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B&W archival magazine image of men sailing a jangada.B&W archival magazine image of men sailing a jangada.

Naval Engineers and a Fishing Raft

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What makes something well-engineered?

Contributed by Libby Meier, Assistant Curator, Hart Nautical Collection, MIT Museum

For decades, a light log raft with a stone anchor and simple sail was on display among the ship models in the Hart Nautical Gallery in MIT’s building 5. Roughly (though carefully) fashioned, the raft was a distinct contrast to the heavy models of European ships, modern yachts, and cutting-edge warships that shared the gallery.

But how did this model get to MIT?

MIT’s jangada model, on display in the Hart Gallery in Building 5.

The raft’s story begins in 1939, when the Brazilian government dispatched two budding engineers, Aniceto and Jose Cruz Santos, to MIT. The two were part of a group of ten Brazilian naval cadets enrolled in MIT’s Course XIII-A, which, since 1904, had provided technical training to officers that designed ships for the US Navy.

Three years later, Aniceto, Jose, and their peers returned to Brazil and applied their education to all areas of the country’s shipbuilding industry, from introducing computers to the Brazilian navy to running major shipyards to organizing a naval architecture program at the University of Sao Paolo. Before leaving Cambridge, however, Aniceto and Jose presented this model sailing raft as a gift to MIT.

Called jangadas, these traditional Brazilian rafts developed from indigenous craft. While Brazil was a Portuguese colony, jangadas linked plantations major colonial ports like Salvador de Bahia and Recife, helped unload ships, and were used for fishing. The people who sailed them were both enslaved and free, often of African, indigenous, and mixed heritage. On the water, the jandadieros, as jangada sailors were called, directed their own time, hired themselves and their rafts to move people and goods, and sold the fish they caught. Even for enslaved jangadieros, jangadas offered a measure of independence in a plantation society.

After the abolition of slavery, jangadas stayed in use as fishing boats in Brazil’s northeast and became a highly visible element of regional life. In 1941, four fisherman made national and international news by sailing their jangada 1,650 miles to Rio de Janeiro to protest being left out of Brazil’s social security system. Even today, they are a defining feature of Brazil’s northeastern provinces.

An article on Manoel Olimpio Meira’s 1,650 mile journey on his jangada appeared in Time Magazine on December 8, 1941.

Like a full-size jangada, the model in the MIT Museum’s collection is made of light, buoyant piuba logs that can’t be swamped or sunk by breaking waves.The raft’s flat bottom allows it to slide over eastern Brazil’s shallow coral reefs and be hauled out on a beach.The moveable sail, steering oar, and centerboard let a sailor manipulate the physics of wind and water with a level of control unavailable in European style boats. In New England, sailing a jangada would be cold and uncomfortable. But in northeastern Brazil, it is a very functional craft. After four centuries of change, jangadas are still in use.

Model Jangada, donated by Aniceto and Jose Cruz Santos in 1942. Made in Brazil, c. 1940.

Simple, traditional, built by eye: the jangada is, in many ways, the antithesis of the large, technical, steel warships that Aniceto and Jose Cruz Santos studied at MIT. In 1942, those warships were at the cutting edge of technology; the jangada, to many, must have looked like the past.

From today’s perspective, though, the jangada has a lot to recommend it. Jangadas were built of local, renewable materials, had a minimal carbon footprint, and have long been a mainstay of independence and sustenance in marginalized communities.

As we redefine our capacities and values in engineering, what can we learn from something like a jangada?

Thinking broadly, what does it mean for something to be well-engineered?