History Lessons

The Problem of Persistence

by | Apr 8, 2007

Architect Herbert Arraes of the University of São paulo took photos from a car—the way many Brazilians see their environment.

The Brazilian population is a complex ethnic and racial mix. Most Brazilians today trace their roots to Europe, as well as Africa and Asia; and historically there has been a strong Amerindian component. Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery (1888). It was also a monarchy until 1889. The persistence of slavery, oligarchies and an economy for many centuries based on monoculture, has had a major influence on Brazilian society, mores and self perception.

Behavioral continuities were the subject in the twentieth century of such key interpreters of Brazil as Gilberto Freyre, Sergio Buarque de Holanda, and Caio Prado Jr. Of the three, Gilberto Freyre became the best known interpreter of Brazil among foreigners as his books were widely read in translation, and inspired influential works of comparative history as well as motivating an army of North American graduate students. His popularity was not surprising. Few equaled Freyre’s readability or his rambunctious, meandering, infinitely varied and deeply erotic interpretation of the formation of Brazilian society.

Freyre argued that in the tropics the Portuguese colonists established a “polygamous patriarchal regime” in which “widely practiced miscegenation tended to modify the enormous social distance between the Big House and the slave hut.” Freyre’s three great volumes, Masters and Slaves, The Mansions and the Shanties, and Order and Progress encapsulated Brazil’s social development over three centuries. By examining witchcraft, medicine, households, the role of food and clothing, and the social impact of forms of economic organization, he anticipated much of the more narrowly focused academic “new” social history that was to emerge many decades later. And Freyre also attributed what he called the “sadism” of intimate personal behavior, and the treatment of subordinates, and the violence of the men towards women in Brazil, to the heritage of the unlimited power conquerors exercised over the conquered and masters over their slaves.

Never a Marxist within a milieu where Marxist scholars set the agenda, Freyre’s ideas provided the intellectual foundation for the ideology of “luso-tropicalism.” The Portuguese dictatorship in the 1960s hijacked Freyre’s interpretation and tried to justify its empire in Africa, claiming the Portuguese were less racist than the northern Europeans. Freyre, flattered by this attention, was much criticized when he embraced the military regime in his own country. But his interpretation crystallized an image of Brazil that had an enormous impact both within and outside Brazil, becoming in fact what the historian Carlos Guilherme Mota has called “the ideology of Brazil culture.”

Caio Prado’s The Formation of Contemporary Brazil, essentially a study in the Marxist tradition of late Colonial and early National Brazil, was first published in Brazil in 1942. When it finally appeared in the United States in translation in 1967—twenty-five years after its publication in Brazil— the book had a major impact on a generation of students, influenced by the U.S. civil rights movement, who were beginning to react against Freyre’s paradigm of a “racial democracy” in Brazil. The great works by Sergio Buarque de Holanda, most famously his Raizes do Brazil (The Roots of Brazil), on the other hand, have still not been translated. His complex, sophisticated, and archive-based organic view of settlement and cultural development is more influenced by Max Weber than by Marx. Although his books are only accessible to Portuguese readers, they probably have had, in more subtle ways, the most impact on Brazilian historians in the longer term.

Ironically, all three of these “interpreters of Brazil” looked back to explain a Brazil that was in fact rapidly changing around them as they wrote. New immigrants from Europe and Asia had profoundly complicated the old mix of races and cultures inherited from the long colonial centuries. Immigration policies pursued following the abolition of slavery were intended to “whiten” Brazil. In fact, as Jeffrey Lesser has shown, the result was an immensely diverse multi-cultural society. It was against this background that Brazil urbanized and industrialized. Brazil is now overwhelmingly an urban country. Today the Brazilian states of São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul, if they stood alone, would be numbered among the richest 45 nations on earth. The state of São Paulo has a gross national product larger than Argentina’s, and the city of São Paulo is a megalopolis with a population of 15 million and a vibrant cultural and financial business life.

But how to achieve a more equitable society remains a fundamental challenge. A large segment of Brazil’s population, perhaps 40 million people, remains in poverty, and Brazil’s income disparities are among the worst in the world. The most impoverished 20% of Brazilians receive a mere 2% of the national wealth, whereas the richest fifth of the population receives two-thirds. Poverty is concentrated in the semi-arid northeast of Brazil, and disproportionately among the Afro-Brazilian population. At present, Afro-Brazilians’ life expectancy is 14 years shorter than whites, infant mortality rates are 30% higher, and the illiteracy rate is double. Whites on average earn two and a half times as much as blacks.

Brazil is thus not easily described; it presents multiple faces to itself and to the world, not all of which have been fully absorbed into a consistent national self image; and its history does not conform to the Latin American stereotype. Raymundo Faoro, in his famous book Os Donos do Poder in the late 1940s, argued that Brazilian history is a “novel without heroes,” a history of a stagnant minority dissociated from the rest of society. Yet this is no longer the case. Brazilians are at the beginning of the twenty-first century rediscovering themselves. Books on Brazilian history now appear on the best seller lists. This process of national self examination can at times be a painful one since it can also provoke a struggle for historical memory on the part of previously repressed or underrepresented groups seeking to find a voice in the national dialogue. As society democratizes, alongside the heroes of the past, many long buried embarrassments resurface: slavery for instance; or the gruesome story of the violent repression of messianic peasant movements in the arid northeastern interior during the early years of the twentieth century; or the virtual destruction of the once vast Atlantic rain forests, a frightening warning as to the consequences of the on-going assault on the Amazon forests.

