Brazil: A Biography

Brazil: A Biography

by Lilia M. Schwarcz, Heloisa M. Starling


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A sweeping and absorbing biography of Brazil, from the sixteenth century to the present

For many Americans, Brazil is a land of contradictions: vast natural resources and entrenched corruption; extraordinary wealth and grinding poverty; beautiful beaches and violence-torn favelas. Brazil occupies a vivid place in the American imagination, and yet it remains largely unknown.

In an extraordinary journey that spans five hundred years, from European colonization to the 2016 Summer Olympics, Lilia M. Schwarcz and Heloisa M. Starling’s Brazil offers a rich, dramatic history of this complex country. The authors not only reconstruct the epic story of the nation but follow the shifting byways of food, art, and popular culture; the plights of minorities; and the ups and downs of economic cycles. Drawing on a range of original scholarship in history, anthropology, political science, and economics, Schwarcz and Starling reveal a long process of unfinished social, political, and economic progress and struggle, a story in which the troubled legacy of the mixing of races and postcolonial political dysfunction persist to this day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374538484
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 04/07/2020
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 816
Sales rank: 569,781
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 2.10(d)

About the Author

Lilia M. Schwarcz was born in 1957 in São Paulo, Brazil. She is a professor of anthropology at the University of São Paulo, a visiting professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures and the Program in Latin American Studies at Princeton University, and the author of The Emperor’s Beard and The Spectacle of the Races.

Heloisa M. Starling is a professor of history at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and the author of Memories of Brazil and The Lords of Gerais.

Read an Excerpt


First Came the Name, and Then the Land Called Brazil

Pedro Álvares Cabral, a young man escaping from tedium, found pandemonium; in other words he found Brazil.

Stanislaw Ponte Preta


It is hard to conceive the impact and the significance of the 'discovery of a new world'. New, as it was uncharted on existing maps; new, as it was populated with unknown wildlife and plants; new, as it was inhabited by strange people, who practised polygamy, went about naked, and whose main occupations were waging war and 'eating each other'. They were 'cannibals', according to the earliest reports, which were fanciful, exotic and brimming with imagination.

It was the Genovese explorer himself, Christopher Columbus, who coined the term canibal, a corruption of the Spanish word caribal ('from the Caribbean'). The term originated from the Arawak language spoken by the caraíba, the indigenous people of South America and the Antilles, and soon became associated with the practices reported by European explorers, who were disturbed by the anthropophagica habits of the local people. It was also associated with the word can, the Spanish for 'dog', and with the biblical figure Cam (in English spelt 'Ham' or 'Cham'). In the book of Genesis Cam, Noah's youngest son, mocked his father's nakedness as he lay drunk in his tent. For this Noah cursed him to be his brothers' 'servant of servants'. Thus the seeds were sown for the Church's future justification of the enslavement of black Africans – and, by association, the Indians – both of whom were considered to be descendants of the cursed line of Ham.

In the diary of his first expedition to the Caribbean (1492–3), Columbus, with a mixture of curiosity and indignation, comments on the fact that the island's natives were in the habit of eating human flesh, and uses the adjective caribes (or canibes) to describe them. It was on his second expedition to the Antilles (1493–6) that the term first appears as an adjective, canibal. The spreading of the news that the indigenous peoples of the Americas practised cannibalism would provide a convenient justification for the monarchy's new proposal: the implementation of slavery. In his letter to their Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Columbus declared that the natives were lazy and lacking in modesty – they covered their bodies in war paint and wore no clothes, using only necklaces, bracelets and tattoos to cover their intimate parts. The argument went that although the cannibals were devoid of the values of Western civilization, they could be put to good use as slaves.

