Parati is a quiet colonial town on the traveller’s route down from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo. Walking along the river paths on the outskirts of town, backpackers are greeted with terracotta roofs and restaurant terraces, either illuminated by the brilliant Costa Verde sun in the day, or the warm, orange glow of the streetlights at night. A small bridge pulls your footsteps towards the old quarter of town.
The old town centre is set by stunning white walls with brightly coloured doorways and window bays, often complemented by red, pink and orange flowers which hang elegantly down from their trellises and baskets. The shiny cobbled streets render flip-flops useless footwear, and as a visitor you are given the impression that the architecture and design has been renovated and preserved from the colonial era.
The reasons for the old style surviving to 2016 are not particularly romantic. The town was left out of the period of industrialisation, and in the years before Brazil became a tourist destination it was considered a rural backwater. However, there is something else that distracts from the quaint and relaxed wandering around this living museum. It is that word – colonial.
Something you notice from guidebooks or recommendations from fellow travellers is that ‘colonial’ is used as an attractive qualifier. You might make a day trip or change your travel plans to visit a ‘colonial town’. Surely, the only reason that this word could be attractive to people is if it has been stripped of meaning and history.
To say that “Parati is preserved from colonial times” is paraphrasing. Really, what we should say is “Parati is preserved from when it was a colony of the Portuguese Empire. The port was used to steal huge amounts of gold from the area, which also lead to the massacring of indigenous populations and the shipment slaves from Africa to work mines as forced labour to serve the European and US markets …”
It’s not quite as catchy or inviting, but it’s more accurate.
So, Parati is a colonial town. Except for the slaves and their masters, the corporal and capital punishment administered to those people who stepped out of line, the destruction of African heritage through the slave trade and the annihilation of indigenous peoples. Or, perhaps, in the sense that these elements are not recognised in the phrase ‘colonial town’, that they are deliberately obscured from an understanding of history and therefore erased or not considered important, it is a continuation of violence of the history of Brazil and the African slaves, and, therefore, actually, colonial?
To say this phrase without the necessary reflection on what it means is to suggest that colonialism is something that happened in the past, when people lived in one story houses and rode a horse and cart.
You can capture that kind of colonialism on a key ring. Or a tea towel.
However, colonialism, or at least the geographical, racial and economic structures that characterise it, is alive and well today. Ask yourself, really, would you visit a modern day ‘colonial town’? Entire towns resigned to serve the interests of a capitalist class of distant empires are dotted all over the world. But a Foxconn factory in China or a tin mining town in Bolivia doesn’t have quite the same appeal, and is unlikely to feature in a TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet article.
In reality, if we want to say a town is pretty, colourful, has nice architecture from the 18th century, doesn’t have any cars, or is simply old, we should stop being lazy and say just that. To continue using ‘colonial’ as an apprealing adjective is a continuation of violence to oppressed people all over the world, and deprives us all of knowing the history of the world in which we live.