Ebert on Alencastro, 'The Trade in the Living: The Formation of Brazil in the South Atlantic, Sixteenth to Seventeenth Centuries'

Luiz Felipe de Alencastro
Christopher Ebert

Luiz Felipe de Alencastro. The Trade in the Living: The Formation of Brazil in the South Atlantic, Sixteenth to Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by Gavin Adams and Luiz Felipe de Alencastro. Revised by Michael Wolfers and Dale Tomich. Albany: SUNY Press, 2018. 642 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-6929-4

Reviewed by Christopher Ebert (Brooklyn College/City University of New York) Published on H-LatAm (April, 2020) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54077

Published in 2000, Luiz Felipe de Alencastro’s work O trato dos viventes: Formacção do Brasil no Atlantico Sul quickly achieved the status of a classic of Brazilian historiography. Now it appears in a new edition in English via SUNY Binghamton’s Fernand Braudel Center, a highly appropriate project for a work that fits securely in the Annales school. Indeed, the work derives from a 1986 dissertation written under the guidance of Frédéric Mauro, one of Braudel’s students. The new edition has the twin virtues of allowing the author and his collaborators to incorporate much new relevant scholarship, which they do comprehensively, as well as bringing the work to a wider readership. That said, the second edition follows closely on the first; Alencastro has not revised the structure of the work nor modified his conclusions. Dominant amongst the latter is a demonstration of the deep structural integration of various parts of colonial Brazil with West and West-Central Africa and its manifestation in predominately bilateral trade relationships in the South Atlantic, anchored in the Atlantic slave trade. Since 2000, this topic has been taken up by historians writing in various languages, but Alencastro’s work remains, in its scholarship, detail, and argumentative rigor, the benchmark for an integrated sixteenth- and seventeenth-century South Atlantic history. The relevance of the work twenty years on is indisputable.

In the initial two chapters, Alencastro describes the conditions, chiefly structural, that conditioned Portuguese colonial expansion in the South Atlantic. Portuguese trade on the African Atlantic littoral occurred early and was sustained. Acclimatized and acculturated go-betweens helped to redirect African trade towards the Atlantic coast, where Crown and church officials vied with merchants to establish spheres of influence in coastal enclaves usually situated at the mouths of the major African rivers. Additionally, the Crown claimed the uninhabited African archipelagos of Cabo Verde and São Tomé, establishing way stations that supported ongoing trade with Africa as well as, eventually, shipping to the Indian Ocean. From the beginning enslaved Africans formed a central part of Portuguese African trade, although other products loomed large, including African gold purchased in the Bight of Benin. As Alencastro points out, the Catholic Church, from the mid-fifteenth century on, sanctioned Portuguese slaving activities, rationalizing that, given the near impossibility of proselytizing in the African interior, bringing Africans out of the continent via the slave trade would facilitate their salvation.

The chief beneficiary of African trade in its first 150 years was Lisbon. Both merchants and Crown reaped profit from this and the burgeoning Asia trade; in the same period the Crown gradually tightened control over far-flung settlements and worked to limit the participation of non-Portuguese subjects in new areas of economic exchange. Lisbon became a lynchpin in the early slave trade; the city received many African inhabitants, and shipping from Lisbon carried—among other things—guns and horses to the African coast, which when sold to African traders became the means of enslaving new populations of Africans in interior villages. During the same period, Portuguese global expansion entered a new phase which involved settlement colonies and sugar plantation development. Pioneered in Madeira and São Tomé, sugar plantations were well established in various parts of the coast of Brazil by the second half of the sixteenth century. Alencastro offers detailed descriptions of the epidemiological and geographic conditions that caused sugar plantation agriculture to operate almost exclusively on enslaved Africans as it intensified in Brazil. Native mortality in the face of new pathogens made indigenous slavery on the Brazilian coast very difficult to reproduce, while both the Crown and religious orders were usually hostile to the idea of enslaving indigenous populations. At the same time, the prevailing currents and trade winds in the South Atlantic united various parts of Africa and the Brazilian coast; travel from Rio de Janeiro to Luanda was less risky and costly than traveling from Rio into the Brazilian interior highlands.

These structural conditions enabled a major transformation in Brazilian production and global trade in general, one which occurred during a period of war and political transformation in Europe. Portugal’s union with the Spanish Crown in 1580 spawned both challenges and opportunities for the kingdom. On the one hand, Portugal inherited Spain’s enemies, a situation that unfolded with calamitous effects during the Thirty Years’ War, culminating with Dutch invasions and occupations of Portuguese enclaves and territories in Asia, Africa, and America. But one of the more immediate results was to give a tremendous boost to Portuguese merchant capital. The fifty years commencing with the union of the Iberian Crowns witnessed Portuguese merchants penetrating deeply into the Spanish American empire. They especially sought the silver that had, by then, begun to pour out of Potosi. There were many manifestations of this movement, but Alencastro focuses in detail on the Portuguese assiento contract with the Spanish Crown, which granted Portuguese merchants the exclusive right to supply enslaved Africans to Spanish American colonies. At the same time, a second, illegal supply line developed in the Rio de la Plata, where Africans were sold for Peruvian silver smuggled through Buenos Aires. Key in this activity were merchants and planters in Rio de Janeiro, otherwise a relatively small-scale plantation zone, and above all Salvador Correa de Sá e Benevides and his family, major historical actors in this period and in this account.

