The Brazilian flag has featured a lot in London recently, what with the Olympics, the Paralympics and the choice of Rio as the seat of the Football (or Soccer) World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. So much of the international bunting I’ve seen has got it wrong and many have asked me of the Brazilian flag’s meaning.
I still rack my brain as to why people who like their free time and relaxation so much have opted to design what must be the most laborious flag throughout the five continents. Yes, it’s a green background, a yellow diamond and a blue globe masquerading as a coffee bean, but that’s just for starters. An elliptic band runs through the coffee bean proclaiming ‘ORDEM E PROGRESSO’, a nineteenth-century positivist slogan, beloved by the military who declared the Brazilian Republic; so unlike in other countries illiterates or primary school kids can’t draw it.
The green (for the forests) and yellow (for its gold) Brazilian flag colours pre-existed in the old Imperial flag of Brazil after Independence from Portugal. It was designed by none other than Jean-Baptiste Debret who also founded the Brazilian Royal School of Arts in Rio de Janeiro; still the country’s most prestigious arts school. The generals wanted continuity, so they kept the background.
But they introduced 27 five-pointed white stars. Yes, like in the USA each one represents a state. But no, unlike the US of A, they are not formalised on the left-hand side, however many they are: they appear in their correct constellations inside the coffee bean, as they appeared above Rio de Janeiro in the night of November 15, 1889 when a Presidential democracy was declared and the Emperor Pedro II was deposed.
The lone star one on the top above the ‘O’ of Progresso is Spica (Alpha Virgo) which symbolises Pará. In the bottom half you get Scorpio for the Northeast – with Piauí the Alpha star, Ceará the Epsilon and so on. Once you’re done with Scorpio, you’ll have to repeat the exercise for the Southern Cross: São Paulo is the Alpha star and Rio de Janeiro the Beta, Minas the Gamma and Bahia the Delta – even in the flag the big states ensured that their pecking order was immortalised by relative astral luminance. Then we have the aptly named Southern Triangle (Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul) and for good measure there is Canis Major and the Hydra, too.
You have to draw no less than five constellations inside half a coffee bean to get the flag right: only miniaturists with an astronomical bent need apply.
Which is why I love the flag. It’s so fastidious, it makes me want to become a fly on the wall in a Brazilian school just to see the pupils sweat out their design assignment on 19 November – Brazilian Flag Day.
John Malathronas’s second edition of Brazil: Life, Blood, Soul is now available on Kindle.