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A renewed look at the history of Brazil

Researchers present their findings in USP’s History Amphitheater

A captain of the militia cursing his domains, a legend that acquires the status of real life, the mystery of mineral wealth after the end of gold, the unknown cowboy slaves, the ghost State of the Dutch domination, the anonymous accusation against a corrupt government….   These are facts the researchers of Project Recovery narrate at their meeting:  on September 25th, 26th and 27th, the Department of History of the University of São Paulo (USP) took in 90 scholars – 30 Portuguese and 60 Brazilian – at the congress ‘The History that is Born from the Recovery Project’ (please see the Special Supplement of Pesquisa FAPESP No. 57), and at the symposium  ‘Agenda for the History of the Millennium’.

The objective was to consolidate the project, which recovers, on microfilm and CDs, all the documentation about Brazil that there is in other countries, particularly at Portugal’s Overseas Historical Archives – which holds 80% of the documents on the subject, which will have an impact on research in the short term. In the first sessions, there were discussions on general aspects, like the new technologies that speed up access to the sources and the exchange of information.  fterwards, there were sessions on blocks of themes: Amazon, the Northeast, the Captaincy of Bahia, the Center-West, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, São Paulo and the Southern Regions. The symposium on the Agenda of the Millennium brought the meeting to a close.

The subject’s voice 
Paulo Knauss, from the Fluminense Federal University, who worked on the Rio de Janeiro documentation, focused on the thinking of Capistrano de Abreu and Oliveira Viana, to say that they made “anguishing reading for our collective destiny”.  According to them, “there was no society here, because there was no social life”.

Afterwards, Gilberto Freyre was to invert this view: if for Capistrano and Viana the colonial past was to account for our blemishes, for Freyre, on the contrary, “it represented our virtues, in drawing the master’s house to the slave quarters, through the universe of the intimacy of social life”. In reinforcing this revision, says Knauss, the project revealed an extraordinary kind of document, which gives voice to the subject of the colony:  “The subject expresses himself there, he complains to the king. He is not just any subject, because he is not the metropolitan subject, he is the subject of the colonial universe”.

Caio César Boschi, from the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC) of Minas Gerais, has a similar approach. For him, the documentation that relates to the Captaincy of Minas Gerais makes clear the need for a revision, in particular of the theses of Oliveira Viana and Raimundo Faoro, who saw the presence of the State as being in prior to society.  “The State”, says Boschi, “will only show its presence in the Minas region when it is over boiling point, showing movements in its social organism that could not do with out the presence of the State.”  While the first discoveries of gold date from 1693, it was only in 1710 that the Portuguese State becomes present, to pacify the Emboabas War and found the first towns.

Minas without gold
Boschi brought to light yet another intriguing fact about Minas. Throughout the 18th century and at its turn to the 19th, the number of slaves in Minas corresponded to 20% of the total in Portuguese America. This turn of the century, however, is the period pointed out to be the era of the region’s decadence, as the first 30 or 40 years of the 18th century were the peak of the gold prospecting. Boschi queries this: how can a region be decadent when it supports such a contingent of slaves?  This points to other productive activities to sustain the economy.

“To imagine Minas supported exclusively by gold is a historical falsehood”, he says. And he suggests that the word decadence should be replaced by decline, as the exploitation of gold was alluvial, and therefore necessarily showed a downward curve. Hence the famous head taxes, with which the Crown would demand the completion of the payment of taxes, even with declining production, until the usual 100 arrobas (an arroba is about 14,7Kgs)  a year was reached.

Boschi goes further, in what he calls the “Civilization of Minas”: if Aleijadinho, the Arcadian poets, music, the painting of Manuel da Costa Athaíde flourished at the turn of the 18th century to the 19th, when the extraction of gold had gone into inexorable decline, “how to explain this interval of time, unless by a consistent productive activity, other than mining?”  This is the task that the Recovery Project puts in the hands of the historians of Minas.

Straight to the king
Maria do Socorro Ferraz Barbosa, of the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), pointed out a novelty that the project brought to the history of the Dutch occupation of Pernambuco in the 17th Century.  The documentation confirms that even in the time of Dutch domination, the legal and institutional equivalence with Portugal not only continued, but it even became permanent, as if there were one State within another – “which means that the Portuguese State never went away, it was always present surreptitiously”.

Still on Pernambuco, Virgínia Maria Almoedo de Assis, also from the UFPE, located an anonymous letter addressed to the king, signed “Pernambuco in Affliction”, which denounces abuses of the local authority.  It is a good example of the voice of the subject, used by Virgínia in her thesis for a doctorate on the relations with the Metropolis between 1650 and 1720.  Dated July 28th 1653, the letter reads:


Pernambuco complains to Your Royal Majesty of the government that today is governing it,  for Your Royal Majesty, with all possible speed, should remedy the great shortages and miseries of these captaincies that suffer and suffer more  (…) by many different ways stealing goes on under the cloak of virtue, (…) no respect nor jurisdiction is afforded to no one (…) the clerk of the finances and registrar is a private servant behind closed doors, and keeps the books to himself to better carry out his business (…) the wretched inhabitants pay over and over again, by whatsoever means, their fintas [a kind of taxation] and donations (…) six maidens have been deflowered, their parents are not named so as not to cover honor with scandal, and many married ones: all ends in force, God help us”

Notwithstanding the political and administrative nature of the documents surveyed, the letter shows that not only aspects of colonial administration but also of day-to-day life can be drawn from them. The branch of history that deals with the so-called history of mentalities and of everyday life would find there a rich source.

