Imprimir Republish


Interpreters of political debate

Indigenous peoples appropriated liberal ideas circulating in the Americas and Europe in order to claim their rights

Letter from the House of Representatives Archive written in 1822 by indigenous people, petitioning the government of Dom Pedro I

Archive of the House of Representatives

In 1814, a group of indigenous people of different ethnicities who lived in Vila Viçosa, in the hinterland of Ceará, traveled on foot to Rio de Janeiro. They made the long journey in order to petition Dom João VI (1767–1826), monarch of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and Algarves, that he abolish compulsory indigenous labor in the province of Ceará. Working within a system in which people received privileges in exchange for services rendered to the Crown, in their luggage they carried letters patent issued decades earlier to prove their bond and allegiance to the Portuguese king. From 1829 onwards, representatives of ethnic groups such as the Guarani, Kaiowá, and Munduruku visited appropriated lands in São Paulo and the Amazon to present gifts to the colonizers. Unnoticed, with the aim of fostering more friendly relationships, they left blankets, honey, and game meat at the doors of houses and rubber plantations.

An account of these and other actions taken by such ethnic groups is one of the findings resulting from a research method established over the last decade. Over recent years, researchers have begun to take new approaches to exploring the archives containing documentation from villages and the missives of provincial governments, with the aim of understanding how the indigenous peoples viewed the coming of a new political order. The studies have shown that native peoples were not alien to the political debate, when interpreted in their own way and used to reclaim their rights and meet demands for better living conditions.

Until the 1980s, traditional historiography on Brazilian independence paid little attention to the indigenous issue, says historian Vania Maria Losada Moreira, from the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ). And, although the issue is central to anthropology and ethnography, until the 1980s, analyses of these areas of knowledge considered each people within their specific cultural context. The scenario began to change after the debates of the National Constituent Assembly in 1987, with the involvement of the indigenous movement and intellectuals such as anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, now a retired professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, in the United States, who advanced the development of what is now known as “new indigenous history.” “Carneiro da Cunha analyzed the historical documentation and identified two long-term trends within the relationship the state and colonists have had with the indigenous people: brute force and mildness. These are trends that operate between opposition and complementarity, with mildness being more associated with the Jesuits and brute force with the military,” says anthropologist Leandro Mahalem de Lima, from the Center for Applied Microeconomics of the São Paulo School of Economics at Fundação Getulio Vargas. (EESP-FGV).

During the 1980s, in addition to conducting studies analyzing the specifics of each ethnic group, researchers began to become concerned with understanding the role of indigenous people in historical processes related to colonization and national independence. A scholar of the great catechizing missions in sixteenth-century Espírito Santo, Moreira, from the UFRRJ, explains that some of these missions were elevated to the status of village during the period when Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (1699–1782), the Marquis of Pombal, was Secretary of State of Portugal, from 1756 to 1777. “By the eve of the Independence, some of the indigenous peoples had been living in these villages for centuries. These natives participated in social struggles and were a subject of dispute among local elites. Their history is yet to be written,” says Moreira.

“In Brazil, the association between the nation’s independence and indigenous participation is still very rare, if not categorically denied,” observes historian André Machado, from the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP). In an article about to be published in a collection edited by SESC (Social Service of Commerce), Machado mentions a critique that historian Alexandre José de Mello Moraes (1816–1882) wrote in the 1860s, regarding the equestrian statue of Dom Pedro I installed in Tiradentes Square, in Rio de Janeiro. The monument portrays the monarch in the act of declaring independence, surrounded by alligators and indigenous people. In his text, written at the height of Indianism—a period when national literature idealized indigenous people—Mello Moraes asks: “What part did these Indians and those alligators play in the Independence of Brazil?” Machado includes this passage in his article to argue that the narrative regarding the supposed unimportance of indigenous participation in the nation’s break with Portugal lasted until recently. His view is shared by Daniel Munduruku, an author of more than 50 books, who comes from the same indigenous group that shares his name. “The participation of indigenous populations was omitted from historiographic production and, even in the nineteenth century, the romantic view of the native peoples contributed to their invisibility,” notes Munduruku.

In the same vein, historian Camila Loureiro Dias, from the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), cites historian John Manuel Monteiro (1956–2013), noting that studies prior to the 1980s that focused on the history of indigenous peoples functioned as “chronicles of their extinction,” underlining that they would be exterminated or assimilated into the general population. Conversely, the 1988 Constitution made guarantees to these peoples regarding their rights to land and the right to maintain their traditions and cultures. “It was the first time that the Brazilian state recognized itself as multiethnic and accepted the right of native populations to be different,” she says, noting that the change contributed to expanding the scope of historiographical research.