The epoch, then, led to an intensification of the Atlantic slave trade with enormous consequences for all the rest of its history. Central to Alencastro’s analysis is Angola, a place closely tied to Brazil, and especially Rio de Janeiro. As merchant capital moved to Angola, some of it now displaced from Portuguese Asian investments, Luanda became more than just a Portuguese trading outpost, and more akin to a territorial colony. European settlement there was still hindered by a hostile disease environment, but Portuguese dominance was asserted by different colonial groups—often in conflict with each other—well into the interior, and chieftains there were pressed hard to produce enslaved people for sale on the coast. While many Angolans ended up in the viceroyalties of Peru and New Spain, the Africanization of the Brazilian coast was also intensified, as indigenous slavery on Brazilian sugar plantations had faded away by the early decades of the sixteenth century. A reciprocal Brazilianization occurred in Angola and elsewhere, especially with the adoption of Brazilian foodstuffs such as manioc, the cultivation of which often only helped to support further intensification of the slave trade.

War with the Dutch after 1621 threatened Portuguese control over Brazil, but eventually cemented Brazil’s and Angola’s status as the kingdom’s most important colonies. When the Dutch West India Company (WIC) conquered and occupied Pernambuco in 1630, it too learned that without Africa there was no Brazil, and in 1641 the WIC attacked and occupied Portuguese settlements in Africa. Thus, after about two centuries, the Dutch Republic became the first serious rival to Portugal in the Atlantic slave trade. Dutch attempts to supply their new Brazilian colonies with enslaved Africans eventually foundered, although they remained significant players in the trade subsequently. Alencastro describes in detail the complicated military and diplomatic events that led to the Portuguese and Brazilian restorations, and he masterfully traces the new European geopolitical order that emerged after the treaties finalizing Portuguese independence in the 1660s. The story is highly complex, but he emphasizes the incredible agency of Brazilian creoles, or Brasilicos, as he terms them, in larger geopolitical events. It fell to Rio de Janeiro to spearhead efforts to win back Angola for Portugal, and Brasilico troops seasoned in the Dutch Brazilian wars worked to maneuver trade routes throughout West-Central Africa to their advantage. These initiatives aimed to ensure a robust supply of enslaved Africans to Brazil’s plantations. Subsequently, in the second half of the seventeenth century, the commercial circuits that fostered the trade in enslaved Africans frequently bypassed Lisbon completely; Brazilian tobacco and cane liquor anchored a bilateral trade.

There is much more in this richly detailed book. Alencastro describes shifting policies towards indigenous Brazilians, alternately hunted by slavers, settled in agricultural communities intended to act as bulwarks against Africans fleeing slavery, or simply targeted for extermination in interior areas that were being opened to cattle ranching. He also spends considerable time discussing the critical role of Jesuits in establishing and maintaining an economic system based on African slavery. Dissenting voices in the order were ruthlessly silenced, and major religious and political figures, such as Padre António Vieira, emerge in Alencastro’s analysis as forceful apologists for and abettors of a brutal order. Although the work focuses on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century events, he points towards significance for later centuries. Still, while arguing for Brasilico agency in the South Atlantic complex, he does not always give due attention to areas where the metropolitan center more dominantly asserted its interests. For example, the often despised fleet system, the Brazil Company, that monopolized shipping between Lisbon and the principal Brazilian port cities, receives cursory attention. Nor does he delve into the reexport markets of tropical commodities, circuits of trade that move Brazil beyond the bilateral paradigm. That said, his arguments about the powerful economic and social integration of West and West-Central Africa and Brazil do indicate “Brazil’s singularity,” the title of his conclusion.

Trade in the Living integrates a convoluted political history and a far-flung geographic area, and it makes a case for a separate South Atlantic history following different patterns than those assumed for early modern Atlantic history more generally. Alencastro draws from primarily Portuguese-language archives and especially from written accounts contemporary to his period of analysis. I have seen no other work that so comprehensively uses these published sources, often incredibly rich. Surviving archival records for the Portuguese empire do not too securely support attempts at quantification, but Alencastro has drawn on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Data Base in this edition. His informational footnotes often serve as essays of more recent historiography. The audience for this work was his to choose, but, somewhat regretfully, he speaks mostly to other specialists. Presumptions of previous knowledge and awareness of technical terms will make this book inadvisable as assigned reading in undergraduate history classrooms. Given its detail and complexity, the lack of a subject index is a tremendous pity. Those unfamiliar with early modern global politics and society will find this a challenging read, but those prepared to take the time and effort will be rewarded.

Citation: Christopher Ebert. Review of Alencastro, Luiz Felipe de, The Trade in the Living: The Formation of Brazil in the South Atlantic, Sixteenth to Seventeenth Centuries. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54077

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