Brazil: A Biography, by Lilia M Schwarcz and Heloisa M Starling, Allen Lane, 800 pp, £30, ISBN: 9781846147937
One of the many mysteries of Brazilian history is how the country got its name. After their “discovery” of the territory in 1500 the Portuguese initially called it the Island of the True Cross, then, once they realised they had found rather more than a mere island, the Land of the Holy Cross. But in those early wondrous days of first contact it was also known as Land of the Parrots after the multicoloured talking birds found there, before the consensus settled around 1512 on the altogether more prosaic Brasil.
This last handle is usually thought to derive from the pau-brasil or brazilwood, a tree growing along the newly discovered coastline which produced a reddish dye that was readily commercialised back in Europe. As such it is perhaps the most appropriate name, given that the country has ever since struggled to escape its destiny as provider of commodities to fickle world markets.
But in 1959 Brazilian historian Sérgio Buarque de Holanda suggested Celtic myth as an alternative origin. He associated the name with the legendary island off the west coast of Ireland shrouded in mist which lifted for one day every seven years, leaving it visible but still unreachable. This island appears on medieval maps as Hy Bressail and O’Brazil and might explain why some early sixteenth century maps refer to Obrasil. Irish readers can lament the fact this Gaelic twist did not stick.
This mingling of the prosaic with myth, legend and the unreal in Brazilian history dates from its discovery by Europeans. Some of these, enamoured by the natural exuberance of the new land, thought they had entered a terrestrial paradise, while others, horrified by the locals’ cannibalism, thought they had stumbled into hell. These competing visions of heaven and hell were both natural responses to the discovery of a new land so very unlike anything the Europeans had previously encountered, but were also carefully shaped narratives designed to influence the approach the Portuguese crown would take towards its new possession.
This duality persists to the present day. By the mysterious process of cultural transmission this mixing of fact and fantasy has been passed down the centuries, mutating along the way so that in the words of Lilia Schwarcz and Heloisa Starling in their new book Brazil: A Biography:
Brazilians have constructed a dreamt-up image of a different Brazil ‑ based on their imagination, happiness and a particular way of confronting difficulties ‑ and have ended up as its mirror image. All this is well and good. But the country continues to be the champion of social inequality and is still struggling to construct true republican values and true citizens.
For visiting gringos this condition often reveals itself more prosaically when Brazilians in one moment tell them their country is the most beautiful and blessed in the world and in the next rage at its multiple failings. In their weighty study Schwarcz and Starling, the first an anthropologist, the second an historian and both among their country’s most esteemed academics, set out to explain why Brazil remains a champion of inequality and track its “challenging and torturous process of building citizenship”. As history it succeeds. The milestones are all here. Discovery. Conquest. Slavery. Gold. Independence. Emancipation and then the constantly stuttering drive towards modernisation that, just beyond the scope of the book, last year landed the country with the malevolent simpleton Jair Bolsonaro as president.
The book grew out of a request from Penguin for a general history of the country in English, the lack of which until now is a telling statement of Brazil’s place on the margins of global interest despite being the world’s fifth-biggest nation by size and population. This gap is now filled and Brazil will be the standard general text, at least until something as weighty but more elegant is written. The authors would have been better served by a rigorous edit. Schwarcz is one of the founders of Companhia das Letras, her local publisher, and so has understandably got away with producing a series of baggy volumes that wear their research too heavily. Companhia is such a fine cultural ornament that one can forgive this indulgence and in a sense the book provides its own unintended insight into the modes of Brazilian elite culture. While there is much to recommend, there is also a lot of stodge and too little verve. If only the authors had made more effort to feed off the far more vibrant world of their nation’s popular culture, which though often viewed by those on high as crass, pulses with energy, an injection of which would have made the book’s six hundred pages a lighter read.
Not even this sizeable brick, the authors inform us, or indeed any other book, can relate the history of Brazil. No country’s history can be told in linear form, they argue, which is why they subtitle their work A Biography. Rather than set out to tell the story of Brazil they want to make Brazil the story. Thus a biography serves “as an alternative form of understanding Brazil in a historical perspective: to learn about the many events that have shaped the country, and to a certain extent remain on the national agenda”.