In his letters, Amerigo Vespucci also mentioned the presence of cannibals in America. One letter, allegedly from Vespucci to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, which was printed in book form in 1504 under the title Mundus Novus, immediately became a great success and was published in various parts of Europe. Vespucci's observations had an even greater impact than Columbus's, as they described scenes of cannibalism the author had witnessed first-hand and were illustrated with graphic prints. Vespucci's persuasive arguments, accompanied by equally persuasive images, made a decisive contribution to the demonization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. They were portrayed as a people with no social order or religious faith and with no notion of property, territory or money, ignorant of institutions such as the family and marriage. His image of the New World was inextricably associated with a decadent people. They were seemingly another part of humanity, oblivious to the values of the Old World.

The news that arrived from this Portuguese part of the Americas, replete with tales of its paradisiacal natural abundance and the diabolical practices of its people, ignited the imagination of Europeans. The realization that an unknown, unfathomed territory existed marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of humanity. The canon of Brazilian history begins with the achievement of the 'discoverers', who not only founded the new Portuguese territory but also had a clear perception of its value. Paradoxically though, this official, metropolitan narrative would always be altered when indigenous peoples were included in the story – those apparently forgotten by humanity, impossible to classify, name or understand.

But if the tone of these descriptions was marked by surprised reactions – the logs described sea monsters, gigantic animals, warriors and cannibals – historians no longer contend that the Americas were discovered by chance. After Vasco da Gama established the sea route to the Indies in 1499, the Portuguese monarchy immediately planned a further expedition based on the information he brought back. This, clearly, was the best way forward for the kingdom of Portugal, a tiny nation located at the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean. The country had finally unified its territory after years of fighting against the Moors, who had occupied the Iberian Peninsula. The unification was completed by Dom Afonso III with the reconquest of the Algarve in 1249. The unification, along with the development of its navy and of maritime instruments, placed Portugal in a privileged position to undertake the great explorations. And it is no coincidence that the first conquest by the Portuguese Empire, the longest-lasting colonial empire with domains on four continents, was that of Ceuta, on the West African coast, in 1415.

From the outset Portugal's impulse to expand was based on a combination of commercial, military and evangelizing interests. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, for example, the market for spices had motivated the Portuguese to discover new routes to the East. The term 'spice' referred to a group of vegetable products with either a strong aroma or flavour, or both. These were used to season and to conserve foods, but also in oils, ointments, perfumes and medicine. Their consumption began to increase after the Crusades, with tropical spices such as black peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg in highest demand in the fourteenth century. These spices were indigenous to Asia and commanded a very considerable price. They were used as currency, included in the dowries of aristocrats and royalty, in bequests, in capital reserves and in revenues of the Crown. They were also used for bartering – in exchange for services, in agreements, for meeting religious obligations and obtaining tax exemption – as well as for bribing high-ranking officials.

When the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople, on 29 May 1453, however, the spice routes came under Turkish control and were closed to Christian merchants. As a result, the Spanish and Portuguese embarked on exploratory expeditions to discover new routes, by land and sea, with the aim of monopolizing the spice trade. They attempted to circumnavigate the African continent, a hazardous venture that had never been undertaken before. Success would take a century, but the delay would prove advantageous. Portugal set up trading posts along the African coast, which became strategic locations for present and future colonization.

The route was consolidated with the arrival of the Portuguese in the East, and became known as the 'African Periplus'. Originally, the term implied a good omen: a long journey undertaken and a successful return. But with time, since language is always subject to the oscillations and moods of any given period, the term acquired a more negative connotation, associated with failed ventures and the 'curse of Sisyphus'. It was used to refer to all those who had undertaken adventures that had proved beyond their powers to complete, just as Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, had cheated Death, but only for a time. In Portuguese, a 'periplus' came to mean a journey without end that led to nowhere. But such scepticism proved to be unfounded. The new route generated extraordinary dividends and served as a symbol for Portugal's entry into the modern era. It was the departure point for the construction of an extensive and powerful empire.