Despite this progress, Dias observes that current studies on the indigenous issue need to reinforce the dialogue with other historiographies. “In historical events, each researcher seeks to see the protagonism of their own object of study. In the case of Brazil’s independence, this includes indigenous people, and Africans and people of African descent, in addition to the various rulers and colonizers. However, we need to improve the connections between these historiographies, and deepen our understanding of how these groups interacted.”

Understanding the reasoning behind the opposition of certain peoples to the Independence, especially considering the context of violence and forced labor to which they had been historically subjected, is one of the questions that drive recent research, including the study developed by Machado, from UNIFESP. “Wouldn’t it have been more likely for all the native groups to align themselves with independence movements, due to the possibility of breaking with the previous regime such movements offered?” asks the historian. Another insight these analyses provide is an understanding of how the “scenario of upheavals” experienced during the processes of independence in the Americas impacted indigenous perspectives.

National LibraryAn equestrian statue of Dom Pedro I, inaugurated in 1862 in Rio de Janeiro, is believed to be the first public sculpture in BrazilNational Library

Answers to some of these questions were obtained during a study conducted with FAPESP support, completed in 2020. When studying the exploitation of indigenous labor during the colonial and imperial periods, Machado recalls the “Just Wars,” a policy instituted in the sixteenth century that called for the extermination of indigenous people who refused to give up their lands and work for the colonizers. In 1808, when the king of Portugal, Dom João VI, arrived in Brazil, he set in motion just wars against the Kaingang Indians who lived in Campo de Guarapuava, in Paraná, and the Botocudo, in the Rio Doce valley, in Minas Gerais.

Machado points out that there were laws prohibiting indigenous enslavement in the territories of the Portuguese and Hispanic Americas, but the duty of compulsory work, with strenuous working hours and frequent delays in payment, was perennial. Unlike slavery, in which enslaved subjects were considered not to have ownership of their persons and, therefore, worked without remuneration, in compulsory work, individuals received remuneration for the activities they were obliged to perform. “That didn’t change with Brazilian Independence. On the contrary, nation-states in the Americas recreated compulsory forms of indigenous work, even where parliaments had extinguished it,” argues Machado, citing as an example that half of the Bolivian state’s earnings in the nineteenth century involved the sale of goods that were produced from indigenous labor. Historian Fernanda Sposito, from the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), recalls that indigenous labor was strategic for opening up avenues of navigation, defending borders, and enabling contacts with other peoples. The knowledge that native populations had of the oceans, she says, pointing out another example, was what led to the exploration for Caribbean pearls at the beginning of the colonization of the Americas. “The most valuable pearls were found in the deepest areas and the indigenous people were forced to dive for hours, even when exhausted. Many drowned,” says Sposito.

In order to resist compulsory work under these conditions in Brazil, the indigenous people would customarily inhabit more isolated regions, deep in the forests. They were hunted down, and when located were tied to tree trunks or otherwise held captive until the recruiter captured the required number of individuals needed to form a work gang. According to Machado, in the state of Pará, most of the economy depended on indigenous work, which was essential for extracting raw materials from the forest, and for river transport. Many of these goods were even destined for the foreign market, as the researcher verified in collections such as the National Archives, in Washington, and the John Carter Brown library, both in the United States. While analyzing other documents from the nineteenth century, Machado found petitions written in Portuguese by indigenous leaders questioning the working conditions to which they were subjected. They went to the Crown and made various types of requests. In one of them, drawn up in 1822, the indigenes demanded the dismissal of the administrator of the Arsenal da Marinha, one of the places where compulsory labor was most onerous. “In this request, the indigenous leaders used the liberal discourse prevalent in the Cortes of Lisbon to legitimize their demand, stating that the administrator was a ‘despot’ and had come to office through the ‘defects of the Ancien Régime,’” says Machado.

