Rio de Janeiro’s Military Legacy: Fort Copacabana

Rio de Janeiro’s Military Legacy: Fort Copacabana


ABOVE: Fort Copacabana

There is considerable military lineage in this beautiful Brazilian City—invisible to most and yet, clearly present all over. For instance, international flights land at the terminal that shares space with the Galeão Air Base. Anyone climbing the Sugarloaf Mountain actually starts the lift at Forte São João, home to the Brazilian Army Fitness School. The Fortaleza de São João da Barra do Rio de Janeiro is a 16th century fort established by Portugal to protect the Guanabara Bay from French invasion. The busy commercial harbor today is dominated from the installations of the Arsenal de Marinha do Rio de Janeiro (AMRJ). The base dates back to December 1763 and was designated Arsenal Real da Marinha when the Portuguese Royal Family arrived in 1808. Indeed, considerable military activity takes place all around the metropolis. Who can forget that ahead of the 2014 World Cup, 2500 soldiers, in full combat gear and backed by Marine armored vehicles, moved swiftly and silently through Rio’s favelas (shantytowns)?

Brazil, as the US, is a federated nation, consisting of a federal government, state governments and local governments. Copacabana is a bairro (neighborhood) of Rio, famous for its beaches, hotels, restaurants and bikinis. By the way, nudity supposes to be banned at the beaches—that is the reason for the design and popularity of those diminutive swimwear as a way to circumvent the law. The Copacabana neighborhood is one of the many running along the pristine water front: Flamengo, Botafogo, Leme, Arpoador, Ipanema and Leblon.

Duque de Caxias turret, equipped with two 305 mm Krupp cannons (J. Montes)

Copacabana Fort

At the south end of Copacabana, and basically a separation point to the Ipanema neighborhoodand a short distance from the Cantagalo Metro Station, we found the Copacabana Museu Histórico do Exército. This is also an active military base, but the public is allowed into the fortress and down into the confines of the fort where two massive and formidable turrets remain. The Brazilian Army started construction of the fort in 1908 into a headland facing the beautiful beach and protecting the entrance to Rio de Janeiro Harbor. Construction ended in 1914. At the water edge of the fortress there are two armored turrets: one holding two 305 mm Krupp cannons, called Duque de Caxias, and the other holds a pair of 190 mm Krupps, called André Vidal. The turrets were able to rotate 360 degrees and had a field of fire extending between 20 mts to 18,200 meters.

The Museum is open to the public between 10am and 6pm, Tuesday to Sunday, and admission in 2015 was R$6 per adult. The public actually enters a guarded gate leading to the front parking lot of the fort. This is an active military base, so installations to one side of the fortress remain closed to the public. An old gate, with a guard in colorful vintage uniform, and an admission booth, signal public entrance to the old base; however, before you get there, there are several guarded buildings. The corridor leads to a three-story holding the military museum, where we found a number of exhibits focusing on different periods and events in the history of the Brazilian Army. The two main themes cover the Colony-Empire Hall and the Republic Hall. The Colony-Empire Hall, inaugurated in 1996, presents the Brazilian Army history as related to the colonial period, including the occupation and Brazilian expansion and the genesis of national ground force beyond the imperial period, covering the independence and the participation of the Brazilian Army in the war of the Triple Alliance. The Republic Hall, inaugurated in 1998, presents the Brazilian Army in the republican regime up to 1945; it also covers the Armed Rebellion, the modernization of the Brazilian Army, the contribution of Marechal Rondon to Brazil and the participation of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force.

Vickers Armstrong Mark XIX 152.4 mm cannon at Copacabana (J. Montes)

Behind the building is the entrance to the original fortress, and the corridors lead to the barrack, and ammunition areas. The exhibits mimic life inside the fortress, with mannequins found in the infirmary, the bunk beds and other interior areas. The corridor leads to massive mechanism and firing system used by the turrets and the guns. Follow the signs to the roof of the fortress where the beautiful Bay is clearly visible, and the armored turrets holding the massive artillery pieces give a surreal feeling. To top it, in the horizon there are numbers of cargo ships coming into this coastal city.

The fort functioned as coastal defense, so its corridors are completed with a number of exhibits and artillery pieces. There are Hotchkiss 5-barrel revolving cannon and other unusual weapons on view. One of them is the British 152.4 mm Vickers Armstrong howitzer. The models exhibited here are Mark XIX 1914/1917 types acquired by the Brazilian Army in 1940 from the US. There are two casements where it is said that 75 mm guns were once emplaced, and there is also a small restaurant overlooking the bay where a nice cup of coffee or several caipirinhas can complement the view. By the way, caipirinhas is a national cocktail made with cachaça (distilled alcoholic beverage), mixed with sugar and lime.

Rio de Janeiro Fort mock-up (J. Montes)

The garrison led a revolt in 1922. At the time the City of Rio de Janeiro was Brazil’s Capital, and the government was in the hands of a central government dominated by a coffee grower oligarch class and the military. The executive power was challenged by a coalition of merchants, bankers, white-collar workers, industrialists and other civilian groups, as well as junior military officers, most of them trained in Europe, and constituting what it known as the Tenentism (for lieutenants). This exploded on July 5, 1922, when lieutenants sparked an attack from the Fort against the government. The movement was supposed to have included several other military installations, but at the end, only the Fort Copacabana, some elements of the Military village, Vigia Fort, the Realengo Military School, the 1st Engineering Battalion, navy and army elements actually revolted. The batteries at the fort fired against several important government buildings, opening the attacks against the old republic. The government responded by dispatching the 1st Army Division, two battlefields and a destroyer to bomb the base, with the rebel positions receiving counter-fire from the dreadnought Minas Geraes, and two navy aircrafts. The base finally surrendered, with the last stand made at the beach by 18 officers, led by Antonio Sequeira Campos and Eduardo Gomes. The coastal defense artillery was disbanded in 1987, and the fortress was deactivated as well as a coastal artillery post. It then transformed into the present Brazilian Army Museum and remains today as one of many historical military points in the area. By comparison to other installations, the Museum is small. Given its location and beauty, the Fort is scheduled to hosted the marathon swimming and triathlon for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

One of the exhibits dedicated to the Expeditionary Force at Copacabana Fort (J. Montes)

1: Brasília was inaugurated as Brazil’s capital in 1960.