Reminiscences of my 60 years in South America
Trevor Stephenson 1915 - 2015
Arranged by Tony Morrison

Trevor's plans were changed and his next stop for the Booth Line was Parnahyba - or Parnaiba on the Brasilian coast about 280 kms east of São Luis. The old town is set on the banks of the Parnaiba river and some distance from the sea. The main port is at Tutóia or Tutoya facing the Atlantic. The climate is warm and often very humid. The Booth offices were grand for the time and housed the British Vice-Consulate and the residence. A shield with the Royal Coat of Arms is over the door and the staff are gathered outside


Parnahyba 1937 -1943
PARNAHYBA - 1937/1943
"Take Mr. Stephenson's plate away"


The 16th December 1937 was a glorious day

The sky was bright blue, the sun was shining and there was a gentle breeze blowing. I had just finished breakfast when I heard the sound of the anchors being dropped. Rushing on deck I looked around. The Booth ship Polycarp had just anchored in Tutoya Bay. All around was low lying land covered with carnauba palm trees and lush vegetation. Small sandy beaches ringed some of the nearby land. In the distance I spied a small group of white houses with red tiles roofs and some straw roofed huts. Was this Parnahyba where I would be spending the next few years? Seeing the consternation on my face, the Captain approached. "Don't worry. That is Tutoya. Parnahyba is still many miles up river." I was relieved.

No sooner had we dropped anchor, when the tug boat Criado arrived alongside towing several lighters laden with cargo for England. The Authorities who were aboard the tugboat, climbed aboard followed by the Booth head clerk, Alarico J de Cunha., an academic and author of several works. He informed me that due to the arrival the next morning of another Booth vessel to load cargo for the States , I would have to spent the night at the hotel in Tutoya. He suggested that I take with me my pyjamas and toothbrush as my trunk, with all my worldly possessions, would be put aboard the tug Sao Bento, which would be arriving that evening towing two more lighters filled with cargoes of Carnauba Wax, Cotton and Wet Hides for loading for the States [USA] aboard the incoming vessel..

I had visions of spending the evening in a luxurious hotel, seated on the veranda under the stars and the light of the moon drinking exotic concoctions brought by white clad waiters. Perhaps I should have had some doubts when Alarico suggested, nay, urged me to remain on board the Polycarp for lunch.

At 4 pm the Polycarp proceeded on her way. Alarico and I boarded the Criado which steamed away for Tutoya landing us at a small wooden jetty.

Tutoya in 1937 had about 1000 inhabitants, mostly fishermen or stevedores. There were no paved streets and electricity had not yet reached the town. The few houses were simple, made of bricks, and cement floors and red tiled roofs. The Hotel was single story like all the houses and was the largest building in the town.

There was no Reception desk. Instead an old stoutish woman whom I took to be the owner, plonked a well worn book in front of me and told me to sign my name and add the number of my passport. After registering, I asked to be shown to my room. "Room?" snorted the old woman, "We don't rent rooms, we rent hooks." The sleeping quarters was a large room with a Carnauba pole suspended at both ends running down the middle.[A pole of Carnauba wood] Along each wall were 14 hooks. There were a number of wooden chairs, which had seen better days, up against the walls. Seeing my state of shock, Alarico reassured me that this was the norm here and that the Company had provided a hammock for me. At the far end of the room was a rather faded length of cloth slung from a wire stretched across the room which served as a division between the area for the women and that for the men.

At 6 o'clock, a Petromax lamp was lit and hung over a long table. Alarico, myself and l5 other guests sat down on long wooden forms. Bowls of rice, guisado de gallinha [
stewed chicken] and two steamed fish were placed on the table together with farinha d'agua and farofa [based on manioc /cassava]. Everyone immediately grabbed their spoons and began to pile the food on their plates. I gingerly helped myself to a piece of fish, "You had better take some of the guisado as well, otherwise there will be nothing left.", said Alarico. Thus I learnt early that here in North Brazil one piles all the food available on to one's plate at one and the same time. Dessert was the usual Goiabada and a banana. Alarico bought a bottle of Antartica beer which was reasonably cold from being in a refrigerator running on kerosene!