The Cortes de Lisboa was the designation of the constitutional assembly that came to govern the Portuguese Empire in January 1821. A result of the Liberal Revolution of Porto, the military movement known as “Vintism,” was launched in 1820 to demand the end of absolutism and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in Portugal. In addition, the Cortes also demanded that the king, Dom João VI, who had been in Rio de Janeiro since 1808, return to Portugal. “In their document, the freedom of indigenous workers was directly related to the idea of freedom promoted by the liberal movement in Porto, according to which society should end the absolutist power of the monarchy,” says Machado. Upon learning that the Lisbon Cortes prohibited the recruitment of citizens of the Portuguese Empire into compulsory labor, the indigenous people moved closer to the liberals’ cause, incorporating and resignifying the interpretation of these rights to argue that they should no longer be forced into these activities.

According to Machado, the ideas of the Liberal Revolution of Porto began to circulate in Pará at the same time the newspaper O Paraense began to publish in 1820, where it was also reported that the Cortes had abolished the imprisonment of citizens without trial. The researcher found correspondence from 1823 that shows that a judge from Vila Nova Del Rey, in Pará, accepted the arguments of the indigenous people that they should not be captured and imprisoned to perform forced labor, since they had not demonstrated guilt, which aligned their discourse with the cause of the Vintists. “Indigenous peoples interpreted political news on their own terms and made calculations about which actions would result in gains or losses for their communities. Their motivations, most of the time, went beyond a simple alignment with those who wanted to maintain ties with Portugal or those who wanted to break away,” Machado observes.

New York Public LibraryPainting by Jean-Baptiste Debret shows Guarani indigenous people serving in the Brazilian Imperial ArmyNew York Public Library

Historian João Paulo Peixoto Costa, from the Federal Institute of Piauí (IFPI), Uruçuí campus, conducted research funded by FAPESP that was later honored by the Brasiliana Guita and José Mindlin Library at the University of São Paulo (BBM-USP). His work investigated indigenous policies and indigenous rights activists in Ceará by analyzing documents from the state’s Public Archive and the Archive of the House of Representatives. In the study, he found texts in Portuguese produced by indigenous people showing that some inhabitants of towns and villages perceived the king as the ultimate protective entity against the landowners wishing to dominate their lands and abuse their labor. “Portuguese constitutionalism was seen by certain groups as a disadvantageous change, because it represented a strengthening of political power for provincial elites, who were their great enemies. For this reason, the indigenous people of Ceará tended to support the Prince Regent when the Lisbon Cortes imposed the return of Dom João VI to Portugal,” explains the researcher.

Costa points out that the 1824 Constitution does not directly mention indigenous people but established that all citizens born in Brazil were free and equal. From then on, provincial governments began to consider laws to protect indigenous rights unnecessary, abolishing, for example, the Indians Directorate, which determined that indigenous village councils should also be composed of representatives of indigenous peoples. In an ongoing study on the presence of indigenes on municipal councils in the villages of Ceará, Costa found that they started to be referred to as naive and incapable after the Law of the Councils passed in 1828, which imposed a census limit on councilor positions. “Less than ten years after the Independence, the indigenous people lost their rights from the colonial period,” he notes, adding that Ceará abolished the Directorate in 1831.

Mahalem de Lima, from EESP-FGV, observes that the fact that the 1824 Constitution did not even use the term “Indian” gave rise to a legislative vacuum. It was within the framework of this legal vacuum, explains historian Íris Kantor, from USP, that in 1935 provincial assemblies were established, and the management of indigenous villages and the control of labor became the responsibility of the elites. She says these same ruling class slaveholders disputed amongst themselves over the so-called “territorial assets,” an expression coined by geographer Antonio Carlos Robert Moraes (1954–2015) to designate areas of land not yet appropriated or colonized, which the landowner elites reserved for their own expansionist, extractive interests, preventing official demarcation.

In Grão-Pará, boats with cannons bombed riverside villages in order to occupy their territories, take their residents captive, and subject them to forced labor. Rebel movements there also wanted to make the province independent from the government of Dom Pedro I, who hired the English lord Thomas Cochrane (1775–1860) to lead squadrons of soldiers to impose order and repress opposition movements. “In 1823, to force Grão-Pará to adhere to the Independence, the church canon Batista Campos [1782–1834], leader of the opposition in the province—who was against compulsory labor—was tortured in the public square. Meanwhile, 256 of his allies were asphyxiated in the holds of a ship, under the orders of an English mercenary, John Grenfell [1800–1869],” says Mahalem de Lima. Years after independence from Portugal was achieved, these tensions culminated in the outbreak of the Cabanagem, a revolt that took place from 1835 to 1840, with enthusiastic participation from the indigenous population. Using research conducted on riverside populations, both indigenous and nonindigenous, in the region of Santarém, Pará, specifically at the confluence of the Tapajós, Arapiuns, and Amazon rivers, the anthropologist mapped a kinship network that extends to more than 2,000 people and allows us to go back in time to the era of the Cabanagem. “Mapping networks with the aid of computational tools opens up new possibilities for dialogue with written documental sources,” he notes. He adds that one of the findings of this work is that, in the oral tradition, the term cabano is commonly associated with the whites who, according to the riverside peoples, arrived in boats “acabano com tudo” (destroying everything).