In the authors’ telling of this story the salient feature is slavery and its legacy issue of race. Schwarcz in particular is a notable authority on this monstrous institution and the book’s exposition of its nefarious legacy is convincing as a way of understanding the country. No other nation in the New World imported more Africans than Brazil or held them in bondage longer. Slavery might have secured the future of the precarious Portuguese colony once it was yoked to the lucrative sugar trade, but such a vicious, dehumanising institution has inevitably left terrible scars that mark Brazilian society to this day.
The institutional and cultural racism of contemporary Brazil, which overlaps with stratospheric levels of social inequality, mean the book is entirely justified in making slavery and race relations a central thread. In this the work adds to the intensifying attempts at a fuller reckoning with slavery’s legacy in Atlantic societies, both in the New World, where it was practised, and back in the Old, where Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, England and France so ruthlessly and lucratively implemented and amorally operated the system for over three hundred years.
But the African slave trade was not the root cause of the violence that is written into Brazil’s DNA. As Schwarcz and Starling write, the importation of African slaves was in part a response to previous problems, both practical and ethical, encountered in enslaving the indigenous population. Portuguese and Brazilians to this day still talk of the “discovery” of Brazil when in reality it was, despite the absence of an existing powerful empire like those encountered in Mexico and Peru, a conquest as vicious as anything undertaken by the Spanish.
This was defined by the sword in service of base greed and an arrogant Christian world-view forged during the reconquista of Iberia. This is the true origin of Brazil, which for all its mestiçagem-ness (racial mixing) is a European construct and a medieval one at that. As such its violent birth is of a piece with the rest of the European encounter with the new hemisphere, which subdued, when not exterminating the natives, from Hudson Bay to Patagonia. If in Brazil the urban violence for which it is notorious, especially that perpetrated by trigger-happy agents of the state, can be directly traced back to slavery, its counterpart in the countryside is the continuation of this even earlier violent dynamic. Brazil’s continental size is a result of the bandeirantes slaving expeditions deep into the interior to hunt indigenous communities. The slavers, who were also hungrily looking for gold and silver deposits like those the Spanish had found elsewhere in the New World, carried the banner (bandeira) of the Portuguese crown with them, claiming territory along the way. But it would be wrong to portray the local Indians as mere passive victims in this story. The Portuguese landed in a territory peopled by warlike tribes and nations that fought each other not for territory but vengeance, their martial culture demanding enemies be captured and eaten. Like other Europeans elsewhere in the New World, the Portuguese took advantage of such rivalries among the peoples they encountered, allying with one group against another, to the eventual detriment of them all. Though Schwarcz and Starling do not consider the matter, and it has the whiff of victim-blaming, other Brazilian historians have pointed to this indigenous heritage as another source, alongside the European one, for the violent nature of the society.
But this violence is not something unique to Brazil or Brazilians but rather a New World phenomenon. Latin America is ‑ and by far ‑ the world’s most violent region not engaged in warfare: even the relatively pacific US has a much higher homicide rate than Western Europe. In this context Brazil is more violent than some of its neighbours, and less than others. The same is true when it comes to measuring inequality. Racism, whether open or veiled, against indigenous peoples, those of African descent or mixed race, is a curse across the New World. Brazil may have been the last state to abolish slavery in the Western hemisphere and too often Brazilians seize on this fact to explain the racism and inequality of their society. But the US had a greater slave population than Brazil at the outbreak of its civil war than Brazil did in its first census of 1872. In the US South the percentage of slaves to non-slaves was higher than in Brazil. There was far more miscegenation in Brazil than the more racially policed US. But this new mestiça civilisation is, to varying degrees, found elsewhere in the Americas.
The book under review is not a comparative study but it is worth keeping in mind when reading it that Brazil’s story is part of the wider history of the Americas since 1492. The authors write that their country “is both a part of and distinct from the rest of the world”. Well, name a country that isn’t. Brazil’s efforts to overcome its damned inheritance and undertake that challenging and tortuous process of building citizenship describes the journey all New World societies have been on, facing varying challenges at varying speeds and with various levels of success.
So what does make Brazil distinctive? Its membership of the Lusophone community for one thing. Many Brazilians curse the fecklessness of their Portuguese colonisers compared with their European rivals; some even lament their expulsion of the Dutch incursions of the seventeenth century. They like to imagine that had the Dutch prevailed Brazil today would be more like the Netherlands. A more probable alternative fate would see it resembling a very large Suriname, an altogether less desirable prospect.
