Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: This Sea Belongs to Me, Take Your Boat Elsewhere- Nationalism, Samba and the Law of the Sea

Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: This Sea Belongs to Me, Take Your Boat Elsewhere- Nationalism, Samba and the Law of the Sea

[Cláudio Cerqueira B. Netto is a PhD candidate at Université de Lausanne. The author thanks Evelyne Schmid, Andrea Longo and Ralph Loren-Eisendecher for their comments on previous versions of this blog post. Any mistakes are obviously solely attributed to the author.]


Samba is a popular musical rhythm from Brazil. In 1971, musician João Nogueira composed a samba song titled Das 200 para lá (Beyond 200), which touched upon an unusual subject: the law of the sea. In this song, Nogueira praised the unilateral act of the Brazilian government to extend its territorial sea to 200 nautical miles. Nogueira’s song aligned with the ultranationalist propaganda of the military dictatorship as he sang “this sea belongs to me, take your boat elsewhere” and told foreigners to go fish beyond the 200 nautical miles of Brazilian-claimed sea.

This post will use this anecdote to draw links between samba, nationalism and international law; and to reflect on how authoritarian governments may shape public opinion on international law. First, I will briefly recount the disputes over the delimitation of the territorial sea and the fishing rights of coastal States in the post-1945 period. Then, I will describe how samba and carnaval were influenced by the censorship of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985), and reflect on how Nogueira’s song fits into public discourse about the Brazilian claim to sovereignty over 200 nautical miles. 

A Brief Recount of Disputes Over the Delimitation of the Territorial Sea and Fishing Rights 

In 1945, the United States (US) issued presidential proclamations number 2667 and 2668, known as the “Truman Proclamations”, through which the US claimed sovereignty over the continental shelf of up until 200 nautical miles (hereinafter “200nm”) and established conservation zones to regulate fishing activities. The US relied on a geological argument that the continental shelf was a continuation of its territory, and claimed sovereignty over the continental shelf but not in relation to the superjacent waters. Although there was no established practice or opinio juris to back such claim, the US did not face opposition over its declaration.

Not long after, other States tried to mimic the US proclamations, going beyond and claiming sovereignty not only over the continental shelf, but also over the superjacent waters and their living resources. Chile was the first one to do so in 1947, while relying on the Truman Declarations as precedent, as described by Ann L. Hollick. She explained that Chile wanted to protect inter alia interests over a nascent whaling industry, and that Chile relied on the 1939 Declaration of Panama, which established a “security zone” where belligerents were prohibited from using force. 

Neighboring Peru and Ecuador issued similar 200nm claims, in 1947 and 1951, respectively, also citing the Truman Proclamations as precedent. Hollick believed that the 1939 Declaration of Panama did not offer a solid legal basis to these South American claims, and she considered they were based “on the concerns of a weak whaling industry to protect its exclusive access to a resource and in the mistaken interpretation of a 1939 security declaration and zone”. Chile, Peru and Ecuador signed a joint declaration known as the 1952 Santiago Declaration which affirmed their claim to sovereignty over 200nm including the seabed and superjacent waters. These documents were scrutinized in the 2014 ICJ decision on the Maritime Dispute case regarding the maritime boundary between Peru and Chile.

Brazil followed suit years later, in 1970, by issuing a decree that claimed 200nm as its territorial sea. At least eleven countries sent notes to the Brazilian diplomatic service protesting this claim (those being: Belgium, United States, Finland, France, Greece, Japan, Norway, United Kingdom, Federal Republic of Germany, Sweden and the Soviet Union).

On May 8th, 1970, a group of nine Latin-American States that had claimed sovereignty over 200nm signed the Montevideo Declaration on the Law of the Sea, which affirmed inter alia the “right [of States] to establish the limits of their maritime sovereignty and jurisdiction in accordance with their geographical and geological characteristics”. Other States did not accept the validity of said Declaration.

As Prof. Ximena Fuentes recently argued during the 2023 ESIL Annual Conference, there was a double standard. The US did not face opposition after issuing its unilateral act advancing a rather surprising claim over the continental shelf though there was no established practice to back such claim, but when comparable claims were made by South American countries, they faced opposition by third States. 

These developments influenced the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, which took place between 1973 and 1982, and culminated with the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is informally known as “the Constitution of the Seas”. Through UNCLOS, States agreed to limit the territorial sea to 12nm and to establish an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200nm. While the territorial sea is a sovereign territory of the coastal State, the EEZ does not entail sovereignty but it grants the coastal State sovereign rights over natural resources (see UNCLOS, Part V). During the UNCLOS negotiations, there was a group of twenty-three States arguing that the territorial sea could extend up to 200nm. Allegedly, they were aware that their proposal would not receive universal acceptation, and thus they decided to support the proposal of the creation of the EEZ, which ended up being successful. 

Before the issue was settled by UNCLOS, there were intense diplomatic disputes between coastal States seeking to claim exclusivity over fishing rights and States (mostly from the Global North) that wanted to protect the economic interest of their nationals in fishing in the claimed waters. After extending their territorial sea, Peru and Ecuador detained boats from the US that were fishing along their coast, severely straining diplomatic relations with the US. The US had a similar disagreement with Brazil, as the US did not recognize the Brazilian 200nm claim, and the US government instructed ships not to submit to Brazilian controls in what they considered to be international waters. This diplomatic dispute was a notable issue that was a topic of discussion within Brazilian society.