Based on historical documentation on indigenous peoples in the region of the Madeira River, which crosses the states of Rondônia and Amazonas, Davi Avelino Leal, from the Federal University of Amazonas (UFAM), found that in the nineteenth century the advance of rubber extraction into the region occupied by the Munduruku and Parintintin peoples aroused different reactions from each ethnic group. While the Parintintin fought wars, the Munduruku, after a century of trade with the Portuguese, went to work on the rubber plantations. “Historical sources from towns and villages stored in public archives reveal that some indigenous peoples left gifts, such as fruit and game, for the rubber plantation communities. Thus, the process of pacifying relations, many times, came from the indigenes themselves, and not from the government,” he says.

In researching nineteenth-century manuscripts located in the São Paulo State Public Archives that were written by authorities from villages in different regions of the state to provincial governors, Sposito, of UFPR, identified two key moments in the relations between colonizers and the indigenous population. She observes that until the 1830s, Brazilians adopted a belligerent attitude toward indigenous people, reacting violently to their presence on the borders of their territories. After that decade, documents show that people like the Kaiowá and the Guarani, for example, sought strategies to try to change this relationship, adopting a more friendly posture, leaving blankets and honey as gifts on these properties. “It was precisely these indigenous initiatives in the state of São Paulo that led to the second moment, one of decreased conflict, and pressured São Paulo politicians to abolish the Just Wars,” she concludes, recalling that the Just Wars were terminated in 1831, with the justification that a civilized government could not promote indigenous extermination.

1. Between inheritance and reinvention: Conflicts around indigenous labor in the province of Pará in the American context – 1832-35 (nº 18/20661-5); Grant Mechanism Grant for Research Abroad; Principal Investigator André Roberto de Arruda Machado (UNIFESP); Investment R$196,083.66.
2. From Amerindian policies to colonial policies: Constructing the colonization of America between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (nº 16/06245-3); Grant Mechanism Postdoctoral Grant; Principal Investigator Jaime Rodrigues (UNIFESP); Scholarship Beneficiary Fernanda Sposito; Investment R$572,024.75.
3. The chapter “Of the Indians”: Rights, history, and historiography – 1988-2018 (nº 18/12386-4); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Camila Loureiro Dias (UNICAMP); Investment R$45,856.76.
4. About the 24-hour network? Indigenous policies and indigenist policy in Ceará – 1798-1845 (nº 13/12700-7); Grant Mechanism Postdoctoral Grant; Principal Investigator Silvia Hunold Lara (UNICAMP); Scholarship Beneficiary João Paulo Peixoto Costa; Investment R$80,600.57.

Scientific articles
MACHADO, A. R. A. Interpretações e alinhamentos dos povos indígenas na era das revoluções atlânticas. In press.
SPOSITO, F. Ameridian leaders in the construction of indigenous policies in Portugal and Spanish (16th–18th centuries). Revista Etnográfica. In press.

AMORORO, M. et al. (eds.). História dos índios no Brasil. History of Anthropology Review. dec. 2018.

Books / Book chapters
SPOSITO, F. “Os povos indígenas na Independência”. PIMENTA, J. P. (Ed.). In: E deixou de ser colônia (And it stopped being a colony). Uma história da independência do Brasil. São Paulo: Almedina, 2022.
SPOSITO, F. Nem cidadãos, nem brasileiros. Indígenas na formação do Estado nacional brasileiro e conflitos na província de São Paulo (1822-1845). São Paulo: Alameda, 2012.
LIMA, L. M. “Kinship networks, endogamous circuits and sociocultural identities among emergent ethnic groups and traditional riverine peasants in the Amazon River adjacencies (Brazil).” In: POPOV, V. (ed.). Kinship Algebra – Алгебра родства. Выпуск. Saint Petersburg: Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences.