The electric tram is an electrically-powered urban vehicle that runs on tracks and is designed for public transport of passengers and/or cargo. The Portuguese word for tram, ‘bonde’, is derived from the English word bond. In England, when this form of collective transport was created, a public bond campaign was launched to generate funds for the installation of the service. From there came the Brazilian name ‘bonde’.
The electric tram’s history in Recife is intimately tied to the political and social history of the city. After all, for practically forty years these vehicles circulated Recife’s streets. The tram went along with progress, socioeconomic changes, fashion, and the rises and falls of governments.
The electric tram service was officially inaugurated on 13 May 1914, in a festive ceremony with the presence of the then-State Governor of Pernambuco, General Emydio Dantas Barreto, and other authorities. The population went to the streets in the city centre to see the new and modern means of transport, operated by the English company Tramways.
The trams were tall, but they had straps to help passengers get on. They measured three metres in width, and hand wide wooden benches that could accommodate five or six passengers on each one. On the larger trams, with two trucks (two axles on which the extremities of the wagon chassis rested to enable it to turn around corners), the chairs could be flipped from one way to the other. The ‘there and back’ lines, with two cars passing side by side, took up practically the whole width of the streets that, in general, measure eight metres maximum.
The slow journeys to neighbourhoods far away from the city centre, with people seated close together, in an airy environment, allowed for conversations, reading newspapers, books and magazines, friendships and relationships. It was forbidden to smoke on the first three benchesand in the first class cars.
Strict adherence to tram timetables was a company requirement, keeping up with the standards of British punctuality. As well as the timetables, delivered to the tram drivers, there were punch clocks with which the drivers had to record their journeys both ways.
In the early hours of the day, the noise of the tram’s iron wheels on the tracks began. It was the only means of public transport available for both rich and poor as the automobile was a luxury item, imported from the United States, and only a few people owned them. Everybody used the tram.
From midnight, starting to leave the company’s sheds (stations) were the so-called ‘employees trams’, which were also used by people who worked at night, typographers, police officers, dock workers from the Port, and also bohemians. From three o’clock in the morning, the trams began to run to the regular timetable of the Várzea, DoisIrmãos, Tegipió, Casa Amarela, Beberibe, Peixinhos, Boa Viagem, and Olinda lines. Later, when the day was already light, the trams left on the other lines: Água Fria, Campo Grande, Ponte d’Uchoa, Iputinga, Areias, Casa Forte, Zumbi, Derby, Largo da Paz, PinaandJiquiá.
Coupled to the first class cars, going through the suburbs in the city’s western zone, principally Várzea and Dois Irmãos, were the second class cars full of bundles of vegetables, baskets and hampers of fruit, and packs of every kind of merchandise destined for the markets and for trade in general. There were also closed trams. For example, the Zeppelin tram was the most beautiful vehicle on the tracks, and operated only on the Olinda line, driving a carriage with the same characteristics and equal size of a motorised carriage.
From eight o’clock onwards, the trams circulated at maximum capacity, to keep up with the demands of commerce, banks, shipping agencies and public offices. At midnight, the trams returned to the Santo Amaro, Fernandes Vieira andJoão Alfredo stations.
The ever-expanding city spurred on the number of tram users. However, supply could not meet demand, which led to its decline. Several factors contributed to the demise of this public transport: population growth; social changes; the revolutionary process of 1930, which altered the country’s political and administrative situation; the territorial expansion of Recife, with the creation of new neighbourhoods and the implantation of new industries; and the arrival of foreigners from various nationalities due to the Second World War. All these factors contributed to the excessive crowding in trams, which began running overflowing with people clinging to the balusters, the so-called ‘pingentes’(pendants), often causing accidents – especially when one tram passed another, or passed a truck whose body knocked off and killed one or more people who were clinging to the straps. This overloading accelerated the structure’s attrition, causing defects at a greater frequency, forcing the cars to be taken out of circulation for repairs in the sheds.
With the War, the importation of replacement pieces to repair the vehicles – motors, electrics, lights, wood for the benches etc. – was becoming difficult. Makeshift repairs were made for the problems that appeared. When the trams broke down, they ended up being towed to the sheds.
The disappearance of these vehicles, so many that rendered such good service to Recife, was a long and slow process. While it was possible to maintain the service, even in poor condition, people used the tram service until its total extinction in 1956 to 1957.
The popularity of the trams served as inspirations for sayings and popular expressions that entered folklore, for example:
Andar nalinha (do bonde) Walk the (tram) line – Be proper and sincerein business.
Cara de bonde (Tram face) – two-faced people who you can’t trust.
Pegar o bonde errado (Catch the wrong tram) – fool oneself in regards to the success of an endeavour or business.
Quem vai pra farol é o bonde de Olinda (What goes to the lighthouse is the Olinda tram) – I’m not falling for this crap.
Saltar do bonde em movimento (Jump off the moving tram) – interrupt copulation in the final moments to avoid pregnancy.
Tocar o bonde pra frente (Touch the tram from the front) – carry forward a resolution or business that has been paralysed by doubting its success
Today, for anyone who wishes to relive their memories or find out about a tram, there is one small-type, with 36 places, on display to the public in the gardens of the Museum of the Northeast Man, provided through a lease signed by CELPE and the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, on 5 March 1985.
Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2012.
ALVES DA MOTA. No tempo do bonde elétrico: história sócio-pitoresca dos antigos bondes do Recife.2. ed. Recife: Celpe, 1985.
HOUAISS, Antônio. Pequeno dicionário enciclopédico Koogan Larousse. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Larousse do Brasil, 1979.
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Source: ANDRADE, Maria do Carmo. The Electric Tram in Recife. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009