The key factor for considering life in colonial Brazil as a network of values and meanings is precisely the complex alliance between an agricultural and mercantile system oriented toward the European economic machine and a domestic condition that was traditional, if not frankly archaic, in its mores and politics.
I distinguish between the terms system and condition so as to sound clearly the chords of this tune that some have perceived as rightful and harmonious and others as dissonant and discordant. I understand system as an objectively articulated totality. The colonial system, as a long-lasting historical reality, has been studied in the Brazilian context from a variety of structural perspectives by such eminent scholars as Caio Prado Jr., Nelson Werneck Sodré, Celso Furtado, Fernando Novais, Maria Sylvia Carvalho Franco and Jacob Gorender.xii
Economic life in Brazil during the first three centuries of Portuguese colonization depended on mechanisms that can be quantified because they are translatable into amounts of production and circulation, that is, into numbers that represent goods and labor. Long before the genesis of quan- titative history, the poet Gregório de Matos, in a harsh sonnet dedicated to the city of Salvador da Bahia at the end of the seventeenth century, spoke of a máquina mercante, literally a ship of merchandise, an expression that can be extended metonymically to the entire machinery of colonial com- merce.6
The formation of the system required reciprocal interaction of trade and slavery, monopoly and monoculture. At the international level, the back-and-forth flow of colonial merchandise was subject to market fluctu- ations and to economic competition among metropolitan states. In sum, the system as it was reproduced in Brazil, and as it was tied to the economies of the European center, occupied opposing sides of the same figurative coin.
The term condition comprehends a more diffuse set of experiences than the regular movements of production and trade described by system. To speak of a condition implies ways of living and surviving. It is not coin- cidental that we speak naturally of a human condition, but never of a human system.
While the conditions of master and slave implied distinct roles to be played within the sugar economy (which we may uncover through a func- tional analysis of its system of production), they cannot be reduced to the actions those roles entailed. A person’s condition comprehends multiple, concrete forms of interpersonal, subjective existence—memories, dreams, the daily marks made on the heart and mind, the manner of one’s birth, physical sustenance, living and sleeping conditions, ways of loving, crying, praying and singing, and the circumstances surrounding one’s death and burial.
Earlier in this analysis I recalled some of the key studies that have con- tributed to the understanding of the colonial system. As for the colonial condition, Gilberto Freyre’s and Sérgio Buarque de Holanda’s classic studies are obligatory reading. In texts like Casa-grande & senzala (The Masters and the Slaves ) and Sobrados e mucambos (The Mansions and the Shanties), Freyre dedicated himself to developing an existential anthropology of Brazil’s northeastern sugar economy. Following his own synthesis of the process of colonization in Raízes do Brasil (Roots of Brazil), Buarque offered a detailed and elegant description of the daily life of the sertanejos, the “luso-Tupi” inhabitants of Brazil’s backlands, in Caminhos e fronteiras (Paths and Frontiers), a volume that provides a pioneering analysis of our material culture.
In their treatment of familial and clan behavior, Freyre’s and Buarque’s essays suggest a psycho-cultural interpretation of Brazil’s past. This read- ing of our history is based on the general hypothesis that the Portuguese conqueror brought with him to Brazil certain recurring character traits, which Buarque termed psychological determinants. They include individ- ualism, which he qualifies as an extreme exaltation of the personality, an adventurer’s spirit (hence the Luso-Brazilian ethic of adventure as opposed to an ethic of labor), our natural tendencies toward restlessness and disorder, cordiality, a sensual sentimentality exercised freely in what Freyre classified as polygamous patriarchalism, social plasticity, versatil- ity, and finally, a tendency toward miscegenation that harkens back to the Portuguese interactions with the Moors and that was intensified by a lack of racial pride, a trait that appears in both scholars’ analyses.
