SHA 2018 Report: New Approaches to the Long Tradition of US-Brazil Comparative Histories: Frontiers, Black Emigration and Slavery, and Print Culture

Niels Eichhorn's picture

The Panel "New Approaches to the Long Tradition of US-Brazil Comparative Histories," sponsored by the Latin American and Caribbean Section at the Southern Historian Association, was a reminder of how important a transnational lens is to the study of the nineteenth century. The conversations about abolition, frontier expansion, and the movement of people were never confined to the limitations of a nation state.

Teresa Cribelli (University of Alabama) started the panel with her paper "Brazilian and U.S. Frontiers of Progress: Powell's Arid Lands and Traveres-Bastos' O Vale do Amazonas." She illustrated the importance of the frontier regions of Brazil and the United States as both countries modernized and sought economic benefits. She used the work by John W. Powell and Aureliano Cândido Tavares-Bastos to argue that the frontier was an important part in the conversation of progress. Where Tavares-Bastos looked to the tropical Amazon region for agricultural exploitation using European immigrant labor, Powell pointed to the dangers of settling and farming the arid parts of the U.S. Southwest. In the end, both men were ignored by their contemporaries, but they point to the essentialness of the frontier in the progress of their country.

The second paper came from Roberto Saba (American Antiquarian Society). In "'The Most Progressive People South of the Equator': American Abolitionists and the Problem of Slavery in Brazil," Saba points to an overlooked conversation of how Abolitionists in the United States misconstrued Brazilian slavery. They perceived an inevitable abolition of slavery in Brazil. As a result, Brazilian slaveholders appeared progressive and offered a counterexample to the reactionary U.S. Southern planter. Promoters of this view used a selective and limited view of Brazilian slavery and told especially New England audiences what they desired to hear.

Isadora Mota (University of Miami) followed with a similarly overlooked subject in "Life in the Diaspora: African Americans, Brazilian Slavery, and the Ban on Black Emigration to Brazil." Mota opened with the story of a freedman from Alabama seeking to settle in Brazil and the government there doing everything in its power to prevent his arrival based on laws prohibiting the settlement of freed slaves. The fear of an improper transition from slavery to freedom and the implication for Brazilian slavery of a large free population of color brought about these bans. Brazilians conceived of their nation-state by excluding African people.

The panel concluded with Celso Thomas Castilho (Vanderbilt University) and his paper "Print Culture, Slavery, and a Gendered Trans-American Public Sphere: Early Brazilian Appropriations of Uncle Tom's Cabin, ca. 1850s." Castilho notes that just like in the U.S. South where the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin brought about a series of defenses, so too did Brazil see its share of counter publications. Despite concerted efforts to prevent the arrival of the book, Uncle Tom's Cabin soon appeared in Rio de Janeiro and in Portuguese. Castilho argues that both pro- and anti-slavery proponents benefitted from the emergence of newspapers and an active public sphere.

The four papers by historians of Brazil are an important reminder of the connections between Brazilian and U.S. slave society and how essential it is for transnational scholarship to not only look to Europe but also South America.