The Waters and Islands of Guanabara Bay

By Peter Janos Kurz

Most people from outside Brazil arrive in Rio by plane on Ilha do Governador, the largest of the dozens of islands in Baia de Guanabara. Most likely the visitors are familiar with the music of Tom Jobim and know why the second part of the airport’s full name today is Antonio Carlos Jobim. Fewer non-Brazilians know that the earlier name – Aeroporto do Galeão — comes from the original name of the spit of land and beach where, between 1659 and 1665, Portugal’s Estaleiro do Galeão built and launched for Companhia Geral do Comercio a vessel that many claim was the world’s largest galleon at that time. “Padre Eterno” could carry up to 2,000 tons of sugar and other goods and was equipped with 144 pieces of artillery. Lisbon’s “Mercurio portugez” called it “the most famous man of war the seas will ever see”. GIG –today’s IATA code – is an acronym which reflects the original name and the airport’s specific carioca location: Galeão, Ilha do Governador.Watercolor by Janos Kurz2

From the time of native Tupi-speaking Tamoio Indians to today’s age of cosmopolitan visitors, Baia de Guanabara’s more than 15 major islands have provided fascinating places from which to view Rio’s magnetic outline. Very few places on earth display the beauty and contrast offered by the juxtaposition of the serrated string of hills, peaks and mountains with the ever-changing waters of Guanabara Bay. The shifting winds and waves, the changing colors… these were a constant theme and inspiration for artists “embedded” with the sailing ships of earlier visitors.

Emeric Essex Vidal (b. Brentford, 1791 – d. Brighton, 1861) created his first watercolors of Ilha da Boa Viagem (in 1817) while on board HMS Hyacinth and of Ilha de Villegaignon (in 1818), while on board HMS Forte, when Guanabara was still known as Baia do Rio de Janeiro.  He returned again between 1834 and 1838 with the Commander-in-Chief of the British Royal Navy’s South American Station, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Graham Eden Hamond.  One example of his work is a small watercolor of HMS Dublin 50 as seen in 1835 from Ilha dos Ratos (known today as Ilha Fiscal).

Equally fascinating are numerous entries in the Admiral’s own Diary (1825 to 1834/38). As an example, the one for October 24, 1836, begins “I had long wanted to cruise within the bay and sail around the Ilha do Governador.” The entry goes on to describe his visit with a Captain Tait and with “Mr. Vidal.” In rich and colorful prose he describes his day-long tour, as well as a number of islands (Ilhas dos Ratos, das Cobras, das Enxadas, and Ilha do Boqueirao). He also identifies the small Ilha do Catalao and Ilha Mayencu – really Ilha Baiacu – which were two of the nine small islands joined by landfill many years later to create the island where the UFRJ campus now sits, known as Ilha do Fundão.

Little more than a century after Mr. Vidal’s visits, another artistic foreigner in Rio was also fascinated by the islands of the bay, in particular the Ilha…… but that would be telling! Both the watercolor at the top of this post, and the charcoal drawing at the end were made circa 1948 by Janos Antal Kurz from a vantage point on a small island whose name we will omit, but we hope some readers can identify. In any event, readers won’t need an Admiral’s barge, a Captain’s gig or a “galeão” to explore Guanabara Bay. For R$4,50 anyone can take a very pleasant 70 minute tour on one of the “barcas” from Praça XV to the Ilha de Paquetá – and for seniors, it’s gratis.Charcoal Guanabara Bay Janos Kurz2

Watercolor by Janos Antal Kurz, courtesy Peter Janos Kurz

Charcoal drawing by Janos Antal Kurz, courtesy Barbara and Dr. William C. Kohler

The article was also published in The Umbrella, a monthly magazine published in Rio de Janeiro by the British and Commonwealth Society.