Women retired first

I was anxious to see what the sleeping arrangements would be. The women, some 5 or 6 including a couple of young girls, retired first. Then the men entered. By this time all the women were safely in their hammocks at one end of the room. I noticed that none of the men wore pyjamas. They slept in their undervests and pants. The only light was a Petromax lamp and when everyone was in their hammock, the stout woman owner of the Hotel came and removed the lamp!

Next morning, up at 6, we lined up to use one of the three bathrooms each of which had a 200 gallon gasolene drum filled with cold water and with a half gourd or cuia floating on the surface. Having soaped myself and thrown gourdfuls of water over myself, I dried as best I could with a small hand towel almost entirely devoid of towelling. I got dressed and sat down to breakfast, This consisted of a roll of bread, goiabada and a cup of black coffee.

That same evening, we boarded the Sao Bento, a very superior type of tugboat. Towing 4 laden lighters, we set off for Parnahyba. It was full moon so I enjoyed seeing the scenery and was lulled by the constant hum of the engines. Next morning I noticed that the coffee on board tasted rather peculiar and had a slightly browner colour than normal black coffee. I drew Alarico's attention to it. "Oh. that is because it is made with river water. When you are on the tug, never stir the coffee, otherwise you will only stir up the mud. Let the mud settle to the bottom of the cup and you will find the coffee tastes quite good."

The tug master, Tomas, was a mine of information. He pointed out the various trees and seemed to know what each one was. He told me about the delicious fruits of the region and how succulent was chameleon. He suggested I should buy a gun and then when I went on following trips by tug, I could shoot some of the animals he talked about and he would have the cook of the tug prepare them in a very special way.

At times the tug would ground on the bottom. Then the sailors would have to jump ashore with ropes which they tied around a strong tree and around the capstan in the bows of the tug. The capstan pulled on the ropes and slowly dragged the tugboat over the bottom until it reached deeper water.

Next afternoon, the 20th December, the tugboat tied up to the dock wall at the end of the main street, Rua Dr. Joao Pessoa I stepped ashore. I had arrived in Parnahyba. Walking up the main street, we passed the offices of such well known firms as Morais & Cia, Franklin Veras and Zeca Correa Then we came to a large two story building, the Casa Inglesa, a large general store selling everything from cloth to typewriters to generators. The firm was founded by an Englishman, James Frederick Clark, who married Dona Mada Castello Branco. The eldest son, Federico Clark, was the Brazilian Ambassador in Tokyo. Septimus Clark, married to Dona Aracy, was the manager of the Casa Inglesa. Next door and on the corner of the street was the Booth House and Office. A large single storey house with the entrance in the middle. The right hand side was the office whilst the left hand side, apart from the Manager's office and British Vice Consulate, was the residence.

R.J.Smith, a remarkably kind man in his middle 50's with snow white hair and ruddy complexion, met me. After shaking my hand, he took me into the office and introduced me one by one to the staff. My office was at the back where I was to be Cashier, Accountant and Assistant Manager.

RJ suffered terribly from the heat

RJ suffered terribly from the heat so he drank vast quantities of iced beer which made him sweat from every pore. He used to keep strips of blotting paper beside him on his desk in the office. Every few minutes he would pick up a strip, blot himself with it, then lay the now sodden piece of blotting paper on the other side of the desk. When he had used up all the strips on his right, he would then reverse the procedure by taking the by now dry strips from the left.

As a result of all this sweating, he suffered from prickly heat rash especially under his arm pits and back. Often I would see him seated in a cane chair in front of the open veranda, stripped to the waist, arms supported on two chair backs. But he would still be calling for more iced beer! He had our kerosene refrigerator moved to the side of the dining room table so he could get a bottle of beer without having to get out of his chair.

