Brazilian Sketches



The Father of Lightning

by Rudyard Kipling

Light and Power

Such as are desirous to pass between Rio and San Paulo by sea, repair to the foot of the main Avenida and hail a steamer, because steamers there are plentiful as ‘buses.

We took ours one evening when the City had lit up. The wonder of her lights began as we worked out through the harbour and before the main town. It swept back in jewelled loops along the scalloped sea fronts and the diamond-dusted heights behind them; broke for a few minutes like a snapped necklace, while we thumped round an intercepting headland, and caught the breath in the triple glories of Copacabana beach, with a monstrous square of white light from a high ivory building for central gem. It ended, far along the coast under the nearer mountains, while these themselves were outlined against liquid hazes that hung above hidden sections of the tiaraed city. When, at last, the revelation closed, it was as though one had watched Balkis herself draw the curtain after viewing the treasures of King Solomon.

A weak moon handed us over to the coastal lights all down the velvet-soft, milky-warm dark, with now and then some small, palm-crowned islet sprawling in the moon-glade.

Ancient Santos

We reached Santos, port of San Paulo, beneath the brassy glare of a West African sky; loafed up a Dutch-like river that twisted through too-green flats; and tied at a wharf where all the world’s steamers were unloading goods of luxury, mechanism, and apparel, or taking in coffee-bags that slid along furlongs of moving floors, and decanted ,themselves, like headless Gadarene swine, into their proper holds. Stacks of unripe bananas came downstream in barges and added to the arsenic-green deck-loads of cream-coloured steamers with black and scarlet funnels. The atmosphere was that of Southern India, but the men only wore straw hats, for sunstroke is not. In the old days, ships could lose their crews twice over at Santos from yellow fever; and the bankers and merchants of the port fled every evening to the hills a dozen miles inland, that they might live till next day. At the worst of things, when the Port lay immobilised, and someone up-country wanted a consignment badly enough to risk sending for it, it was the custom that he might snatch whatever first came to his hand in the silent, unmanned warehouses, and settle the bill with the executors. “Believe me, we didn’t waste time looking for private marks on packages.” Later, they drained the marshes, and fought out the fever, and lorries took the place of mules, and everything is now clean. But the ancient fierce city, with its light-coloured houses and choking coffee godowns, still seems to talk under its breath of the slave-barracoons and the sickness. People use the place now as a sort of Brighton, and come down for the day from San Paulo, fifty miles away, and race about the hard sand beaches in varnished cars.

The Attack on the Hillside

We headed out of it by a red road beside a two-track railway—chaired, not spiked—and ran across a country of planted bananas towards a range of cloud-capped mountains which wall in the back of Santos, as they do Rio, and, indeed, all the coast from Bahia down. One spur showed a pinkish chafe divided by a vertical black line. “That’s the new Power Station where we are going. The train will be hauled up the range by cable. So will you, but not in the train. ‘Pity those clouds are so low. They’ll spoil the view.” The car swerved into a side-road like the foothills of the Himalayas, though the climate was more than ever Madras. One smelt construction-works in the banks and cutting under the purple flowering scrub of the hills, and the raw drains alongside ran red and busy. We halted in a red basin at the foot of enormous downward-plunging pipes that came out of a flat-floored cloud-ceiling two thousand feet above. Tile and concrete bungalows were going up on all sides—proof that this would be some permanent headquarters; but there were also wood and tin buildings—one of them an unmistakable, and grateful, mess-shed—which suggested Canada, but did not account for cranes that leaned over a little, astonished river who was obviously carrying far more water than she had been made for.

