How plagues and grasshoppers changed the Latvian colonies in Brazil

So far, 2020 has been an absurd year. A cyclone in southern Brazil has temporarily prevented the arrival of a swarm of grasshoppers that destroyed Argentina. In the past article, we reported how the pandemic we face today is not much different than what the Latvians in Brazil experienced in 1918. Spanish flu, however, was only the smallest enemy of the decade: years before, locust clouds darkened the skies and they destroyed entire plantations.

For immigrants who left the old continent to make a living in Brazil, agriculture was everything. Your wealth, your way of life. Plantations destroyed in a difficult year could mean famine, and no enemy was as vile as the grasshopper.

Lizete Roze, in letter to her son.

We are doing well and everyone is healthy. But the plantations do not want to grow, due to drought and a complete lack of rain. The weather is still quite cold. The last rain was on the 16th of October, and just yesterday there was frost in the lowlands. The dry, cold wind blows all day, and if the locusts happen to arrive, there will be hunger.

In this article, we will again be looking at the archive of letters from Rio Novo. Due to the vast number of letters, the link to the original letters is in the descriptions. The swarm caused panic among the colonists. Some, like Arthur Leiman, even called them “little demons”, but soon they were given a more affectionate nickname: “Visitors from Argentina”.

The scientific name of the South American migratory locust is Schistocerca cancellata. Coming from the Argentine chaco, the absence of predators and hot winters can cause the population to get out of control. However, the year 1917 saw a plague of biblical proportions, affecting the lethal colonies of Ijuí and Rio Novo:

Olga Puriņa, in letters to her brother in October and November 1917.

The Kļaviņš property is infested with locusts: an immense amount, reaching, due to the weight, to break the branches of the trees.

A cloud of locusts passed by last week, but they did not land. The mountain people say that there are many locusts in the mountains, but they have not started to descend. In Mãe Luzia there are so many grasshoppers that it is a horror, they form a thick layer and they lay eggs. The Kļava [another family] wrote to Rio Novo asking if there is a possibility of them bringing the cattle, because there is nothing else to eat there and it is possible that they will starve.

Emils Andermanis, in his personal diary in 1917 and 1919.

In October, the locusts began to arrive in flight. The local people were very concerned. Some plowed the fields to bury them, but despite these efforts, a month later, they were born knowing how to jump and were the size of a fly. They stayed in packs and moved from side to side and where they arrived they ate everything that was vegetable. A hard fight against them began; ditches were dug and when they got there, we covered them with soil. We sprinkled the locusts with boiling water, beat with brooms, but despite this effort, many remained and became adults.

Again clouds of locusts arrived and destroyed our pastures and were jumping around looking for a place to spawn.

During the night I lit fires whose light attracted them and the flames burned; I also surrounded the candle fields to impede their progress.

Immigrant pushing away a cloud of locusts. Credits: Unijui

Roberts Klaviņš to Reinalds Puriņš in two letters: November e October 1917

You probably already have news through newspapers that in the Province of Rio Grande do Sul several colonies were literally destroyed, including Ijuí [a latvian colony] and its surroundings. The number of locusts would be so great that the railway traffic would be interrupted in the mountains of that province; there in the mountains the thickness of the locust layers would be more than one meter, in front of which the mountaineers and their troops would not be able to proceed, etc…

In the week of October 23, the first flocks began. (…) They devoured a large part of the cornfield and six liters of beans; thankfully, most of it was left, as many people lost everything.

On Sunday, the last day of October, I was going to Rio Laranjeiras, passing by the lower Rio Novo, when clouds of grasshoppers passed over the river. When I arrived in the land of the Paegles, there was even more, and in that stretch of forest side they had landed and were getting ready to lay eggs. (…) The grass of the pastures no longer exists, and poor cattle have nothing else to eat: they just remain immobile.

The Brazilians said that in Capivaras there were also immense clouds of grasshoppers that landed and laid eggs; when the ground is dug with a hoe you can see an immense amount of eggs, so calculate the damage they will do when they hatch in thousands of new locusts.