Brazilians, like Americans, tend to think of themselves as citizens of a young country. In terms of the age distribution of its population, with a high percentage of its population under the age of eighteen, this is statistically true; but historically speaking the assertion of newness is misleading. Brazil is a nation of considerable historical depth, and it is vital to any understanding of its institutional structures, social mores, the resilience of its oligarchies, and Byzantine intricacies of its politics, to always bear this factor in mind. The first European settlers on the Brazilian coast predated by almost a century and a half the arrival of the first English settlers in Massachusetts, and Brazil achieved its independence a century and a half before the European colonies in Asia and Africa shook off European rule.

Brazil marked the half millennium of its “discovery” in the year 2000, a commemoration of the accidental landfall in the area of Porto Seguro in the northeast of Brazil by the Portuguese Indies-bound fleet of Pedro Álvares Cabral. The commemorations were a disaster, and the manner in which they unfolded demonstrated much about Brazil’s ambiguous relationship with its own past, especially its Portuguese heritage. In April 1500 Cabral did not stay long—a little over eight days. He was keen to get on to Asia, which was his objective as captain major of a powerful fleet of 13 vessels and 1,500 men. Lisbon was eager to follow-up quickly on Vasco da Gama’s dramatic voyage to India (1497-1499) and consolidate Portuguese preeminence over the new maritime connection between Europe and Asia.

There are unusually good records of the “finding” or achamento of Brazil, as Cabral described his landfall on the South American coast; two letters written by observers at the time were sent back to Portugal on a ship Cabral detached from his squadron for the purpose. The most famous by Pero Vaz de Caminha, was ecstatic in its detailed description of the bronzed and nude inhabitants who welcomed the Portuguese. “They seem to me a people of such innocence,” he told the king, “that if one could understand them and they us, they would soon be Christians…for it is certain this people is good and of pure simplicity, and there can easily be stamped upon them whatever belief we want to give them.” The mariners were especially astonished by the women, who seemed to feel no “shame” in their nakedness or embarrassment before the Portuguese gaze, and which Caminha described in some detail for his monarch, King Manuel, “The Fortunate” as he came to be known.

In this aspect at least, Caminha’s letter—“Brazil’s birth certificate” as it is sometimes called— must conjure up images for Brazilians today much like Carnival, but for the detail that the bronzed women on the festival floats are now topless not bottomless. (Except on such rare and memorable occasions as the famous visit of former President Itamar Franco to Rio during the 1994 Carnival, when his pretty companion in the presidential box had forgotten to put on her panties, much to the delight of the Brazilian press, which gleefully recorded this exquisite presidential moment for posterity.)

The Portuguese and Brazilian heads of state in the year 2000 were less fortunate than King Manuel. The ships sent from Lisbon to retrace Cabral’s voyage missed the best tides because Fernando Henrique Cardoso wanted to leave early to get to Santiago for his friend Ricardo Lagos’ inauguration as President of Chile. Captain Amyr Klink of the new armada was not amused. “Political interference in bad taste that produced a disrespect for the historical reality,” he called the change. The Portuguese Prime Minister, António Guterres, was also on the run, preoccupied with his role as President of the European Union. Both leaders are very much focused on the 21st century, and neither had much time for sentiment or history, caravels, or sailors on white sand beaches. Brazil was thinking of leadership in South America. Portugal has embraced Europe, having lost its African colonies in the 1970s, and shows little patience these days for the old dreams of imperial glory. Brazil’s own commemorative vessel proved un-seaworthy, and sank ignominiously.

But the past has still lived, and at times in surprising ways. In planning the official celebrations, both Lisbon and Brasília forgot the indigenous Brazilian people who had welcomed the Portuguese navigators. Against all odds, the descendants of some of those original inhabitants have survived in the face of five centuries of exploitation, disease and annihilation. The Pataxós of Porto Seguro, Bahia, built a makeshift memorial of their own on the beach to protest where the Portuguese stepped ashore and had celebrated their first mass five hundred years before. The military police of Bahia were quickly sent to destroy it. The incident provoked a group of more than 1,000 “survivors of colonialism” from the interior of Brazil to march on Brasília to protest what had happened (and still happens) to the indigenous population.

It is perhaps not surprising that in a democratic and media-driven age, commemorations take on a contentious tone. The people have a voice now, and it can be a discordant one, reflecting their own experiences, inventing their own pasts, complicating the best-laid plans of bureaucrats and politicians. History, some politicians need to remember, is “lived” as well as “invented,” and commemorations can provoke and empower protests at all levels of society, especially among those for whom the past and present injustices provide a stronger incentive to mobilization than do more promises of festas from rulers touting utopian futures. Ironically, while the Brazilians squabbled over monuments, the Portuguese, as in 1500, had their eyes on more profitable ventures, scooping up parts of Brazil’s newly privatized telecommunication networks.

Next year these old historical debates and controversies will surely revive. Brazil is busily engaged now in organizing commemorations of the arrival and establishment in 1808 of the Portuguese Court in Rio de Janeiro; the creation of a “Tropical Verssailles” in the words of the historian Kristan Schultz. Some will celebrate this remarkable and unique New World monarchy as one of the causes of the preservation of Brazil’s vast territory and institutional continuity in an epoch during which violent independence movements rent Brazil’s Spanish American neighbors asunder. Others, however, will look back to the works of Freyre, Caio Prado, Sergio Buarque de Holland and Raymundo Faoro, who each in their very different ways painted a less euphemistic picture of Brazil’s colonial heritage where they found the roots of Brazil’s stubborn and resilient social exclusion and inequality.

Spring 2007Volume VI, Number 3

Kenneth Maxwell teaches in Harvard’s History Department and is director of the Brazil program at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. He is completing a book on the Lisbon earthquake to be published by Harvard University Press.

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