It was early afternoon so I spent the time unpacking and taking stock of my surroundings. There were three bedrooms. That in the front was reserved for the Booth Engineer when in residence. My room was the middle one. I noted that my bedroom had mosquito netting covering the window looking out over a small garden. The door was also protected by a spring door fitted with mosquito netting. The Manager had the bedroom at the end of the house which was the coolest one. The sitting room opened on to a large veranda with a view of a small garden with a number of coconut palms. Some weeks later, RJ called a lad from the square and told him if he cut down all the coconuts he could keep one coconut in every five. For several days we drink coconut water and scooped out the tender flesh with spoons. There was a full size billiard table and a piano. The bathroom had a large wooden tub kept filled with water and the usual half gourd. Although there was a shower head, it was seldom used because all the water had to come from a well in the garden pumped up by windmill or, when there was no wind, by the house boy using a hand pump. The water was stored in a tank on the roof but the water needed to be used for the kitchen, toilet and in the bedrooms.


' no one, and I mean no one, sleeps with the cook'

Whilst awaiting dinner, RJ, as he was known, suddenly said to me "We had better get certain things straight from the beginning. The Booth Engineer, when he is here, sleeps with the maid, I have my own little girl friend but she comes in by the back door so you won't be bothered by her. But the rule here is that no one, and I mean no one, sleeps with the cook. I hope I make myself clear!"

Around 6.30, RJ clapped his hands and called out to the maid "Pode trazer jantar e uma cerveja estupidamente gelada" (Bring dinner and a very iced beer) . We sat down at the table. Insects of every conceivable sort were milling around the electric light. The soup was served. Just as I was about to take a spoonful there was a plop and a large black beetle landed in my soup and started swimming towards the edge of my plate. I backed away, screwed up my face and said "Ugh!" Then another beetle fell in the soup. "I don't feel like soup this evening", I cried.

"Take Mr Stephenson's plate away" RJ called to the maid. The next dish was macaroni, the tubular sort, with stewed pieces of chicken. Cutting off a piece of macaroni, I put it in my mouth. It had a not unpleasant nutty taste. "This is rather nice", I exclaimed, "what is it? RJ looked puzzled. "Don't think it is anything special" I carefully slit open another piece of the macaroni. It was stuffed with what looked like dark brown grains of sand. I looked more closely. "Heavens. it is stuffed with ants!" Getting up from the table, I hurried to the bathroom. Upon my return, I decided I wasn't hungry. RJ looked at me, then quietly said "Give you a week and believe me you will be sucking the insects which fall into your food so as not to waste anything!"

The house also had a number of small lizards or 'lagartos' which would stick on the walls waiting for small insects to come their way. They were inoffensive and caused no problems. We also had a resident toad about the size of a kitten which spent much of the time in a corner.

As there was no water laid on in Parnahyba at this time, those who did not have a well in their back yard had to rely upon the river. Mules with two large earthernware pots slung either side would wade into the river until the water filled the pots. Then the mule owner would walk them around the town selling the water. Most people filtered their water to obtain drinking water.

We also had one of those large porous stones, hollowed out in the middle. Water would slowly penetrate the stone and drip into a large earthernware pot. Our filter always seemed to have a green seaweed like growth on the outside. Joaquim, our house boy, was supposed to keep the stone not only filled with water from our well but clean. However, he claimed that each time he cleaned it, it meant that we had no water to drink for the rest of the day. This didn't worry RJ who never drank water claiming that it would rust his stomach. The only liquid fit to drink was beer! I drank the water without any problem. In fact I would drink any water provided that it was transparent.

Booths had the best cook in town....

She produced some wonderful meals on the old iron grate. Soup was usually a potato or rice soup with pasta in it. But she could turn out a delicious canja de frango (a kind of chicken soup). We had camarao (prawns) done in sundry ways most days. Baked river fish several times a week. Chickens were apt to be tough and stringy so they were always done as a guizado. Sometimes we had roast sucking pig. Wonderful! One day the cook produced baked armardilo. She covered it in mud, then baked it. The outer shell of the animal came away with the mud. Small crabs (siri) she baked with cheese and bread crumbs. Roast beef occasionally appeared. Her desserts were not too good. A rice pudding made with condensed milk was very sickly. Flan de leite (milk flan) ditto. Mostly we just had goiabada, cheese and banana. Other fruits were pineapple (ananias) bacuri, jaboticaba and caju. [cashew]. The first time I ate caju I ate part of the nut with the result that all the skin came off my lips! I learnt to discard the nut in future!

