August 3, 2021

In Rio de Janeiro, a century later, the memory of the “vaccine revolt” of 1904


Trams overturned and set on fire. Torn off trees and gas burners. Streets transformed into a battlefield, between barricades and police charges. Overlooking Rio de Janeiro, in the grip of a deadly epidemic, the Sugar Loaf Mountain contemplates the scene of its revolted city and its insurgent inhabitants by the thousands screaming through the streets: “Death to the police! Down with the vaccine! “

Breathe! Fortunately, this scene did not take place in 2021, but a century earlier, in November 1904. The “Wonderful city” is then in fire and blood, in the grip of what will remain as one of the most violent popular uprisings in its history: the “vaccine revolt”. An episode in Brazilian history little known abroad, but whose memory remains vivid, especially at the time of Covid-19.

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Let’s go back to the facts. In 1904, “Rio is a Pressure Cooker”, recalls the historian Laurent Vidal. The city (still capital of Brazil) industrialized. Its population has practically doubled in ten years. Built between hills and a lagoon, interspersed with fetid swamps, the city is a nest for viruses. The air circulates poorly. Miasmas are proliferating. Foreign sailors avoid its port, where yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, plague, smallpox and typhus are rife …

Economic development is threatened. In 1902, having just come to power, the energetic President Rodrigues Alves paulista, undertakes to remedy the situation. He appointed two men with responsibilities: Francisco Pereira Passos, a 66-year-old engineer, as mayor of the “federal district” of Rio, and Oswaldo Cruz, a young 30-year-old epidemiologist, as director general of public health. It is their responsibility to “clean” the city.

“Hygienist battalions”

The two men are not idle. A “modernizing wave” is sweeping down on Rio: thousands of buildings are razed. Everywhere, avenues are being pierced and gas burners are being planted. Begging, stray dogs, spitting and urban pig farming are repressed. The model ? Paris, of course. Pereira Passos lived there in her youth, during the work of Haussmann. Oswaldo Cruz, on the other hand, has just returned from there, having finished his studies there at the Institut Pasteur.

Exalted (or fanatic, depending on the version), the latter launched a war against yellow fever and the plague. The doctors are organized in real brigades and supported by the police, authorized to enter by force in the residences to disinfect them with sulfur. At the head of its “Hygiene battalions”, the young doctor is caricatured in “Mosquito cross” or “Louis XIV of the syringe”.

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