Leal on De la Torre, 'The People of the River: Nature and Identity in Black Amazonia, 1835-1945'

Oscar De la Torre
Claudia Leal

Oscar De la Torre. The People of the River: Nature and Identity in Black Amazonia, 1835-1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 242 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-4324-3.

Reviewed by Claudia Leal (Universidad de los Andes) Published on H-LatAm (October, 2019) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53867

Oscar de la Torre’s account of how slaves, maroons, and their heirs became peasants in the forested environment of the lower Amazon contributes to a more complete understanding of slavery and postemancipation trajectories in Brazil and the Americas, and to a more comprehensive Amazonian history. That the largest territorios quilombolas—territories titled to black rural communities after the 1988 Brazilian constitution—are located in the states of Pará and Maranhão attests to the importance of slavery and blackness in a region associated with indigenous peoples and caboclos, dwellers of mixed ancestry. Anyone interested in the topics discussed in The People of the River will enjoy reading its pleasant prose and learn from the many insights contained in just 145 pages (not counting the notes).

De la Torre constructed this history using varied sources such as a wide array of materials from the regional archives, travelers’ accounts, and, very importantly, interviews. He mentions specific families and individuals, bringing to life the history of black Amazonians. The book reproduces engravings and photographs that add flavor to this rich account; page 105, for instance, nicely pairs an image of roasting farinha (manioc flour) in the 1870s with a similar picture taken by the author in 2009. The book also has two useful maps, but it could have included a few more to locate some of the places he refers to and, more importantly, to better situate the physical and historical place of the communities he studies within black Amazonia and Amazonia in general.

The book begins (in chapter 1) by stressing the importance of Amazonia’s plantation economy, centered on cacao and then sugar cane, and thus of slaves, whose forced arrival peaked between 1800 and 1810. De la Torre explains that plantations remained a key sector of the regional economy after the well-known Cabanagem revolt (1835-40), probably even leading the region's recovery. In the late 1860s, when rubber extraction took the lead, plantations, which were for the most part located in non-rubber producing areas, survived by supplying food to the expanding local market.

The changes brought about by the increase in rubber exports gave opportunities (as explained in chapter 3) for slaves to strengthen what De la Torre calls “parallel economies,” that is, the productive activities—small-scale agriculture and forest extraction—that connected enslaved peoples to Amazonia’s expanding commercial networks. Crucial to slaves’ participation in these networks were regatões, itinerant merchants who cruised Amazonian waterways enabling slaves to buy and sell commodities. De la Torre favors the term “parallel,” which underscores how slaves could escape the masters’ acquiescence to join a world that exceeded plantations, rather than using a more common expression—“internal economies”—which stresses the role slaves’ independent economic activities played in the functioning of slave regimes. During the 1870s and 80s, some slaves increased their autonomy by other means: managing plantations when the masters moved to the increasingly attractive cities, or working as carpenters, blacksmiths, or artisans of other trades.

Some enslaved people sought autonomy by escaping and forming mocambos, the term for maroon communities used in Amazonia (as opposed to quilombos, the most common expression used in Brazil). De la Torre focuses (in chapter 2) on the maroons from the Trombetas River, and—in what is perhaps my favorite part of the book—weaves their struggles with their story of the big snake. This monster, who lived at the waterfall above which the maroons established themselves, managed to eat some of them, but was eventually killed by her brother. She symbolizes the great natural obstacle that was the waterfall, as much as the recurrent attacks on the mocambeiros by the slaveholding elites. Her demise alludes to the end of slavery (1888) that allowed them to slowly move downriver, below the waterfall, and diversify their economy. This cultural approach allows De la Torre to account for the role of nature in the quest for freedom and autonomy, as well as to connect the mocambeiros to other geographic and symbolic worlds. In West and West-Central Africa, where most of these enslaved people originated, snakes figured prominently in the popular imagination, even through very similar stories. These reptiles were likewise a part of the cultural world of neighboring indigenous peoples.

