Academic journal article World History Bulletin

"A True Liberation": Braudel, the Mediterranean, and Stories of Dutch Brazil

Academic journal article World History Bulletin

"A True Liberation": Braudel, the Mediterranean, and Stories of Dutch Brazil

Article excerpt

When presented with a choice, explained Fernand Braudel in a 1984 interview, "we decide only once." (2) Fifty years earlier, at eleven o'clock at night, Braudel had received an unexpected invitation by pneumatic mail, a subterranean propulsion system designed for transmitting urgent messages. Indeed, time was of essence. George Dumas, head of the French-Brazilian Alliance and charged with staffing the fledgling University of Sao Paulo (USP), was down a member. The Sorbonne professor who was to teach the History of Civilization had died unexpectedly. Would Braudel take his place? (3)

He would. He had, after all, spent a decade as a schoolteacher in Algiers. "The idea of going to Brazil seduced me," he explained many years later. "I wanted to be a foreigner again." (4) Braudel would begin his transatlantic voyage on the Marseille by shipping out across the Atlantic in February 1935. It was to be a profound and enduring experience: "those were the best years of my life," he said. (5)

This paper will examine the influence of Braudel's "Brazilian" years on his life's work and on that of Brazilian scholars in the decades to come. How did this unexpected adventure help shape his seminal The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II? Why was a first reading of this text a "true liberation" in the 1950s for Evaldo Cabral de Mello, eminent historian of Dutch Brazil? Finally, how did Braudel's work affect the Brazilian imagination of seventeenth century Recife under Dutch rule--and what does this imply for recent, Atlanticized accounts of the colony? This paper will not delve into the details of either Braudel or Cabral de Mello's prolific output. What I hope to offer here instead is a story of encounter, exchange, and global transformation--a narrative arc that bends far beyond Brazilian borders, and, perhaps for the longue duree.

What was the nature, history, and purpose of an interwar Franco-Brazilian cultural exchange? The concept of a "Latin" America had, after all, crystallized in the previous century, but why France--over Portugal, Italy, or, to the north, the United States? For one, the South American wars of independence resulted in a drive to national identity--distinct from Portugal and Spain. Too, creole elites who had rejected Iberian domination now affirmed their Latin identity over "Yankee imperialism." (6) At the time, some Brazilians believed "they could only participate in the grand march of civilization by imitating the lifestyle and thought of Europeans, especially the French." (7)

Indeed, a French connection had been established in the previous century with the 1883 creation of the French Alliance. (8) This, however, was a commercial strategy on the part of the French: after all, Pierre Foncin, first secretary-general of the Alliance, noted that "all French speaking [countries] are natural clients of French products." (9) One indicator of the program's success is that from 1910-1915, Brazil imported an annual 2,858,000 francs worth of books. (10) Through World War I, so-called "Weeks of Latin America" were held in Lyon (1916), Paris (1917), and Bordeaux (1918), trumpeting the slogan "Republics of America, children of the French Revolution." (11) Thus despite a relatively small population--among immigrants, behind Italians, Portuguese, Spanish, and Germans--the French, due to a long-term concerted effort, left a deep cultural impression.

The 1920s proved tumultuous in the major cities of Brazil. Tenentes (junior army officers) led rebellions against social injustice in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The result was political suppression in Sao Paulo, the industrial engine of the nation. (12) Culture, then, offered another avenue to national influence. This dialogue began as early as 1925, when the editor of the Estado de Sao Paulo, a circular with 110 thousand subscribers, bemoaned what he termed a "marked national deficiency" that included a dearth of universities capable of providing superior learning and developing elite "mental direction" for the nation. …

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