When the various patterns of the so-called Luso-African and Luso-Tupi assimilation are seen through this psycho-cultural lens, the structural fea- tures of enslavement and violence become relegated to a subdued or implicit background, though they were in reality a constant of colonial his- tory, as much a part of the northeastern engenhos and quilombos as of the bandeirantes’ expeditions and the Jesuit missions of the South.8
Having fully acknowledged the value of these masterly texts, it may be helpful to offer a semantic correction to terms like assimilation (Freyre) and expressions such as the process of successful acclimatization and cultural solidarity (Buarque) when these are applied to contacts between the colonizers and the colonized. This vocabulary may lead less informed readers to assume that the peoples who interacted during colonization became similar to each other, and dealt with each other on friendly terms, as illustrated by their miscegenated daily routines, diets, sexual habits, production techniques, modes of transportation, etc. It is instructive to
reread passages from Casa-grande & senzala and Raízes do Brasil that deal with how plantation owners and bandeirantes were compelled to adopt African and indigenous customs in response to the conditions of a new life in the tropics. The majority of these passages describe examples of sexual and nutritional enjoyment of Africans and their culture by the planter class or the simple appropriation of Tupi-Guarani habits by the Portuguese in São Paulo. The colonist literally incorporates African and indigenous material and cultural resources when, driven by self-interest and pursuit of pleasure, he takes by force the labor of black or Amerindian slaves, as he takes the bodies of their women, their well-tested recipes for planting and cooking, and by extension, the general, indispensable know- how that allows them to survive in a rustic environment.
The use of the bodies of others and the appropriation of their bodily techniques, ably described by Marcel Mauss, do not make for properly rec- iprocal acculturation. The most we can say is that the colonizers took excellent advantage of their relationships with Amerindians and Africans. In Casa-grande & senzala, Freyre insists on celebrating the northeast- ern plantation owner who, free from prejudice, mingled fruitfully and polygamously with female slaves, thereby providing the world with an example of racially democratic tolerance. For his part, Buarque attributes colonial-era miscegenation to the Portuguese colonizer’s unique lack of racial pride. Even here we must qualify the argument so as to avoid slid- ing from a dubious social psychology into an ideology that ends up cele- brating the European victor. The conqueror’s libido, which nearly always exercised itself in an exclusively physical capacity, was more phallocratic than democratic: the female slaves impregnated by the plantation owners were not elevated ipso facto to the category of wife or senhora de engenho (plantation mistress), nor were the children that resulted from these fleet- ing encounters treated as the equals of those considered legitimate heirs to the property. Rare, late exceptions to this rule can be cited, but the anecdotal material serves merely to confirm the larger truth. Intense sex- ual and reproductive activity does not necessarily equate to social gen- erosity.
In Buarque’s highly erudite texts, a subtle sublimation of bandeirante activity, presented as the natural outgrowth of the processes of Portuguese acclimatization to Brazil, downplays the aggression and conflict that objec- tively characterized the paulista incursions into the interior and the indigenous and Jesuit opposition they faced.9 In arguing his position, the author of Raízes do Brasil subscribes to Júlio de Mesquita Filho’s apology for Portuguese colonization in his Ensaios sul-americanos (South American Essays), and goes as far as to compare the plasticity of the Portuguese to St. John the Evangelist’s figurative grain of wheat, which sacrifices itself in order to bear much fruit (188).xiii How could black slaves held prisoner in the country and the Amerindians hunted in the forests have imagined that the plantation masters and the bandeirantes were completing some sacrificial rite in which the ultimate victim was not black or Amerindian but white?
The elements of material culture that are cited ad nauseam as evi- dence of the colonizer’s adaptation to the ways of the colonized should not be made to prove more than they can handle. They illustrate the uses and abuses to which the Portuguese subjected Amerindians and Africans, both at the level of global economy and in daily material and corporeal practice. Why should we idealize what occurred? Should Brazilian scholars compete with other colonized peoples to decide who was best colonized? I do not believe that this careless and often naïve game of comparisons, stacked to favor our colonizer, can lead to an adequate understanding of the process. We must ask if, along with the most evident of the adaptations alluded to above, the forces of cult and culture (and the art that feeds on both), suc- ceeded, through their capacity to grant meaning to life, in addressing that which routine left unfulfilled or untouched.
The reproduction of a certain set of habits certainly helped to prop up the colonial structure, but was the consuming, producing, and trading machine of colonization able to respond to the full range of values, ideals, dreams, and desires issuing from the pasts or projected, at least in poten- tial form, into the futures of both colonizers and colonized? In other words: was colonization a process defined by moments of fusion and con- struction, which ultimately balanced out material wants and symbolic forms, immediate needs and imaginary worlds; or did colonization pro- duce also, besides a machinery of interlocking parts, a dialectic of rup- tures, differences, and contrasts?
