Putting Brazil on the Map
The Scramble for the Amazon and the Lost Paradise of Euclides da Cunha
By Susanna B Hecht (University of Chicago Press 612pp £31.50)
Vast and poorly charted beyond its main waterways, Amazonia remained a mysterious hinterland to metropolitan elites throughout the colonial era. Its immensity seemed to offer untold promise, and in the 18th century it became the repository for a series of grandiose colonisation schemes. In the 1760s, over twelve thousand French farmers, replete with clowns and musicians for entertainment, were resettled in French Guiana, where they had been promised abundant land and fertile soils; ten thousand died soon after arrival from malaria and yellow fever. Other schemes, such as American oceanographer Matthew Maury's suggestion of transplanting freed slaves and cotton plantations from the Deep South to the Amazon, were mercifully never realised.
Beyond these fantasies, something more prosaic, but with far more enduring consequences, was happening. Joining a patchwork of indigenous communities, immigrants from the impoverished northeast, caboclos (mixed-race descendants of natives and Brazilian settlers) and quilombos (runaway slave communities) were already dotting the basin, setting up fishing villages, smallholdings and trading posts. They were linked by the basin's huge network of rivers, tributaries and varadouros - forest trails serving as land bridges between waterways.
The rubber boom, which took off at the end of the 19th century, drew more Brazilians in, as virtual slaves to the super-wealthy barons. At one end of a global supply chain, rubber was providing materials to the high-tech industries of the age - tubing and gaskets for scientific equipment, tyres for bicycles and eventually cars. At the other end was one of the era's most primitive and exploitative forms of labour, consisting of no more than 'a person, a knife, and smoky fire for curing the latex'.
As wealth poured out of the region, negotiations to resolve the set of ill-defined borders between Brazil and its many Amazonian neighbours intensified. By the 1890s, the uncertainties were creating considerable instability: 'The rubber economy was exploding, and there were enormous gold strikes in the Guianas,' writes Susanna Hecht. 'Armies trudged from one swamp to another. The western zones were ruled by the great rubber barons ... Utopias and independent republics were being proclaimed from Acre to Amapá. Entrepreneurs, financiers and speculators swarmed.'
Settlements of border disputes between Brazil and Colombia, Suriname and Venezuela were relatively straightforward, but Brazil fought bitter diplomatic battles with France, Bolivia and especially Peru over ownership of several great tracts of forest. In the process, Brazil gained two huge states: Amapá, to the south of French Guiana, which emerged out of an area known as the território contestado ('contested zone'); and Acre to the west, where, in 1903, Brazil bought 191,000 km² from Bolivia for £2 million. What remained was the 'litigious zone', a huge region stretching from the mouth of the Madeira River to the flanks of the Andes; considerably larger than France, it was accessed by a tributary of the Amazon, the Purus, which meandered thousands of kilometres through largely unexplored forest.
This is the backdrop to Hecht's extraordinary The Scramble for the Amazon and the 'Lost Paradise' of Euclides da Cunha. Hecht's focus is the role of the journalist, engineer and celebrated chronicler of Brazil, Euclides da Cunha, who was drafted in by the diplomat José Paranhos, Baron of Rio Branco, to survey disputed lands up the Purus River. Da Cunha's Os Sertões ('Rebellion in the Backlands'), which covered the Canudos rebellion and its eventual crushing by the Brazilian army, has become a classic, but less well known is the story behind his planned but never executed companion work, Paraíso Perdido ('Paradise Lost'). Hecht has pieced together fragments collected from his survey reports, journalism and posthumously published essays that provide tantalising glimpses into da Cunha's unwritten classic, which emerges as a paean to the region, its geography and its peoples - a kind of New World Lusiads.
Hecht has translated large sections of da Cunha's writing, which recount, in official reports and more candid letters, his year-long journey up the Purus. Poetic and romantic, and with an undertow of pathos, his prose was well suited to the region's epic but forlorn quality. Drawing on contemporary geographical theories that saw landscapes as passing through evolutionary cycles from youth to old age, instability to stasis, he portrayed the Amazon as a restless adolescent, struggling to define itself. He captured the great churn of the landscape as the Amazon made its way towards the Atlantic:
fumbling for some kind of equilibrium, descending and diverging in unstable meanders, contorting in draws and oxbows where isthmuses continually break apart and rebuild themselves ... devastating in one hour what it built over decades like a dissatisfied artist retouching, redoing, and perpetually restarting an obscure painting.
While his purpose was clearly political - to produce a narrative backed by maps that strengthened Brazil's claims - he continued where he left off from Os Sertões, fitting his arguments into a much broader vision of Brazil's destiny, through racial fusion, to form a New World tropical empire. This line was later developed by the writer and sociologist Gilberto Freyre.
For da Cunha the humble 'backwoodsman' who had settled the region was 'the molecule of civilization'; the mestizo rubber tappers were the true 'midwives of the Brazilian Amazon', not the pampered Rio elites. He contrasted the 'nomadic plunder' of the Peruvian incursions with Brazil's attempts to put down roots and adapt to the tropical environment. This argument resonated not just in terms of the history of Brazilian nationhood but in international law: as with its successful negotiations with France and Bolivia, Brazil would ultimately prevail over Peru using the concept of uti possidetis. It was an irony not lost on da Cunha that the very poorest and most exploited had consolidated the claims made by Brazil's diplomatic elite. In the end, hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of territory would be won not through military conquest but through informal settlement.
In the final part of the book Hecht covers the 'gothic melodrama' of da Cunha's private life that led to his violent and tragic death. Da Cunha spent his last years in Rio, racked by fever and respiratory problems from his many bouts of malaria and suffering from the onset of tuberculosis. His marriage to Ana Ribeiro had all but disintegrated, and she was now in a more or less open relationship with her much younger lover, Dilermando de Assis. In August 1909, half-deranged, paranoid and armed with his father's pistol, da Cunha confronted them in Dilermando's house. In the ensuing gun battle both men were shot; Dilermando survived, but da Cunha was fatally wounded by two bullets to the chest.
It is hard to do justice to Susanna Hecht's fascinating account of da Cunha's life, his writings and an extraordinary moment in the history of the Amazon. Perhaps the sheer ambition of the project, which Hecht describes as 'part biography, part social history, part nature writing, part geographic translation', makes it a somewhat unwieldy read. Twenty-page excerpts from da Cunha's field reports, long sections on the rubber economy, involved accounts of previous explorations of the region, as well as more academic musings on the nature of maps and Brazil's emerging identity, are stitched together with little linking commentary. At times it feels as though Hecht is aiming to write a lively historical narrative; at others, a more sober, academic account. That said, this is an exhaustive and highly original book that sheds light on little-known aspects of both da Cunha's life and the region's history.
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
Patrick Wilcken is a researcher on Brazil for Amnesty International and the author of Empire Adrift: The Portuguese Court in Rio de Janeiro 1808-21 (Bloomsbury).