Another one impressed with the way the subjects expressed themselves in their petitions, the documents in which the authorities are asked for something, was Mozart Vergetti de Menezes, from the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB).  “Reading them shows you that both people connected with the elite and common people would make their requests and favors directly to the king. It seemed like the first time I could see common people expressing themselves.  And with a variety of problems, which range from everyday treatment, of more prosaic issues, to those with administrative causes”.

Cowboy slaves
The team from the northeast hooked some great novelties from the Overseas Archives. Classics from the historiography of the economy, like Caio Prado Júnior and Celso Furtado, sustained that in cattle raising regions, both in the northeast and in the south, slavery was practically unknown. The argument seemed a reasonable one: being a wide-ranging activity and one that did not require a large contingent of workers – the opposite of sugar cane or mining – a free labor force was preferred, which was usually paid in kind, with cattle.

Up to today, this is what is said at school and what figures in the majority of the books approved by the MEC. However, to judge from the documentation put into the inventory of the Archives by the team from the northeast, these arguments will have to be revised. According to Lourival Santana Santos, of the Federal University of Sergipe, the documentation on Piauí not only shows cattle breeding as the main economic activity, but it also reveals that more than half the labor force employed in this activity was made up of slaves!

“Attached and pugnacious”: that was how Fátima Martins Lopes, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte referred to the subject from her region, which was annexed by the captaincy of Pernambuco. According to her, the history of her state had been drawn up using documents that the poet, Gonçalves Dias, got ready in the mid-19th century, when he went to Portugal at the Emperor’s request to “copy interesting documents”.  In them, conveniently, the conflicts in the colony did not appear, and, besides the dubious selection, there were many gaps.

The Recovery Project survey, on the contrary, reveals many conflicts between the captains of Rio Grande do Norte and the general-governors of Pernambuco, in particular as to the grants of land. >From the poet’s paperwork, says Fátima, “we often had only the upward document” – the consultation, which left the colony for Portugal -, “but not the downwards one, which was the corresponding administrative act to solve the problems”.  The Recovery Project has brought the complement.

Fátima also revealed the strange story of the Mine of the Mountain Range of No Hair, long narrated by a local family, from generation to generation. In mountain range, there was said to be a gold mine, which the local Indians were said to have taken in an attack on the colonizer. It was thought to be just a legend. Very well: the documentation shows that the mine really did exist, and the family, which was able to confirm its old story, was redeemed from the reputation of being liars.

Vacuum in Paraíba
As to Paraíba, a captaincy also annexed by Pernambuco, coordinator Rosa Maria Godoy (from the UFPB) says: “The importance of Brazil-wood from Paraíba – which is pointed out by all the chroniclers of the time, since it yielded more dye than those from other captaincies – is now confirmed”, as well as the strong regional indigenous resistance, one of the biggest that has been known about in the colony. Rosa pointed out the importance that Paraíba had in Portuguese expansion, serving as the rearguard to ensure the cultivation of sugar cane in Pernambuco.

The Dutch presence in Pernambuco tied an knot in the history of Paraíba, which, according to Rosa, resulted in “a historiographical vacuum, because, after the expelling of the Dutch, Paraíba went into an unprecedented crisis, and ended up being attached to the Captaincy of Pernambuco for 44 years”. This vacuum, which the documentation has solved, is also connected with “the belated appearance, in 1905, of the Historical and Geographical Institute, which was more concerned in legitimizing the young republican regime, and took little care of the colonial documentation”.

“Scabrous captaincy”
According to Gisafran Nazareno Mota Jucá, from the Federal University of Ceará, the documentation that relates to Ceará reveals a number of conflicts in the relations between the colonial authorities and the clergy. References to the drought were already appearing, as well as to the trade in leather and jerked beef. Gisafran is surprised at the choice of Fortaleza for the capital, since geography – and the documentation indicates this – did not provide good conditions for the installation of a port. Indeed, the disregard towards the Captaincy of Ceará is revealed in the way the administrators used to refer to it. In a document that Gisafran picked up, the captain of the militia, João Batista de Azevedo Coutinho, who governed it from 1762 to 1789, says: “Since I arrived at this wretched and scabrous captaincy and took command of its unhappy government…”  In another document, the same captain  refers to “the indolence of the inhabitants of Ceará, whose bread came from Pernambuco, as they are too lazy to cultivate manioc” (they basically devoted themselves to cattle raising).