Marx’s words on the role of religion in oppressed societies help explain the tendencies of certain social groups toward the imaginary expression of their desires: religion is the “heart of a heartless world and the soul of soul- less conditions” (Critique 131). A society’s symbolic labor can reveal the dark consequences of forced labor and the search for new, freer forms of existence. This is much like the platonic Eros, who as the child of Wealth and Poverty is in fact neither, but rather the will to free oneself from the yoke of the present and to ascend to the realm of imperishable values. Popular rituals, music, and religious imagery of the colonial era are signs of this desired state. In certain of these cultural manifestations we can detect the presence of both the weight of the past and the hope for the future within the links of the tightly binding chain of oppression. The colo- nial condition, like the colonial system, is reflexive and contradictory.
T.S. Eliot, addressing the broader dynamic between colony and metropolis, writes the following:
The culture which develops on the new soil must therefore be bafflingly alike and different from the parent culture: it will be complicated some- times by whatever relations are established with some native race, and fur- ther by immigration from other than the original source. In this way, pecu- liar types of culture-sympathy and culture-clash appear, between the areas populated by colonisation and the countries of Europe from which the migrants came. (64; my emphasis)
There are cases of successful transplants, long-lasting grafts, and felic- itous encounters; and there are sounds of dissonant chords that reveal poorly resolved contrasts and maladjusted overlappings. Colonial history is made from both empathy and antipathy.
In a typically perceptive passage, Alphonse Dupront alerts us to the limitations of a historiographical and ethnological language that makes use of acculturation, assimilation, and cultural encounter, broad terms that are able to express (or to conceal) opposing meanings:
There are encounters that kill. Should we say the same, with a kind of black humor, of cultural exchanges? Anthropologists would respond with assim- ilation. But isn’t this too a form of black humor? Should we describe processes of death and processes of life using the same verbal sign, like the liars we are? (89)
The transposition of European norms of behavior and language onto the New World yielded varied results. At first glance, colonial literate culture seems to reproduce the European model without exception; but when confronted with the figure of the Amerindian, it is inspired or even forced to invent. Let the first acculturating agent in colonial Brazil, the Jesuit friar José de Anchieta, serve as an example: when he composed his poem to the Virgin Mary while being held hostage by the Tamoios on the beach of Iperoígue, feeling the need to purify himself, he wrote in classical Latin.10 The same Anchieta learned the Tupi language, and sang and prayed to the angels and saints of medieval Catholicism in Tupi in the plays he com- posed for the curumins.11 In the first case, Anchieta used the epic, an ancient literary form elevated by the Italian Renaissance, to give shape to the substance of a colonial situation. In the second, he changed codes in the interest of his evangelizing mission—not because his message had changed, but rather his recipients. This new public, which was participat- ing actively in a new, unique form of theater, required a language that could not be that and only that of the colonizer.
Further, Anchieta made use of a strangely syncretistic imagery, nei- ther exclusively Catholic nor purely Tupi-Guarani, when he created myth- ical figures named karaibebé , literally flying prophets . His indigenous audience might see these as the heralds of the Land without Evil, while Christians would identify them as the angelic messengers of the Bible. And in Anchieta’s plays Tupansy, the mother of Tupã, took on character- istics of Our Lady.12 Culture-as-reflection and culture-as-creation walked arm in arm.
The peculiar dynamism of the Jesuits in Brazil, who were compelled to faithfully observe the vows made by their order in Counter-Reformation- era Iberia, should be accompanied up close. There would come a time when the cross and the sword, which had disembarked together from the caravels onto the shore, drifted apart, became hostile to one another, and ultimately waged battle for the shared good: the bodies and souls of the Amerindians.
The fight to the death between the bandeirantes of São Paulo and the Company of Jesus, which resulted in the Jesuits’ final defeat in the mid- eighteenth century, speaks eloquently of how an unspoken opposition can explode into the open when missionary paternalism and the colonists’ naked exploitation of the Amerindians can no longer be balanced.
