We’ll never know if there were any native Swedes among the crews of Vikings that were the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas, but later waves of Swedish migrants arriving in North America aboard the famous liners of the Cunard Line were among the main settlers of the Mid-Western United States, helping make the country what it is today. However, what’s less well-known is the story of those Swedes who chose a slightly more far-flung destination, heading not for the wide open plains of the Dakotas, but the tropical coast of Brazil and the steamy Missiones province of Argentina. Altogether it’s estimated that around 1.3 million Swedes emigrated to the Americas in the century up to 1930, and it’s believed that around 150,000 of them settled in South America.
With official encouragement from the Emperor Dom Pedro II, many of the migrants headed for Brazil, settling in towns like Joinville and Itui in the south of the country, which also attracted a large number of other European settlers, especially from Germany. In fact, you can even visit the Swedish Cultural Centre in Ijui, although it has to be said that the city isn’t exactly on the tourist trail, located well in-land from the Brazil holiday hotspots of Rio de Janeiro and Paraty. On a suitably Swedish note, however, it is known throughout Brazil for the excellence of its healthcare!
However, it seems that the promises made by the recruitment agencies that had brought the Swedes to Brazil weren’t fulfilled and many of the migrants moved on after a few years, heading down the Atlantic coast of South America to Buenos Aires and the Misiones province of Argentina. The big draw for them was the free land being offered by the Argentinian government there to grow yerba mate – a tea-like herb which is consumed in colossal amounts in South America. In Argentina the new arrivals settled and prospered, building and improving the land, much as their relatives had further north in the United States.
Their success attracted more migrants, and by the turn of the 20th century, the Swedish-owned Johnson Line was sailing regularly from Stockholm & Gothenburg across the Atlantic to Rio, Montevideo and Buenos Aires. In fact, in a little-known slice of history, they are indirectly responsible for the colors worn by South America’s most famous soccer team! The team is Boca Juniors, who hail from the historic dockside district of La Boca in Buenos Aires, and the story goes that when they were choosing the colors for their new uniforms, they agreed that they would base it on the flag of the next ship to pull into port. That ship was the Drotting Sophia of the Johnson Line and so ever since then Boca Juniors have worn the blue and gold of the Swedish flag! In fact, to mark their centenary in 2010, they played in a uniform which basically was the Swedish flag!
The Swedish contribution to life in Argentina can be seen today in place and road names like Villa Svea and Picada Sueca in Misiones Province, but also in the capital, Buenos Aires, where many later Swedish migrants made their homes. Many worked as engineers and doctors and they were able to socialise and enjoy a taste of home in the elegant Swedish Club on Avenida Tacuari. You can visit the Club today and its excellent Swedish restaurant is open to all. Detailed records of Swedish emigration are frustratingly hard to find, but if you think you may have had Swedish ancestors who sailed to Buenos Aires, you can check the Norwegian National Archives which have microfilmed church records from the late 19th century which include places of birth – because there wasn’t a dedicated Swedish church in Buenos Aires, many Swedes attended the Norwegian church instead.
Of course, the 21st century has seen a whole new wave of Swedes looking to start a new life in South America, but it’s not the good agricultural land that’s the attraction so much as the great weather and fantastic beaches that Brazil and Argentina have to offer. So if you’re ever on holiday in South America then don’t be surprised to hear a little Swedish on the streets, even though there isn’t an IKEA in sight…
This post is by Dan Clarke, who works for www.realworldholidays.co.uk, a tour operator dedicated to bespoke travel in South America. As a proud Welshman, he found out about the Swedish migration to South America whilst reading about the similar Welsh journey to Argentina, and thought it would be good to share!