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Brazil: Five Centuries of Change

Jennifer Lambe

The authoring of a history textbook can be a decidedly perilous enterprise. Beyond the difficult work of sorting and synthesis that goes into the construction of some sort of coherent narrative, the exact shape of the narrative often depends on the given historian’s willingness to explicitly lay out her own biases, politics, and interpretations. Accustomed as all high-school and many college students become to the scarcely perceptible authors behind their history textbooks, they are often refreshingly surprised and enlightened by the writers of more complex textbooks that eschew the much-maligned narratives of progress for more sophisticated perspectives on a given historical place and period.

Such an impulse underlies Thomas Skidmore’s concise but thick narrative of Brazilian history, Brazil: Five Centuries of Change. Skidmore begins his text with the explicitly stated project of tracing, through a general history of Brazil, the evolution of the tragically persistent forms of “discrimination, violence, and widespread poverty”[1] throughout Brazil’s existence. As Bryan McCann notes in his review of the book, Skidmore’s treatment of the subject does not regard racial, social, and economic inequalities as static facts of Brazilian history, but rather as structures constantly evolving in response to — and themselves constructing — the particular socio-politico-economic landscape of the period.[2] Skidmore’s constant attention to this explicit framing argument distinguishes his work from other Brazilian history textbooks aiming at an objective panopticism that inevitably veers toward myopia with respect to the less savory aspects of Brazilian history.

Beginning in the immediate aftermath of Brazilian independence, Skidmore argues that, contrary to contemporaneous constructions of the event as a moment of general liberation, independent Brazil in fact displayed a remarkable amount of continuity in the structures of domination and social control governing most Brazilians’ lives. He states:

Incarceration or physical punishment were only the most dramatic forms of control in this society…Monarchy combined with slavery created an atmosphere of deference that was powerfully transmitted to the non-elites. The inculcation of this attitude of subservience that must be shown toward any superior was by and large successful in convincing non-elites there was no way to change their world.[3]

Though other independent Latin American nations of the nineteenth century witnessed a similar preservation of colonial hierarchical forms, in Brazil, independence meant neither the end of monarchy nor slavery. Thus, class, race, social, and political hierarchies were perpetuated in republican Brazil. Skidmore persuasively argues that the most powerful agents of maintaining hierarchies from the colonial to the independent period were not, in fact, the most violent or public, but rather the encoding of hierarchical relationships into religion, “folk culture,” and the practices of everyday life.

Similarly, the process of abolition in Brazil avoided the overturning of prevailing racial, social, and economic inequalities through maintaining other structures that kept freed slaves “in their place,” despite their legal freedom. Skidmore argues that abolition constituted a largely legal formality that did little to alter (nor was it intended to alter) fundamental disparities between different social and racial groups in Brazil. Rather, abolition, like many other ostensibly radical changes in Brazilian history, allowed the "political elite…[to contain] the growing social conflict within a strictly legal framework."[4]

Nevertheless, Skidmore also demonstrates the temporality of these structures of inequality by portraying them in their respective moments of construction and consolidation. His attention to patterns of land ownership across time in Brazil is perhaps most useful in this regard. According to Skidmore, a radical change occurred with the passage of a land law in 1850 that decreed that public land could only be acquired by "purchase from the government or by payment of taxes to regularize land agreements already made."[5] Departing in this moment from the “ad hoc” claims to land (possession by squatting) characteristic of colonial Brazil, the government institutionalized a land ownership system which blatantly and purposefully favored the formation of large plantations, to the exclusion of small land plots. Unlike the United States, which promoted small land holding through the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, Brazil took a “contrary path” that "institutionalized the concentration of legal land ownership in a country where land was the principal source of wealth."[6] Thus, it also helped to shape the structures of economic inequality in post-1850 Brazil.

The consequences of the hierarchies established in colonial Brazil and maintained throughout the nineteenth century also had a strong bearing on the Brazil of the twentieth century. The patron/client relationships structuring many social exchanges in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, largely fit into this mold of institutionalized, internalized, and seemingly incontestable social, economic, and racial hierarchies. Skidmore also links the legacy of inequality and hierarchy to the violent practices still utilized by the police against ordinary citizens in the 1960s. Associating the violence contributing to and reinforcing many of Brazil’s internalized hierarchies with the heritage of colonial times and slavery, Skidmore demonstrates that the varied treatment of elites and regular citizens by the police fit into the "system of differential justice…, [reinforcing] a hierarchical social structure that was tight but not impermeable."[7]

Overall, Skidmore’s historicization and explication of structures of inequality in Brazil’s past, present, and, most likely, future constructs a realistic, if pessimistic, image of the serious socio-economic and racial hierarchies that have proven extremely resistant to change. It also helps to contextualize the especial difficulties faced by recent Brazilian Presidents, who have had to balance the almost always conflicting needs for success in the global economy and social and economic reform. Finally, his rather strict political and economic account of these inequalities — and Brazilian history in general — lays the groundwork for the exploration of other ways to interpret and understand the course of Brazilian history, especially through cultural, racial, gender and other more recent analytical frameworks. By combining Skidmore’s understanding of these inequalities with examinations of their transmission through culture, religion, language, and other societal institutions, one would arrive at a fully-developed conception of hierarchies of race, class, and gender in Brazilian society and, perhaps, a more informed perspective on how to eradicate them.


[1] Thomas Skidmore, Brazil: Five Centuries of Change (New York, Oxford University Press, 1999), xiii.
[2] Bryan McCann, book review of Brazil: Five Centuries of Change, by Thomas Skidmore. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 31.1 (2000): 143-144.
[3] Skidmore, 39.
[4] 70.
[5] 52.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Skidmore, 175.