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Luiz Felipe de Alencastro

Luiz Felipe de Alencastro: Brazil’s observer in the South Atlantic

Historian proposes that the country’s formation took place outside its borders, shaped by its economic relations with Africa

Eduardo CesarAnother story, a very different view of the country’s formation to the one we were taught at school and whose myths we carry with us for the rest of our lives, emerges from reading the O trato dos viventes: formação do Brasil nos séculos XVI e XVII [The treatment of the living: formation of Brazil in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries], published in 2000 by the Companhia das Letras. The central point in this book is undoubtedly the view that the roots of this nation lie, not within its own borders, but in a Portuguese-Brazilian and Portuguese-African transcontinental space, strongly sustained by an economic zone consisting of Brazil and Angola, which remained in place from the sixteenth century up until the end of the slave trade in 1850. The force of this economic relationship with Africa was already clear, as a matter of fact, to Padre Antonio Vieira, who, in a work mentioned by the book’s author, Luiz Felipe de Alencastro (p. 232), notes that Brazil “lives and is sustained” by Angola, “We can quite correctly say that Brazil’s body lies in the Americas and its soul in Africa.”

Alencastro is a 65-year old historian and political scientist. In this book, which is a key part of his intellectual path, he offers reflections based on substantial documentation that encourages the reader to rethink Brazil’s formation beyond the simplistic view of North-South domination and its struggles limited to those that took place within the colony, as he attributes new importance to the Portuguese-Brazilian expeditions that left Brazil bound for Africa in the seventeenth century. To all of this, he adds an exceptionally rich narrative. His proficiency in this field allows him to interweave the long-term historical variables that he covers, which include resorting when necessary to other disciplines, with facts told at the speed of an adventure story and individual micro-stories related in exciting detail.

Alencastro’s complete project in terms of rethinking Brazil’s formation includes another two books that are already underway and that will extend his vision up to 1940. After all, as he says in the conclusion of O trato dos viventes, to grasp Brazil’s formation “in its internal and external protractions,” one must bear in mind that “from 1550 to 1930 the labor market was de-territorialized, with the bulk of the labor force being born and growing up outside the colony’s national borders.”

Alencastro is the head professor of the chair of Brazilian History at the University of Sorbonne, in the city of Paris. He initially moved to France from the University of Brasília (UnB), where he was still an undergraduate, on account of the threatening climate that the dictatorship had created in Brazil in 1964, and went on to spend a great deal of time in that country after he completed his education. From 1986 to 1999 he worked in Brazil; during this time he taught at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and also did research at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (Cebrap). Currently, he returns to Brazil once a year as a visiting professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation’s School of Economics in São Paulo, and is planning to return permanently in 2014. We include below the main passages from his interview, an exciting recounting of stories about his output and his intellectual and personal path.

I wanted to start off with your vision that the country’s formation took place outside its borders.
Well, how did I arrive at this conclusion? I was doing my PhD thesis with Frédéric Mauro. He was a disciple of Fernand Braudel, who led a group of historians who employed the perspective of a global history, regarding both the spatial issue, meaning Europe and its relationship with non-European countries, and the cross-disciplinary aspect, involving geography, economics, demographics and other sciences.

When did this happen?
The debate about these global perspectives occurred in the 1950’s and the 1960’s. The French historian Pierre Chaunu and the Portuguese historian Vitorino Magalhães Godinho also took part in these discussions. I arrived in France in the late 1960’s and this had a big impact on me, in the sense that Brazil, from this viewpoint, didn’t mean a great deal by itself. Among other reasons, because Brazil didn’t even exist at the start of this story. Peru and Mexico existed, in the pre-Columbian context, but Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the United States and Canada did not. In what would later become Brazil, there were people in the north, and in Rio, as well as in the south, but these people had very little to do with each other before the mid eighteenth century.

And then there’s the issue of maritime navigation; it is important to have an understanding of maritime history, which is linked to geography. Frédéric Mauro employed this perspective, for instance, regarding the Viceroyalty of New Spain and Vera Cruz, which encompassed not just Central America and Mexico, but also the Philippines. This understanding gave me a lot of freedom to look at the relations that Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco and Bahia had with the city of Luanda in Angola. Later on, Bahia also maintained very close relations with the former Dahomey, now Benin, on what is now called the Gold Coast. This made up a complete unit, much more than Brazil or Portuguese America. Because the State of Grão-Pará and Maranhão, in other words, all the territory that lay to the north of Rio Grande do Norte, was completely cut off from Pernambuco, Bahia and Rio etc.

