Past lessons for future challenges in the Brazilian Amazon

Contrary to popular perception, the Amazon is a historical place of great significance. It has suffered exceptional destruction of native societies and devastation of natural resources, while revealing to archaeologists a ‘gift from the past’ in the form of the anthropogenic dark earths, dating back at least one millennium, which permit intensive cultivation in otherwise poor soils. Today there is new interest in the post-conquest period, for two reasons: the growth of indigenous political movements probing their own people’s history and how to use it to lay claim to rights to land and use of the proximate resources; and Brazilian and other scholars offering a revised view of Indians in the colonial period as the wretched and oppressed victims of European control. Contemporary activists, residents and scholars need to open up the past to grasp its lessons for the future. How may they be assisted by further ‘gifts from the past’ – skills, knowledge, technologies, stories, events – in the Indian, African and peasant experience of the 17th to 19th centuries?  

 PastedGraphic 3 jpg‘Ser índio é ser diferente’, to be indian is to be different. This canoe belongs to a man who lives in the village of Franca at the mouth of the Tapajós river. The phrase refers to the right to hold a separate identity that was established in 1988 Brazilian constitution.

This project develops an historical and anthropological understanding of the Brazilian Amazon that may be of benefit to those striving to build there a fair and sustainable society. The most useful social history, in these terms, mines the creative practices embedded in the Amazonian past. Previous scholarship has documented what was destroyed in the colonisation of the Amazon. Now we should attend to those who survived and their resourceful strategies and selective adaptation of external institutions and the points at which they chose to resist and rebel against the authorities. This research will help go beyond the claim that contemporary Indian revitalisation movements are recent inventions; they are part of a longer history of seeking new prospects and reciprocal relations.

 PastedGraphic 1 jpgIt has been said that the humid conditions of the Amazon have prevented the maintenance of archives there. However, this image shows marriage records between Indians and whites from the city of Santarem in 1766. The page has been stained and damaged by insects, but it is still legible.

This research will significantly progress a growing body of literature that challenges a misperception of the Amazon. It will achieve this by studying the lives of Indians, peasants, and Afro-Brazilians who lived along the main riverways from the establishment of mission and military settlements to the end of the rubber boom (c. 1650-1900). The research is divided into two related subprojects. The first project, concerns a region of intense Amerindian activity in the colonial period (1600-1822) in between the Madeira and Tapajós rivers. It will study the changing composition of native groups and their interaction with colonial agents. The second, places the Amazon and its political history in a wider context. In particular, it will compare Indian, slave and peasant revolts in Latin America from the perspective of the Amazon. The combination of regional/local and long/short time frames will generate an original and enduring set of studies that go beyond the scope of Amazonia. The research will specify the value of human experience there and challenge the notion that the Amazon has little of worth for global historical analysis.

Dr Mark Harris
University of St Andrews

Mark was awarded a Research Project Grant in December 2012.