Porter on Miki, 'Frontiers of Citizenship: A Black and Indigenous History of Postcolonial Brazil'

Yuko Miki
Jayson Maurice Porter

Yuko Miki. Frontiers of Citizenship: A Black and Indigenous History of Postcolonial Brazil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xix + 292 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-41750-1

Reviewed by Jayson Maurice Porter (Northwestern University) Published on H-Borderlands (October, 2020) Commissioned by Maria de los Angeles Picone (Boston College)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54368

Frontiers of Citizenship recounts how the experiences of black and indigenous people of the Atlantic forest reconfigured the concepts of race and citizenship in postcolonial Brazil (1822-89). Yuko Miki insists that the violent formation of frontier settlements in this region influenced the ideas and practices of race and nation. Settlers encroached on three interconnected frontiers: those of black quilombos, Botocudo territories, and the forest itself. They intended to establish wage labor until engendering war against Botocudo groups (1808-31), at which point they enslaved indigenous prisoners of war instead. Settlers also captured afrodescendientes but many soon escaped, formed quilombo communities, and increasingly undermined plantations. In this frontier region, settler conflict with both groups broadly shifted practices of exclusion and inclusion. This exclusion and inequality for Miki was “embedded in the very construction of an inclusive nationhood and citizenship,” and, as a result, the “frontier was the very space in which the relationship between race, nation, and citizenship [was] daily tested and defined” (pp. 5, 8).

Slavery is the pivot around which Miki connects black, indigenous, and settler experiences in this period of postcolonial Brazil. The historiography of slavery in Brazil tends to ignore many indigenous experiences in postcolonial Brazil, but Miki tracks Botocudo trials through war, enslavement, and resistance. More than merely highlight a region with indigenous slavery, Miki also demonstrates how the latter affected enslaved black people and quilombolas. Foregrounding slavery helps Miki show the “contingent and surprising ways in which black and indigenous and histories overlapped shaped each other” (p. 12). By focusing on postcolonial laws and settler expansion, Miki shows how legal and spatial paths to citizenship that appear parallel actually separate at critical times and places. Therefore, by taking indigenous slavery seriously, Miki connects two subaltern histories through law, violence, and space-making processes.

Chapter 1 sets the tone through a legal analysis of land seizure, enslavement, and resettlement. Liberals hoped to settle “forbidden lands” with Swiss and German coffee growers, but pacification preceded planting. They imagined settlement could save their new nation from slavery, but the “violence of frontier incorporation” created settlements built by enslaved afrodescendientes on the land of the reenslaved Indians (p. 98). From frontier settlements, such as Colônia Leopoldina and São Mateus, Miki shifts to parliamentary debates to demonstrate how a region touted for settler-grown coffee propagated slavery instead. Formal war (1808-31) against the Botocudo inhabitants of the region operated through laws, which usurped land and reclassified prisoners of war as enslaved citizens. Miki tracks the formation of these laws to show the relationship between enslavement and limited citizenship. Before the war, policymakers only considered aldeia villagers and afrodescendientes as “members of society” (p. 30). As prisoners of war, however, the Botocudo became legal members of Brazilian society. Parliamentary officials believed that such members of society were not fully Brazilian citizens but merely Brazilians (Miki’s emphasis). More membership than citizenship, Miki leaves no question that the status of being merely Brazilian was tied to practices of slavery and settlement in the frontier.

Chapter 2 frames quilombola mobility and space making as resistance to slavery. In the wake of the Botocudo Wars in 1831, quilombo communities became the newest concern for policymakers and settlers in the frontier. Parallel to the indigenous struggle, quilombo revolts began to escalate in the 1820s; as planters imported more enslaved people to their new settlements, more quilombolas freed themselves and expanded into the frontier’s regions of refuge. This became so common that policymakers formed militias to carry out new anti-quilombo laws and expeditions. Building on Edward Said, Flávio dos Santos Gomes, and Stephanie Camp, Miki argues these quilombolas developed insurgent geographies, where “they reimagined their lives as free people within the very geography in which they were intended to remain enslaved” (p. 174).