Communicative Bahia
Onildo Reis David, of the State University of Feira de Santana (BA), and Avanete Pereira de Souza, who is taking a doctor’s degree at USP, denied the thesis that the captaincies did not communicate among  themselves: Bahia enjoyed “a very close relationship” with Pernambuco, Paraíba and Piauí. They both think that the documentation will stimulate research into mining, tax collection, and problems with supply, migrations and diseases. And topics that have already been relatively well studied, like the extraction and contracting of Brazil-wood, shipbuilding, commercial activities and the independence of Bahia, will have, Avanete thinks, “the chance of being reinterpreted and added to”.  The historiography of Bahia has produced a number of works on slavery, for example, but it almost all addresses itself to the 19th century. Project Recovery will make it possible, albeit in a panoramic manner, to work on the theme of slavery in the 18th century.

False extermination
Juciene Ricarte Apolinário, from the University of Tocantins (a state that until a few years ago was part of Goias), pointed out that “even in documents regarded as being legal / administrative or official, between the lines one can see precisely the intricate social relations that prevailed in the world of the Captaincy of Goiás”. Themes about the relationships between settlers, missionaries, soldiers, traders, Indians and non-Indians will be able to be appreciated.

In the terrain of ethnic history, there should be plenty of changes. Juciene recalls that some authors have accepted readily that certain local indigenous groups were exterminated. He claims, however, that the documentation shows that some groups resisted, and, contrary to what was supposed, they survived by migrating to other captaincies. Consulting the CDs of the Recovery Project will make it possible to cross check details, identifying these groups and their movements.

The documents about Goiás will allow research to be carried out into the presence of the Church in the region, because they deal with some brotherhoods and confraternities, besides recording many complaints of the ecclesiastics against the civilian government, and vice versa. An important finding  highlighted by Antonio Cesar Caldas, from the Catholic University of Goiás, is the cartographic and iconographic documentation, which fills in many gaps.

Amazon in polemics
Francisco Jorge dos Santos, the director of the Amazonian Museum, has stirred up a controversy.  After recalling that, when he was young, he was indignant over the fact that historians do not deal with the colonial history of Amazonas, he defended: “But they were right, because Amazonas consisted of a colonial unit that was independent of Brazil”. He added that the documentation investigated in the Overseas Archives confirmed this, since the themes that he checked up to 1808 did not disclose any document that addressed itself to Bahia or to Rio de Janeiro, the two colonial administrative headquarters.

This was only to change with the coming of the Court to Brazil in 1808. If, from then onwards, the documents from Amazonas report to Rio de Janeiro, this was not due to the fact that Rio was the “headquarters of Brazil”, but rather for it being “the headquarters of the Kingdom”.

Maria do Socorro, from Pernambuco, takes the opposite view: “Contrary to what my colleague’s position suggests, the northeast wants to be Brazil. In the United States, that immensity, it is all national history. We are all Brazilians, for all our particularities”.

Juciene Apolinário, from the University of Tocantins (which is part of the Legal Amazon region), contradicted her colleague from Amazonas outright:  in the documentation that refers to Goiás, she found out that there was in fact intensive communication between the captains of the militias of Goiás and Amazonas, in particular about the complicated problems in those days of the navigation of the Tocantins river. Her discovery exemplifies the potential of the documents recovered, making it possible to cross check easily from the CD-ROMs information from various captaincies.

In one of the sessions, Caio Cesar Boschi, from PUC in Minas, made a comment that, in terms of the quality of documents put into the inventory, there were “small captaincies and big ones”. Unwittingly, he stirred up another controversy.

João Eurípedes Franklin Leal, from the Federal University of Espírito Santo, rejoined: “At the end of the 16th century, Espírito Santo was superior to the Captaincy of São Vicente in the production and the quality of sugar. It was superior to Rio de Janeiro in population and trade!  How could it then be a small captaincy?” And he went on, vehemently: “Until the 17th century, Espírito Santo was doing very well, and the documents prove that. Suddenly, pardon me, the accursed gold of Minas Gerais was discovered! That is when we became a fortress, a natural fortress. All to defend Minas Gerais!”

Another light-hearted moment was provided by Sérgio Conde Albite, of the Rio-Grandense University: he said that he would talk about something “that is neither big nor small, nor a captaincy, nor even is it in Brazil”. That is because he worked on the documentation of the Colony of Sacramento (today’s Uruguay), part of it compiled in Montevideo. The documents confirm that the Colony served, above all, as an outpost of the Metropolis to safeguard its domains further to the north.

The project will certainly provoke many polemics, since it has shaken all the colonial historiography. In addition, Brazilians and Portuguese have recovered and re-encountered themselves, in the task of together the thousands of documents, not only from the Overseas Historical Archives in Lisbon, but also from Brazilian public archives, which have now been microfilmed and are in Portugal, in what is informally known as the “Return”, the Portuguese equivalent of the project.