[The arrival] according to them was frightening, due to the immensity of the locust clouds, comparable to a devastating storm that made the heavens and the earth darken. The people there used everything to try to scare them and make them continue their route, and they think they got some results.

Near Campinas [Note: Araranguá] a large number of these animals, when flying to the sea, ended up drowning; now fishermen can no longer go fishing, as they get bogged down to the waist in the layer of dead locusts that the sea returns to the beaches. We also have news from Florianópólis, that there was so much locust drowned there that the sea returned to the beaches, reaching a layer of two and a half meters high …

Yesterday a white cloud appeared that moved to the sides of the Rio Pequeno and was moving away from the mountains, and it was nothing but another cloud of them. What else can happen only God knows.

There are many people saying that the locusts are attacking the Minadouro region. They say there are so many that they form thick layers. Here they also pass, but flying high and do not land; it happens almost every day.

Olga Puriņa, in letters to her brother in  December 1917.  Her younger brother also wrote briefly about them in other letter.

This year was a year full of tragedies. At the beginning of the year the floods, then the great frosts, the snow, the locusts, a month and a half of immense drought and then, to complete, the fire.

Grasshoppers appeared again near Orleans, also in Rio Laranjeiras, Rio Belo and Braço do Norte. Near Orleans, I had the opportunity to see a cloud of them, the edges of the roads so full that they wheezed; thankfully they’re not everywhere. Where they are they eat everything and start laying eggs. The government determined that people not affected should go to work for at least two days, killing the young; in the fields everything was easy, but in the woods and capoeiras there was nothing to do. If those who are left go up the Rio Novo, they will eat everything. Below Orleans they say there is much more, that on the railroad you cannot see the tracks.

Gazeta do Commercio, from 03/11/1917, instructing settlers to combat the plague. Credits: Jornal Retrô

Certainly, 1917 was the scariest year for the colonists. For many, who had never experienced such a natural catastrophe in Latvia, locusts were almost an apocalyptic sign. The combat was successful due to the colonists’ work and government action. However, swarms of locusts would still plague the colonies in the years that followed, until the late 1940s.

Olga Puriņa, in letters from June, August and October 1918, and one from April 1919

On June 6, just after noon, on the side of the hill of the Griķi [family], locusts started to come, but in an immense amount as I had never seen before. They did not land near our house; everyone headed towards the Liepkalņi [family] hill.

It was a cloud so dense that it darkened the sun and a noise that was a harbinger of a storm. They started to appear at 1:30 pm and ended at 3:00 pm;

This year we had visits from Argentina [grasshoppers]; few have appeared here on our land, but there have been immense clouds in the Klaviņi and Leimani.

Earlier this year we worked hard to eradicate locusts. We all had the opportunity to see an immense amount of these insects. When they passed, they provoked a snoring as dull as a storm, and they even shadowed as clouds do: not even the sunlight could be seen.

In a way, the locusts of 1917 represent the beggining of a change in the Latvian Colonization of Brazil. The beginning of its agricultural decline. The lands that the immigrants had bought from the Brazilian government were rocky, sandy and distant from civilization. At the end of the 1930s, it became clear that those colonies were not proper to mechanization. Factors such as tropical heat and shifting rains, in addition to plagues, have caused a brutal decline in agricultural activity.

When we look at history, we can understand why colonies like Rio Novo disappeared, and others like Vārpa, never became cities. The plague of locusts, that would ravage the colonies for decades to come, forced many to migrate to urban spaces, gradually dispersing the Latvians across Brazilian lands.

Emils Andermanis, in his personal diary in 1920


The locusts also devoured everything from the pasture and crops, and on agricultural activity I had no more hope and I was tired of insisting.


Another wave of locust attacking the colony in Ijuí, 1933. Credits: ´Unijui

Cover image: Ijuí memória virtual
Author: Andreis Purim

This Universal Disease Reached Our Home

How did the Latvians face the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in Brazil?