When Samba and Carnaval Celebrated the Brazilian Unilateral Act

The authoritarianism and ultranationalism of the military dictatorship influenced several aspects of Brazilian society, including samba and carnaval. The period between late 1968 and early 1974 is known as the “years of lead” of the Brazilian military dictatorship due to widespread human rights violations and one of its most repressive acts: the Ato-Institucional N. 5.

The delimitation of the territorial sea was a priority of the military dictatorship and a frequent feature in newspapers’ headlines. It was also a topic of carnaval parades in the 1970s. In 1976, samba school Unidos da Zona Sul’s theme in its parade was “the treasures of the 200 miles”. In 1972, samba school Unidos de Lucas’s theme was “Brazil of the 200 miles”, which included in its lyrics: “Oh fisherman / untie the boat and open the sail […] / Oh! Two hundred sacred miles / coveted by many others / Has in the heroic people the fearless defense / Advanced guardian of the sovereignty of our Brazil”.

Patriotic topics were not new to samba – since the 1930s and 1940s the Brazilian government tried to impose nationalistic undertones to carnaval parades and tried to use samba a means to foster a national identity. During the military dictatorship (1964-1985), some samba schools adopted nationalistic topics to allegedly build relationships with the military and to use this in their favor. Sambas that praised the claim to 200nm were possibly born out of an intention to obtain benefits from the military government.

Das 200 para lá was authorized for publication by State censors in September 1971. Nogueira’s song received public acclaim after being released. The lyrics included phrases such as: “green-eyed fisherman, go fish elsewhere”; “there will be fish, shrimp, lobster that only God gives” (alluding to fishing in the newly-claimed territorial sea); and “there are yellow, green nets in the blue-green of this sea” (alluding to the colors of the Brazilian flag).

Brazil and the US held negotiations about fishing rights along 200nm of the Brazilian coast. On May 22th, 1972, Das 200 para lá was featured on a Time magazine piece titled “Samba over the waters”, which reported that, during a meeting between US and Brazilian diplomats in early 1972, “Brazil’s minister Ronaldo Costa hummed a few bars of a popular samba for US Ambassador Donald McKernan” (the popular samba being Das 200 para lá). McKernan allegedly replied: “Is that the tune we’re going to hear?” Then, the Time piece implied that Brazil got the upper-hand in the negotiations by stating that “it was clear that Brazil had sambaed away with the talks”, as the result of the negotiations was an agreement in which the US did not recognize Brazilian sovereignty over 200nm but accepted that “American-owned ships” would be subject to Brazilian fishing regulations, and also recognized “Brazil’s right to board, search and seize shrimp boats that have committed infractions”. The Time piece did not clearly state that Nogueira’s song had influenced these negotiations (which Brazilian newspaper Jornal do Brasil later did). 

Nevertheless, the military dictatorship possibly benefited from the existence of songs that praised the 200nm claim, as they served the purpose of showing that Brazilians agreed with the position sustained by the military that Brazil was free to delimit its territorial sea.

Nogueira was not a supporter of the dictatorship and he did not intend to compose a propagandistic song. Still, some listeners interpreted his song as an expression of support to the military dictatorship. It is hard to separate Nogueira’s song from the ultranationalist slogans of the 1970s such as “Brasil: ame-o ou deixe-o” (Brazil: love it or leave it) and “Ninguém segura esse país” (No one can stop this country). Nevertheless, Nogueira saw himself as just an artist publishing his music

Nogueira’s call to turn away foreign fishing ships was consistent with his upbringing in a nationalist, anti-imperialist environment in his family and as an employee of State-owned bank Caixa Econômica Federal. Das 200 para lá may be a simplistic interpretation of what Nogueira saw as an affront by the US, an imperial power that was trying to protect its economic interests to the detriment of Brazilians. He may have considered the US position as an insult to Brazil as a whole, and not a matter that concerned solely the military. He probably did not consider the legal background of the 200nm claim, but he certainly thought Brazil was in the right to insist in its claim.

Nogueira later stated that he read newspapers during his breaks at work, and he thought it was outrageous that the US was threatening to impose sanctions and stop buying Brazilian coffee if Brazil upheld its 200nm claim. The newspapers that Nogueira read were heavily censored. Editors frequently had to publish cake recipes or poems to substitute stories that were blocked by censors. Though Nogueira did not intend to compose a propagandistic song, State censorship probably influenced the way that he (and Brazilians in general) viewed the legality and fairness of Brazil’s 200nm claim. 

The legal basis for a 200nm territorial sea seemed flimsy to States that contested such claims since the Chilean 1947 declaration, and to scholars like Hollick. Popular opinion in Brazil expressed an opposing view, based on the belief that the unilateral act was not only right and fair but it would bring development through the exploration and exploitation of fishing resources. However, if to Nogueira and others it seemed normal to tell green-eyed fishermen to go fish elsewhere, it is in part because Brazil was a closed society at that time, where a truly free debate on the legality of the Brazilian claim could not be had. 

Brief Concluding Remarks

This post is based on the assumption that carnaval is not panem et circenses but a politicized cultural practice. Also, this post does not pretend to exhaust the complexities of the issues here discussed, and does not intend to express any disapproval of João Nogueira’s work (to the contrary, he should be regarded as a great artist). Rather, this post aims to tell an anecdote about two subjects that do not often (or ever) overlap: samba and the law of the sea; and to draw links between popular culture, nationalism and international law. By telling this historical anecdote, this post tries to provide a human perspective to legal issues that are usually confined to highly-technical debates.

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