As a matter of fact, in O trato dos viventes, you make it clear how difficult it was to sail from this area of Brazil to that part of the north.
Absolutely, you had to sail via Lisbon. I give various examples of this difficulty: Raposo Tavares and the 1,200 São Paulo inhabitants departed from this hinterland in 1648 and arrived in Belém in 1651. It was one of the greatest overland marches of the time. They went as far as Bolivia, and then went up the rivers, before finally reaching Belém. However in order to return to São Paulo they had to sail to Lisbon because there were no ships that sailed down the coast due to the current that flowed north, from Rio Grande do Norte, and the winds that blew to the north or to the east and west. Had they tried, the boat would have taken them to Guyana.

Conversely, it was very easy to sail to Luanda and Dahomey from the Brazilian coast below Pernambuco because the winds and the currents were favorable, there were ships available and this even contributed to a reorganization of the dioceses. After the Philippine period, Spain put pressure on the pope not to recognize the Portugal of the Braganças and this dragged on until 1669. Bishops died and were not replaced, and dioceses ended up being abandoned. With the reorganization, a new diocese was set up in Maranhão and it was dependent upon the archbishopric of Lisbon. They created the archbishopric of Bahia, whose archbishop had authority over the diocese of Luanda. The cardinals, bishops and monsignors, who at the time had the world’s largest diplomatic network, were well aware of the reality of the territories and the huge expanses of the sea.

This is very different from the history of Brazil that one traditionally studies in school.
Yes, but this is the minimum that everyone should know. Up to the time of our great-grandparents, a lot of people still traveled by ship. This is the way that foreign immigrants came to Brazil, and a lot of people from Brazil’s northeastern region came to Rio and São Paulo the same way. On top of which the upper middle classes used to travel to Europe by ship. So you had the feeling that the sea brought people together, rather than separating them. This influenced everything, and is absolutely essential in order to understand Brazil’s relations with the outside world and those along different parts of the country’s coastline. The routes through the jungle, which the discovery of gold would bring about, are from the eighteenth century. The problem is that the primary and secondary school textbooks, and even some books by historians, show that when Cabral discovered Brazil the country was already complete with its borders extending all the way to the State of Acre, when in reality the process of Brazil’s formation was far more complicated.

To what extent did looking at Brazil from outside enable you to approach our country’s history differently?
I have given a great many conferences in the United States, in Spain and in England, and I have been teaching in France for a long time. I am able to note that the idea of Brazil’s formation having taken place outside its borders makes sense to them, because they don’t have any preconceived notions. However it’s not obvious here. Why? Because you have the importance of the region’s history. Brazil’s history in Latin America is exceptional, not in the sense of being better, but rather different from the others, because the viceroyalty remained united whereas the Spanish viceroyalties split into 20 or so countries. British America, for the lack of a better expression, also became a number of countries: Canada, the United States and all the countries in the West Indies that ended up being created. France’s possessions split off as well, because it sold Louisiana and then ended up with Martinique, Guadalupe, Guyana, etc. However, the Portuguese came to one place and it all remained united. Why was that?

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, slave trade to the Portuguese America stems from bilateral trade

The reproduction of the book O Brasil dos Viajantes In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, slave trade to the Portuguese America stems from bilateral tradeThe reproduction of the book O Brasil dos Viajantes

Yes, so why was this, in your view?
I’m getting there. However what I wanted to say first was that that Brazil was the only monarchy in the Americas in the nineteenth century. This, with the help of the Portuguese bureaucracy, meant that the country’s history began to be written at the direct order of the crown, in order to show that Brazil was united precisely because of the monarchy and that there was always a feeling on the part of the people, the Portuguese colonists who were here, regarding this nation – as if they predicted that the country would come into being. There is no documental basis whatsoever for the idea that it was already known that Brazil existed, the only document is an ambiguous phrase.

By Pero Vaz de Caminha?
No, by Diogo Pacheco Pereira, who, in the Esmeraldo de situ orbis [a manuscript about cosmography and seamanship, written in 1506], talks of a land that should be discovered during the reign of a certain king; some people argue that this was before Cabral and that the discovery remained hidden. However, this has very little historical credibility.

