Prata Preta

Several recent books have developed theoretical arguments about how historical memory is cultivated. The most important of these in English are Patrick H. Hutton, History as an Art of Memory (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1993) and David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). Two other books of significance are Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso Press, 1983) and Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). Perhaps no study of historical memory can rival that of Pierre Nora, ed., Les Lieux de mémoire, 3 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1984-93). For those who can read Portuguese, José Murilo de Carvalho's A Formação das Almas: O Imaginário da República no Brasil (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1990) is a model study on creating imaginary tradtions.

Many of these histories, like the one developed in this webpage, focus on exposing the ideological content behind representations of the past. By exposing this ideological content, one can better understand how particularistic histories have acquired a popular legitimacy. Equally important, however, are the aspects of history imaginary traditions choose to repress or forget. The Amnesia Button is designed to allow you to explore the topics that are left out of the story that fashions Brazilian history in terms of the French Revolution. The construction of historical amnesia is not unique to Brazil. Readers can trace much of what has been left out in the fashioned history of the French Revolution by consulting the works by Hutton and Nora.


Merchants, artisans, and planters dominated the Inconfidência Mineira of 1789. Influenced more by American than French ideas, these rebels wanted to construct an independent Brazil that would allow commerce and industry to thrive. Many rebels depended upon slavery and had little interest in incorporating Indians or African-Brazilians into their proposed new society, although there were some exceptions.

Moreover, while Minas Gerais thrived at the end of the Eighteenth Century, much of its new dynamism developed at the expense of Bahia, the dominant state of northeastern Brazil, the earliest center of Portuguese colonialism, and the core of African-Brazilian culture at the time. Thus, at the end of the eighteenth century, Bahia was experiencing economic decline, a situation which deteriorated conditions for much of the free, but very poor, mulatto or mixed African-Portuguese or African-Indian population. Consequently, Bahian rebels were drawn from a more popular class of society than the Inconfidência Mineira. Most of these rebels were free mulattos, who were soldiers, artisans, and tailors. Indeed, so many tailors were arrested for rebellion that the 1798 revolt has been called the Conjuração Alfaiates or the "conspiracy of the tailors." Additionally, as several historians, including E. Bradford Burns, have argued, the Conjuração Alfaiates seems to have been directly influenced by the French Revolution and, in many ways, represented a far greater threat to the established socio-economic and political system than the earlier rebellion in Minas Gerais. As a mulatto soldier, Lucas Dantas do Amorim Tôrres, explained to the judges who tried him for his role in the rebellion, "We want a republic in order to breathe freely because we live subjugated and because we're colored and we can't advance and if there was a republic there would be equality for everyone." Other rebels also indicated that they had been influenced by the French Revolution and wanted independence, the creation of a republic, equality, free trade, and the abolition of slavery. Posters demanded equality and fraternity and the creation of black and brown citizen-soldiers. Though the Bahian rebels were repressed almost as quickly as those from Minas Gerais, their revolt showed that many ordinary people shared in the ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and were determined to reshape society along more egalitarian lines and without slavery. Yet ordinary Brazilian people, like the Bahian rebels of 1798, rarely figure in the imaginary constructions of Brazilian history.


Another rebellion broke out in Recife in Pernambuco in 1817. Also in the Northeast, Pernambuco suffered from economic decline until the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain opened markets for Pernambuco cotton in Europe. But as the Portuguese reestablished control after 1815, they once again began to impose restrictions on Brazilian commerce. Tensions developed between Brazilians and Portuguese in Pernambuco and gradually developed into a full-scale movement to establish an independent republic in the Brazilian Northeast. Rebels formed a provisional government, then sought arms and diplomatic support from Argentina, Great Britain, and the United States. Failing to get international help, rebels sought support form Bahia and Ceará, but the governors of the latter captaincies arrested them. Much more limited in their demands than the Conjuração Alfaiates, Pernambucan rebels abolished titles of nobility, class privileges, and some taxes. Although rebels from Paraíba and Alagoas joined those from Pernambuco, again the Royal government quickly subdued the rebellion. The Pernambuco revolt did not represent the same threat to the soical order as that of the tailors, but it provided the largest opportunity for a Brazilian independence that might have altered the social, economic, and, perhaps, political structure of Brazil.


