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Snakes in Paradise


Ever since the Huguenot pastor Jean de Léry recorded his impressions of the Tupinamba Indians in 1578,1 Brazil has proved to be a source of wonder and fascination to foreign observers. A land of captivating beauty and baffling contradictions, it has always eluded simple classification. Tropical paradise or the tristes tropiques of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1934 with a copy of Léry in his pocket only to discover that all too few remnants of the Garden of Eden had in fact survived? In any event, admission to the paradise, if it ever existed, was never universal. Already by the later seventeenth century Brazil was described in a popular Portuguese refrain as “a hell for blacks, a purgatory for whites, and a paradise for mulattoes.”2 Tickets for entry may have been reallocated since then, but, as Kenneth Maxwell reminds us in his Naked Tropics, the income disparities in modern Brazil are among the worst in the world, with perhaps some 40 million of its 160 million inhabitants living in poverty on incomes of below $50 a month. For all the advances of the 1990s, the cherubim—in whose employ?—still guard the gates, flaming sword in hand.

In the autobiographical opening to his engaging and beautifully written collection of essays, Maxwell, who holds the Rockefeller Chair in Inter-American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells us how he came to join the ranks of foreigners who fell captive to Brazil. It began as a long-distance seduction, when, as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, he saw Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus at a movie theater much frequented at that time by students. By way of Lisbon and Princeton he eventually reached Rio de Janeiro, and, in contrast to Lévi-Strauss, he was not disappointed. Always something of a romantic rebel with a hard realist streak, he seems to have found in the Brazil of the 1960s exactly the right combination of euphoria, murk, and melancholy to suit his temperament. After that, unlike Orpheus, he never looked back.

His first book, Conflicts and Conspiracies: Brazil and Portugal, 1750–1808,3 the outcome of his doctoral research in the Portuguese and Brazilian archives, was a probing examination of a conspiracy hatched by prominent lawyers, writers, and intellectuals in the gold-mining region of Minas Gerais in 1778–1779 to foment an uprising against the Portuguese crown and to establish an independent constitutional state. The group of conspirators included a part-time tooth-puller, Tiradentes, who paid with his life and was later to become a national hero of republican Brazil. Dentists are not normally noted for their revolutionary enthusiasm. Maxwell set his story firmly against the background of eighteenth-century Portugal and its colonial policy, and in the process made his book a study in Luso-Brazilian history. Even today, as he points out in one of the essays in Naked Tropics, Portuguese historians are still capable of writing the history of their native country with scarcely a mention of Brazil. But he himself has consistently sought to illustrate the continuing interaction between the metropolis and its transatlantic dominion, and in doing so has made himself as much at home in the history of Portugal as of Brazil.

He still prefers to concentrate essentially on the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the age that begins with the enlightened reforms of the Marquês de Pombal, who effectively governed Portugal between 1750 and 1777 as the principal minister of King José I, and ends in 1822 with the proclamation of Brazilian independence by Dom Pedro, heir to the Portuguese crown, and soon to be the first emperor of the new empire of Brazil. The efforts of Pombal to modernize Portugal and its overseas empire so dominate the age as to make him unavoidable for any historian of the period, and in 1995 Maxwell published a shrewd and perceptive, if at times oblique, study of a man who combined in equal measure the progressive and dictatorial instincts of the Europe of the “enlightened despots.”4 In this book he depicted a pragmatic patriot who had no hesitation in borrowing foreign ideas—notably from Britain and Austria, where he had held diplomatic postings—in order to drag a deeply conservative country into the modern world. His Pombal is a ruthless operator, acutely conscious of the constraints within which the leaders of a small country were forced to work, but at the same time determined to make the most of the opportunities afforded by its possession of a Brazil which furnished Europe with its gold.