And what about that old argument that was debated in the schools in the 1960’s as to whether or not the discovery of Brazil was a chance event or was actually planned?
That’s it. One thing that nobody mentions is that the Os lusíadas, written in 1572, a poem that Camões put down on paper in order to record the epic story of the discovery, as everyone knows, mentions Brazil just four times over the course of its 1,200 stanzas. And two of these in an indirect way. That gives you an idea of just how unimportant Brazil was in the sixteenth century. India was important, as were Portugal’s possessions in Asia. In a sense, Brazilian historiography has always frustrated Brazilian narcissism, which explains the appearance of stories such as the one in the nineteenth century , according to which the Phoenicians had been in Brazil. The Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute decided to send [in 1839] some specialists to the Pedra da Gávea [a gneiss monolith beside the sea, in Rio de Janeiro, the top of which stands 842 meters above sea level], in order to interpret some inscriptions on the stone [the legend was that the stone housed the tomb of a Phoenician king who assumed the throne in 856 B.C.].

But going back to the question, how does a non-nationalist view help you to interpret the possibility of unification of this huge territory?
In 1979 I wrote an article about “The slave trade and Brazilian national unity.” It’s like this: although Rio de Janeiro had been the capital of the viceroyalty since the mid-eighteenth century, it was when the Portuguese Court came here in 1808 that an administrative center was really established. And very soon after this Brazil was the only place in South America that had a monarchy, a fact that was well looked upon by Europe because the republic was seen as a threat. Therefore, the importance of the Court’s arrival is one of the factors that contributed to the unity. What I see is that, when Brazil became independent, it was the only country still engaged in the slave trade, based on its direct relationship with Africa. This plundering ends up being vetoed by England head-on.

England ruled the waves, it had means to apply pressure, it was a bit like the UN, the Vatican and the US, all rolled into one. England was the great empire that laid down the law. However, Brazil had an export-based agricultural economy tied to the regional oligarchies, which were involved in the buying and selling of Africans and in activities related to the slave trade. And the Empire’s internal legitimacy was due to the fact that the Portuguese Crown presented itself to the oligarchies as this complicated country’s best representative with the diplomats of European countries, and in particular those of England. And the Empire began to make this country the size it is today, making agreements in relation to its borders. Brazil’s independence had been a three-sided negotiation, because England also represented Portugal. The father was the King of Portugal, the son was the Emperor of Brazil, with England the intermediary.

What is this three-sided negotiation?
Portugal owed a debt to England for the military cost of expelling the French, but said that it lacked the money. England took the line that “Brazil should pay Portugal compensation for its independence.” Brazil paid. And who did it borrow the money from? From the Rothschilds, the English bankers. The money never even left the country and Brazil carried this debt until it became a republic. It is one of only a handful of countries in the world that paid for its independence! Since the Brazilian loan from the Rothschilds was guaranteed by Brazil’s income with customs duties levied on imports and, particularly on exports from Rio de Janeiro, England had no interest in the Brazilian government failing. But one day the government of Rio de Janeiro got poorer and this resulted in the main English bank that had lent money to Brazil going under. After all, the real issue is: Who footed the bill for Brazil’s unity?

EDUARDO CESAR

So who did foot the bill?
The 750 thousand Africans who entered Brazil after the slave trade was outlawed in 1831. The Slave ships illegally landed as many as 40 thousand Africans a year in Rio de Janeiro and nobody saw anything. Legally, under the terms of Brazil’s own legislation, these people were free but became slaves, as is explained further on. And this was what maintained national unity, because the emperor’s legitimacy with all the oligarchies was based on providing cover for this piracy.

Why do you say that 1850 ends up being a more decisive date for Brazil’s formation than 1808?
That is the subject of my second book, but it has already been discussed at great length. I did a critique of the celebration of the bicentenary of 1808, in an article that appeared in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper. During these celebrations, Brazil was shown as a country that entered the modern age on account of the Portuguese Court’s arrival, with the monarchy establishing itself, unlike what happened anywhere else in the Americas. The dominant historiography says that in reality 1808 was the start of Brazil’s Independence, because there was the opening up of the ports, England got involved in the economy here and never left, and Portugal got shunted to the sidelines. Then, 1808 and 1822 appear as breaches and what comes afterwards is new. However it isn’t.

