Hanley on Kraay and Castilho and Cribelli, 'Press, Power, and Culture in Imperial Brazil'

Hendrik Kraay, Celso Thomas Castilho, Teresa Cribelli, eds.
Anne Hanley

Hendrik Kraay, Celso Thomas Castilho, Teresa Cribelli, eds. Press, Power, and Culture in Imperial Brazil. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2021. 320 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8263-6227-8

Reviewed by Anne Hanley (Northern Illinois University) Published on H-LatAm (September, 2021) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56577

The first printing press arrived in Brazil in 1808, accompanying the Portuguese royal court fleeing from the advance of Napoleonic troops. From this event, precursor to Brazil’s independence in 1822, to the end of the empire in 1889, by when state institutions and norms of discourse were established, the press was prolific. A variety of formats including dispatches, debates, satire, fiction, paid articles, and advertising made the press a powerful force in shaping the newly independent nation-state. So argue the essays in this excellent edited collection. Print media circulated among the literate and illiterate alike in the capital city’s streets and throughout the interior provinces. As the volume convincingly demonstrates, “reading” the paper did not require literacy, so journals served audiences from elite political partisans and wealthy urban and rural businesses to middling and poor immigrant groups, workers, people of color, and women. This volume, which brings together Brazilian and US researchers at various stages of their careers, from newly minted PhDs to senior scholars, makes a powerful argument that print culture, from the early partisan broadsides through the advent of “new journalism” in the 1870s, reflected, curated, amplified, and shaped the public sphere. Reaching well beyond the capital city and center of political power (Rio de Janeiro) and the eyes of the political, economic, and social elite, print culture touched every social class and interest group in this vast, continental-sized nation.

The collection was born out of American Historical Association conference panels in January 2018 organized to discuss the treasure trove of print media now available through the Hemeroteca Digital Brasileira, Brazil’s open-access digital newspaper archive. Edited by three fine Brazilian historians, its eleven essays serve two distinct purposes. The first is to tell the history of print culture and what it reveals about nineteenth-century Brazilian society. Rodrigo Camargo de Godoi documents the involvement of enslaved workers in print houses that produced the papers, the use by the Casa de Correção (jail) of imprisoned enslaved laborers in the bookbinding trade, and how these contributed to slave literacy and revolt. Arnaldo Lucas Pires Junior analyzes how satirical magazines, which relied on images as much as words, created a vibrant forum for social and political criticism. Essays by Marcello Basile and Alain El Youssef study how the ideas that circulated in the press, often behind the cover of anonymity, influenced and were influenced by political debates and public policies, including those related to critical issue of slavery and the slave trade. For José Juan Pérez Meléndez, who writes about immigrant promotion policies, newspapers’ promotion of immigration programs acted as a conduit for human trafficking to and within Brazil. Foreign agricultural techniques and economic philosophies were also disseminated in the Brazilian press: Roberto Saba tells the story of a Brazilian editor working in the United States who used his platform to promote American agricultural techniques and educate the planter class about American-style capitalist development.

The second purpose of this volume is to shine a light on the uses and usefulness of print media in historical research. Here, this collection renders newspapers “legible” as historical sources. Teresa Cribelli’s essay on apedidos (paid announcements), Hendrik Kraay’s essay on correspondência (letters bearing news from interior provinces), and Ludmila de Souza Maia’s essay on crônicas (literary works that combined fiction and news to discuss current events) teach us the role played by each section of a newspaper and what it can tell us about daily life, the interests of intended audiences, how public and private spheres viewed one another, and how reputations might be shaped or destroyed. Essays by Godoi (above) and Matthew Nestler and Zephyr Frank show how historians can use advertisements printed in these papers to find evidence for difficult-to-document concepts, like literacy among the enslaved and free poor or the emergence and development of markets.

The volume closes with an essay by Celso Castilho, an analysis of a Black newspaper that used a “gallery of notables” format to highlight prominent men of color. The idea was to challenge the notion that White prominence was color-blind, a mere product of hard work. This pointed confrontation of racism by the Black press provoked a “blame the messenger” reaction from the White. The White press accused the editor of the Black newspaper of creating a problem where there was none: Brazil was not a racist society; the Black paper was creating racism by sparking “disunity and hate” (p. 249). Written well before recent events of 2020 and 2021, including the murder of George Floyd, the Blacks Live Matter protests, the glaring racial inequities exposed by Covid-19, and the current assault on teaching racism and its legacy in US schools, Castilho’s chapter is chillingly contemporary in tone.

This collection is outstanding. Its highly engaging essays bring a rich history to life that challenges the dominant story of an insular elite capital city and an uninformed, disengaged povo. The volume shows that newspapers circulated nationally and were vigorous and prolific, even if most were short-lived (journalism then as now was a tough business). These essays show substantial intellectual engagement across social, racial, and economic groups throughout the country as literacy filtered, even if indirectly, through every level of socioeconomic status and color. (That is, as long as the reader was male; female literacy for both enslaved and free was far below male literacy.) Beyond the historiographical contributions, these essays offer really good practical instruction in how to use print culture in historical analysis.

A gentle critique, a quibble, and an extension. The critique: the essays argue that every political group had its own paper and that very few papers were impartial, and they argue that the political press shaped hearts and minds. If every group had its own press, didn’t these papers preach to their own choirs à la Fox News vs. MSNBC? Nothing in these essays convinced me that minds were changed, although the longest-lived journal, the highly reputable Jornal do Commercio, routinely offered equal space to both ends of the political spectrum. The quibble: the book presumes familiarity with nineteenth-century Brazilian history. A reader without this knowledge will need a companion text to grasp the full story and take advantage of the possibilities for comparative research. Finally, the extension: a recently defended doctoral dissertation on the nineteenth-century Brazilian postal service found that the government was committed to the circulation of a free press, regardless of its political affiliation, and sustained this commitment through deeply discounted postal rates for newspapers and journals to ship throughout the country.[1] This work reinforces more concretely the point made by several authors that press freedom and engaged discourse were prized (even if shipments of partisan papers sometimes went missing) and that the news indeed circulated beyond the capital city.

The collection offers an injection of real energy into nineteenth-century historiography that reveals a nation of engaged citizens with vocal opinions, like Brazil today; this was and continues to be a population that craves and consumes and incorporates news and debates into their daily lives.


[1]. Pérola Maria Goldfeder Borges de Castro, “‘Em Torno do Trono’: A economia política das comunicações postais no Brasil do século XIX” (PhD diss., Universidade de São Paulo, 2021).

Citation: Anne Hanley. Review of Kraay, Hendrik; Castilho, Celso Thomas; Cribelli, Teresa, eds., Press, Power, and Culture in Imperial Brazil. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. September, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56577

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.