Conscription versus Penal Servitude: Army Reform's Influence on the Brazilian State's Management of Social Control, 1870-1930

By Beattie, Peter M. | Journal of Social History, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Conscription versus Penal Servitude: Army Reform's Influence on the Brazilian State's Management of Social Control, 1870-1930


Beattie, Peter M., Journal of Social History


The Brazilian army's size, its share of national budgets, and its preeminent role in the management of government-legitimated violence made it the primary institutional bridge between the state and the "criminal" underworld in the late 1800s. The State did not fashion the army to perform this function, but it proved convenient given circumstances, precedent, and the government's limited institutional capacities. Police and judicial officials, responding to perceived threats to civic order, summarily (without a trial) remanded thousands of Brazilian-born free men to serve minimum stints of six years in the barracks. Army orphanages inducted hundreds of street children. Authorities confined many civilian convicts, considered too dangerous for peacetime military service, in army-administered prisons, penal colonies, and stockades. Unlike Mexico's Rurales, Brazil did not have a national police force, but army soldiers commonly performed police duties across the country.(1) The army's largely unrecognized centrality to Brazil's criminal justice system meant that reforming its recruitment, training, and function altered important aspects of the State's bureaucratic management of public discipline.

The sequence and depth of institutional reforms constitutes a little explored approach for comparative history. Theda Skocpol and others, for instance, have initiated significant comparative analysis of social welfare programs in mostly North Atlantic nations highlighting (in some instances) the understudied importance of military mobilizations in their development.(2) This article takes a similar point of departure in a different direction by using military mobilization as a lens to analyze the development of public institutions of social control. Patterns in Brazil may indicate differences in the timing and emphasis of State building strategies in other developing nations. The point is that institutional reforms need to be situated more firmly in the context of a web of institutions in State building projects. In tightening and strengthening one institutional thread, the State might unintentionally open new gaps in its organizational web and weaken other strands.

This analysis works from the supposition that the rapid proliferation of European military practices proved the most efficient conduit for the global dissemination of more modem modes of social control. For emerging nationalist States, defense of the "respectable" citizenry from internal and external threats became an important justification for increasing State institutional capacity.(3) Wars, internal insurrections, and crime represented credible threats to the central State's claims to a monopoly on the management of violence. Such claims became justifications for more widely studied global arms races and the less analyzed martial organizational races of the 1800s and 1900s. In the latter case, military conscription and the maintenance of a reserve of trained men capable of rapid mobilization became touchstones of martial modernity. The sweeping adoption of largely Prussian-inspired recruitment methods and service models altered the internal structure and composition of armed forces throughout much of the world and shifted their role in civilian societies.(4) The character, pace, and results of military reforms clearly differed from nation to nation. Some States eschewed them proving that they were not preordained. The legacy of this martial reformation, however, has certainly proven more durable, uniform, and ubiquitous than attempts to emulate or transplant other European institutions.

The impetus to reform the Brazilian army's role began in earnest with the mobilization crisis of the Paraguayan War (1864-1870) discussed in more detail below. By 1874, Parliament approved a limited conscription system to eliminate coercive impressment, but the State, thwarted by popular resistance and bureaucratic intransigence, only succeeded in implementing the law in a modified form in 1916 amid the tense international environment of World War I. …

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