If geography helps Miki explain quilombola self-emancipation, popular royalism and militias allow her to highlight indigenous social mobility. Both black and indigenous people observed debates over the status of slavery in modern Brazil and extended loyalty to royal figures in exchange for imagined rights or privileges. However, aldeia villagers were the principal source of militias. To be clear, Frontiers of Citizenships is not about solidarity. Guido Pokrane, an indigenous militia leader, best demonstrates how armed service could pit indigenous people against quilombolas. Pokrane spearheaded anti-quilombo expeditions at the behest of the state, and eventually the state granted his son the authority to lead another generation of aldeia assaults on quilombos.

Miki does not suggest that the official status of aldeia villages was secure, much less benign. Shifting focus to the myth of indigenous extinction in Brazil, chapters 3 and 4 show the rise and fall of the aldeia village systems, respectively. In chapter 3, national miscegenation policy promoted the formation of new aldeias, whereas chapter 4 tracks how policymakers endorsed racial logics after the rise of scientific racism to violently reverse Indian policy through matar uma aldeia. The aldeia once represented for many the abolition of indigenous slavery. However, using the Nok Nok massacre in 1881 as an example of matar uma aldeia, Miki posits that practices of abolition were fickle, uneven, and often unforgiving. Miki reiterates this point in regard to afrodescendiente abolition in the final chapter.

Miki marshals an array of historical records to reexamine nation and citizenship, slavery and abolition. However, in chapter 5 Miki foregrounds geography to show how black “insurgent geographies” created senses of belonging independent of citizenship. Miki reminds us that citizenship was just one possible result of black freedom struggle. For quilombolas on the Atlantic frontier, space making influenced nation building, but that was seldom quilombolas’ goal. Like Aisha Finch’s work on enslaved communication networks in nineteenth-century Cuba, Miki incorporates gender analysis in Said’s spatial “rival geographies.” Through local sources on quilombos in São Mateus, Miki describes how quilombola women used knowledge of the frontier to supplant authorities, and, in so doing, provides a welcome contribution to growing scholarship on black geographies.

Given Miki’s emphasis on racial and geographic frontiers, are there sources detailing indigenous forms of insurgent geographies? While Miki reserves most of the discussion on geography to quilombolas, would a similar analysis offer a better explanation of the Botocudo wars from the indigenous perspective? Like quilombolas, how did Indians use the forest or local knowledge to repel settler expansion and escape reenslavement?

Would an ecological analysis of the Atlantic frontier help illuminate how both black and indigenous peoples made new spaces of political possibilities? Miki asserts that “Botocudo” was an actors’ category used to reference several indigenous groups in the area, but is less clear about the Atlantic frontier consisting of many ecosystems (pp. 17, 79). Miki suggests that nineteenth-century Brazil had many frontiers wherein nation and citizenship were made and remade, but does it matter that there were also many frontiers within this Atlantic frontier? For instance, three types of subtropical forests share the region where the three states of Minas Gerais, Bahia, and Espiritu Santo meet the Atlantic Ocean: wet, moist, and dry forests. Located just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, these coastal forests flickered between tropical and savanna patterns. Even though planters located coffee plantations in moist forests, they displaced Botocudos from the Aimoré’s predominately dry forests. Did Botocudo geographic and botanical knowledge extend evenly across these forests? Did knowledge of dry forest ecologies help indigenous people form their own insurgent geographies? Were Botocudos relocated to wetter forests more susceptible to smallpox in the 1830s?

In any case, Miki offers a convincing study of frontier settlement in postcolonial Brazil that demonstrates how the connected histories of black and indigenous exclusion inform the study of nation and citizenship in Brazil. Frontiers of Citizenship will be well received by scholars of race, borderlands, and nation building, and, in turn, serve as a model study for an emerging generation of scholars investigating race, geography, and identity formation in borderlands.

Citation: Jayson Maurice Porter. Review of Miki, Yuko, Frontiers of Citizenship: A Black and Indigenous History of Postcolonial Brazil. H-Borderlands, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54368

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