Family and Frontier in Colonial Brazil: Santana De Parnaíba 1580-1822

By Retsö, Dag | Ibero-americana, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Family and Frontier in Colonial Brazil: Santana De Parnaíba 1580-1822


Retsö, Dag, Ibero-americana


Alida C. Metcalf, Family and Frontier in Colonial Brazil: Santana de Parnaíba 1580-1822, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2nd ed, 2005.

The most interesting questions are often the simplest ones. In the case of Brazil, one such simple question concerns geographical space; how can abundant land resources so persistently co-exist with social inequality? To put the paradox simply; why are there fights over land in one of the world's largest countries, just as if land was scarce? The paradox has not vanished over time, it is not historical. Indeed, as Brazil became increasingly urbanized in the course of the 20th century the number of people claiming land has declined, potentially cooling down, it would seem, the issue of land reform and rendering it at the same time less necessary and more achievable. But on the contrary, as exposed in recent years by the struggle of the landless peasants' movement MST (Movimento dos trabalhadores rurais sem terra), it has even moved into a more intense mode than ever.

In her book Family and Frontier in Colonial Brazil: Santana de Parnaiba 1580-1822 Alida C Metcalf does not explicitly pose this sociospatial question. But for an economic historian grappling with the Brazilian puzzle, her book is an important contribution to its solution by bringing together two decisive formative elements in Brazilian society - family and frontier - into one analysis.

Metcalf is well acquainted with her area of study, the small municipality of Santana de Parnaíba, São Paulo. She is also enviously wellendowed with sources. Parnaíba and the province of São Paulo have left a relatively abundant wealth of historical records in the form of detailed censuses, property inventories and parish registers, which allows for both quantitative and qualitative approaches. Metcalf makes exquisite use of them. For example, her skilful handling of historical sources enables her to accomplish the difficult task of reconstructing slave families. The problem lies, of course, elsewhere, i.e., to which degree Parnaíba is representative or to which degree generalizations about colonial Brazil can be based on it. To the defence of the claim that they can, can be said, that the regional heterogeneity of Brazilian society has certainly been exaggerated in the past; the true contrasts are found, not necessarily between e.g., Maranhão and São Paulo, but in that social pyramid which Metcalf explores, between planters and slaves or between lawyers and their empregadas in the same geographical context. Somehow Metcalf, as a family historian with focus on Brazil, is of course obliged to dwell in the shade of the colossal figure of Gilberto Freyre - since the publication of Casagrande e senzala (1933) it is virtually impossible to speak about social relations in Brazil without using Freyre's lens, the family, as the focus for colonization and social stratification. But Metcalf also belongs to those post-Freyreian historians who rather depart from the conviction that Freyre's patriarchical family unit is less continuous and general than Freyre himself claimed. As to the frontier, Metcalfs claims to generality are more to the point. It is wellknown that the frontier is ever-present in Brazilian society; the exodus from the Northeast to the Amazon basin over the last century and a half is one example. It could be argued that São Paulo is a special case since it is not only a frontier society, but also a "border society" between the Freyreian plantation society typical of the Northeast, the family farm frontier land of the South and the wilderness of the interior. As was shown by Florestan Fernandes in his seminal work The Negro in Brazilian Society (1969), this location had peculiar consequences for ethnic relations, very much the same way that Metcalf shows how Parnaiba existed in a zone where urbanity, Portuguese colonial society and wilderness overlapped (pp 43ff). Metcalf clearly shows how this particular situation produced visible outcomes in a frontier town like Parnaiba.

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