J. M. Monteiro: Blacks of the Land

Blacks of the Land. Indian Slavery, Settler Society, and the Portuguese Colonial Enterprise in South America

Monteiro, John M.
$ 29.99
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ana Moledo, Universität Leipzig

The history of slavery in the Americas is unarguably tied to triangular histories of transatlantic slave trade that connected the exploration of the continent with the fate of millions of Africans. However, before the consolidation of these transoceanic channels of forced migration, the colonists drew upon closer sources of labour supply for the early colonial productive system. Trade and bondage of American native labour initiated right after the encounter of the first Spanish expeditions with indigenous populations of the Caribbean (1490s). Examples such as the brutal exploitation of Amerindians for silver mining in the Bolivian ‘Rich Mountain’ of Potosí or the Mexican Zacatecas in the mid 16th century have been not only the object of academic research but also more popular literature already in the 1970s.[1] Yet, Indian slavery was not exclusive to the Spanish colonial enterprise as competing imperial powers in the region, the Portuguese or the Dutch profited from this regime too. However, as the late historian John Monteiro claims in this book, national histories of heroic hinterland expeditions and entrepreneurial colonial settlement have long overshadowed narratives of massive violence and subjugation of indigenous populations. These lesser known episodes of Indian recruitment and its insertion through coerced labour in the commercial agriculture of southeastern Brazil are the backbone of a volume that restores the vital role that Indians played in the construction and development of early colonial society.

The work is the translation and adaptation of Monteiro’s pioneering study Negros da Terra (1994) by James Woodward and Barbara Weinstein, two US American historians that elaborated an up to date edition of this Brazilian academic bestseller for Anglophone specialist and student audiences.[2] Monteiro was not a complete outsider to US academy though, his research on Indian labour initiated during his doctoral years at the University of Chicago and he had contributed to paramount English language publications in the field such as “The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas” (1999) or the “Cambridge Economic History of Latin America” (2006). Yet, his career developed mainly at the University of Campinas (Brazil) and carried the strong influences of Brazilian ethnohistory, an academic field in its own that best accommodated Monteiro’s interdisciplinary interests. This trajectory is reflected in the structure and narrative of Blacks of the Land, “a transitional work” (p. xvii) which combines social history with a strong anthropological approach to analyse the experience of Indian slavery in shaping the social and economic development of colonialism in the Brazilian region of São Paulo.

For recounting the history of the Paulista economy and society between the 16th and early 18th centuries, Monteiro relied on a vast range of primary sources from Brazilian, Italian and Portuguese archives such as chronicles of Jesuit missionaries, municipal inventories and tax rolls as well as letters and wills of slaveholders. Despite the difficulties to retrieve subaltern voices in colonial and religious documents, this combination of multiple accounts enabled him to follow and reconstitute traces of indigenous trajectories from their abduction in the hinterlands to mission villages and agricultural estates where they engaged with colonial agents and contributed to shape a particular regime of personal service. Through seven chapters, Monteiro weaved a narrative rich in details about the colonial administrative structures and intricacies of Luso-indigenous relations. The complex cluster of terminology and toponymy that resulted from such an investigative work is cleverly contextualized in the foreword, chronology and glossary sections of this edition.

The first two chapters are devoted to the description of colonists’ slaving excursions into the Brazilian hinterlands in the 16th and 17th century respectively. The author depicts the different groups of actors involved in the creation of settlements (Jesuits, colonists, backwoodsmen, etc.) and their initial ambivalent relations vis-à-vis native populations, which led to the consolidation of a slaving enterprise that “assumed new qualitative and quantitative dimensions” (p. 49) in the 1600s. This chapter engages with the myth created around the_bandeirantes_ (backwoodsmen), a figure that has received a prominent treatment in traditional regional historiography, which claims that large expeditions into the backlands responded first, to territorial and defensive objectives, and second to the demand of slaves in the sugar plantations of the Brazilian northeast. Monteiro rebuts this well-established interpretation arguing that bandeirantes’ forays were first and foremost a strategy to acquire slaves for the embryonic local economy. Thus, although the Portuguese Crown had restricted the means of acquiring Indians in 1570 to “just wars duly authorized by the King or governors and the ransom of captive who would otherwise perish in anthropophagous rituals” (p. 27), the vague terms of this statute allowed the expansion of slave hunting and thus of slaveholdings in the plateau of São Paulo. A strong point of both chapters is the analysis of the relations between foreigners and different Indian ethnicities, which succeeds in overcoming the perceptions of passivity or victimization traditionally ascribed to indigenous groups and shows to what extent Indians acted as intermediaries, shaping barters and alliances, resisting or striving to maintain pre-colonial labour structures within the emerging slave society.

