A “Land Without History”? Renewing the Social History of the Amazon

AHA Session 88
Conference on Latin American History 18
Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Ontario Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Alida C. Metcalf, Rice University
Hal L. Langfur, University at Buffalo (State University of New York)

Session Abstract

Until very recently Amazonia has remained a neglected region for most historians of Latin America, a “land without history,” in the words of prominent early twentieth-century Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha. Following recent historiographical trends, this panel seeks to illuminate the presence and the agency of several popular groups in shaping the historical evolution of the Amazon, while also providing a glimpse of new approaches and new subjects of study in the region.

Thus, in the second half of the 1600s and early 1700s free poor Amazonians with diverse ethnic backgrounds developed their own social life beyond the original design of Imperial elites. Although rarely mentioned in the literature, the social and labor relations in which they participated complicate the idea of a colonial space inhabited exclusively by white colonists and mission Indians engaged in collecting backland drugs. The religious sphere of social life also eluded the control of the Catholic Church: in the second half of the eighteenth century local religious practices and conceptions altered orthodox religious rituals, calling the attention of the Inquisition. In the same period, Directorate Indians used official channels to protest unwanted changes in their villages and, at a more structural level, their social and economic strategies impacted the demographic profile of the region. Half a century later, by the mid-1850s, African slaves in turn rejected a purely servile life, adopting instead the agricultural activities, trade strategies, and family structures of local peasants.

In sum, this panel will show how popular groups explored, traversed, and often re-defined the limits imposed from the outside in the colonial and national periods. By manipulating the fluidity and flexibility of social structures in a frontier region, they pursued their own agendas of change and re-defined their role in the history of Amazonia.

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