Vidigal – Early 19th and 20th century

I’ve transfered part of a post on the Vidigal Beach Privitization here, and elaborated on the history of the neighborhood, its namesake and the first men to own the land. I’m also adding some 1918 images at the bottom.

The favela of Vidigal, between Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Sul neighborhoods São Conrado & Leblon has a history that predates its occupation by European immigrants and poor Brazilian migrants. The most interesting stories about the place now known as Vidigal involve two white men who would not have been pleased knowing their property landed in the hands of the poor and discriminated classes.



(Vidigal – by Firmino Monteiro, 1880)

In the 1820s, during what was Brazil’s First Empire, the top enforcer in the colonial Carioca police force, and one of the most influential and powerful men in Rio de Janeiro was Major Miguel Nunes Vidigal. Being as important as he was, he often received gifts, some of them lavish, such as the land on which a favela now exists.

The city of Rio, back then, much like now, was said to be chaotic, where robbery and murder went unpunished. The royal response was Major Vidigal, who was said to be a cold-blooded, vicious person – a destroyer of quilombos and a hunter of escaped slaves – who not only hated criminals, but practicioners of candomblé, samba and capoeira. This often translated to the poor and those of darker skin, who were routinely tortured on his orders and by his hand, with a whip he carried on his person. The Major’s reputation would eventually give rise to the phrase “lá vem o Vidigal”, which came to mean something terrible was coming, as he was also known for his “Ceia de Camarões”, a particularly nasty torture session reserved mostly for capoeiristas, those without work and, by relation, serenata singers.

Two stories of note come to mind regarding the type of people he usually targeted. Despite his distaste for these types, it is said that he once successfully called upon capoeiristas to fight off a drunken revolt by German & Irish mercenary troops. As for serenata singers, he once told a judge that the only thing necessary to convict the person presently accused was to have a look at his fingers, as they were obviously those of a guitarist!

Epigram by playwright Arthur Azevedo

Naquelle tempo, Vidigal famoso,
Mais rancoroso do que um bicho máu,
Tinha jurado aos deuses seus prender-me
Para metter-me na policia o páu.


1820 – Benedictine monks gave Major Vidigal an extensive piece of land on which they had a monestary, ranging from the slopes of Dois Irmãos to the sea, where he built the Chácara do Vidigal.

1886 – Vidigal’s heirs sold the property to Engineer João Dantas whose dream it was to build the Sapucahy Railway betweeen Botafogo and Angra dos Reis. Having just started work on laying railway, the Melhoramentos da Lagoa Company complained the project was harmful to its efforts to sanitize the lagoon, thus it was the end of line for Dantas, yet the work later served as a basis for Av. Niemeyer’s construction.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 5.24.19 PM

1911 – British professor Charles Armstrong acquires the abandoned land of the canceled project to serve as the seat of his Anglo-Brazilian School.

1913 – Mr. Armstrong, looking to facilitate access to his school, improved upon the small strips of road Dantas had created, and cleared the way to Leblon. Up until this point, the only way to the school was via the Caminho do Céu, a dangerous zig-zagging “road” from Leblon.

1915 – Commander Conrado Niemeyer, owner of much of the area’s surrounding land, extended Armstrong’s road all the way to Gávea beach (now São Conrado beach).

1941 – the occupation of the favela began in the area between Av. Niemeyer & Vidigal beach.

1942 –  Av. Niemeyer was extended, the Estrada do Tambá (now Avenida Presidente João Goulart) was occupied.

1950 – the shacks from 1941 were removed and placed above Av. Niemeyer.

1958 – the community was threatended with eviction by the industrial enterprise Melhoramentos do Brasil.

1967 – with the creation of the Resident’s Association, the eviction was avoided.

1968 – construction of the Sheraton Hotel was started on Vidigal Beach where apparently the Hotel Colonial existed previously (I cannot find more than one mere mention of this hotel).


Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 11.44.55 AM

An Englishman named Charles Wicksteed Armstrong, who had previously been working in Manaus for a British shipping company that imported Amazonian rubber to Europe, was hired to tutor the grandchildren of the then São Paulo governor – likely the city’s very first – Antônio da Silva Prado. In 1899, Armstrong created the Gymnásio Anglo-Brazileiro (The Anglo-Brazilian School) in São Paulo, and due to its success, opened a branch in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, in 1910. After a robbery and a taxation problem in the year that followed, he gave up and restarted in “Gávea” at his newly-purchased property, the Chácara Vidigal – sold by the owners who in turn had bought it from the Vidigal family.