When Maxwell first went to Portugal in pursuit of his research, it was to a country again ruled by a ruthless pragmatist, although one who, in contrast to Pombal, looked not to the future but to the past for salvation. Dr. Salazar’s Portugal was designed to be an island of stability in a storm-tossed sea, a conservative, Catholic nation shielded by a paternalistic and authoritarian regime from the contaminating vices of the modern world. But already the days of the regime, and of its creator, were numbered, and in 1974 the old order would collapse. The events that followed were to grip the attention of the world, and Maxwell was to become the chronicler of a Portuguese “revolution” that somehow failed to conform to the notions of what a revolution should be. In a series of brilliant reports, which many readers of The New York Review of Books will still recall, he kept us abreast of the latest news from Lisbon, and explained for us the twists and turns of a nonrevolutionary revolution that defied all the norms. As Maxwell wrote in one of these articles,

After forty-six years of authoritarian rule, aborted coups, and quixotic gestures of opposition, a meticulously planned putsch by junior officers deposed the old regime in less than twelve hours.5

In these reports, which belatedly provided the material for a book, The Making of Portuguese Democracy,6 he showed himself to be as acute an observer of the present as of the past, with the capacity to use his historical knowledge to illuminate and interpret the rapid movement of events.

This ability to move with ease between the past and the present—an ability rarer than it should be among professional historians—is once again on display in Naked Tropics. The volume consists of sixteen articles or book reviews, five of them originally published in these pages. While most are concerned with the past—a past that begins with Columbus but is primarily centered on “the long eighteenth century,” a period that runs from the 1660s to 1807, the year of the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal—four of the sixteen are devoted to contemporary topics. Of these, three look at different aspects of modern Brazil, including the deforestation of the Amazon and the murder of Chico Mendes, a peasant leader of the movement to protect the forest. The fourth is a richly evocative depiction of the contemporary scene in the last outpost of Portugal’s overseas empire, its enclave of Macao, which was handed back to China in 1999. Macao, with its casinos, its concubines, and its shady underworld, provides the kind of setting that allows Maxwell to display his impressive gift for describing personalities and places. He is an observer who revels in paradoxes and ambiguities—in this instance the paradox that what the Portuguese liked to call the “City of God in China” could equally well have been called the City of Sin.

Like any good reporter, Maxwell has a nose for scandal and skulduggery, and like any good reporter, he does not pull his punches. One of the chapters in his Conflicts and Conspiracies is simply called “Skulduggery,” and is devoted to exposing the machinations in high places as the 1778 conspiracy against the Portuguese crown in Minas Gerais unraveled. In his accounts of the murder of Chico Mendes and of the inexorable twentieth-century advance of “civilization” into the Brazilian interior, he similarly exposes the machinations in high places, and has harsh things to say about the skulduggery of political bosses, rural landowners, bureaucrats, and speculators, who saw the opportunity for rich pickings in the building of roads and the clearing of forests, and displayed no compunction in getting rid of the people who stood in their way.

At the same time, however, he is acutely conscious of the ambiguities he finds at every turn in the past and present of Brazil, and he is not afraid to raise some awkward questions about the political career of Chico Mendes and his relations with the Federal Police. In particular, Maxwell mentions the strange relationship between Mendes and the Federal Police chief Mauro Sposito. Mendes appealed to Sposito for protection against the ranchers and landowners who were plotting his assassination, but received no help. In a letter written just two weeks before his death, Mendes blamed the Federal Police for harboring “the hired gunmen” who were plotting his murder. Yet after Mendes’s murder, Maxwell points out, Sposito announced publicly that Mendes had been a police informer. It is an incongruous claim that Maxwell, who neither accepts nor denies it, calls “the most perplexing aspect about Chico Mendes.” The same mixture of frankness and controlled indignation is to be found in his essay entitled “A Story of Slavery, Sex, and Mammon,” concerned with the exposure by three graduate students of Yale University in 2001 of the less than glorious record of their alma mater and its faculty in opposing the founding of a “negro college” in New Haven in 1831, and in honoring the slave traders and the apologists for slavery who contributed so handsomely to the university’s endowment.

But Maxwell is at his most withering in his powerful piece “Heroes and Traitors,” in which he excoriates the British liberal newspaper The Guardian for publishing in 2001 an article by Hywel Williams traducing the memory of Charles Boxer, who had died in the previous year at the age of ninety-six. Boxer was both a remarkable man and a remarkable historian. A professional soldier, he never went to a university, but he built up a formidable reputation as a scholar and only entered academic life in 1947 when, on the strength of his numerous publications, he was appointed to the chair of Portuguese at King’s College, London. Taken prisoner by the Japanese in Hong Kong, he spent the war in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, where, Williams implied, his treachery led to the execution of fellow officers. Such charges and innuendoes were systematically refuted by Boxer’s biographer, the historian Dauril Alden, in a response in the Guardian, whose edi-tors admitted that he set “the record straight.” But the entire squalid episode gives Maxwell the opportunity to evoke the memory and career of a man whom friends and colleagues recall with admiration for his forthrightness and integrity, and as one who was always generous with advice and encouragement to other scholars, among them the young Maxwell.

