To most of us, Brazil’s epic history... is a virtual blank. So for readers sick of reading about the Tudors, the Nazis and the suffragettes, Brazil: A Biography will come as an enormously refreshing treat. Written by two Brazilian historians, its engrossing narrative moves swiftly and surely through the centuries, with plenty of detail, colour and character.
On occasions the authors overreach themselves – their repeated claim that the presence of separate service facilities in Brazilian apartment blocks is a hangover of slavery suggests that they have never set foot in equivalent buildings in Europe. But otherwise they provide an absorbing account of the deadly nexus of sugar and slavery... Perhaps channelling Freyre, the authors describe Brazil’s history as ‘mestizo’, but the same cannot be said for the remainder of their book. It is a relentless, at times almost monomaniacal, catalogue of power struggles, rebellions, feuds and upheavals.
But what marks it out from other histories of Brazil is the way it mixes the public and the private, the well-trodden and the obscure. It moves effortlessly from the high politics of the Portuguese court fleeing Napoleon in 1807 to install itself in a disease-ridden Rio “that looked like an African coastal town”, as one observer described it, to the myriad micro-rebellions against slavery that marked the 17th and 18th centuries. Schwarcz, in particular, who divides her time between São Paulo university and Princeton, has been a pioneer in drawing out often-neglected aspects of Brazil’s slave-owning past.