But the Portuguese heritage does set Brazil slightly apart from its Spanish-speaking neighbours, which, with a few scattered exceptions, dominate the rest of Latin America. Size and population are two more important differentiating features. Brazil’s land mass is bigger than the forty-eight of the US’s states and dwarfs the rest of its neighbours on the South American continent. The bandeirantes left a legacy of an immense territory, which is all the more impressive considering how few resources Portugal could draw on for its imperial projects compared to its Spanish rivals. This fact explains why even today official Brazil still looks on these brutal slavers with pride. Then the post-independence elite managed to hold this territory together while Spain’s possessions splintered into multiple successor states. This achievement means that roughly half of South America’s population is now corralled within Brazil’s borders. It was a notable success by a group that is largely viewed with some contempt by succeeding generations, mainly for the very valid reason it remained attached to slavery despite its claims to be building a liberal civilisation in the tropics.
This geographical size and demographic weight have, since the break with Portugal in 1822, led Brazil’s elites at least to believe geopolitical importance, if not exactly greatness, is their country’s natural destiny. This might eventually come to pass, but the road has been rocky and the destination still far-off. Part of the problem has been political instability, which if not as grave as that which has characterised many Spanish-speaking neighbours during most of their two-century old experiments with independence, has at least meant that no constitutional arrangements put in place since 1822 have lasted more than two generations.
In part this is due to haste. Schwarcz and Starling quote the great Brazilian critic Roberto Schwarz, who noted that in Brazil everything seems to have to “start again from zero”. They identify improvisation and “immediatism” as two national traits and these certainly feed impatience with the inability of political models to meet the evolving demands of society. Since independence this impatience has produced swings from liberal oligarchy to fascistic corporatism, to Latin developmentalism, to military dictatorship to democracy, to now ‑ under Bolsonaro ‑ God knows what but most definitely nothing good.
There have been significant achievements along the way. In the mid-twentieth century Brazil managed to construct the largest industrial base in what was back then called the Third World. Its society underwent huge transformations, most noticeably from rural to urban, a transformation that featured one of the twentieth century’s largest peacetime migrations. It was a top-down affair that by the time of the 1930s dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas was directed by an increasingly confident state that paradoxically was then captured by the emerging actors it helped give birth to, new elites pushing out the old but adopting their preferred modus operandi. For all the chopping and changing of models it was a curiously conservative transformation which preserved retrograde habits. Thus Brazil’s industrial and financial elites today are as demanding of nannying by the state as the old coffee barons who saw privileged access to lucrative public debt issuances as part of their birthright.
Schwarcz and Starling identify this co-opting of the state by privileged special interests as rooted in the peculiarly personalised nature of Portugal’s colonial model, which raffled off large slices of the crown’s new possessions to families on the condition they make a go of it in the colony. Thus did it seek to overcome, though not very successfully, its own lack of manpower and other resources. Eventually more formal colonial structures had to be put in place. But it was an inauspicious start that Brazil has never fully recovered from. Several centuries later its society still has difficulty in drawing the line between what is public and what is private. Rampant corruption is one inevitable result of this mentality, along with the highly personalised nature of public life, above party or ideology. While national leaders are often affectionately known by their first names, congress in Brasília is full of factions led by caciques ‑ the first indigenous word Columbus came across to mean chief ‑ whose power is directly proportional to the amount of political pork they can distribute among their tribes rather than any ideological commitment.
It is an old saw of Brazilian studies but worth repeating because it remains so central to understanding the country that this mentality, allied to the legacy of slavery, has complicated that “challenging and tortuous process of building citizenship” the authors identify as a central thread in their story. It prevents the emergence of a properly impersonal state more resistant to efforts to co-opt its resources and pervert its justice. More time (though not more pages) might have been spent on examining how this retarding mentality has been transmitted down through the generations despite the fact Brazilian society, and most especially its elites, have experienced great churn. The quatrocentões, descendants of the São Paulo elite, once Brazil’s most populous and powerful, might still take pride in their social ancestry but they are a former elite, reduced by history to insignificance. Most of their wealth is gone and with it political influence. They have been replaced by, among others, the descendants of the great wave of immigrants from Europe and the Middle East that got under way in the late nineteenth century and whose impact on the society they joined is underexplored in this book.
