The invention of a tradition, in this case the invention of a tradition in which the French Revolution was cast as deeply imbedded in Brazilian history, occurs because of the power of language and symbols to form ideas, which, in turn, can be used as a resource in the mobilization of political power. Various images of the past are repeated in such a way that they shape a popular understanding of the present that can be grasped without serious reflection. As Patrick Hutton argued, "ultimately the problem of history is a problem of commemoration, that is, of identifying and inventorying those events, ideas, or personalities chosen by the power brokers of an earlier [and the present] age for remembrance."
The fabrication of the legacy of the French Revolution in Brazilian History depended upon a specific reading of the French Revolution and its significance. The thrust of this reading was ironically commensurate with that of many French historians who wanted to forget the Revolution. In short, it depended upon a history of the revolution that largely focused upon the way in which the events that transpired in 1789 ended the Old Regime. Very few of the commemorative histories of the French Revolution published in popular Brazilian literature in 1989 included much about the Terror, and none of them discussed the counter-revolution in the Vendée. Most of these histories stressed the significance of Enlightenment ideas as agents of change. Yet unlike fashionable French Bicentennial histories, most Brazilian histories also included a discussion of Toussaint L'Ourverture's slave revolt in Saint Domingue as one of the most significant episodes of the French Revolution.
This reading of the French Revolution is significantly related to the aspects of Brazilian history Brazilians both past and present have chosen to remember in their commemorative history. All of the Bicentennial histories published in Brazil discussed the Inconfidência Mineira of 1789 and treated its leader, Tiradentes or the Toothpuller, as a national hero. Most--though not all--of these histories refused to talk about the Conjuração Alfaiates of 1798 or the Revolt in Pernambuco in 1817, though both events drew directly upon French Revolutionary ideas. Interestingly, several Brazilian historians have argued that the Inconfidência Mineira, itself, was probably not that important at the time it broke out. It was put down so quickly that few took it seriously. It largely became significant in Brazilian history in 1889, when Republicans attempted to define their movement to establish a new Brazilian Republic in terms of the ideas of the French Revolution. Yet 1889 Republicans went beyond invoking the memory of Tiradentes. Because the French Republic was imagined as a woman, they attempted to imagine their own Republic as a woman, a "Brazilian Marianne", not without some difficulties. With enormous ambivalence about what Brazil was or what Brazil could or should be, the Republicans of 1889 also sought to join the Brazilian Republic with their imagination of what France was.
Their France was largely the
France of the Positivists, a France where science and technology
promoted economic development, while technocrats and professional
politicians above the fray of politics, guided the country and
its people toward modernization. The most potent symbol of this
France was the engineering masterpiece, the Eiffel Tower, which
stood over the Champs de Mars, a fitting site saturated with the
violent history of the French Revolution but now suitably tamed.
The tower inspired Brazilian imaginations, and a replica of it
was constructed in Manaus, a city modeled on Paris for rubber
barons in the middle of the Amazon jungle in Brazil, long before
Mesbla put one up in Rio de Janeiro in 1989.>
Just as Brazilian remembrance of the French Revolution was largely constructed by omitting much of it that occurred after 1789, so too did Brazilian commemorations of the formation of the Brazilian Republic begin and end in late 1889. By focusing only on this year, one not only weds Brazilian and French history, but one is able to forget that Princess Isabel ended slavery a year earlier, which led many slaves to identify with the monarchy, not the Republic. The restricted chronological narrative of the Republic also allows Brazilians to forget about some of their own counter-revolutions: the revolt in Canudos in the 1890s, of the Contestado in the early 1900s, and the "Revolt against the Vaccinations" in Rio de Janeiro in 1904.
The imaginary history of the Bicentennial of the French Revolution in Brazil also ignores virtually all of the Twentieth Century, including the formation of Getúlio Vargas's dictatorship, the Estado Novo of 1937-1945; the so-called "Bourgeois Revolution" of Juscelino Kubitshek (1956-1960); and the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985.
It is not difficult to understand why Brazilians might want to distance themselves from the military regime as they celebrated 200 years of liberty, but the amnesia related to Vargas and Kubitshek is far more difficult to explain except to argue crudely that because a presidential candidate, Leonel Brizola, aimed to fashion himself as Vargas' heir, Vargas was too immediately connected to Brazilian politics to become part of a "revolutionary" tradition which largely constructed a Republican history that was above and beyond politics.
The aim in this imaginary history is to construct a stable national myth that can unify an enormous and diverse country. But the problematic nature of the symbols used to construct it--Tiradentes, the "Brazilian Marianne," and the Eiffel Tower--as well as the repressed absences in this history expose the fragility of the myth as either an interpretation of the past or as a guide to the future.