And why is that?
Because prior to 1808 the most important port for Brazilian commerce was that of Lisbon and the second most important one was Luanda. From 1808 to 1850, Liverpool became the main port, but Luanda was always the number two. So what I call the colonial spatial matrix, the Southern Atlantic matrix, was broken neither in 1808 nor in 1822. The lungs of Brazil remained in Africa, in Angola, on the Gold Coast and in Mozambique.

Until the slave trade really came to an end.
Yes, until 1850. And there were key figures such as Bernardo Pereira de Vasconcelos (1795-1850), born in the state of Minas Gerais, father of the fatherland, and an important minister during the regency, a senator and a member of the Council of State, who believed that it was still possible to drag its heels, to face the whole of Europe as well as the British Navy, because ending the slave trade would be the ruin of everyone in Brazil. Brazil went off the rails in the nineteenth century because its governing class, the country’s elite, made the wrong choice in 1822, and the price paid for this was a high one.

The wrong choice was to continue to bet all its chips on the slave trade, on this economic relationship with Africa for almost 30 years?
Yes, obviously this made it possible to develop the coffee industry, but the backward effect this had on Brazil, the brutal exploitation of slave labor, the sinking and destruction of a large part of the country’s fleet of merchant ships by the English and the resulting increase in the cost of transport, all represented a very high price. Most importantly, there was the sacrifice of the last two generations of free Negroes and mulattos who were illegally kept in slavery. As a matter of fact, when the slave trade ceased to be legal in 1831, Brazilian legislation stated that: 1) the slave trade was forbidden, 2) Africans who landed here were free as soon as they stepped off the slave ships onto the beach and 3) anyone who maintained these people in slavery was a kidnapper, as they were keeping free people in captivity. However the law did not catch on. After the emperor left, the Regency wanted to enforce the law.

Then, in 1848, Eusébio de Queirós took over as Minister of Justice, the pressure from the English was increasing, and Eusébio, who had been Chief of Police for a period of 11 years and had never arrested anyone, called the slave traders in and told them that it had to stop. And they voted in favor of the Eusébio de Queirós Law in a secret session in Parliament, which put an end once and for all to the slave trade. What is clear from the fact that it did indeed come to an end, is that negotiations were held between the parties in question. The fact that an activity that had lasted for 300 years, that had been carried out in a clandestine way for 30 years, and that was profitable for a lot of people, suddenly comes to an end does not mean that the police became really good at doing their job, or that everyone suddenly became decent. The abrupt end of the slave trade in 1850 suggests that intense negotiations went on between all the parties involved, between the slave trade bandits, the farmers and the government.

And did this negotiation involve money?
No, the government decided that it would build a railway for the people in the coffee industry, who at that time were the ones who had the greatest stake in the illegal slave trade, which would reduce the cost of transport. It also decided to pass a law to encourage immigrants, reduce the tax on the export of coffee and make a number of other adjustments. Then you come to the main part of the whole deal, verbally agreed, but not put into writing, but which ended up being implemented anyway. Because now you had 750 thousand Africans and their children and grandchildren, all of whom were being held illegally by their “so-called” owners. However, none of these owners were convicted of kidnapping and almost all of these free individuals continued to be kept in slavery. This is what is so scandalous, that one of the greatest crimes of the nineteenth century, which took place in Brazil, is not taught in our schools or our universities: the last two generations of slaves in Brazil were not slaves and were kept illegally as someone’s property, as prisoners.

A few abolitionists went to court, including among others Ruy Barbosa, Joaquim Nabuco, José do Patrocínio, and Luís Gama, and they managed to get about 500 individuals freed from the hundreds of thousands who had been illegally enslaved. This became a taboo subject in Brazil and few people today know that slavery was not only immoral, but what is more important is that it was also illegal. In 1880, in the Rio de Janeiro newspaper, Gazeta de Notícias, José do Patrocínio did the calculations as to the amount owed by the farmers, the widows and even bricklayers to those people who they illegally kept in slavery. Whenever there is talk these days of compensation you always get people who are against the quota to say that this whole idea is something that was imported from the Negroes in the United States, who in turn, copied the idea from the Jews after the Second World War. However the claim in Brazil dates back to 1880.

But the claims of these 500 were granted and…
They forgot about the 1.5 million slaves who were part of the 9 million inhabitants of Brazil in 1872. And this figure does not include those who died beforehand. So it was these people who paid the price of national unity.

