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“Lost Altogether to the Civilised World”: Race and the Cabanagem in Northern Brazil, 1750 to 1850


The colonisation of the tropical lowlands of South America was until fairly recently often portrayed by historians as a straightforward catalogue of genocide, epidemics, and forced catechisation.See, for example, the work of John Hemming: Red Gold (London: Macmillan, 1978), Amazon Frontier (London: Macmillan, 1983), “Indians and the Frontier” in L. Bethell, ed., Colonial Brazil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 145–89. In its emphasis on the undeniable fact of the violent subjection of much of Amerindia, this orthodoxy obscured the vital detail of the varieties of historical experience in the Amazon and Orinoco basins and the Guianas, projecting an illusion of uniformity and direction to historical processes which were in fact much more complicated and open-ended.N. Whitehead, “Ethnic Transformation and Historical Discontinuity in Native Amazonia and Guayana, 1500–1900,” L'Homme, 126–8, 13:4 (avril–décembre 1993), 285–305. A particularly good example of the complexity of “conquest” from the Indian perspective in the period immediately prior to the Cabanagem is N. Farage, As Muralhas dos Sertões: Os Povos Indígenas no Rio Branco e a Colonização (Rio: Paz e Terra, 1991). Historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists have more recently emphasised the historically contingent nature of ethnic identity and traced out its empirical consequence, the interweaving of identity construction and ethnicity with colonialism, economic expansion and state formation from the sixteenth century onwards.General volumes covering all or most of the tropical lowlands are A. Roosevelt, ed., Amazonian Indians from Prehistory to the Present (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994); E.V. de Castro and M.C. da Cunha, eds., Amazônia: Etnologia e História Indígena (São Paulo: FAPESP, 1993); M.C. da Cunha, ed., História dos Índios no Brasil (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras 1992) and G. Urban and J. Sherzer, eds., Nation States and Indians in Latin America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991). For the Orinoco and Guianas, see chapters by Whitehead and Arvelo-Jímenez and Biord in Roosevelt, Amazonian Indians; Dreyfus, in Castro and da Cunha, Amazonia; and N. Whitehead, Lords of the Tiger Spirit: A History of the Caribs in Colonial Venezuela and Guayana, 1498–1820 (Dordrecht and Providence: Foris Publications, 1988). Price's trilogy on the Saramaka Maroons of Surinam, First Time (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), To Slay the Hydra (Ann Arbor: Karoma Publishers, 1983), and Alabi's World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1990) is an example of a similar approach to an Afro-American ethnic formation. As a result, in certain parts of the tropical lowlands—notably the Guianas—it has been possible to produce a much more sophisticated reading of regional history, a “thick description” which can relate the fluidity and specificity of local circumstances to wider historical processes and can thus serve as the basis for a properly comparative mapping of the past.

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
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