In the Trombetas, increased freedom of mobility, and the economic diversification that came when reenslavement ceased to be a threat, were undermined by the loss of control of local environments (as recounted in chapter 4). The extractive economy centered on rubber also brought attention to Brazil nuts, which are produced by trees that grow in clusters called castanhais. After the rubber boom’s end, Brazil nuts became an alternative to rubber, leading in the 1920s to the privatization of many castanhais. In this manner, former mocambeiros, whose cash economy depended on the collection of nuts from January through May, were forced to sell this forest product to the merchant who had obtained the rights to whatever grove they worked in. Having a monopoly, the merchant could set the prices of both the nuts and the products the former mocambeiros needed. For these reasons, this period is remembered as one of oppression and loss of autonomy. Although these black peasants managed to keep some smaller groves outside of the control of merchants and sometimes sold the nuts to other buyers, commercial house owners clearly had the upper hand.

As with other rural Amazonians, former mocambeiros thought that the privatization of extractive products, which were customarily public goods, was “illegitimate, unfair, and abusive” (p. 86). For this reason (as chapter 6 explains), in 1921, the “blacks of Pacoval,” a hamlet in the Curuá River, mobilized to request that the castanhais that they used remain theirs. Such demand sought to protect traditional commercial networks, which—unlike what happened in the Trombetas River—gave black people some measure of security. The government sent a high-profile envoy, João de Palma Muniz, who followed a common belief among regional elites that the existence of public goods led to reckless exploitation, and thus supported privatization. A radical but short-lived change came about when president Getúlio Vargas, after seizing power in 1930, appointed a populist interventor (to replace the governor). He revoked Brazil nut concessions covering nine million hectares, but they were reinstated after he left office.

As we learn in chapter 5 through the example of the Santo Antonio da Campina ranch, the descendants of enslaved plantation workers fought to retain land rights rather than access to valuable forest products. After the end of slavery, these black peasants continued living on marginal lands within plantation properties; they did not pay rent and worked for a daily wage. They supplemented their livelihood with their own agricultural production (mainly manioc) and their labor in forests and mangroves, with which they procured açai berries, fish, game, and other wild products. De la Torre explains how, when a plantation owner or an overseer changed, black peasants defended their right to live without paying rent in the place where they were born and raised. They followed the idea, entrenched in custom and with legal standing, that occupation implied rights, including property; they traveled when their cause required them to do so and, despite being illiterate, requested written proof of oral agreements.

These descendants of the senzalas (slave quarters) were successful in their fights for land that allowed them to be “smallholding free cultivators,” which is De la Torre’s definition of peasantry (p. 9). However, the other black peasants he focuses on fought for something different: free access to castanhais. Their public political engagement was unrelated to securing or cultivating land; it hinged upon their use of the broader Amazonian environment. Even in the former case, we could argue, there was a similar underlying demand that exceeded land and crops, for residence within plantation limits gave access to wild sources of food and other resources. Therefore, the black peasants of Amazonia were not just farmers; they were extractors of natural resources, and for that reason it could be worth reconsidering the definition and meaning of peasantry in this rainforest environment.

De la Torre does intend to give the environment and the relationship to it a relevant place in his book, as this provocative assertion indicates: “Mastery over local environments was more rewarding in Amazonia than in other Brazilian regions” (p. 6). He addresses such mastery through the idea of “environmental creolization,” defined as “the process of acquaintance with the opportunities and constraints of local environments” (p. 7). However, the sources apparently do not provide enough evidence to fully develop a claim that seems to be correct.

Besides more convincing information about blacks’ knowledge and management of the environment, I missed a more thorough argument around De la Torre’s contention that black peasants’ demands did not only seek economic survival but constituted a claim to citizenship. Once again, the idea seems appropriate, but an analysis of the two different kinds of struggles Amazonian blacks engaged in merited expanding the discussions on citizenship, the law, and the meaning of written words. A more complete argument would firmly cement the author’s claims, illuminate the significance and limitations of blacks’ political activity, and allow us to better understand the building of Brazil as an unequal political community.

Although it ends before the mid-twentieth century, The People of the River goes a long way in explaining the significance of the recent titling of territorios quilombolas and convinces the reader that Amazonian blacks were relevant historical and political actors in that immense rainforest that is today under threat. Unearthing this history contributes to cement black people’s rights and visualizing the diverse experiences that make up Afro-America, Brazil, and Latin American forests.






Citation: Claudia Leal. Review of De la Torre, Oscar, The People of the River: Nature and Identity in Black Amazonia, 1835-1945. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53867

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