairhaven as second mate. The whaler will spend the next four years at sea, mainly in the Pacific but also in the South Atlantic.

Captain Moses Adams died in February 1874, aged 70. The epitaph on his tombstone on Abel’s Hill reads: “Passed through the gates”.
Three months later, the Vineyard learns that her son Edward has died at the age of 32. Place of death: Pernambuco, Brazil.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Her book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales”, containing numerous “This Was Then” chronicles, was released in 2018.


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