Anchieta considered the Portuguese his primary opponents in cate- chizing the Amerindians; as he stated:
The Portuguese are the source of the greatest impediments, the first of which is their lack of dedication to saving the Indians […] Rather, they con- sider them savages. What most frightens the Indians and causes them to flee from the Portuguese, and as a consequence from the churches, is the tyranny the Portuguese exercise over them, forcing them to serve their entire lives as slaves, separating wives from husbands, parents from chil- dren, chaining them, selling them, etc. […] These needless injustices caused the destruction of the churches that had been established, and are the cause of the great perdition of the Indians now in their power. (334)
Denouncing the mamelucos (children of whites and Amerindians) under the control of the patriarch João Ramalho,13 Anchieta wrote:
They most hatefully persecuted us, using all means and methods to do us harm, threatening us with death, but most especially working to nullify the doctrine we used to instruct the Indians, thereby causing them to hate us. If this deadly contagion is not eliminated, not only will the conversion of the unfaithful fail to progress, but it will weaken day by day and inevitably decline. (3340
Such was the first century of missionary activity in Brazil. Anchieta’s fears were confirmed by the facts, as illustrated in his description of the flight of the Amerindians from São Tomé:
Suddenly all the people of São Tomé rose up, rebelling such that the Devil seemed to be walking among them. In the streets they cried out: “Let us flee, let us flee from the Portuguese who are coming.” Father Gaspar Lourenço, witnessing this upheaval, gathered them together and made them understand how grave it would be if they abandoned the church because of the lies told to them. Crying, they responded: “We flee neither from the church nor from you, and if you wish to go with us, we will live with you in the forest or the backlands. We see that God’s law is good, but these Portuguese do not leave us in peace, and if you can see how the few of them that walk among us steal our brothers and sisters, what can be expected when the rest come and make slaves of us, our women, and our children?” With many tears and much emotion, some of them described the threats and showed the wounds they had received in the homes of the Portuguese. (375)
Anchieta’s narrative foregrounds the sharp contrast between predatory colonization and the apostolic mission, which initially were linked of necessity. All the evidence indicates that these were distinct projects whose moments of reconciliation were invariably fleeting and diplomatic, but whose inner dynamic forces were such as to lead them to open con- frontation with each other.
The seventeenth century in Brazil is marked by conflicts between colonists and Jesuits, from Grão-Pará and Maranhão, where Antônio Vieira worked and served as a witness, to São Paulo and, most dramati- cally, to the Missions of the Sete Povos do Uruguai (the Seven Settlements of Uruguay).14 However, the tension between Church and State would not be limited to the followers of Ignatius of Loyola.
Ecclesiastical power frequently entered into confrontation with civil interests and laws. While the motives for conflict were varied, the tutelage of the Amerindians appeared as a causal factor on more than one occasion. See, for example, the problems faced by the prelates of Rio de Janeiro. The first occupant of the office, Father Bartolomeu Simões Pereira, died of poi- soning in 1598; the second, Father João da Costa, was persecuted, expelled from the city, and removed from his position by a colonial court; the third, Father Mateus Aborim, was also the victim of poisoning; the fourth and fifth prelates made the prudent decision not to assume their office; the sixth, the reverend Lourenço de Mendonça, was forced to flee to Portugal after escaping a fire that had engulfed his home, set by locals who had exploded a barrel of gunpowder in his yard; the seventh, Father Antônio de Mariz Loureiro (perhaps a relative of José de Alencar’s Marizes), faced such opposition that he retreated to the captaincy of Espírito Santo, where he lost his mind after an attempted poisoning.15 I must pass over the story of the eighth prelate, the famous Dr. Manoel de Sousa e Almada, since the sources are intensely divided on the matter of his guilt or innocence: the fact remains that his palace was damaged by cannon fire, a Bahian court absolved the aggressors and, as if this were not enough, charged Almada with paying for the court case;xiv Machado de Assis parodied the affair in his heroic-comic poem “Almada.”
This struggle is at the same time material and cultural, and is therefore political. If we are interested in tracing the development of ideas, not in and of themselves but in relation to the existential horizons of their authors, then we can identify two discourses at work in colonial writing: an organic discourse and an ecclesiastical or traditional discourse, to use Gramsci’s felicitous distinction.