Spain was also undergoing a process of colonial expansion. The Spanish kingdom, which had been unified as the National State in 1492, had set out to discover a new route to the East by travelling west. To prevent further battles in a Europe perpetually embroiled in conflict, on 7 June 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed, dividing 'discovered or yet-to-be discovered' territories between the crowns of Portugal and Spain. The agreement was the immediate response to the Portuguese Crown's challenge to a claim made by the Spanish Crown. A year and a half earlier the Spanish had arrived at what they believed to be the Indies, but was in fact the New World, officially laying claim to it for the Catholic Queen Isabella. Although no one yet knew where these lands would lead, through the Treaty of Tordesillas they now had an owner and a certificate of origin.

There was a forerunner to the Treaty of Tordesillas: the papal bull Inter Caetera, signed by Pope Alexander VI on 4 May 1493, which divided the New World between Portugal and Spain. In practice, this meant that all lands situated up to 100 leagues to the west of the Cape Verde Islands would belong to Portugal, and those further than 100 leagues to Spain. Fearing it could lose potential conquests, Portugal proposed a revision of the bull and managed to have it amended. The Treaty of Tordesillas, signed by both monarchies, defined the dividing line as the meridian located 370 leagues to the west of an unspecified island in the Cape Verde archipelago (a Portuguese domain), at the halfway mark between Cape Verde and the Caraíbas, discovered by Columbus. The treaty also stipulated that all territories east of the meridian would belong to Portugal, and all those to the west, to Spain. It was signed by Spain on 2 June and by Portugal on 5 September 1494, as if the world – real, or as they imagined it to be – could simply be divided into two, with no further dispute.

Brazil, for example, which did not yet appear on any world map, was already included in the agreement: the line established in the treaty cut vertically down the country from approximately the present-day location of Belém, the capital of the northern state of Pará, to the town of Laguna in the southern state of Santa Catarina. However, at the time Portugal showed little interest in exploring this putative territory, mainly because the profits from its trade with the East were sufficient to meet its needs. Nevertheless, a further expedition was organized in 1500, this time under the command of Captain-General Pedro Álvares de Gouveia, a member of the minor aristocracy who had inherited his name from the family of his mother, Dona Isabel de Gouveia. He later changed his name to Pedro Álvares Cabral, adopting the surname of his father, Fernão Cabral, commander of the fortress in the town of Belmonte. As is the case with the other major explorers, very little is known about him. In 1479, at the age of about twelve, he had been sent to the court of the Portuguese king, Dom Afonso V. He was educated in Lisbon, where he studied humanities, and was brought up to fight for his country.

On 30 June 1484, when he was about seventeen, Cabral received the title of junior cavalier of the first order of nobility at the court of Dom João II11 – a title of no great significance that was generally conferred on young aristocrats – and received an annuity from the Crown of 26,000 réis in recognition of his services. In 1494 he was promoted to Knight of the Order of Christ, Portugal's most prestigious chivalric order. He received a further annuity of 40,000 réis, probably, as in the case of other young members of the aristocracy, as remuneration for the journeys he undertook to North Africa. Although no pictures of him have survived, Cabral is known to have been a man of sturdy build and tall, almost six feet three inches in height (the same as his father). There are accounts that describe him as learned, courteous, tolerant with his enemies and also vain, as was often the case with nobles who achieved such high-ranking posts. He was generally thought to be wise and canny, and despite his lack of experience, he was placed in command of the largest fleet that had ever set sail from Portugal, to lands that were as distant as they were unknown.

Very few documents survive that shed light on the criteria for choosing who was to command the expedition to the Indies. The decree appointing Cabral as captain-general mentions only his 'merits and services'. But it is known that the king was well acquainted with the members of his court, and that the Cabral family was famous for its loyalty to the Portuguese Crown. Cabral was also a member of the King's Council, and his appointment may have helped to resolve a complex political intrigue. There are those who see it as a deliberate manoeuvre to balance two factions of the nobility, because, despite his personal qualities, Cabral lacked the experience to command such an important expedition. It is interesting to note that more experienced Portuguese navigators, such as Bartolomeu Dias, Diogo Dias and Nicolau Coelho, were appointed as ship captains and sailed under Cabral's command.

