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!
Hell on earth, falukorv and little red cottages
Ever travelled through the Swedish countryside? Or at least seen it on TV? Did you notice that the majority of all buildings – homes, barns, boathouses, every shed – are red?
Red cottages with white corners and other white trimmings are as iconic for Sweden as Dalecarlian horses, a Swedish signature mentioned in many songs: “den röda lilla stugan invid grinden” ( ~ the little red cottage by the wicket).
The history of the red paint goes back to approximately 850 AD. That’s when they started mining in Stora Kopparberget (= the Great Copper Mountain) in today’s city of Falun. Over time, the mine developed to a major industrial center, at times delivering two thirds of all copper used in Europe.
In 1347 AD, a Letter of Privileges was issued by king Magnus Eriksson for the foundation of Stora Kopparbergs Bergslag. Today, having extended its operations to several other industrial sectors under the name Stora Enso, this company is considered to be the oldest company in the world still in business.
The ore in Stora Kopparberget contains not only copper, but also sulfur, iron and several other minerals. The methods for extraction were rather primitive and very destructive to the environment. Visitors to the area described the place as a hell on earth, covered by thick black smoke, stinking of pungent sulfur. The air in the nearby city of Falun was so thick of soot and sulfur that people ran into each other, not being able to see more than a few feet. The mine itself was a narrow hole in the ground more than 1,000 ft deep, and there was no vegetation around it for several miles in any direction.
The great scientist Carl von Linné (a.k.a. Carolus Linnaeus) visited the mine in 1734 AD and described it with horror as the hell on earth. He climbed down in the hole on the sinuous and flaccid ladders to find ”twelve hundred black demons working in the caverns, surrounded by darkness, soot and smoke”. The workers died young, coughing, with noseblood, headache, and skin like leather. And the security arrangements were poor: many died in accidents in the darkness. One of the supervisors wrote ”Där går mången till arbetet frisk och röder, Men blir upwindad lytt, förlamad, lem-löös, döder” ( ~ “Many a man goes to work being healthy and red, But is hoisted up maimed, lame, limb-lose and dead.”
The tools used to quarry the rock and copper ore was sledgehammers, chisels and wrecking bars. But before the workers could use these tools, they had to make the rock crack, creating small fissures and become brittle: this was achieved by lighting a fire against the rock wall, keeping it burning for many hours, and finally pour cold water on the rock. This procedure smothered the clime with black sulfurous smoke and a haze of foul-smelling steam. And once the ore had been hoisted to the ground level, it had to be further roasted for several months (!) to get rid of the sulfur content, before it could be refined to copper. Huge amounts of wood was needed; it is estimated that in the middle of the 17th century, more than 3,000,000 cubic feet of wood was burned each year. In 1687 AD, the mine collapsed and created the giant hole that can be seen today.
The smoke from the open fires contained not only sulfur dioxide but also arsenic, lead, and mercury. The consequences were scary: all vegetation around Falun died, wildlife fleed and fish died. In short, Stora Kopparberget was a major ecological disaster. The mine was finally closed down in 1992, and since 2001 it has been defined as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Today, the mine is open for visitors with guided tours in the underground. (With greatly improved security.)
Now, what has this to do with falukorv and little red cottages? By the way, what is falukorv? Wikipedia defines it like this:
”Falukorv is a large Swedish sausage made of a grated mixture of pork and beef or veal with potato starch flour and mild spices. …
In the EU, restrictions apply to what may be labeled ‘Falukorv’ since 2001.”
In plain language, falukorv is one of the most common dishes found on Swedish tables; sliced and fried, baked with cheese and onions, grilled, chopped and mixed with fried potatoes and herbs,… The size of a typical falukorv is about 1 kg.
The mild flavor allows you to add any spice you like – it’s a versatile base for everyday’s dinner. Falukorv means “sausage from Falun” (sausage translates to “korv” in Swedish). But why is it named after Falun?
The ore quarried at Stora Kopparberget had to be hoisted 1,000 ft to reach ground level: this was accomplished by oxen walking in large treadmills. The oxen were of course exposed to the same hazardous smoke as the workers and had to be killed – i.e. slaughtered – ever so often. And the meat was used to make large sausages, that had to be “exported” to other parts of the country… the number of slaughtered oxen and the amounts of produced falukorv were bigger than what could be consumed in the vicinity.
And what about the little red cottages?
A second reason for the time-consuming roasting of the ore (besides getting rid of the sulfur) was to oxidize and thus get rid of the content of iron, which created a cinder of red iron ocher or hematite, called rödmull ( ~ red soil). This was regarded as garbage and was piled up beside the mine. A few hundred years ago, someone noticed that a wooden pole that had been sitting for years in the mound of rödmull showed no sign of rot or decay. This was the start for the production of Falu Röd (Falun’s Red), the paint that soon was on almost every house in the country, since it was cheap and could be mixed on site, boiling rödmull and linseed oil with rye flour and water. (However, since it was rather cheap, people of wealth preferred to paint their houses with more expensive white or yellow…)
The deep red color of Falu Röd is still popular in Sweden and Finland, also imitated in other kinds of modern paint, even if the original still has a large market share. But today you don’t mix it yourself – you buy it in large buckets like any other paint. And it is no longer cheap…
SwedishFreak’s condensed Swedish history continues today with the sixth and final episode.
The internationally most noticed incidents during the last 40 years in Sweden is undoubtedly the murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme, and the murder of Anna Lindh, Minister of Foreign Affairs. Officially, both incidents are explained as impulsive, random killings by misfit persons. This may be true about Anna Lindh. But Olof Palme had many enemies, domestically as well as internationally, for being unusually outspoken, equally obtrusive on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Consequently, many theories have been put forward about foreign agents as well as domestic conspiracies.
Sweden joined the European Union 1995 after a referendum with a narrow victory for ”yea”. Swedes are however reluctant members: another referendum about the currency yielded a ”nay”, why Sweden deliberately has failed to meet the conditions for the Euro zone – currently a good decision. Voices arguing for EU exit are heard increasingly often.
The current neo-liberal government are losing support after dismantling the welfare system and failing to halt the increase in unemployment. Next general election will be 2014… and then what?
If you missed the first episodes, check out our history page (Culture/History) which presents each of the six episodes, or dive directly into Today and the Future?
SwedishFreak’s condensed Swedish history continues today with the fifth episode; all and all there will be six episodes.
The 20th century started with two World Wars; Sweden managed to stay out of both, and has therefore been critized for cowardry. But in retrospect, with all facts on hand, maintaining Swedish neutrality was probably the best way to support the Western Allies and promote democracy.
And many Swedes tried hard to make a difference: for instance, Raoul Wallenberg, Harry Söderman, and – surprisingly enough – king Gustav V, who had the guts to call on Hitler in Hitler’s office, to scold him for his way to treat the Jews! His effort obviously didn’t have the desired effect, but, anyway !
Between the wars began the building of a modern welfare state, known as Folkhemmet, i.e. ”the people’s home”.
If you missed the first episodes, check out our history page (Culture/History) which presents each of the six episodes, or dive directly into Laying The Foundation For Folkhemmet!
Next episode will follow… shortly.