Banzo!Blaise CendrarsLike all caboclos, that bastard Chavin was taciturn. You never knew what he was thinking about, whether he was contemplating some bloody revenge or plotting a shady deal to make himself some dough. He was cunning, he was dictatorial. He knew that he was indispensable yet he was obsequious.
His craftiness gave him the upper hand with the blacks and he rejoiced in it. His face was pitted with smallpox and his grim eyes, with their yellow corneas, were frightening. He had the teeth of a cannibal and almost no neck, he was so muscular that the nape of his neck and his shoulders were one solid block.
He was of medium height, almost as broad as he was high, with a slight tendency to fat, due to his age. He could have been seventy years old, he was unmarried, lived alone, but got all the black women within a ten-league radius pregnant, he knew the area like the back of his hand, traveled over the mountain at night, came back at dawn, sneaking under cover, using the most hidden paths and tracks, like a jaguar, avoiding rifle-shots, traps, knives, fighting with a short stick which he handled like a virtuoso, always getting out of scrapes, a survivor, alert, ready for anything, provocative and cynical.
When I teased him about his exploits as a billy-goat of the woods, he said nothing, but swaggered, flattered and pleased with himself, and winked his eyes, his sexual appetite aroused, but if I asked him about the conditions the blacks lived in, he had a whole string of arguments ready for me:
"They are a people of the dust. Beat the Negro and he turns, not white, but gray. He's a coward. Make him work, and he gets fat. He's lazy. Moreover, he's a weird animal. If you feed him, he falls asleep. Fuck his wife and you'll find out he has set her up as bait. You've been trapped. They are hogs and sows. Good meat for the butcher. Their god is the jacare, the crocodile: 'Come here so's I can eat you, otherwise I'll get eaten myself.' That's their morality, a nightmare of digestion. And if one of them has a full belly, the whole household dreams of a full belly. The black man is a sorcerer. Don't ever trust him. He likes to be beaten, it helps him to become more proficient in magic, and it's incredible how much punishment they can take without uttering a word or even mumbling a swear word between their teeth. It's their way of defying everybody. Like their dances. They belong to a race that is not of this world."
In spite of having to be on the alert all the time, because of his illegal distilling racket, Chavin's mind dwelt on the past. It was he who first told me about the "flogging tree" from which, in former times, they used to cut the sticks for beating the blacks, and he showed me the last specimen, which he had jealously preserved in a coppice in a hidden corner of the plantation, for he was convinced the time of slavery would soon return.
"Things can't go on like this. It's a mess. The world turned upside down. just imagine, blacks are giving whites the orders and making them work on these new work-sites all around the Morro Azul! The old master would have died of indignation! You've seen them, these black foremen with their high collars and their fancy ties, their fuzzy hair smarmed down with brilliantine and with notebooks and pencils in their hands. They never do a day's work, but by God! I swear they don't miss a trick --- they write down all the fines and penalties, take note of all the laggards who turn up late to work, the sick, the absentees, while these poor white buggers are breaking their backs and sweating in their old rags, half-naked under this sun of ours. Now, doesn't a sight like that tell you something? This whole workforce that's arriving from Europe nowadays will achieve nothing at all, in spite of all their machines, and these fellows don't know how to do a thing. The blacks will fuck their women, I'm telling you! This is no way to Iive. To get good work out of men, you must make them respect you. And nothing but the big stick will do the job. It's been tried and tested."