Booths used to allow us to purchase food off the ships at ships' prices. When I went to Tutoya, I would take a list with me containing a whole ham, side of bacon, marmalade, cheese, butter and tea. Kippers were 1 1/2d a pair Whisky was l7/6d per bottle and Gin 5/6d but neither RJ nor myself drank spirits in those days.

There was an old English woman who had been so long in Parnahyba that she had forgotten most of her English. She asked me to get her a bottle of Guinness when I went off to one of the ships. She explained that she would have a soupspoonful every evening before going to bed. "For her health" she told me.

The town of Parnahyba only had the principal streets paved, the remainder being sand. There was the Hotel Carneiro opposite the Booth house and used mainly by travelling salesmen. I never went inside. There was also a Cinema in the square Praça da Graca. Inside there were wooden forms instead of seats. The Morais, Correas, Clarks and ourselves would send a boy with chairs to the cinema when we wanted to go so that we had something more comfortable to sit upon.

In front of the church was the main square, Praça da Graca, where, each evening from around 6 pm, the young people of the town would amble round and round therefore giving a chance to meet a girl friend. Etiquette was very strict. I was warned: "Don't go inside a young girl's home without a friend or you may find yourself suddenly married for having compromised the girl." "Don't dance more than twice with the same girl at a dance." It was still the custom for young romantic boys to court their girl friend at her window. He would stand out in the street whilst she looked out of an open window. Most houses had the front windows looking straight out on to the street.

In the evenings many families living on the side streets would bring chairs outside on to the pavement. Although there were no paved roads, most houses had a cement pavement in front. There they would sit enjoying the cool evening air. The men would put on decorative pyjama coats.

There was a railway station. A daily train went to Teresina, the capital of Piaui, and one train came to Parnabya. At weekends and holidays, there was a train from the town to Amaração, later known as Luis Correa. There were a number of halts on the way at places where the elite of Parnahyba had their holiday houses. One halt was called Floriopolis named after a Dona Flora. Booths had a holiday house on the beach although it lacked any sort of furniture and when I went there, the constant wind whipping up the sand was quickly wearing away the bricks and roof tiles.

"Who is this Sra.Maria with so many daughters?"

Shortly before Carnaval, I went to the square and asked one of the girls if she would be going to the dances. "No", she replied, "Sou filha de Maria".[I am the daughter of Maria] I asked another girl. This one too said "Não posso, sou filha de Maria". I asked several other girls, always with the same reply. I was puzzled so I asked "Who is this Sra. Maria with so many daughters?"

The people of Parnahyba were all very friendly and everyone seemed to know everyone else. I had only been there two days when girls began telephoning me at the office "Olha, Ingles novo, porque nao venha a praca hoje a noite? (Hi!, Young Englishman, Why don't you come to the square tonight?) It was good fun!

After I had been in Parnahyba a short while, I began to be invited to family parties, social gatherings and impromptu dances. Being fond of dancing, I could always be counted upon to dance with any girl without a partner. This gave me the opportunity to observe local family customs. Families were very close-nit with poor or widowed females being given food and accommodation although they were usually kept well in the background. One would see shadowy creatures passing behind doors.

School children wore special uniforms complete with the school badge. Girls wore white undervests and white blouses, long skirts, stockings and shoes whilst boys wore long or short trousers, white shirts and shoes.


...most of the girls were skinny and small breasted

Inside the home young girls up to their teens wore a simple and old dress and panties. Bras seemed never to be worn so far as I could make out. Anyway most of the girls were skinny and small breasted. Boys wore shorts and sometimes a small shirt. Both sexes were either barefooted or went about wearing wooden "tamancos". I noticed that children of both sexes had lots of scars from insect bites on their legs.

Sundays and feast days almost everyone went to Mass wearing their best clothes. There was no dancing or cinema so the only entertainment was walking round and round the main square or sitting at the various cafes drinking guarana or eating water ices.

