Velho Chico: The River of National Unity

There is no river like the São Francisco, which is Brazil’s third most important river, after the Amazon and the Paraguai. Those who live along its banks speak of it as a friend – hence the affectionate nickname Velho Chico or Chicão (Chico is a diminutive for Francisco).

The location of the São Francisco gave it great prominence during the colonial history of Brazil. With its headwaters in the Serra da Canastra, 1500m high in Minas Gerais, the Rio São Francisco flows north across the greater part of the Northeast sertãos (backlands) and completes its 3160km journey at the Atlantic Ocean after slicing through the states of Minas Gerais and Bahia, and delineating the Bahia–Pernambuco and Sergipe–Alagoas state borders.

For three centuries the São Francisco, also referred to as the ‘river of national unity’, represented the only connection between the small towns at the extremes of the sertãos and the coast. In the 17th century the river became the best of the few routes available to penetrate the semiarid Northeastern interior. Thus, the frontier grew along the margins of the river. The economy of these colonial settlements was based on cattle, which provided desperately needed food for the gold miners in Minas Gerais in the 18th century and later fed workers in the cacao (cocoa) plantations throughout southern Bahia.

The history of this area is legendary in Brazil: the tough vaqueiros (cowboys) who drove the cattle; the commerce in salt (to fatten the cows); the cultivation of rice; the rise in banditry; the battles between the big landowners; and the odd developments, like Canudos, with its strange religious fanaticism (and later its horrific destruction).

The slow waters of the São Francisco have been so vital to Brazil because, in a region with devastating periodic droughts, the river provides one of the only guaranteed water sources. Today the river valley is irrigated to produce a huge amount of produce for local consumption and export.

Owing to its life-sustaining importance, the São Francisco has been the source of much myth-making and storytelling. The bicho da água (water beast), for example, is part animal and part human. It walks on the bottom of the river and snores. The crews on the riverboats placate the bicho da água by throwing handfuls of tobacco into the water. Nordestinos also believe that São Francisco is a gift from God to the people of the sertãos as recompense for all their suffering in the drought-plagued land.