The mix-up of countries and associations was sorted out at mess, as the talk distributed itself among men who had been hanging on to the face of the wooded cliff above them for the past two years. They had suffered most things—the treachery of the soil, which resembles Roquefort cheese; the forces of wet and dry; the failure of stuff to arrive, and when, at last, it did, the humouring and coaxing of it into place; the heart-breaking devilries of side-issues developed in an instant, and met by stick-and-string devices – possibly in the dark with mud up to the knees. (Those ripped and gashed rain-gullies looked as if they could be made in a very few minutes.) But now the ringed pipes had come all the way from Silesia, and had been got into position on their five-thousand ton concrete blocks that dive sixty feet into the dirt; the valves had been tested and the rebel waters let in; and the men had wiped the wet out of their eyes and were already looking for something fresh to curse. It was a soul-expanding lunch in the Engineer’s shack, and all the while the pipes said nothing but climbed up, parallel as old-fashioned twelve bores, into the flat clouds, while small red-dyed men tinkered beneath the five-foot bellies.

Decency v. the Dynamo

We moved over to the new Power House where some few gallons of the floods impounded above are being used. The terrific mile-length of water dives two thousand feet on to wheels armed at their tips with split buckets, set edge-on to six and a half inch jets. The whole contraption—it is called a Pelton Wheel—then goes round rather quickly. Two such wheels give life to a Hooded Devil—Abu Bijl’—the Father of Lightnings—who must be approached bare-headed, or the mere intake of his breath will snatch your hat from off your head. He is known to his servants as a Dynamo (of many thousand horse-power) and he spins upon the largest bearings in the world.

Out of his enforced agonies is born “power,” which everyone, of course, can explain, but which no one knows anything about, except that it will bear watching. And when, because of the Pelton Wheels (for whom he is not responsible) Abu Bijl’ develops power to his normal capacity, it is—that it may go further at cheaper rates—damned and devilled up from six thousand volts to eighty-eight thousand by means of “transformers” which are skeletons of Chinese Pagodas with porcelain teetotum tops. These are placed outside the buildings; so, if the overwrought “power” flares up, the scandal is confined between discreet wing-walls of concrete, and the oil which is necessary to the transformation (as corn and wine produce strange results elsewhere) can be run off at once. The whole process is Christianly called “stepping up.”

The rest of Abu Bijl’s tale is as simple as Adam’s own. Having created this power, most of Man’s time and energy are turned to keeping it within bounds. Heaven’s waters from the high hills cannot help making the wheels go round; Abu Bijl’ cannot help making the “power”; and, in that very act, he is forced to develop a conscience. There is a quiet floor in this building where the thunders of the released waters from the wheels are scarcely heard. Here lights change colour; numbers drop as on a hotel-board, but cannot be pushed back again; figures climb to certain heights and there register their ineffaceable maxima; governors report what licence they have given to the governed, and what advantage has been taken of it; and the grosser forms of electric sin clock in silently and go away. All this to the end that no single thing in the whole installation may for one instant presume to break away from the need of the load, the accident or the moment without saying so, and—this is the Hell of it—without waiting for the Superior Mind to put it right! They call that Science! Yet now and again the generous tropical thunderstorm shows what “power production” really means. Even so, men have devised “lightning arrestors,” which, like the transformers, live outside the premises. But I had noticed, on the wall of another building, blue smudges of the same pattern as the lightning once printed on a house of my own. So I hope that Abu Bijl’ is sometimes cheered by the bright faces of companions glancing in.

He was playing with his work while I watched him, and his masters’ telephones told him what more or less power was needed as the trams and trains came on and off in distant cities, and a pen on a drum wrote down what he was giving. In which humble posture I left him, “eyeless at Gaza.” Very soon more brothers will be bolted down alongside him, and more after that if needed; for the Power House has been designed to expand like a patent book-case over the little astonished river.

Sweet Waters

Then we went to look at the waters above the firmament which hung so low overhead. They hauled us up the face of the mountain in a packing-case cable-car beside the pipe-way, and all the vivid landscape, dropping out like the bottom of a box, lay beneath us till we saw right into hot Santos and her tiny ships two thousand feet below. They had had, they told us, some bother with this hillside after deforesting it for the pipes, and were now planting millions of eucalyptus to hold the soil together. But the local ant liked the wood, too, and they thought of gassing him out. They said that when you once began interfering with Nature you had to go on.