The organic discourse is produced in connection with the actions of the colonial enterprise and is often proferred by the colonial agents them- selves. Witness, for instance, Pero Vaz de Caminha, the scribe attached to the armada that discovered Brazil; Gabriel Soares de Sousa, a plantation owner and New Christian who was a hands-on informant, as well as an accurate and precious one (“étonnant,” in Alfred Métraux’s judgment); Ambrósio Fernandes Brandão, the attentive and engaged chronicler who wrote the Diálogos das grandezas do Brasil (Dialogs on the Great Things of Brazil); and Antonil, an author who hid behind an anagram and dis- creetly called himself the Anonymous Tuscan, and who indiscreetly told of the whereabouts and the worth of the colony’s natural resources in his Cultura e opulência do Brasil (Culture and Opulence of Brazil). Antonil had a modern, pragmatic mind, and probed deeply into the quantifiable details of colonial production despite his Jesuit cassock. Finally there was Azeredo Coutinho, a bishop and Mason who, as the nineteenth century was dawning, called for preserving slavery in the interest of Pernambuco’s sugar economy and the well-being of the Portuguese Crown. In all these cases, and without regard to the individual’s lay or ecclesiastical status, we find a frank and consistent dedication to exploring, organizing, and com- manding in the colonial sphere.
The other discourse, which derives from a pre-capitalist ethic, resists the mercantile system even as it resides in its interstices. Though it lives off the system, issuing as it does from the quills of high officials, nobles, and religious figures, it shows little gratitude to the source from which it derives its privilege of leisure and relief from the cares of business, prefer- ring to castigate the colonists for their hunger for profit and for their short- age of Christian selflessness. This is the message of Gregório de Matos’s moralizing satires against the foreign merchant (o sagaz Brichote ) and the nouveau riche usurer who claims aristocratic roots (o fidalgo caramuru), and of Antônio Vieira’s somber homilies, with their Baroquely convoluted separation between a defense of good commercial practices and a con- demnation of the abuses of slavery, which in fact were at the heart of that very commerce. The same sentiment can be seen vacilating, in Basílio da Gama’s Uraguai , between, on the one hand, the author’s glorification of colonial military force and Gomes Freire de Andrade’s resetting of the overseas balance of power, and, on the other, his poeticizing of the rebel- lious indigenous savages, ultimately the only people who are considered worthy of singing the song of freedom.17
Colonial writing does not constitute an undifferentiated whole: it ges- tures toward practical knowledge, oriented toward the hard demands of the Western market system, while it also aspires toward its counterpoint, where obscure utopian dreams of a naturally Christian humanity fuse with the val- ues of liberty and equality that were being very slowly advanced by the ris- ing bourgeoisie. Whenever we are alerted to the presence of these counter- ideological gestures, we discover that the present either looks back to the past, and is linked to the cult, or that it looks toward an ideal future, and responds to culture.
Ghosts of this old, intermittently appearing dream haunt Vieira’s mil- lenarian tirades, the missionaries’ idealized descriptions of the Sete Povos, Aleijadinho’s statues of suffering but indomitable prophets, and the escapist landscapes of the árcades of Minas Gerais.
Of course there are many types of utopia, and it is only by analyzing each given context that we can see how they came into being, and toward and against whom they were addressed. But where do the varied fantasies of utopia put down roots in the rocky soil of colonial culture? The Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico characterized collective human fantasies in terms of “extended or com- pounded memory.”xv A people’s shared past is freely reconfigured by each succeeding generation, taking on new meanings. Memory gleans countless themes and images from a more or less remote spiritual history, but the conflicts of the here-and-now compel it to give a defined form to the open, polyvalent legacy provided by cult and culture.
In Vieira’s messianic words, the Bible was made to defend the Jews. The same Bible defended the Jesuit himself against the forces of the Inquisition, who also drew on the holy scripture to make their case against him. Rabbis, Jesuits, Dominicans: all were experts in scriptural exegesis. The prophets Isaiah, Daniel, and Jeremiah supplied the missionary Vieira with the words to castigate the slaveholders of Maranhão for their greed, even as he endorsed Paul’s oft-abused argument for servants to remain loyal to their masters in advising the Portuguese king against a mediated solution to the conflict with the revolting quilombolas of Palmares.19 The
great rhetorician drew on the treasury of shared memory, whether to argue for the slaves or to defend capital. The past helps compose the forms of the present, but it is the present that picks old or new garments from the chest of the past.
What a strange religion, half Baroque and half mercantile! Religion that denounces the victors and then leaves the victims to their fate, and that abandons a fragile, defenseless holy word to the scheming designs of the powerful, who plunder it for all they want.