Rebellion in the BacklandsThe events which transpired at Canudos, a small colony of religious fanatics in the interior of Bahia, or the sertão, should have posed few difficulties for the new Brazilian republic. The mystic, Antônio Conselheiro, who founded the colony seemed to have few political interests, but rumors began to spread that Conselheiro had organized a monarchical conspiracy designed to overthrow the republic. Many in Canudos, however, seemed to resent much of the modernizing impetus of the Republic--its secularizaiton of marriage, its public health measures, and most of all, its taxes. When they refused to pay their taxes, and Conselheiro burned the tax roles showing how much they owed, Republican officials sent several contingents from the police and the armed forces against the sertanejos, but the soldiers were no match for the large numbers of men and women gathered at Canudos. Fearful that the triumph of the Canudos colonists was undermining the reputation of the Republic and the army, the new President Prudente de Morais sent 10,000 men to the city to annihilate it. Under fire for days, Canudos finally surrendered on October 5, 1897.

Other millenarian movements broke out at this time, largely reflecting the despair of the rural masses left out in the formation of the new Republic. Another millenarian movement that seriously threatened the government, more because of its existance than because of any actual demands that emerged from it, developed in the Contestado, another area in Brazil's vast backlands. Here, a monk named João Maria gathered poor followers by promising them a better life in the years between 1912 and 1915. Once again, the government decided that they so threatened the fabric of Brazilian order that it sent a huge army against them.

All of these millenarian movements broke out deep in Brazil's hinterlands, where religious leaders were able to profit from the widespread desire of many poor people for a better life coupled with a desire to maintain traditional community and religious values. Though Brazilian historians have emphasized the peaceful evolution of Brazilian society and have often praised the racial intermingling of its vast multicultural society, the millenarian movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries demonstrate that Brazilian history was far more complex than that suggested in its imaginary history. The "affairs" of Canudos and the Contestado reveal both the failure of the Brazilian government, oriented toward the coast and the hinterlands of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Minas Gerais, to pay much attention either to the sertão or to the colored people who lived in much of the country, who they really did not understand at all. Foreshadowing the ominous role that the military would play in Brazilian history, the government's determination to eradicate those it did not understand made it difficult to develop any true democracy in the country.

Indeed the existence of two Brazils as demonstrated in these millinarian movements, provided the substance of Euclides da Cunha's great Brazilian book, Os Sertões, translated into English as Rebellion in the Backlands. For da Cunha, the "bedrock" of the Brazilian race could be found in the mixed races of the backlands. Deeply threatened by the forces of the cities along the coast, the sertanejos were the only "true" Brazilians uncontaminated by foreign influences. The theme is similar to the arguments that cast peasants as the "true" Frenchmen in France at the same time. However, da Cunha was very conflicted in his opinion, and while he believed that the men and women of the sertão represented the essence of what it meant to be Brazilian, he, nonetheless, was attracted to the ideas of reformers oriented toward modernizing Brazil both technologically and culturally, as well as to those of Brazilian social Darwinists who believed that the men and women of the interior represented signs of degeneration..


Euclides da Cunha's Rebellion from the Backlands reflected a deep ambiguity about Brazil's multicultural/multiracial society, and by the early Twentieth Century, many intellectuals began to view Brazil's African heritage as a dangerous and polluting social menace. As a consequence of this fear, many Brazilian Positivists adopted a biomedical style based upon European ideas of social Darwinism that not only taught that societies evolved through competition to develop higher civilizations but that sick societies could regress and degenerate. With the abolition of slavery in 1888, many intellectuals and politicians began to believe that the struggle against degeneracy needed to be accelerated. With the formation of the Republic, many intellectuals, scientists, and engineers obtained a new role, which allowed them to implement their plans to combat degeneracy in Brazil. The numbers of civil engineers, hygienists, public health officials, coroners, and criminologists expanded in the new Republic; they shared a single goal: "progress, civilization, and modernity." Government policy encouraged immigration to "whiten" Brazil, and a talented engineer, Pereira Passos (1903-1906), launched a massive urban renewal project designed to transform the central part of Brazil's capital, Rio de Janeiro, into a Parisian-like, "civilized," capital city. The project involved the destruction of many old communities where the poorest population lived. Moreover, Pereira Passos along with Dr. Osvaldo Cruz also insisted on compulsory smallpox vaccinations for everyone in 1904 to eliminate the disease and pollution that threatened the city and its new elites.