Thus our trolley was drawn up into the cloud, and all the known world vanished. We stepped off the cable-way into white nothingness on the edge of a cement road that swung round a corner out of and into space. An unseen motor bellowed beneath us, and tore past—some gentleman of leisure on his way to San Paulo. Our own car followed, and raced us uphill into dense invisibility of thicker cloud. On our right was the shadow of tall forests. On our left ran a sinister white glare that suggested very long drops. The Engineer was a little annoyed at this, because he had wanted us to see his chain of lakes. But how could it be otherwise? The mountain-range stops and milks every cloud from the sea, and draws twelve foot of wet annually. If it didn’t, there would have been no dam; and, so far as we were concerned, there wasn’t—any more than in a working laundry. The Gods were after much finer effects.

The shadow of a thirty-foot cement-mixer—which might have been the brute syenite for a statue of Rameses—hove out of the thickness, and almost at the same instant earth opened in a deep violet red trench which men far down were still deepening. This was a flank of the dam. They were digging back on to firm stuff for a concrete wing of it. We caught the sputter and chuckle of waters falling from a height as though to back the statement. That was the Dam not fifty yards off. When completed, they said, she would stand over a hundred feet high on the face, and would hold back—they gave us the figures in cubic metres or kilometres. The Dam, unmoved by their flatteries, chuckled again, but showed nothing of herself, except one second’s glimpse of leaden waters withdrawn like a skirt whisking round a door.

We tried another angle. Here the world went down like a wall. From the statue of Rameses projected an enormous boom whose block and tackle depended into the abyss and were lost. They served a construction-line below, but how far below we could by no means guess. So there we stood blindfolded. One could hear men and tools at work all round; the very lap of the ripples on stone, but of the Dam which was the heart of all not a hint or a trace came through—just the low laugh of invisible waters escaping into freedom !

Power on the Air

So the engineer was annoyed. But his work till then had been too ridiculously easy. The plateau at the top of the dripping range slopes away from the coast in little crumpled hills, which are not much good as farming land. All he had to do was to plug up the necks of certain valleys with concrete, and wait till the year’s twelve-foot rainfall drowned them at leisure. While thus employed, he came across a river and its system which was following its prehistoric courses southward towards Buenos Aires. Happening to notice that its watershed was nothing to write home about, he dredged it a little and dammed it a little, and coaxed it to turn its unwanted flood-waters (for it was a temperamental stream) into his dams and through his Pelton wheels, at the foot of the range, and so across the flats into Santos—coastward instead of south. I think a tunnel or two was involved; but, at any rate, he has now a system of inland lakes and seas, connected by his sorts of plumbing, and capable of indefinite expansion if he plugs up more valleys. The requirements are always expanding, as San Paulo discovers that she can make more things for herself, or another railway or two goes in for electrification that they may be shut of English coal-strikes; and it is the simplest of jobs to put up extra Abu Bijl’s in the concrete prisons. They say now that they could deliver half a million more horse-power from this place alone; and this is but one of the several places that stand round San Paulo and sell more power to its elbow.

But they forget that, a few years hence, the Mystery that now fights its way up and down wires will be on the air for sea-work and the shipping industry will be represented by experts at switchboards doling out, on directional beams, the Power that various steamer lines have contracted for. Then the storms of the oceans will translate themselves into peaks and valleys on the indicators, as the far-off, wet sea-captains haul in and slack off their supplies just as their winches to-day deal with their mooring-ropes. At that epoch (which will be heralded by the harakiri of the Oil Barons) Brazil, sitting with her back to illimitable electric power, will sell it between twenty-five North and sixty South on both sides of her continent—westerly to the 180th meridian, and easterly to somewhere on the far side of dry Africa.

All of which I explained to the Engineer in words of one syllable. But he, having spent his whole life doing inconceivable things, said I was “visionary,” and went on talking about his paltry half-million supplementary ponies.