Art, whether sacred or profane, redraws the profile of tradition. The profusion of tortured devotional images hammered out by the Iberian Counter-Reformation inspired the mature Aleijadinho’s prophetic figures at Congonhas do Campo, whose appearance, according to some, foreshad- ows the mineiros’ rebellion and its bloody suppression by the Crown. During the same turn-of-the-century period our Arcadian poets would draw on Virgil and Horace to fill with woodland flowers the tropical plain surrounding the Ribeirão do Carmo (Carmo creek), which they sang of with a classical lyre. And in the Vila Rica that clings to the hillside, Virgilian shadows fell broadly from the golden hills.
Fantasy amounts to memory, either expanded upon or compounded. To try to understand colonial culture in its symbolic forms is to deal with the coexistence of a culture of the day-to-day, born of and developed from the practices of migrants and natives alike, with another culture that con- fronts the machinery of daily routine with the ever-changing faces of the past and future, sometimes juxtaposed and sometimes transforming each other.
Vieira denounced the cruelties of slavery in the northeastern engenhos using a universalizing, prophetic and evangelical discourse (it would be anachronistic, when referring to his time, to speak of liberal or, especially, democratic principles of later centuries). Christianity’s basic message, that all men are children of the same God and are therefore brothers, contra- dicts, in principle, pseudo-arguments that have been marshaled to defend colonial particularity. These arguments have been presented in a utilitar- ian, fatalistic, and even racist language: the self-interested speech of the oppressor rooted in the organic reasons driving conquest, which reasserted itself on a planetary scale, with little variation, until the last phase of colonial imperialism beginning at the end of the nineteenth century. In Brazil, praising plantation owners, bandeirantes, captains, and governors-general—in short, the Crown and its collection of servants and bureaucrats—was the vulgar but inexhaustible rhetorical strategy of the Bahian academies, the Esquecidos (Forgotten) and the Renascidos (Reborn), as well as the favored theme of the genealogists of São Paulo and Pernambuco, centers of the Brazilian nobility since the eighteenth cen- tury.20 This discourse drove also epic texts composed in various periods: Bento Teixeira’s Prosopopéia, a Camonian pastiche written at the begin- ning of the seventeenth century and dedicated to the hereditary captain of
Pernambuco, Jorge de Albuquerque Coelho; Brother Manuel Calado’s O valoroso Lucideno, which celebrates in verse and prose the achievements of João Fernandes Vieira, a Portuguese magnate who owned five sugar plantations and mills and helped lead the resistance against the Dutch in northeastern Brazil;21 Brother José de Santa Rita Durão’s Caramuru, writ- ten in honor of Diogo Álvares Correia, the patriarch of Bahia; and finally, Cláudio Manuel da Costa’s Vila Rica, a poem written to celebrate the civil order imposed by Antônio Dias in Minas Gerais. The last two texts belong to the neoclassical Luso-Brazilian literary corpus read (and in part, mis- read) during the Second Reign by the Brazilian Romantics who were in search of prototypical examples of the official nationalism they were working to construct. Theirs was a misinterpretation: despite neoclassicism’s celebration of the landscape and its chronicling of local life, the eigh- teenth-century epos cannot be dislodged from the colonial context. Its ten- dency toward localism, which was quite visible in Pernambuco after the expulsion of the Dutch and in post-bandeirista São Paulo, was tied to elite families’ self-fashioning as local nobilities. These same families would eventually constitute the ruling class of the future Brazilian nation-state.
To recapitulate: two rhetorical tendencies were present in colonial let- ters, generally running parallel, but sometimes in tangential contact with each other. These were a humanistic-Christian rhetoric and that of the intellectual spokesmen for the agro-mercantile system. While the first sought to join culture and cult, utopia and tradition, the second firmly placed writing in the service of the efficient operation of the colonial eco- nomic machine, articulating culture and colo. Placed side by side, these two languages, one grounded in humanism and the other in economic con- cerns, seem to contradict each other. However, if we examine them closely and in their respective contexts, we can locate more than one instance of mutual approximation.
In: Bosi, A. (2007) Colony, Cult and Culture. Edited by Pedro Meira Monteiro. Translated by Robert Newcomb. Boston: University of Massachusetts.