Any girl getting in the family way was instantly banished from the home and she could only become a prostitute. Word quickly spread around the town and she would quickly be visited by young men and married men as well. I knew one case of father and two sons all visiting the same girl!


'white shirt with separate white collar...

Dress for we Englishmen consisted of white linen suit, mine was of Irish linen from Robinson & Cleaver at 9d per yard, white shirt with separate white collar, white socks and brown shoes.

My best friends were two of the sons of Celso Nunes who was the Panair Agent [Panair -airline] and had his office on a corner of the square. They were Reg and Jimmy Nunes and we had great times together. They had a sister Sonia whom I fell in love with. Only trouble was that she was a lot taller than me which meant I had to stand on something if I wanted to kiss her.

There was a great shortage of small change in Parnahyba and the shops used to give sums of Rs 200 and Rs, 500 in the form of postage stamps, pins or sweets. Booths had an Oficinas where the tugs and lighters were repaired. I was cashier so I had to pay the workmen every Saturday. Since most of the wages ended in Reis, it meant buying small change from people coming to Parnahyba from the interior who charged 'agio' of 6% [the value of the difference in the exchange].

"Why not issue tokens?" I thought. Cutting out small ovals from an old folder, I stamped these with the oval Booth & Co.(London) Ltd rubber stamp, inked in a value from Rs100 to Rs 500 and initialled the cards on the back. I told the workmen that when they had accumulated tokens to the value of Rs 1$000, they could redeem them at the office for a One Milreis coin. They accepted my tokens and all went well. Then one day, a shopkeeper came to the office with a bunch of my tokens and asked me to redeem them. They amounted to almost Rs 3$000 so these tokens of mine were even being accepted by the local commerce!

We paid!

They only means of communication with the outside world was by telegraph which was controlled by the Post Office. Our telegraphic address was "Booth, Parnahyba! which we had to register each year. In January 1938, a man came from the Post Office for us to pay the annual registration fee. As I handed over the money, he said "Would you like to see your competitors' telegrams. It will only cost Rs 50$000.?" I was rather surprised especially when he continued "Your competitors pay to see yours." We paid!

Since only a few of the streets were paved, there were only a few motorcars in Parnahyba and people would ride about on horseback. The firm owned a horse which was known as "Steamers' Joint Expenses" which was the account to which the upkeep of the horse was placed. It was mainly used by one of the capatazes to ride to a small island which Booths owned and where the lighters were often loaded with cargo for shipment. I soon acquired my own horse, which I called Crispin. Most afternoons at 5 pm when the office closed, Joaquim, the houseboy, would saddle the horse and bring him round to the office window where I had my desk. I would leap through the window, on to the horse and ride around the town. At weekends, I would take "Crispin", across the river at a shallow part and ride on to the Booth Island. Once there, I would remove all my clothes, except my hat, and leaving "Crispin" tethered, I would wade into the Parnahyba river and sit on the bottom with just my head above water. I found this very cooling. One Sunday when I was sitting in my usual place which was on a bend in the river, I saw a canoe full of young girls rounding the corner. Suddenly there were shrieks and shouts, fierce back-paddling and the canoe disappeared back to where it had come. I thought no more about it until that evening I was in the Main Square when I overheard some girls taking about a frightful experience they had had. They said that they had gone for a sail in a canoe down river when, coming to a certain bend, they suddenly saw a head floating in the water coming towards them. They said it was obviously the head of someone, I forget the name they said, who had been murdered some years previously and whose head had never been found! I did not let on that I knew whose head it was!

On my first trip to Tutoya after arriving in Parnahyba and having purchased a small bore rifle as suggested by Mestre Tomas, I boarded the "Sao Bento" ready for anything. Suddenly Mestre Tomas rang for "Slow" on the engine telegraph and as the tug slowed down, he pointed to a tree. "Look! There is a chameleon there. Take aim and shoot it." I did so and the beast fell with a splash into the river. Quickly one of the crew of the tug hopped into a canoe alongside the tug and paddled toward the animal. It was dead. He picked it out of the water and back on the tug gave it to the cook. That lunch time I feasted on one of the most delicious dishes I have ever had.

