- author, Vinicius Pereira
- scroll, From Sao Paulo to BBC News Brazil
In the dispute that became known as the “Birara Question,” the country entered into a diplomatic conflict with the United Kingdom over an area of about 33,000 square kilometers, located between the borders of the current state of Roraima and Guyana.
With areas rich in agriculture and some minerals, the location would give Brazil access to the Caribbean Sea via tributaries of the Amazon River. On the other hand, it could also allow the British to access the entire northern region of Brazil, given the possibility of navigation from that location.
Amid diplomatic clashes between the two countries that continued for years, in 1898, the Brazilian government accepted the English proposal to refer the dispute to the rule of the Italian government – which was considered neutral at the time, and King Vitor Emanuel III was the arbitrator. , the last royal ruler of Italy.
The king ended up dividing the territory, with Guyana benefiting from 3/5 of the area, representing an area equivalent to thirteen cities in São Paulo – a decision that sparked protests from Brazilian diplomats led by Joaquim Nabucco.
“The region on both the Brazilian and British sides has very great agricultural potential, with large livestock farms. But Brazil was looking for a river route across the interior, leaving the Amazon and reaching the North Atlantic, which is the Caribbean Sea,” says Reginaldo Gomez, historian and professor at the Federal University of Roraima. “This is what the country loses in the conflict.”
Conflict between Portugal, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom
Although the issue was not resolved until the end of the 19th century, the region had been disputed between European powers since the 17th century, and at that time, the Dutch occupied the area of present-day Guyana. But after Napoleon’s invasions of Europe in the 18th century, the region was allocated to the English, who helped the country free itself from the invasion of the French Emperor.
According to Carlo Romani, PhD in history from UniCamp and professor at UniCamp, who studies history from the perspective of the people occupying the territories, the place is occupied by indigenous people and has been the way to capture indigenous peoples for forced labor since Portuguese colonization.
“These Caribbean people, especially the Macoxi, were, in contrast to the Wapichana people, who already had greater contact with the Portuguese-Brazilians, more averse to restrictions and forced civilisation, and, therefore, more focused on the British, where we bore this type of slave-ownership,” he states.
He adds: “At that time, there were Portuguese-Brazilian forces that advanced towards the Berara region and returned to Fort São Joaquim to be distributed to forced labor in Amazonas.”
In the context of the abolition of slavery at the time, the British demanded the same right to freedom as the indigenous people. Since then, British possession of the Berara has been defended in European public opinion, because Brazil had, in theory, enslaved the local indigenous population.
“This appears in British newspapers from 1840 onwards, mainly because of Robert Schomburgk, the great explorer of the Guyana Islands, who managed to build roads and define the boundaries of the place. It was he who took this story to London and it was reported in Europe. So, yes, there was a mobilization Certain at the time, it resurfaced at the beginning of the 20th century when arbitration was discussed, positioning Brazilians as slaveholders and supposedly legitimizing the British claim,” Roman says.
In this context, in 1841, an English military expedition led by Schomburgk promised to occupy the Berara region, protect the Indians and demarcate a new border on the borders of Guyana, even without the consent of the Brazilian government.
“When the British arrived to neutralize the region, the Brazilian Empire retreated and entered into a diplomatic conflict,” Roman says.
The controversial and diplomatic king
To try to resolve the dispute, in 1899, Baron de Río Branco, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, summoned Joaquim Nabucco, one of the most important figures in the abolitionist movement in Brazil, to lead Brazilian diplomacy on the issue.
At that time, there were no multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations, to resolve disputes. Therefore, Brazil, which was also going through the transition from the Second Reign to the Republic, supported the English request for arbitration, an award by a neutral third party chosen by both parties.
“This arbitration process was very common in a series of cases at the time, including Brazil. The case of land leasing to a British company exploiting latex and the Acre rubber cycle was dealt with in this way, and the dispute over Amapá with France was also dealt with.” says Vanessa Braga-Matyjasic, professor of international relations at FAAP.
