KEIR RADNEDGE in MANAUS —–The daughter of the man who built the Crystal Palace is not the face one expects to meet in a World Cup city, let alone a World Cup city in the heart of the Amazon.
Yet there she is, sitting on a giant lily, in a faded photograph on the wall of the old market in Manaus. The link is a powerful one and appropriate to the very word because it was the chain of iron and steel and steam of the industrial revolution which opened up this world. Turned the world on its head, even.
The British, the Portuguese, the Spanish and to a lesser extent the French and the Dutch sailed below the equator in search of new lands, new sources of minerals.
The combined force of British engineering, French culture and – yes – commercial avarice raised the ideal of a European city of trade and culture in the Amazon.
Hence the inclusion of Joseph Paxton’s daughter, Annie, as a tribute to his engineering marvel, in a poster history of Manaus which decorates the inner walls of the wrought-iron imitation French market down on the banks of the Rio Negro.
In the late 19th century Manaus was that European city transported. Fortunes were built on the lucrative rubber trade which was itself the foundation of the romantic colonial wonder of Manaus.
The greatest surviving emblem of that Xanadu is the magnificent opera house, the neo-classical Teatro Amazonas.
Governor Eduardo Ribeiro had a vision in which no expense should be spared to bring the Italian operatic allure of La Scala to his ‘Paris of the Tropics.’
Rubber even underlaid the surrounding roads so that the clip-clop of horses’ hooves outside should not disturb the musical extravaganza within.
But the British took the rubber ‘secret’ to Malaya and developed a rival industry there at a fraction of the cost. The Brazilian rubber trade collapsed and Manaus with it. Even Henry Ford, with his dream of a Fordlandia automotive city at nearby Santarem, capitalising on Brazilian rubber, conceded defeat in the end.
Hence Manaus today: a big, sprawling, mixed-up provincial Brazilian capital which seeks to ‘sell’ itself, via the World Cup, to the rest of a largely ignorant Brazil, never mind to foreigners.
Force of both history and practicality means that Manus tends to look north, towards Venezuela, rather than south towards the rest of its own country. After all, while it lies a five-hour flight south of Miami it is full four hours north west of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
The annual music and drama festival, with more than a thousand performers and technicians, coincides with the World Cup.
Unfortunately the fans of England and Italy, Croatia and Cameroon and the rest may blow through without time to stop and listen or explore this most exotic of World Cup hosts: a living city and a ghost town all in one.
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