Another time, I shot a small jacaré or alligator. Tomas warned me that one only ate the tail part. I found it a trifle fishy. Once going with him down to Amaração, we got into a canoe and steered towards some mangue trees. Sticking to the roots, now exposed at low tide, were dozens of oysters. We quickly filled an old 5 gallon gasolene tin with them. These were the famous Tree Oysters. We also caught a number of small green crabs known as Siri which our cook made into a succulent dish.

Septimus was very proud of his daughter

One evening I was at a local dance when I saw a most attractive tall dusky maiden. I asked her to dance although my face was more or less level with her navel. She informed me that Septimus Clark was her father. Later that evening, I was invited by Dona Aracy Clark to have a drink at her table. I mentioned that I had been dancing with her daughter. With a look of great disapproval, she informed me "I have no daughter!" Later, I learnt that the dusky maiden was the result of a gay moment by Septimus and a washerwoman. Septimus was very proud of his daughter.

I often went bathing in the river opposite the Island with Luiz and Alberto Silva. They warned me never to put my feet on the bottom in case I stepped on a ray fish. These have a habit of lashing out with their tails, which end in a sharp barb, which can cause a nasty wound. Afterwards, we would all go over to their island for a drink of beer. Naih Silva had married Julian Clissold, Booth Manager in Sao Luiz. I also knew the two sisters, Titia and Miloca.

The work in Parnahyba was very different from that in Maranhao. In the office I was in charge of both the Cash and Accounts, I wrote the letters and looked after the Workshops when the Engineer was absent. When the arrival of a ship was announced, I had to pack some clothes, 2 or 3 tins of sardines and a tin of condensed milk and set off in the tug for Tutoya, anything up to 2 days trip. Upon arrival I would round up the Captain of the Port, Medical Officer and two Customs guards. Then we would go in the tug to board the ship anchored in Cajueiro bay. Whilst the Authorities attended to their business, I would confer with the Chief Officer as to which holds to work. Then I would return to Tutoya, round up stevedores, take them by tug to the ship and advise the Capataz as to which cargo was to go into which hold etc. On one occasion, work ceased because of a discussion between the stevedores and the Chief Officer. I went down into the hold. The Chief Officer wanted the bags of Carnauba Wax to be stowed in one corner of the hold whilst the chief stevedore wanted them to go somewhere else. I felt that the CO was right so I said "You will stow the bags here" and I took hold of a bag and was about to throw it into the correct spot. However, t he sack weighed 65 kilos and I couldn't even budge it. All the stevedores burst out laughing but it did the trick. The Chief Stevedore said "Come on. You are too small to move a sack like that. I will do it."

On my second visit to Parnahyba, the Manager had been replaced by Bolivar Kup. One Sunday the cook sent word that she would be unable to come as she was ill. As it wasn't wise to eat at the few restaurants in town, Kup suggested we took one of the chickens we had in a corral, kill it and we would have it for lunch. The problem was how to kill it.. Kup had a shot at it with his .22 rifle but holed a saucepan. Finally we cut its head off with a meat cleaver. Then came the problem of how to remove the feathers. Too difficult and time wasting so we raided the larder and finally settled for boiled eggs and a tin of sardines!

'The timber will sink....'

Shortly before I left Parnahyba, we received a visit from our Engineer from Belem who arrived with a number of baulks of timber to repair the slipway at the workshops. The timber was on one of the lighters and being over 12 feet long, they required two cranes to discharge them on to the dock. Only one crane was available, the other being under repair. The Engineer told the men to push the baulks overboard and float them to the slipway. "The timber will sink to the bottom" said the Foreman. "Don't fool me" cried the Engineer, "the wood will float". With that, he and the workman alongside him gave a heave and shoved one of the baulks of timber overboard. To his astonishment, the timber disappeared sinking to the bottom. The timber was what is called iron wood!

I made many friends whilst in Parnahyba and was very sorry to leave. I caught the train for Teresina via Piri Piri. Then I caught the next train for São Luis arriving on 17 October 1944. From here I caught a Cruzeiro do Sul plane for Belem. A total journey time of 4 days.


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