I would like you to explain the economic character that you attribute to the mixed Portuguese and Brazilian expeditions that went off to wage war in Africa in the seventeenth century.
This is just another way of showing that Brazil did not yet exist. The Paulistas (those who were born in the then Province of São Paulo) were involved in hunting Indians in Paraguay, producing foodstuffs in São Paulo for sale within the region, while Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco and Bahia were linked by the sea to Africa and were producing for export. The system had been different since the Spanish period, but, particularly since 1648 during the Dutch War. When the Dutch arrived in Recife to take control of the sugar trade, they realized that the profit did not only come from planting sugarcane and producing sugar, but also from selling African slaves to the owners of the sugar mills. And they departed from Recife in 1641 in order to attack Angola and in this way gain control of the centers of the slave trade. At the same time as the guerilla war got underway in Pernambuco in 1648, an expedition left Rio de Janeiro, bound for Angola, for the purpose of expelling the Dutch from there.

In other words, Rio was a commercial intermediary in this major venture.
Yes, it was a commercial link in this undertaking that was connected to Buenos Aires. So, the Portuguese used Rio to equip and finance a fleet and attack the Dutch in Angola. They did not aid the anti-Dutch rebels in Pernambuco, they wanted to take what was theirs. They defeated the Dutch in August of 1648, in Luanda, in São Tomé and in Benguela and they forced them out of Angola, which weakened them in Pernambuco. From this point onwards, you begin to see a more active role in commercial, political and military terms among the Brazilian colonists in Angola, expanding the slave trade and the bases of Portugal’s occupation in the region. What is worth noting is that the English slave trade, which was extremely important, and larger than that of the Portuguese up until the end of the eighteenth century, along with the French and the Dutch slave traders, all sent their agents to the beaches, and maintained their local intermediaries, but only the Portuguese together with the Brazilian colonists went inland, pillaging and expanding the slave trade networks in Africa, and more specifically in Angola.

And they really did go into the continent.
No other European country did this, only Portugal, with support from its Brazilian colony and on account of the colonists’ greed. Unless you understand this, you cannot understand Brazil. All of these economic cycles, of sugar, gold and coffee, only existed because of the slave labor that was brought from Africa. The Brazil wood cycle was different, because it was an Indian business. This was how Minas Gerais was able to be created, based on the existing cities. The succession of productive cycles in Brazil was only possible as a result of the huge reproductive cycle of the slave trade, thanks to the continued injection of human energy deported from Africa to Brazil.

This was the major capital throughout the entire period of the country’s formation.
That’s right, and it was this that gave Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo an advantage over the Northeast, over Bahia and Pernambuco, after independence. The regional inequality was not due simply to the fact that the said two states were the first to get into the coffee business while the others carried on with the sugar business, but also to the fact that Rio’s slave traders had a transatlantic logistical advantage that provided them with more slaves. This was also the case in 1808, and almost nobody has any idea why 1808 was also the point of delay. Why was this? Because first England in 1807 and then the United States in 1808 outlawed the slave trade. Following this, the entire slave network that had been set up in the African ports was swallowed up by Brazil. Brazilian slave traders also benefited from the new products that were used for barter in Africa, which began to be imported from England after the opening up of the ports in 1808.

We are talking here about trade in weapons, capital goods, foodstuffs and people…
This entire network, including Mozambique, which had not previously been in the circuit, was seized by the Brazilian slave traders, particularly those from Rio de Janeiro, after 1808.

Rio and Salvador: fundamental in the construction of colonial economic space

The reproduction of the book O Brasil dos Viajantes Rio and Salvador: fundamental in the construction of colonial economic spaceThe reproduction of the book O Brasil dos Viajantes

But why in your assessment does 1808 also represent the point of delay?
Because it links Brazil with forced labor and with a type of slave trade, and economic and social domination, that was already on the way out in the rest of the world. Because it turns Rio de Janeiro into the world’s largest slave based city; only in the Roman Empire had there been anything comparable. In 1849, Rio de Janeiro had a population of 260 thousand inhabitants, out of whom 110 thousand, or 42%, were slaves. This is unparalleled, and at the time Rio was the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere!