The captain-general's salary was high: Cabral received 10,000 cruzados (the equivalent of 35 kilos of gold) and the right to buy 30 tons of pepper and ten crates of any other spice, at his own expense, and to resell them in Europe free of taxes. Thus, although the journey was extremely hazardous, it would ensure that on his return Cabral would be a very rich man, as, despite the high demand, the spices were extremely rare. The captains received a thousand cruzados for every hundred barrels of storage space aboard, as well as six 'unencumbered' crates and fifty 'quintais' of pepper. Sailors earned ten cruzados a month and ten 'quintais' of pepper, cabin-boys half of this, and swabbers a third. In addition there were the boatswain and the ship's guardian, who received the wages of 'one and a half sailors'. There were also priests aboard, who acted not only as spiritual guides but also as doctors – as well as the inevitable prostitutes, often concealed among the crew. This very masculine world was not inclined to dispense with its women of 'dubious repute' who sometimes got pregnant on the high seas and gave birth to their children onboard.

The expedition crew was made up of around a thousand men. Seven hundred of these were designated as soldiers, although in fact they were untrained men from peasant families, many of whom had been press-ganged. And there was no lack of problems on this veritable floating citadel. A priest, Fernando Oliveira, who travelled on many such expeditions, gave the following cautious advice: 'On the sea there are no shops, no comfortable lodgings on enemy territory; for this reason each man brings provisions from his home.' Only the captain was allowed to bring chickens aboard – which were mostly used for feeding the sick – as well as goats, pigs and even cows. But the livestock was never shared with the crew, who generally went hungry.

On a journey without incident, the food on-board was barely enough to satisfy the sailors' basic needs. The situation worsened considerably during the calms, or when, due to the ineptitude of the steersman, the ship sailed off course, unexpectedly prolonging the journey. Dry biscuits, present from the earliest days of navigation, were the main food item on-board. There was also a good supply of wine. The daily ration was a quarter of a litre, the same amount as for the water used for drinking and cooking. However, the water was often stored in unhygienic casks, which led to a proliferation of bacteria and outbreaks of diarrhea and other infections among the crew. The distribution of meat was highly controlled, handed out every other day; on the alternate days meals consisted of cheese or fish with rice, when available. Storage also presented a frequent problem. Since most of the food came on-board with the crew, infestations of rats, cockroaches and beetles were a common occurrence, all competing for the food with equal voracity. There were no bathrooms on these ships – small seats were suspended over the side, causing a permanent stench on deck.

With so many hygiene problems, illnesses were frequent during the crossings. Scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C (later known as gum or Luanda sickness), was among the most common, along with pleural and pulmonary diseases. As deaths occurred almost daily, the only solution was to lay the bodies out on deck, summon the priest to say a quick prayer, and cast them overboard.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: 'Brazil Is Just Nearby'

1. First Came the Name, and Then the Land Called Brazil

2. The Sugar Civilization: Bitter for the Many, Sweet for a Few

3. Tit for Tat: slavery and the Naturalization of Violence

4. Gold!

5. Revolt, Conspiracy and Sedition in the Tropical Paradise

6. Ship Ahoy! A Court at Sea

7. Dom João and his Court in the Tropics

8. The Father Leaves, the Son Remains

9. Independence Habemus: Instability in the First Empire

10. Regencies, or the Sound of Silence

11. The Second Reign: At Last, a Nation in the Tropics

12. The End of the Monarchy in Brazil

13. The First Republic: The People Take to the Streets

14. Samba, Malandragem, Authoritarianism: The Birth of Modern Brazil

15. Yes, We Have Democracy!

16. The 1950s and 1960s: Bossa Nova, Democracy and Underdevelopment

17. On a Knife Edge: Dictatorship, Opposition and Resistance

18. On the Path to Democracy: The Transition to Civilian Power and the Ambiguities of the Legacy of the Military Dictatorship

Conclusion: History Is Not Arithmetic

Afterword to the English Edition

Notes, Index

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