In the third chapter the author “uncovers the essential link between the so-called bandeirantismo and the agrarian evolution of the plateau” (p. 92) shedding light on the activities or sectors in which the native labour force was deployed, which provides further evidence that the development of productive sectors in the region of São Paulo was the main destination of the slaves. The increasing number of captive Indians allowed for the expansion of agricultural practices and, above all, the establishment of agricultural commercial links with more developed markets of coastal Brazil. The orientation of the region towards the production of wheat for intracolonial trade was only possible due to the easy access to Indian labour. As the author shows, Indians participated in the cultivation, harvest and crop transport the coast, and acted as well as translators or guides in further enslaving expeditions that guarantee the continuous supply of manpower. This reliance on a full cycle of Indian slavery stimulated also the territorial expansion and the consolidation of a series of institutions for the “creation, protection and transmission of property rights […] as well as rights of control over and ownership of the Indian labour force” (p. 101). This commodification of native manpower as well as the ideological, legal and moral complex that sustained this regime of economic exploitation are the main subjects of chapters four and five. Appeals to a higher civilizing mission and paternalist approaches served to legitimize Indian forced labour and consolidated practices such as the use of slaves as collaterals in loans or as part of dowries, procedures that acquired juridical value as customs of the land. Such methods were presented as a way to bypass the strong restrictions that royal instances imposed on Indian slavery. According to the author, “the Paulistas had to go to much greater lengths than their Bahian and Pernambucan counterparts [which turned largely to African slavery] in attempting to rationalize and justify their dominion over their captives” (p. 124). Monteiro takes for granted a natural inclination of the Portuguese Crown to preserve Indians from slavery while Africans were supposed to be treated as human chattel without exception. Assuming that such a division existed, inevitably raises the question of why the Paulista slaveholders/landowners did bother with hinterland raids, abduction and submission of Indians when they might have resorted to the less bureaucratic Atlantic slave circuit as did their counterparts in the coastal plantations. Partial answers are found through the book and revolve around the issue of proximity of native populations to the colonial estates and independence from the transoceanic trade. These seem nevertheless insufficient and do not make for the lack of comparison between the structures of the Indian slave system in the plateau of São Paulo and other regions of Brazil, which ultimately conformed a more or less integrated intracolonial scheme as the author recognizes (p. 93).

The sixth chapter is one of the densest in terms of economic data and statistical evidence, which focuses on the structure of rural neighbourhoods and the roots of rural poverty. Here Monteiro drew upon the analysis of tax rolls from the mid 17th century to challenge again certain assumptions about the Paulista society of the time, which was not as egalitarian as portrayed by regional historiography. Wealth concentrated around a handful of families that maintained their hegemony through territorial expansion and the possession of captive labour and that “constantly shifted resources to newer, more productive areas” (p. 190), a way round soil exhaustion and demographic growth. The examples about strategies of family consolidation and wealth concentration among powerful families through marriages and the respective dowries served as good supplement to the data analysis. Illustrations or episodes are also an integral part of the concluding chapter on the disappearance of Indian slavery from the plateau. The 1690s mining boom in the northern part of the region caused a relocation of Indian slaves while others incorporated into the free society through conditional manumission or litigation. The different paths to freedom are presented in a pretty condensed way that leaves the reader with some questions regarding the position of Indians as (active) litigants (p. 209) in the face of a system that had been designed to deny their status as free people for over a century.

“It was in Brazil that Indian slavery developed furthest and lasted longest” (p. viii), yet its history has developed under the shadow of well-established accounts on African slavery in sugar-producing regions of the northeast integrated in the Atlantic slave economy. This careful translation and adaptation of one of the first academic works on the history of Indian slavery in Brazil, and the Americas more broadly, is an expedient contribution to a booming field. Specialists and students of slavery studies will certainly benefit from Monteiro’s interdisciplinary approach and exhaustive analysis. Non-specialists interested in histories of colonial encounters and colonial labour systems will profit as well from this thorough edition.

[1] See for instance: Darcy Ribeiro, As Américas e a civilização. Processo de formação e causas do desenvolvimento desigual dos povos americanos, Rio de Janeiro 1970; Eduardo Galeano, Las venas abiertas de América Latina, México 1971.
[2] Almost 25 years separate both editions and the editors made the effort to represent the transformations in Monteiro’s authorial voice in the 1990s and 2000s and to mirror changes in terminology used by experts on native people’s studies in the Anglo-American academy.

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