There is a point in O trato dos viventes where you say that the Statute of the Indian was determined in relation to that of the negro slaves. In what sense?
It’s impossible to understand the legislation on the indigenous peoples per se, without realizing that it is related to the African slaves from the sixteenth century. The policy of putting pressure on the villages to enslave, repress and kill Indians was modified in 1580, as the Jesuit advisers themselves recommended easing relations with the Indians because they defended them from the revolts by the African slaves. The missionaries never showed any interest in learning whether or not the African slaves had been illegally enslaved or not, but the enslavement of the native population was embargoed by the missionaries from the start, and this was also of some interest to the slave traders, i.e., having African slavery predominate.

You also touch upon the issue of the desocialization and the depersonalization of the negro slaves. Can you explain these notions?
I got these ideas from Claude Meillassoux, an important economic anthropologist and the author of A antropologia da escravidão [The anthropology of slavery]. He shows that enslavement involves two processes: the first is depersonalization, and the second is desocialization, which means that the person is removed from his community, from his country, from his nation, from his language and from his religion, for the purpose of being taken to another place. The slave is always a foreigner. And, in this other place, he becomes a thing, he is depersonalized. He becomes merchandise, cattle, at the moment in which he is branded. The brand is the mark of the tax paid to the Crown. In Kimbundu, the language of Angola, this was called karimu, hence the word “carimbo” [rubber stamp]. On the island of Luanda, which is now linked to the continent, the large slave trading ships would remain offshore, while the canoes crossed the bay to land to pick up the slaves who were held at warehouses in the city.

From there they were transferred onto the ships under threat of the cudgel, because they would panic, thinking that they were going to be devoured by the Europeans and that their bones would be used to make cheese and wine. The popular recollection on the island of Luanda, which was still recalled in 2003, was that it was only when they went to Brazil that they became slaves. It is hard to imagine the terrible psychological shock suffered by these people who had come from afar, traveling through the interior of Africa, sometimes for as long as a year before they arrived at Luanda, suffering incessant physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the African slave traders. Afterwards the Portuguese and Brazilian slave traders came onto the scene, and transported them to the other side of the ocean. Then they arrived in Brazil having suffered a great deal and severely shaken, to become slaves. And it took them a while to stand on their own feet, to manage to revolt against their masters and to communicate with the others who had come from other African lands to Brazil.

What we’re talking about here is rebuilding relationships in totally adverse conditions.
Yes, rebuilding social relationships, becoming individuals again within the context of slavery. Basically, the biggest trauma for the Negro population is that individuals do not know where they come from. They do not know what country they come from.

I admire the way that you have written O trato dos viventes, your capacity to weave so many stories characterized by great human tragedy, as it were, into a scholarly discussion.
In the historiographic debate there is a train of thought that you have to tell the micro-history of the individuals without trying to encompass a global perspective, the argument being that it is impossible for you can read everything as in the past. This is not strictly true. It used to be more difficult, because you had to go to all the libraries that had the books and the documents, whereas nowadays I have a hard disk here with a lot of the documentation about Brazil and Angola, for instance.

What is the connection between your intellectual development and the paths that your private life has taken? For instance, I see that you dedicated O trato dos viventes to three young people who were victims of the dictatorship, who were assassinated as part of the repression.
Of the three, Honestino Guimarães, Heleny Guariba and Paulo de Tarso Celestino, I knew Heleny Guariba and Paulo de Tarso best.

You left Brazil at the time of the political persecutions, went to France, studied in Aix-en-Provence, etc. How did all this shape your life and your intellectual output?
I studied at Elefante Branco [Elefante Branco Secondary Education Center – Cemeb], which is now 50 years old, and then I went to UnB [University of Brasília], in March 1964. Then on the 31st of March/ 1st of April we had the military coup in Brasília, which was really surreal. Suddenly a load of military police from Minas Gerais arrived, on a city bus, with machine guns between their legs, and that was the coup. In Brasília everyone was more or less a Juscelino supporter and they were waiting for there to be some sort of reaction, then an election in the following year, which Juscelino [Kubitschek, who had been President of the Republic from 1956 to 1960] would win. They totally misjudged things. The people who ran Feub (the Federation of the Students of the University of Brasília) left when the coup took place; there was a new election and I was elected on a ticket that included Paulo de Tarso Celestino as Vice-President. I was first secretary. When we left, it was Honestino Guimarães who took over as our successor. That’s the connection. And as for Heleny, I met her in Aix-en-Provence.