Boxer was a historian with a prodigious range of information who poured forth a stream of pioneering books and articles on different aspects of European overseas expansion, and in particular on the history of the Dutch and Portuguese colonial empires. Every historian of the Luso-Brazilian world is in his debt, and Maxwell repeatedly cites him in his footnotes to the essays on aspects of Brazilian history which constitute the core of the articles republished in Naked Tropics. In some respects, indeed, Maxwell closely reflects Boxer’s influence, and in particular in the internationalism of his approach to the history of Brazil.


Over the past few decades a handful of Anglo-American historians have made a distinguished contribution to Brazilian history, approaching it in a variety of ways. Among them, John Russell-Wood has explored the activities of philanthropic lay brotherhoods in colonial society,7 Stuart B. Schwartz has illuminated the workings of the sugar plantations and Brazilian slave society,8 and John Hemming has examined in devastating detail the fate of Brazil’s Indians.9 Maxwell, for his part, has shown himself especially aware not only of the continuing interplay between Brazil and Portugal, but also of the importance of placing Brazilian history in a wide, international setting, and relating it to the broader European development of politics and ideas. In an age in which the tendency has been to explore the history of imperialism from the bottom upward, he has been resolute in his determination to ensure that an approach all too easily dismissed as “elitist,” because it is concerned with the exercise of political power, has a prominent place. In a key passage in these essays he writes:

The recent decades have seen an accumulation of more information about…the economic aspects of the Portuguese and Spanish Atlantic systems, than about…the policies and politics of empire. While much has been achieved by the emphasis on conjunctural economic analysis and social history, it has unquestionably also led to the almost total exclusion of detailed examinations of elites, institutions, and above all intellectual life and politics and policy.

Since these words were first written in 1993, much has changed, and the study of imperial institutions and ideologies is less unfashionable than it was a decade ago.10 But Maxwell has never been a historian easily swayed by fashion (as his original choice of subject indicates). He has no use for the strange intellectual convolutions produced by the international commemoration of 1492. As he puts it, with a pithiness worthy of Charles Boxer, in the opening sentence of a review in these pages: “Columbus was mugged on the way to his own party.” In that same piece, included in Naked Tropics, he draws attention to the inadequate recognition given in the literature of the quincentenary to the importance of the Portuguese voyages of exploration. While he himself has not been directly concerned with the Age of Discovery, his writing on Bra-zil has always placed these voyages firmly in the long chronological perspective of the creation, consolidation, and slow downfall of Portugal’s global empire.

In view of this, it is a pity that he appears never to have engaged with what might have seemed natural Maxwell territory, Portuguese Angola. During the seventeenth century the Portuguese effectively lost the Asian portion of their empire to their European rivals, retaining only enclaves like Goa and Macao as reminders of past glories. By way of compensation, however, they successfully fought off the Dutch assault on Brazil and Angola. This allowed them to construct a prosperous transatlantic empire built on the export of sugar produced on Brazilian plantations that were worked by African slaves. A Brazilian historian of the South Atlantic slave trade has recently traced in detail how Angola’s trading connection with central-southern Brazil over the best part of three centuries was integral both to the internal development of Brazil and to the working of the Luso-Brazilian Atlantic system that lies at the heart of Maxwell’s historical writing.11

These relations between Portugal and Brazil and their ramifications form the subject of perhaps the most intellectually ambitious of Maxwell’s essays, here called “Hegemonies Old and New.” In this important piece he sets the Luso-Brazilian system in the broad historical perspective of projects for imperial reform inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the rivalries of the great European powers, and the democratic and republican revolutions that shook the world in the late eighteenth century—the North American and French Revolutions, together with the great slave revolt on Saint-Domingue in 1792, that gave the Brazilian elite, along with many others, cause to stop and think.