On the Brazilian side, led by Nabucco, the diplomat told the arbitrator that the possession of the land was legal because the country already controlled the Amazon River and its upper tributaries, that there had been occupation of the site since the time of Portugal, in addition to the absence of an Englishman, and because the country was the successor to the city, it was considered the natural protector of the region. .
The English, in turn, claimed that the disputed territories had been entirely acquired by the Dutch through occupation and then passed to England, which maintained and developed this presence. Moreover, ownership of the place was confirmed by the consent of the Indians, who would recognize themselves as English.
According to the book Birara question, written by José Theodoro Mascarenhas Minc, former legislative advisor to Congress, and which has a foreword by former President Michel Temer, Nabucco was concerned about the performance of King Vitor Emmanuel III, who would decide the elections. “The fear I have is not a lack of impartiality, but rather a superficial and unprofessional examination of the case, and of the upcoming political legal advisers, of the ad hoc rules of law,” he told Baron Rio Branco.
The Italian leader, who sought to strengthen Italy as a power among European countries after the unification of the country, considered the invitation a great compliment from England towards him, according to the publication.
Thus, the arbitrator declared that on the one hand “it cannot be accepted with certainty that Portugal, at first, and Brazil afterwards, had effectively acquired the entire territory in dispute” but also that “the seizure of sovereignty first from the Netherlands” and afterwards from Great Britain, had only been executed In part of the territory that was the subject of the dispute.
For this reason, Vitor Emmanuel III chose to draw a middle line between the two demands known as the Mau Takuto, which had previously been rejected by Brazil, and which assigned a total of 65% to England and 35% of the disputed territories to Great Britain. Brazil. The Raposa Serra do Sol indigenous reserve is currently located in the part given to Brazil.
Brazilian diplomacy received the decision negatively, but accepted the loss of part of the territory. “England gained more than in previous negotiations because it expanded its territorial reach,” says Vanessa Braga. “This ruling was received without formal protest, which is in keeping with the Brazilian tradition of diplomacy in respecting final decisions, even if they are unfavorable to Brazil.” Matyjasik.
“Joaquim Nabuco made a detailed study of the area based on the Treaty of Tordesillas, explaining how the area had this military base on the Rio Branco River and one close to the Berara River and that many indigenous people in the area worked for the Brazilian army.” But in any case, King Emmanuel made a decision wise, recognizing the historical processes on the British side. From my point of view, we did not lose, we won, since the British wanted the entire Roraima region,” says Reginaldo Gomez.
Later, in the 1940s, the former US ambassador to Brazil, Lloyd Gregson, published a book containing an alleged conversation he had with King Vittorio Emanuele III.
He says in the post that the Italian stated that he “did not like the topics and people there” in addition to that Brazilian diplomacy “sent false maps in the arbitration”, and therefore “he could have provided full information”. The lands were transferred to England, but it ended up being divided.”
At the time, Brazil questioned the Italian government about the king’s alleged letters, which the country’s representatives denied.
Monuments and current territory
Despite the similarities between the conflicts, experts interviewed by BBC News Brazil do not see any similarities with the Brazilian conflict and the current Venezuelan attack on an area in Guyana.
For Carlo Romani, the Berara region is a difficult transit area to live in, like Essequibo, but there is no sign of oil in the region lost to Brazil.
“The Berara is flooded in the rainy season and serves as a junction for different river basins, such as the Amazon, and on the Essequibo side. So the interest, especially for the British, was that the Berara would be a crossing area for tributaries that allowed and reached the Amazon River and thence to northern Brazil.”
“The Portuguese-Brazilian strategic interest was to prevent passage, or at least to make it as difficult as possible,” he adds.
Despite the likely absence of oil, there are records of precious metals in the area.
“In the 19th century, gold and diamonds were discovered, and the area, both on the Brazilian and British sides, had very great agricultural potential, with large livestock farms. At that time there were complaints from both Brazil and Venezuela, but since 1930, He placed physical landmarks on the borders of these borders, and the issue was renewed in Venezuela with Hugo Chavez, who when he took office brought a patriotic spirit to the country and tried to resume the discussion of dissatisfaction with what had been discussed in the nineteenth century,” concludes Gomez.
“Proud explorer. Freelance social media expert. Problem solver. Gamer.”