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The Failed Brazilian Emigration

By W. D. Valgardson

It wasn’t just Icelanders who were enticed to Brazil.

Picking Coffee Beans in Brazil - Wikipedia

Michael Ewanchuk, in his book, Pioneer Profiles, says this “In time immigration agents appeared in the villages and began to conduct a very intensive campaign to interest the people to settle in Brazil. These agents offered free transportation to Brazil and told the people that no medical examinations were needed.”

“In Brazil, the European settlers had to adjust to the harsh tropical climate and life in the jungle. Those that were settling in the Parana area soon found out that the cost of transportation inland and the cost of land, food, and supplies, was excessive. What they saved on fares crossing the ocean was soon spent on food and clothing – employment was hard to find. Soon letters reached the Ukrainian villages which showed that life in Brazil was untenable. They wrote back complaining: “All that we have been able to harvest is black beans and corn, and some vegetables. There is no wheat or rye grown here. We cannot get milled flour. All we are able to do is grind the corn on a quern and bake cornbread. “

Prof. Joseph Oleskow wrote to the High Commissioner for Canada in 1896. In the letter he says, “In the meantime (settlers) leave the seaports of Hamburg, Bremen, and Geneva (Italy) in every week several hundred families from “Western Ukraine” for Brazil.

“This very movement I have predicted, and I have in vain challenged the Canadian Government to help me in turning this flow from Brazil to Canada…the Brazilian interests are supported here with considerable capital, nevertheless, I say once more, the little sum of say 800 pounds in my hands would suffice to lay the foundation for regular monthly expeditions of some 100 families, agriculturists with necessary means to make a start on a homestead in Canada.”

Oleskow joined with the Hon. Clifford Sifton and federal immigration officials to begin the movement of thousands of Ukrainian settlers away from Brazil and to Canada.

The Ukrainian settlers, although it was now more than two decades after the first immigrants arrived in New Iceland, find themselves starting for one destination but changing for another. With the Icelanders, it was Nova Scotia and the United States. For the Ukrainians, it was starting for Brazil and ending up in Canada.

In Michael Stashyn’s account, “Our neighbour drove us to Chorkiv, our nearest station, and from there we left by train for the German port of Hamburg.

“It was the first time that my parents rode on a train, and for the first time they saw an ocean liner….In Hamburg we met many Ukrainians who were not going to Brazil as we were, but to some kind of Canada. They started to convince my parents that we should come with them. “

Michael’s parents do change course. They board the ocean liner for Canada. Like the Icelanders before them, they head across the ocean, into the unknown. “On the fourteenth day, we disembarked and found ourselves in the port of Quebec City. There we boarded a train and headed west.”

Will Kristjanson says in his book , The Icelandic People in Manitoba, “About forty persons left for Brazil, 1863-1873. The precipitating factor was the disaster to the sheep industry, 1856-1860, and the hard winter of 1858-59, the second hardest in the century.”

“Einar Asmundsson, of Thingeyjarsysla, in the North, was a person widely read and well-informed. He had been reading much about Brazil and considered that country the most promising for Icelandic emigration…In 1860, Asmundsson promoted the founding of the Brazilian Emigration Association. Thirty-five persons reached Brazil and several hundreds were prepared to go. However, transportation difficulties blocked this movement.”

The plans to move to Brazil were opposed by local officials and wealthy farmers. Even so, four men left for Brazil in 1863. Their job was to evaluate the possibility of Brazil as a home for Icelanders. By the beginning of 1865, about a 150 people had agreed to go. However, the plan fell through. In 1873, a group of 500 had agreed to emigrate to Brazil. The Brazilian government, just as with the Ukrainians later, promised to pay the fare but that fare would be from Hamburg to Brazil. The Icelanders had to get from Iceland to Hamburg and were unable to do so. The Brazilian government, at one point, tried to rent a ship to sail to Iceland to collect the prospective immigrants but was unable to do so. Again the plan fell through. Eventually, only 34 people actually emigrated.

Even though the Ukrainian settlers who go to Brazil do so around fifteen years after the Icelanders, we can see from their experience the difficulties that the Icelandic emigrants must have faced.

Two countries distant from Canada, Iceland and Ukraine, where the lot of the common people is one of such hardship that people are willing to risk their lives venturing into the unknown. In both countries, the people are both caught up in medieval systems. There is hunger, injustice and lack of opportunity. They respond the same way: emigrate. Circumstance, randomness, misunderstanding, and possibility, all result in these two disparate groups settling in the same area.

Their choice of settlement area, without any intention of doing so, makes them part of each others’ Canadian heritage, and gradually, through necessity, doing business, then some social events and, finally, intermarriage, their stories become inextricably entwined. Today, all across Canada, there are Ukrainian-Icelandic marriages. Yet, the two written histories have remained separate for no one has attempted to show how the two groups came to settle on the same land (not just nearby land but the same to such an extent that Ukrainians took up land abandoned by the early Icelandic settlers) and how the two communities learned to function together.

If the Brazilian immigration had been successful, they may very well have ended up neighbours in Brazil. Instead, with the failure of the Brazilian ventures, they became neighbours in the wilderness of Manitoba.

(Sources: two books worth reading, if you can find copies. Michael Ewanchuk, Pioneer Profiles Ukrainian Settlers in Manitoba; W. Kristjanson, The Icelandic People in Manitoba A Manitoba Saga)


The following information is from Icelandic Roots.

The IR Database has people associated with 41 places with GPS coordinates.

39 Icelanders emigrated to Brazil between 1863-1873. More have lived or emigrated to Brazil in the years after.

335 people in the database were born in Brazil.

183 people in the database died in Brazil.

The Icelanders first landed in Brazil in 1863 when 4 Icelanders arrived there.

In 1873 emigration to Brazil ceased with the arrival of a group of 35 people.

Settlement: They first settled at Curitiba and Paranaguá in the State of Paraná, about 200 miles southwest of São Paulo. Later some moved to São Francisco do Sul and Joinville in the State of Santa Catarina.

Departures: A few later settled in various places in North America.


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