Were you a member of the Communist Party?
No, but I held views similar to those of the party. At that time in Brasília all you had was the PC (Communist Party) and the AP [Popular Action]. Things began to get more difficult with the IPMs (Military Police Inquests). I had to testify at the IPM of the Paulo Freire method, and at that of UNE, as well as at a number of others. We were not treated violently, but little by little things got worse. I was a friend of [the journalist] Fernando Pedreira, who ran the branch office of the Estadão [nickname of the daily newspaper O Estado de São Paulo], and he said that the newspaper needed to cover the procedures of the Supreme Court (STF), where the requests for habeas corpus were being filed [for those people who were being persecuted by the dictatorship]. He proposed that I should cover the Supreme Court in the afternoons, and as I only had lessons in the mornings; I accepted and became a journalist. Then I won a scholarship from the French government and I went off to France.

How old were you?
I was 20. I studied history and political science in Aix-en-Provence from where I graduated, and then in 1970 I went to Paris to do my master’s degree in ethnology and my doctorate in history.

You were literally supported by the French government for a long time.
I had a French scholarship for a period of six years. When I was half-way through my doctorate, I went to teach at Vincennes, which at the time was an experimental university, and then I started giving classes in Rouen as an assistant professor.

When did you start the work that would become the O trato dos viventes?
I started my PhD before 1970 and at that point developed some of the ideas that appear in the book. However, it was while I worked in Brazil that I really began to make progress. I remained in France until 1986, when I returned to work at Cebrap and at Unicamp. Celso Furtado, who was close friend of mine, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who I had met through Celso, advised me to return. As well as my friend and intellectual guru, Roberto Schwarz, who had already come back to Brazil, and Violeta Arraes, who is the sister of Miguel Arraes, who was the leader of the Brazilian exiles in Paris, in short, all of these people gave me a lot of support and encouraged me to return to Brazil. I joined Unicamp’s Economics Institute, which at the time was a place where a lot of debate was going on. I was teaching economic history, then I got my teaching qualification and, afterwards, I did the entire official examination process to become an associate professor. I also went to Cebrap, and that was really good because at the time there were a number of researchers there who were linked to the PT and the PSDB: Francisco de Oliveira, Paul Singer, Giannotti and Ruth Cardoso. It was an incredibly important period, the time when the new constitution was being discussed, and it made my head spin.

At the same time you were an area coordinator at FAPESP?
Luiz Henrique [Lopes dos Santos], who was assistant advisor for humanities at the Foundation and who was connected to the people at Cebrap, invited me, with support from colleagues in the history department, to be the coordinator for the history, geography and pre-history area, and I worked there from 1989 until 1994. However after I received my teaching qualification I got a grant from Fapesp to turn my work into a book.

A post-doctoral grant?
Yes, at the Sorbonne, with Kátia Mattoso [a Brazilian historian, who passed away in Paris in January 2011]. At the time, she held the Chair of Brazilian History, being the first person to do so.

Just to be clear: your project involves three books linked to the formation of Brazil?
Yes. Look, there’s this whole thing of the connection between the Africans and the Indians, then comes the connection between slavery and immigration. The immigration laws have been studied separately from the abolitionist laws. However, the two things go hand in hand, you resolve a problem on one side and another one arises on the other. And it is always the State. This is the second book, which takes you up to the nineteenth century and I have written some articles, for instance, the one I published in the Annales, in 2006: “Le versant bresilien de l’Atlantique-Sud: 1550-1850.”

What year do the three books go up to?
To 1940. I discussed this work plan at great length with Celso Furtado and Roberto Schwarz in France as well as in Brazil.

What happens after 1850?
There is no longer the link with Africa, but labor is still dependent on external factors, on the immigration of foreigners. However, starting with the 1927-1934 period, you begin to see more migrants arriving in São Paulo from the northeast of Brazil than from outside the country. Then you get another breakthrough point, Brazil’s labor market is transformed, becoming dependent solely upon the internal reproduction of the labor force.

Did you go back to France in 1999?
There were tensions and a lack of any clear definition in relation to my position at work as well as a few personal problems and then I got a letter from the Dean of the Sorbonne saying that there was a Brazilian history position open that I might be interested in. Everything worked out and I went as a Visiting Professor to start teaching in September, while I waited for the next official selection process that was scheduled to be held in March. I took the exams, passed and became a Full Professor, and have been there ever since.

And your plan is to return to Brazil.
Yes, in 2014.