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Tableaux from the Colony

Book published in Portugal brings essays on colonial Brazil

Published a few months ago in Lisbon, Da América portuguesa ao Brasil [From Portuguese America to Brazil] gives as excellent idea of what a magnificent historian Stuart B. Schwartz is. Of the seven essays that make up the book, four are unpublished in Brazil, and two of the other three that had already been published here played a decisive role in some of the most “heated” discussions of contemporary Brazilian historiography: the one on the importance of indigenous slavery for the carrying out the production of sugar in the Colony and on the role of subsistence farming in the economic life of the time.

In the first case, we are talking about Chapter I “Indigenous work and large farming in the New World”; and in the second, of Chapter III “Peasants and slavery: feeding Brazil at the end of the colonial period”, where there is perhaps the best criticism made up until today of the limits of the “theory” of the peasant breach. In a slaveholding and colonial society, focused on the production of provisions tradable on the foreign market, subsistence farming was developed linked up with farming for export, and it had, irremediably, to the based on slave labor: when successful, the sectors of the peasantry did not constitute a distinct economy, but turned to the use of the compulsory labor of the Africans.

The other three chapters translated here for the first time constitute an opportune contribution to the study of the Iberian empires, increasingly in vogue in Brazil and in Portugal. In “The journey of the vassals: royal power, noble duties, and mercantile capital before the Restoration, 1624-1640”, Schwartz deals with the expedition sent in 1625 to set Bahia free, then under Dutch control, and shows that it was a turning point in the history of the Iberian Atlantic, “a last representation of the old ties between nobility and the crown”.

Fifteen years later, with the Restoration of the Braganças to the Portuguese throne, the dreams of an integrated Iberian monarchy and of a unified empire were to crumble.”Panic in the Indies: the Portuguese threat to the Spanish Empire, 1640-1650″ is a notable analysis of the role of fear and rumors in the destabilization of major politics. From 1640 onwards, when Portugal recovered its independence, with regard to Spain, the fear that the Portuguese resident in the Spanish conquests would join the Negroes (internally) or their foreign rivals (the Dutch, the English and the French) swept the domains of Castile, from Mexico to Buenos Aires. Schwartz shows with mastery how, at that moment, nothing indicated that the possessions of the Portuguese Empire – amongst them Brazil – might adhere to the new monarchy: it is we that have naturalized the argument, seeing it as obligatory that, once Portugal was independent, all the colonies would follow suit.

When the news reached Madrid that Brazil had adhered to the new Bragança king, the fact was regarded as treason, and it smarted more than the loss of Catalonia.In “The formation of a colonial identity in Brazil”, Schwartz deals with the difficult subject enunciated in the title and brings a significant contribution. The boldest hypothesis of the chapter is the one that the awareness of the distinction and of the difference of the settlers before those of the realm arose first amongst the half-breed groups – the elites continued very much linked to Portugal – and above all at the regional level: for a long time, there was no feeling of belonging to a totality called Brazil.

The last chapter of the book, “After dependence”, does a balance of Brazilian historiographic production focussed on the colonial period and finds that, from the 1980’s to date, interest has diminished for subjects of a more economic content – in great measure, tributaries of the theory of dependence – and an appreciation has increased for analyses of a cultural bent. It has failed to be added that, in the recent history of our historiography, Stuart Schwartz has always shone: he has been enshrined as a historian of the sugar-making Northeast, but what he has been showing about the dynamics of the Empire deserves to be examined with attention and constitutes an healthy antidote to the fads that have attacked these domains in recent years.

Laura de Mello e Souza is the chair professor of Modern History at the History Department of the University of São Paulo

From Portuguese America to Brazil – Historical Studies Stuart B. Schwartz
Portuguese translation by Nuno Mota
Difel (*)
324 pages / 20

(*) More information about the book, published in Portugal, can be obtained by e-mail