But large numbers of men and women resented the destruction of their neighborhoods, rejected the hygienists' arguments, and viewed the compulsory vaccination as an unwarranted intrusion of the government into private lives, an intrusion which threatened the gender conventions that many men (and women) believed protected the stability of the family. Collectively, these tensions produced one of the most interesting rebellions in Brazilian history, the "The Revolt Against the Vaccinations."

The urban renewal was as dramatic as that of Baron von Haussmann, who widened Paris' streets during the Second Empire in an attempt to make it "barricade-proof" or riot-proof. To some extent Pereira Passos and Dr. Osvaldo Cruz were similarly motivated in transforming Rio de Janeiro. They constructed a new port to facilitate commerce, but much of the city was redesigned to drive people and animals away from old communities. Streets were widened and "sanitary brigades traveled around the whole city inspecting, cleaning, disinfecting and ordering either the repair or demolition of houses." But discontent escalated into revolt in 1904 with the attempt to eradicate smallpox in the city through a compulsory program of vaccinations. Men and women took control of the city for a week, challenging the government's authority. Prostitutes, street vendors, and petty criminals took charge of the city's streets.

Many ideas at odds with the new Republicans drove the rebels. Many men and women resented the presence of strangers (doctors or public health officials) in their households. Many men felt their honor challenged because these strangers were gazing at and touching the bodies of their wives and daughters when they were not present, so they no longer had control of their households. The fact that the government also determined whether or not a house was "habitable" made it seem like it was unnecessarily intruding into what had always been a family and private matter: the routine of daily life in the domestic realm. With the destruction of their neighborhoods, with the new taxes levied to pay for urban improvements, and with the government intrusion into the deepest sanctites of the home, many men and women in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's most populous and modern city, began to harbor monarchist sympathies. They did not view the Republic as an opportunity for democracy and influence in the political sphere, but rather as the tyranny of scientists and doctors who made enormous claims on their private lives.

Though their revolt was short-lived, the prostitutes, street-vendors, and petty criminals of the streets of Rio de Janeiro joined many ordinary men and women in exposing the limits of the new Republic. Equality and democracy, supposedly the legacy of the French Revolution, were not incorporated into either the ideology or the practical political structure of the new Republic. Unlike in the French Revolution, the idea of a revolution or a government in which the "people" were sovereign was purely an abstract notion.

woman Lecturing HygienistAs events in Rio demonstrated, the government had nothing but contempt for "the people," viewing them as a source of disease and contagion that could maybe be controlled through medicine but might involve driving them away from the space of the elites. "The people," in turn, had no respect for either their government or the scientists and engineers associated with it. As the woman in the accompanying image explained to one of Rio de Janeiro's agents of change, "The grocer told me that the papers are talking about the vaccination program, which is a sham!"

Though popular opinion may have viewed urban renewal and social hygiene as a sham, these movements as well as those in Canudos and the Contestado demonstrate the gulf that separated ordinary people--increasingly understood to be colored or of foreign birth--from the elites--who increasingly believed themselves to be and defined themselves as white, in spite of their genetic makeup. In rejecting the sertanejos and the American flag in the formation of the Republic, leaders rejected an American or indigenous heritage and linked themselves to a European past (albeit a French past) and to tradition, As they constructed their identity as something which was very different from those of the sertão and the streets of Rio de Janeiro, they began to identify themselves with everything that was French, the symbol of modern civilization. They redesigned Rio de Janeiro to resemble Paris, but it was a shallow and cheap copy of Paris without liberty, equality, fraternity, or the people, who were increasingly forced to move into Brazil's famous shantytowns or favelas on the city's dramatic hillsides.

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