This Was Then: Pernambuco, Brazil

Adams family adventures.


The Brazilian state of Pernambuco could be compared geographically to Massachusetts: a small, populous, Atlantic coastal state shaped like a rectangular(ish) slab, sporting 100 miles or so of Eastern coastline. Our Boston is their Recife, a busy maritime port smack in the middle of their Eastern Coast. Like the Bay State, Pernambuco even boasts the country’s most famous island resort: Fernando de Noronha.

Pernambuco, the “Leão do Norte” (Lion of the North), is located at the easternmost tip of the easternmost nose of land in the Americas, the Nordeste do Brasil. The state is actually closer to West Africa than it is to the Southern and Western borders of Brazil itself. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Recife was a global export hub for cotton and sugar. It was also among the busiest ports for Americans buying and selling enslaved Africans, even after Brazil outlawed 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 stopping in Holmes Hole that the U.S. press learned the story. (Brazilian independence was declared in 1822; its subsequent war with Portugal ended in 1824.)

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

So it’s no surprise that 27-year-old Capt. Moses Adams Jr. of Chilmark (1803–74) would visit Pernambuco, more than 4,000 miles to the south-southeast of the Vineyard. What’s not known are all the details regarding his subsequent arrest there.

Early in 1831, Captain Adams, together with another American named Mr. Foster, was arrested and imprisoned for a “violation of the revenue laws” — or as another captain called it, “the charge of smugling” (sic). Adams spent his time in prison writing letters to U.S. newspapers declaring his innocence. It’s difficult to guess what exactly Adams might have been convicted of smuggling. His cargo was probably not enslaved African people; while that unforgivable import would still be legal in Brazil for a few more months when Adams was arrested, the transatlantic slave trade had by this time been banned in the U.S., and a conviction of a U.S. citizen on those charges would probably have garnered more press. Adams’ arrest more likely concerned something like the export of brazilwood (also known as “Pernambuco wood”) on which the Brazilian government claimed a monopoly.

By 1831, more than a quarter of the population of Pernambuco were enslaved Africans, most of them working on plantations owned by light-skinned Portuguese landowners. The Brazilian military forces in Pernambuco, which drew heavily from demographics that skewed poor, dark-skinned, and ex-convict, were bubbling with dissent. They were poorly paid, poorly fed, and harshly disciplined.

Then, while Adams was doing his time in jail, Pedro I, the first Emperor of Brazil, abdicated in Rio de Janeiro, leaving his 5-year-old son, Pedro II, the nominal head of state. The country entered into an era of chaos that would last more than 15 years. Stewing in racial and class inequality, Pernambuco simmered on the edge of another revolution, and international business stagnated.

Adams and Foster were imprisoned for more than 8 months when a “disturbance occurred” from which, according to the newspapers at the time, the duo “derived more benefit from than most other persons.” It would later be known as “Setembrizada.” On Sept. 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, ultimately taking over the city. Foreign merchants from the U.S. and Britain found themselves on the wrong side of their ire. Some 200 to 300 soldiers were killed in the fighting, and businesses were looted for more than $2 million in damages, mostly among foreign merchants, before the uprising was quelled.

Captain Adams, who like most U.S. merchants sided with the Portuguese ruling class, wrote, “The troops … maliciously fired into the prison and killed several prisoners. The jailers fled for refuge. The soldiers then returning to their work of plunder, the prisoners sawed open the door and made their escape. I walked out with some English gentlemen who were also in confinement.” Adams and Foster escaped through the gates, and soon found refuge at the harbor.

“I found a welcome reception on board an English brig commanded by Captain R. Dixon,” continued Adams, “where I intended to stay until the American sloop of war arrived, which was expected every day; but a whaling schooner, (the Breakwater,) stopped there for water, which was bound for Stonington, Con. I was then advised by the American & English gentlemen to go onboard her, which I did.”

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

Captain Adams returned to the Vineyard and to his family home on South Road, near Nab’s Corner, that Moses’ great-grandfather, Eliashib Adams, had built. He married a New Hampshire woman, 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 behind his young son and sailed from Edgartown to San Francisco on the ship Walter Scott as chief director of the Edgartown Mining Co. — an ill-fated Gold Rush venture that swept up some 50 Island men. But within a year or two, Adams and the other ’49ers were back home, none the richer. Adams briefly became master of the whaling brig March of Mattapoisett before remarrying and settling down as a Chilmark farmer. Moses and his brother Mayhew became Chilmark’s first two patented inventors. During 1869–70, 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, as well as diminutive daughters 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 cared for by his grandparents while his father was off gold mining, became a mariner like his father. He sailed on the whaling bark Samuel and Thomas in 1863, and as a boat steerer on the bark Sea Ranger in 1866. (While on the Sea Ranger, crewed by a number of Vineyard sailors, Edward may have been the artist “Adams” who helped draw a unique comic book titled “Scraps,” a 30-page booklet documenting their globetrotting adventures, which is now housed at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.) In 1871, Edward joined the crew of the bark General Scott of Fairhaven as second mate. The whaleship would spend the next four years at sea, mostly in the Pacific but also in the South Atlantic.

Capt. Moses Adams died in February 1874, at the age of 70. The epitaph on his gravestone on Abel’s Hill reads, “Passed through the gates.”
Three months later, word reached the Vineyard that his son Edward had died at the age of 32. Place of death: Pernambuco, Brazil.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.