A week ago Brazil completed 100 days of lockdown. Our country is the second largest Covid-19 hub in the world, accounting 55,000 deaths. Latvian communities in Brazil had to cancel their events because of public health concerns. For the first time in 70 years, the LBBA will not hold the yearly Latvian Congress. The traditional Līgo party in Nova Odessa was canceled, as well as the Latvian Meetings in Curitiba.

Although alarming, 2020 is not the first time Latvian Brazilians face a global pandemic. 102 years ago, the dreaded Spanish Flu plagued Brazilian cities and piled up corpses on the street – and threatened the young latvian colonies in Brazil.

Thanks to the Letters from Rio Novo Archive, we can get a sense of what the colonists thought at the time. On the website are numerous letters exchanged between friends and relatives. In this article, we will only highlight the parts concerning the Spanish Flu, but the complete letters can be accessed by clicking on their respective headings (place and date).

As we have already discussed in previous articles, the first immigrants from Latvia arrived in Brazil in 1890, creating the colony of Rio Novo, in the state of Santa Catarina. In the following decades, several of these colonists spread throughout the south and southeast of Brazil, building cities like Ijuí, Urubici and Nova Odessa.

The epidemic was brought to Brazil by English sailors in Rio de Janeiro in September 1918. But the Brazilian authorities neglected the news of the alarming pandemic that engulfed Europe. At the same time, the population was ignorant of the danger that was to come. It didn’t take long for the disease to reach exorbitant figures. In Rio de Janeiro, 600 thousand fell ill, 66% of the city.

In the year of the pandemic, some Latvian students from the colony of Rio Novo studied in the capital. The first mention of the dreaded disease was in a letter written by Pastor Karlis Leimanis (Carlos Leiman) to his friend Reinalds Puriņš (Reynaldo Purim), who at the time studied at the Theological Seminary of Southern Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro.

Karlis Leimanis (Riga, March 7, 1880) was pastor of the Baptist Church of Rio Novo and director of the colony school.

Cachoeiro do Itapemirim, October 27, 1918

The rumors here, coming from Rio, are to frighten the world. What’s the reality there? Has the “Hespanhola” reached the College yet? Is it still working? We closed our school even without reasons of “bigger force”, because here the “one” does not inspire fear, but the people are alarmed and are the worst. What is your destination for holidays? Already decided? I am proposing a deal to Mr. Reno – If he accepts …? I don’t know – but I want to know your opinion – directly and frankly.

Reinalds Puriņš, born in the colony in 1897, attended the same school and church that Leiman was a pastor. Almost like a mentor, they were both great friends and discussed the issues of the colony. Reinalds had left Rio Novo the previous year, 1917, to study theology in Rio de Janeiro.

The next mention of the infamous disease was made by her sister, Olga Puriņa, in a letter from Rio Novo:

Olga Puriņa (Rio Novo, 1901), Reinalds’ sister, lived in the colony with her family.

Rio Novo, December 18, 1918

(…) It has been a long time since we heard from you, and that is why we did not know where you had been on vacation. The letter of 18 November was lost, as well as that of 7 October.

(…) The letters are probably lost, since several ships were not allowed to enter the port of Laguna because of many passengers with the “disease”. So, no wonder that so many letters were lost.

We are all healthy. None of us got this disease. Here in Rio Novo some caught the flu and in Orleans some have already died, but none of us. Some are so afraid that they will not leave their property to avoid getting the disease, but I often go to Orleans and I didn’t get anything.

Weeks ago the Griķi were sick, but nothing serious. Old Somers is very sick, but not with the flu. So Lūcija sent Dad to make the coffin. Dad was there with the Griķi all day and we were worried about the possibility that he got the disease, but nothing. Well, there would be again [the possiblity].

(…) [Jurgis Karklis] said that in Porto Alegre people die like flies and that vehicles walk around the streets picking up corpses – more than a thousand a day, which makes it impossible to bury everyone. In São Paulo and Rio it is also the same; he was saved because he carried a glass of cresol close to his nose at all times. But he is gaudy, very pompous. (…)

The colony’s relative geographic isolation – close to the coastal mountain range – delayed the arrival of the disease for only a few months. While entire Brazilian cities were devastated, the settlers only knew about the news from travelers. The first infections among Latvians began on Christmas 1918.