In the first edition, in Portuguese, in 2015, Schwarcz and Starling ended on an optimistic note. The last section of the final chapter, titled “Democracy Has No End”, celebrated the election of three presidents in succession to two terms each, betraying a Whiggish view of a nation finally arriving at a greater and more inclusive sense of citizenship with a the celebration of the 1988 Constitution and the Plano Real, which consolidated democratic institutions and gave the country a stable currency. The authors conclude:
At the turn of the twenty-first century Brazil had accumulated five hundred years of history and, along the way, a certain degree of self-knowledge. History is the only resource Brazil can rely on to lend a future to the country’s past, and, for that reason, our history draws to a close here ‑ although we, the authors, suspect it is incomplete. This history ends with another intuition too: we believe democracy will never be extinguished in Brazil. One never knows. The future could be bright.
A final Conclusion (titled “History is not Arithmetic”) dialled back that optimism somewhat, wisely as subsequent events were to show. A footnote to the original Portuguese edition ‑ not included in the English translation ‑ noted that by March 2015 history had once again speeded up “and our conclusion can only be an open invitation”. An afterword to the English edition, dated August 2017, is altogether more sombre. The last of those three presidents elected to two terms had been impeached, the old vice of corruption having shaken the democratic institutions enshrined in the 1988 constitution to their foundations and the authors are intellectually honest and courageous enough to admit they “were mistaken in our somewhat euphoric belief that Brazil was firmly established on the road to democracy”.
Since then crisis has turned into full-blown disaster with the election last year of Jair Bolsonaro as president. He represents a live threat to many of the gains achieved under what the authors never denied was the admittedly flawed democratic regime put in place by the 1988 constitution. Bolsonaro’s long-expressed contempt for female, black and indigenous Brazilians, his inability to see political opponents as legitimate actors deserving of their space in the public sphere, his supporters’ blind faith in his non-existent abilities (comically they call him The Myth) mean the process of civic inclusion, the struggle for which Schwarcz and Starling painstakingly detail, is now being slammed into reverse. Brazilian history, it turns out, is neither Whiggish nor Arithmetic, but if not random then hostage to capricious contingency.
Worse, rather than an elite plot, Bolsonaro is instead a manifestation of the dark Brazilian id drawing on deep wells of violence, greed and twisted religiosity that were first sunk in the earliest decades of the Portuguese colony. A born-again Christian, he was heavily backed by Brazil’s neo-Pentecostals, whose adherence to the Theology of Prosperity runs directly counter to Jesus’s warning in Matthew that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. This hypocrisy might explain the Bolsonaro clan’s ability to lambast the corruption of rivals while themselves engaging in some of the basest practices of Brazil’s army of political malefactors.
Some have called this mess fascism but that would credit Bolsonaro with the ability to formulate or even follow an ideology, even one so contemptible and shoddy. Instead he is just the worst sort of reactionary and in that sense curiously passive in that he never takes the initiative, rather just howls in rage at what he hates or cannot understand ‑ which is much of contemporary life. On issues that do not stir up his pools of hatred, such as the economy, he is willing to do what he is told by those financiers he appears to view as his superiors.
His self-sabotaging rancour, administrative incompetence and ideological incoherence is such that it could well end up shortening his mandate. Anyone with a commitment to basic civic and humanist values cannot wish him well or understand those who would serve under him. In having been unable by the end of their large volume to imagine so disastrous a turn as Bolsonaro putting on the presidential sash Schwarcz and Starling might be accused of that local obsession they write about back in their introduction: “looking at ourselves in the mirror and always seeing something different”. Perhaps their framing of their Brazilian story as a tortuous process of building citizenship was conceptually flawed. But they were not alone in being unable to imagine that Brazilian society could make such a grotesque mistake as to elect Bolsonaro. This reviewer could not either. Hopefully he is just an unfortunate detour on the road to a brighter, fairer, more just future. Taking the longer view, Brazil is making progress, fitfully perhaps, and being passed out by other societies while it slogs along in the slow lane. But progress nonetheless which ‑ and this cannot be emphasised enough ‑ accelerated since the return of democracy in the 1980s.
Perhaps once the current political delirium subsides ‑ and barely one hundred days since he took office there are already signs it is doing so ‑ Bolsonaro will come to be seen as a dark warning to the supposedly progressive elements among the rest of the political class of what can happen if it refuses to reform itself and abandon old habits that are rooted in the earliest days of the colony. Sadly there is no sign of that happening yet, even as this presidency increasingly has the whiff about it of being a short one.
Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent for The Irish Times and is based in São Paulo, Brazil.