Thus, long before the favela, and before the hotels Colonial and the Sheraton, the year 1911 brought the Anglo-Brazilian School to the beach at Vidigal. There, Mr. Armstrong created not only a school but a dormitory and a pool on the private beach with the intent of living there himself and preparing young boys from wealthy families for university.


An interesting side note in my research – Mr. Armstrong both a fan of eugenics, and author of at least one book on the subject, and he planned to open the first eugenics colony in Brazil in 1933. Whether his views permeated the school’s teachings and vision remains unknown but it does give one reason to pause.

Being a lifelong admirer of Spain, he eventually sold his school to the Colégio Stela Maris (which still exists) in the mid-1930s and returned to Europe to live with his Spanish wife and four children. He would return to Brazil once more with his family to open the Armstrong School in Petrópolis. As for what became of him after this point, I cannot say, though a webpage by one of his sons speaks of his life growing up and living as an adult in Rio.


Part of the caption above: “On this spendid dwelling, students enjoy pure air from the ocean, forest and mountains.”


1 – The great open-air pool, recently inaugurated at the Anglo-Brazilian Gymnasium, situated on Vidigal Beach, in Leblon. Athletic games, Swedish gym and military exercises, the administration of the great educational establishment just added, with a large and magnificent pool for swimming, one more very valuable means for the physical culture of the students trusted to their care.

2 – A group of students waiting for the order to take their morning bath.


1 – The Machine housing, where one can find the electric motor and the pump through which the swimming pool is filled up with sea water. Next to it, Charles Armstrong, the school’s director, and some swimming students.

2 – Another view of the pool.


Vidigal Beach privatization


Vidigal Beach, in São Conrado, one of the most beautiful and reserved of the Zona Sul, almost became private property of the Sheraton Hotel in the 1960s – much to the despair of the residents of the favela that have been going there since the 1940s. As incredible as it sounds, it only was saved due to the union – until then unheard of – between the “morro” (the favela) and the “asphalt” (a term for non-favela residents).

“There was a lot of residents who had mansions on Av. Niemeyer who also felt hurt by the project”, remembers Armando de Almeida Lima, ex-President of the Residents Association of Vidigal in the 70s. “It was the people from the asphalt that brought down the lawsuit. But our union was also very important. We succeeded in getting hundreds of signatures against the construction of the hotel both in the morro and on the asphalt. When you find yourself being squeezed, it’s no longer about social class. Shortly after the construction was halted”, he says.

The Sheraton was built in 1967 in the place of the old Hotel Colonial, that shared the beach with an old colony of fishermen – who were also removed during the construction process. The plan to stop access to the sea was barred in court after a petition was passed around the mansions and the shacks of the region. Armando says construction was only retaken when the owners of the hotel promissed to put in a new stairway to the beach in place of the old one that went through the hotel.

“They first made one of wood which rotted quickly. Only later was a cement one built, the same one that’s there today”, he says.

Colony and Colonial share the beach

The history of Vidigal Beach has always been directly connected to the favela. Many will say the first residents of the favela were fishermen from the old colony. The furniture upholsterer Luis Alberto Corrêa e Castro, 64 yrs old, and a resident of upper Vidigal since the 50s, says the beach was always a kind of extension of the favela.

“Today we still have an ‘Olympic village’ (a gym of sorts), but it’s at the very top of the hill. And a soccer field in the neighboring favela. But the beach is really the residents’ preferred way to have fun. When the summer comes everyone comes down the hill”, says Armando.

1158845459_f(Just before the construction really began – source)

According to him, tourists, residents and fishermen share the space in peace. “I remember this kind of thing happened back when the Hotel Colonial was standing, too. The guests stayed in some cabanas at the edge of the beach and sometimes they’d offer cold water to kids from the favela. In any event, we have many rich neighbors and this was never a problem”, he says.

About the Sheraton project regarding the privatization of the beach, he guarantees that he never thought it’d become reality. But, of course, he was worried about it. “The beach is public and everyone knows it, but you can’t mess around! I think the hotel owners wanted to put in a deck, a dock, or something similar. For them it would be great but it didn’t stick”, affirms Luiz Alberto. “The beach doesn’t belong to the Sheraton. The Sheraton is the one that was build on our beach. ‘Ours’, no, it belongs to the whole city! It made a lot of noise back in the day but they sorted things out afterwards. And today the beach continues to be where we have a lot of fun”, he says. – Source (PT)

Click the source link for a poem by Vinícius about the beach, about when he used to go there in the 50s and 60s.