Olga Puriņa. Unfortunately, the letters sent by her brother have not been preserved.

Rio Novo, January 8, 1919

(…) This time I have nothing good to write to you. We would be doing well if it weren’t for this epidemic, this universal disease, which reached our home. You may have already forgotten about this disease, but it is only now that it has come this far.

This epidemic has been in Orleans for a long time and here in Rio Novo too, but here at home it started with a headache and tiredness, body slack. As the day was very hot, I thought it was because of that. The other day I had nothing more, just a little cough, and so my illness gave way with a good sleep. Lūcija had to lie down on New Year’s eve. Arthur and Mamma after the New Year. We are hardly bedridden, but only with a lot of cough. But with Papus [“dad”, Jānis Puriņš], who always held on while the others were sick, started on Sunday and he went to bed- and it’s longer than us all together. Today it looks a little better.

It seems that there was no home where no one was sick. Now the Klaviņi and Leimani are sick. Here in the colonies it is not so strong, but there in Orleans several Brazilians have already died due to this disease; also many, after having a hard time, came to recover.

In Orleans, two “hospitals” were improvised: one at the cinema and the other at Jurkis Jakobsons’ house. Some Latvians who went to visit these places said that in a place like this it is very likely that the patients will only get worse and will hardly be able to heal, as there is not the slightest ventilation: the windows are all kept completely closed and it gets hotter inside than a sauna.

(…) [About Christmas festivities] Visitors were not as many as the other years; one explanation is that due to the flu epidemic, several people have avoided gatherings, (…)

[Written on the side:]
9-1-19 – Today I received the newspapers from 12/14/18. Letter, none. I will have to wait longer. Sincere memories from Olga.

Fortunately, Olga’s family survived the epidemic. However, the disease took some of the older settlers. It is not known how many Latvians died due to the Spanish flu of 1918, but reports seem to indicate that colonies were not hit as hard as cities.

Olga passed away due to hookworm complications in 1926.

Rio Novo, February 5, 1919

(…) We are thankful now, thank God, all are healthy and we can all work again. As I already wrote in another letter, that “Spanish” [Spanish flu] settled in at home, but now he’s gone and not all of us were very affected. The one who stayed in bed the most was Paps who stayed a whole week.

Work, as always, we have too much. (…)

[Postcard dated with Orleans’ stamp: 12 February 1919]

Old Somers died on December 20 at the Griķi’ house and the funeral was the following day. Recently, he was so bad that he didn’t recognize anyone and couldn’t move.

Jurgis Karklin, as I already wrote, is at home, but now he doesn’t hear the great “pompe” telling those great things, nor does he talk about leaving. (…)

Then, by the end of 1920, the pandemic slowly loosened its grip. Without hospitals or any aid, the latvians survived the Spanish Flu. The Colony withstood this arduous test of resilience and continued to be the home of the many, many immigrants who had made Brazil their home. However, this was not the Latvian’ last encounter with the disease:

Karlis Leimanis, before being pastor of Rio Novo, had run away from home to live among natives. The rest of his life he was a missionary in Paraná and Bahia.

Castelo (ES), July 25, 1921

Yesterday I arrived back from Vitória, where I spent a whole month traveling, I am now leaving behind 9 more leagues on horseback [almost 60 kilometers], I will be home on Saturday to start classes on Monday.

The weather is very cold and rainy and the people are sick with the Spanish flu. (…)

So it leaves us – those who live today – the task to learn from our ancestors. No matter how desperate or worrying the following years become, we can always look back and see how different, but how similar, our lives are. In the future, it will be our turn to tell our stories to new generations. The Covid-19 pandemic will become one of many challenges in the history of Latvians Brazilians. So, it is up to us to learn and preserve these stories to be told in the future.

Cover image: 1918 field hospital set up at Club Athletico Paulistano in 1918 / Reproduction
Autor: Andreis Purim
Special thanks to Alice and Arvido Purim