The big stick or the whip. I questioned him one day about the cruelties inflicted on the slaves in the plantations of former times, thinking that the idle talk I had heard must be exaggerated and doubting this regime of atrocities, which seemed to me contrary to the interests of the master himself, who must surely have valued his flock and looked after them, just as one values and looks after a flock of pedigree sheep, but Chavin burst out laughing:
"Oh, yes, sure! Herr Karl Vogt valued his blacks, he paid enough for them, after all, they were hand-picked at the slave auctions! Herr Karl Vogt was a just and stern master who knew his business and knew how to wield the whip. His blacks worshiped him for that very reason. He had an iron fist and was inflexible. The Negroes came begging for more, and even today the oldest ones still talk about the famous collective whippings that used to be administered here at the Morro Azul, they were epoch-making events, like the batucadas, those wonderful nights of dancing. But, since that time, there aren't any men anymore! The fact that they killed him on the day they were freed is no accident, nor was it an act of vengeance, it was the culmination of a long magic ritual, the last syllable of a formula for casting spells, the last act of their collective madness. A bad dream. What amazes me is that they didn't eat him. Freedom scared them. The proof is that plenty of them came back to the old plantation of their own accord. Come on, I'm going to show you what my father was capable of, and you'll see whether I'm lying when I tell you the black man loves blows. For the supply meets the demand, you know, and if the Negro hadn't begged for punishment, they would never have invented whips, shackles, the thumb-screw, and all the other instruments of torture which were perfected at a time when the primitive hoe was still the only tool they possessed for clearing the land. Come and see. It seems to me you've got some pretty queer notions about the matter, my young master. You can't start up a first-rate plantation, and set out the coffee bushes in nice straight lines, and the rows in orderly rectangles, without bending your back, the ground is low down and only the whip has proved its worth. Come."
Chavin led me to an isolated shed where, after rummaging in a dark corner and knocking over a pile of old things, he brought out some knotted whips to show me, whips with nail-studded lashes, an iron mask they used to padlock on to the heads of certain depraved blacks who ate the red earth, the famous fertile diabase of Brazil which they loved to eat kneaded with white soil (probably barite), chains, shackles, iron neck-halters, a whole arsenal of thumbscrews, manacles, and fetters, rings for the ankles, a double iron choker for the neck, back-braces with sharp points, combs for flaying the skin off the stomach, a kind of clog for crushing the foot, and a Chinese cangue. "What do you say, huh? And if Doctor Oswaldo knew I'd kept all this stuff, I think he'd turn me out, in spite of all the services I've rendered him, because, when it comes right down to it, I'm the one who's saved this fazenda! But I know for sure that the old times will come back again. You've only got to look at the mess they're making of everything all around the Morro Azul. It can't last. It's a joke. You know --- and I'm telling you this under the seal of secrecy, and presently we'll go and have a drink together, at the pool --- it's the people from the bank who gave me permission and who secretly delivered all my distilling equipment. They recommended me to sell as much caninha as possible, and at the highest price I could get, to the workers in the surrounding work-sites, and they warned me not to get caught. What do you say to that, huh? Cunning devils! If you pass this way ten years from now, you'll see the result. I'm telling you, it's all bunkum, what's going on now."
And Chavin started showing me how they used to tie the slaves up with cords, dexterously tying a series of knots, each of which had its own particular name and its particular use, like in the navy, the most complicated being used to garotte the recidivist runaways with their necks tightly bound to their heels, and he undertook to enlighten me on the training of the dogs they used to set on the tracks of runaway slaves, mastiffs, hunting dogs, man-eaters who were trained to give the "stab in the back," ham-stringing a man with a single bite or tearing out his throat. But, that day, I had heard enough and I did not feel like drinking one more drop of his lousy alcohol, so I went off on my own, wandering among the infinite rows of coffee shrubs, which, laid out like a checkerboard or in a uniform quincunx, stretched as far as the eye could see. The imprint of civilization.
God, I was pissed offl
It was enough to drive you crazy, banzo! as they used to say at one time in Brazil of the black slaves who committed suicide in a sudden fit of despair, which was attributed to nostalgia for their lost Africa. The planters were scared stiff of banzo! for it spread like an epidemic, provoking isolated cases of insane fury or mania and decimating the plantations; it was as contagious as the running amok of native workers today on the East Indian and Malayan plantations where these men, on coming into contact with whites and their morality, their discipline and methods of work, find themselves cut off from their tutelary gods of the jungle and are driven to violate all the taboos for a handful of rice, or to commit suicide en masse, a phenomenon not known anywhere else on the planet of Man. Chavin was right, the Negroes are not of this world.
Listen to their music. It is the indigenous voice of their Ancestors. Their magic tom-tom. The voice of God in the wilderness. The heart of black Africa. The last pulsations. Nobody pays any attention. North American jazz announces the end of the world and the Brazilian batutas the end of the reign of Man. Collective suicide.
--- From Le Lotissement du ciel
©1949, Éditions Denoel