The theme is large and complex, and Maxwell’s treatment of it, while consistently lucid, makes its demands on the reader. But it suggests lines of inquiry that deserve to be followed up by historians not simply of Brazil but of the whole Atlantic world. It also shows that Maxwell is a historian who can master detail but is not afraid to ask large questions. This essay provides the setting for others on more specific aspects of Luso-Brazilian history of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—the Amazonian origins of Pombal’s dramatic decision to expel the Jesuits from Portugal and its overseas possessions, for example; the changing attitudes toward empire in Brazil and Portugal; and the unexpected and attractive friendship between Thomas Jefferson and a Portuguese abbot, Corrêa da Serra, for another.

Non-native historians of Portugal and Brazil understandably tend to think of themselves as an isolated group, working away on subjects persistently relegated to the sidelines by those working in the more populated fields of historical scholarship. One of Maxwell’s achievements in this volume of essays is to make his own and others’ work on Luso-Brazilian history and civilization both interesting and accessible to general readers. But he has done more than this. He has also shown why Luso-Brazilian history matters, and how it can and should be more effectively integrated into the broader picture of the history of Europe and the wider world. In the process, he raises a question which he seeks to address in one of the most provocative of his essays, “Why Was Brazil Different?,” which is focused on the achievement of Brazilian independence. Here we have a vast country that, unlike most of the Americas, both North and South, passed through the age of revolution without a revolution; a country that chose a monarchical form of government when those around it were transforming themselves into republics; a country that, in contrast to British and Spanish America, did not break up into separate parts in spite of its enormous size; and a country that, when it finally abolished slavery, avoided civil war.

There are fascinating historical puzzles here, which, as Maxwell himself says, can only be resolved within a comparative perspective. He points out that Portugal declared “independence” from Brazil in 1820, and only afterward, in 1822, did Brazil declare its independence from Portugal. Between the years 1808 and 1820, Brazil had become the economic and political center of the Luso-Brazilian empire, reducing Portugal in effect to colonial status.

Much has been made in the past of the singularity of Brazil and its civilization. Some fifty years ago the Brazilian historian Gilberto Freyre, in his classic work New World in the Tropics, saw it as the potential leader of a “significant modern civilization,” based on its progress toward achieving the ethnic amalgamation and cultural interpenetration of its racially mixed peoples.12 Maxwell avoids prediction, and instead prefers to tell us something of why Brazil emerged as it did, and what it has become. His vision is inspired by his love for the country, but it is a love without illusions. The jacket of this absorbing volume of essays is rather incongruously illustrated with a painting done by Gauguin in Tahiti of a landscape with peacocks, a tropical paradise. But Maxwell’s tropics are naked, and a work by a modern Brazilian primitive artist would have been more appropriate. For all its lush beauty, there are snakes in this paradise, and nobody is better equipped than Maxwell to show us where they hide.

  1. 1

    See the excellent translation by Janet Whately of Jean de Léry, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Otherwise Called America (University of California Press, 1990).

  2. 2

    Quoted by C.R. Boxer, The Golden Age of Brazil, 1695–1750 (University of California Press, 1962), p. 1.

  3. 3

    Cambridge University Press, 1973.

  4. 4

    Pombal: Paradox of the Enlightenment (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

  5. 5

    See “Portugal: A Neat Revolution,” The New York Review, June 13, 1974.

  6. 6

    Cambridge University Press, 1995.

  7. 7

    A.J.R. Russell-Wood, Fidalgos and Philanthropists: The Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Bahia, 1550–1755 (Macmillan, 1968).

  8. 8

    Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society: Bahia, 1550–1835 (Cambridge University Press, 1985); Slaves, Peasants and Rebels: Reconsidering Brazilian Slavery (University of Illinois Press, 1992).

  9. 9

    Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians (Macmillan, 1978). A further volume, Die If You Must, was published this fall (Macmillan).

  10. 10

    See, for instance, Anthony Pagden, Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France c. 1500–c. 1800 (Yale University Press, 1995), although the Portuguese empire is conspicuous by its absence from the book.

  11. 11

    Luiz Felipe de Alencastro, O Trato dos Viventes: Formação do Brasil no Atlântico Sul, séculos XVI e XVII (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2000).

  12. 12

    Knopf, 1959, p. 286.

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