The Scramble for the Amazon and the "Lost Paradise" of Euclides da Cunha
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The Scramble for the Amazon and the "Lost Paradise" of Euclides da Cunha

Susanna B. Hecht

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The Scramble for the Amazon and the "Lost Paradise" of Euclides da Cunha

Susanna B. Hecht

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The fortunes of the late nineteenth century's imperial and industrial powers depended on a single raw material—rubber—with only one source: the Amazon basin. And so began the scramble for the Amazon—a decades-long conflict that found Britain, France, Belgium, and the United States fighting with and against the new nations of Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil for the forest's riches. In the midst of this struggle, Euclides da Cunha, engineer, journalist, geographer, political theorist, and one of Brazil's most celebrated writers, led a survey expedition to the farthest reaches of the river, among the world's most valuable, dangerous, and little-known landscapes. The Scramble for the Amazon tells the story of da Cunha's terrifying journey, the unfinished novel born from it, and the global strife that formed the backdrop for both. Haunted by his broken marriage, da Cunha trekked through a beautiful region thrown into chaos by guerrilla warfare, starving migrants, and native slavery. All the while, he worked on his masterpiece, a nationalist synthesis of geography, philosophy, biology, and journalism he named the Lost Paradise. Da Cunha intended his epic to unveil the Amazon's explorers, spies, natives, and brutal geopolitics, but, as Susanna B. Hecht recounts, he never completed it—his wife's lover shot him dead upon his return. At once the biography of an extraordinary writer, a masterly chronicle of the social, political, and environmental history of the Amazon, and a superb translation of the remaining pieces of da Cunha's project, The Scramble for the Amazon is a work of thrilling intellectual ambition.

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Part 1
Os Sertões
The Pre-Amazonian Life of Euclides da Cunha
A Short Prelude
From Os Sertões to As Selvas
Euclides Who? Narrating the Brazilian Nation
Euclides da Cunha is not known as a player in the pivotal moments of the creation of the first Brazilian Republic. His exploits as a rebel firebrand, as an Amazon explorer, as an intimate of Brazil’s greatest diplomat, the Baron of Rio Branco, and as a central ideologue and field surveyor in Brazil’s “Scramble” for western Amazonia, are largely forgotten. His Amazon time is especially obscure, given only footnotes and short chapters in his biographies, in spite of the fact that most of the last years of his life were taken up with urgent Amazon concerns. Da Cunha resides in, indeed dominates, a quite different realm: Latin American literature. He is regarded as one of the greatest writers Brazil has produced, and among the most luminous stylists to ever have written in Portuguese, due to his masterpiece Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands), published in 1902.
Da Cunha’s ideas shaped the rhetoric of national politics from the first moments of revolutionary insurrection to his last days in Rio Branco’s court. Da Cunha was deeply engaged in the political, ideological, and geographical construction of the young Brazilian republic, whether in uprisings in Rio, in rebellions in the Northeastern backlands, or in imperial contest on Amazon frontiers. His biography mirrors the signal events of the Brazilian republic in three key periods. He is situated at the heart of the revolution that overthrew Emperor Pedro II—through his mentors such as Benjamin Constant Magalhães,1 his own dramatic actions, and his exile to São Paulo where, as a journalist, he became an antimonarchist propagandist for the young republic. Later, after the relatively bloodless revolution, da Cunha married Ana de Ribeiro, daughter of General Solon Ribeiro, one of the instigators of the republican coup. This further helped da Cunha’s revolutionary standing, but set into play a deep domestic unhappiness whose denouement in a modest Rio suburb was a defining scandal of Brazil’s Belle Époque.
Os Sertões
The Canudos rebellion in 1897 was a pivotal moment for da Cunha and the republic. In the outback of Bahia (the “Sertões” of the his title), a motley group of peasants, natives, ex-slaves, and devout followers of the backland prophet Antonio Conselheiro had successfully defeated several Brazilian military campaigns. The movement was portrayed as millenarian, backward, royalist, and implacably allied against the godless, secular nature of the first republic. Devoted to the pious Princess Isabel (who had ended slavery in 1888) and protected by jagunços (the fighters of the Northeastern outback), Canudos was emblematic of all the atavism that Brazil, in its yearning for stature among modern states, wanted to forget.
The republic, faced with multiple insurgencies, deemed it essential to quash any resistance to the state in the most decisive military and symbolic ways and to quell any rumors about restoration of Dom Pedro or his family. The importance of a victory at Canudos for the military regime that had barely come to power cannot be overemphasized. The frail legitimacy on which the republic rested, the ideological importance of the military as the great unifier of the nation, and the rationalist triumph over “superstitious hordes” were necessary if Brazil was to position itself as an enlightened state rather than a backward nation led by a constitutional monarch. Da Cunha was sent to the outback as an “embedded reporter” and aide to General Bittancourt to report on events for the newspaper Estado do São Paulo.
Civilization’s triumph over barbarism—the usual colonial story, glossed with the fashionable ideologies of conquest and racism that infused most imperial tracts of the day—seemed to frame Os Sertões, but by the end of the book these received ideas were in rubble, just like the rebel city. Os Sertões chronicles the suppression of Canudos, providing an extraordinary account of military campaigns (and guerrilla warfare). The book is celebrated not just for the brilliance of the writing but also because da Cunha’s authorial voice, initially sneeringly superior, insisting on the inevitable victory of Brazil’s coastal civilization and the white race over the pathetic barbarism of the mestizo backlanders, increasingly empathizes with the doomed rebels, with their vibrant life and culture unfolding in the dry forests and in their “mudwalled Jerusalem.” Resisting the assaults of the republic (and handily defeating three of the four expeditions against them), the backwoodsmen held off a brutal siege by five thousand troops. Brazil’s well-armed militia hardly advanced in three months. The blockade (and the latest German weaponry) eventually took their toll and the republican army triumphed, but only after house-to-house combat extraordinary in its lethality on both sides. Those who had given themselves up as prisoners of war were slaughtered, while the huddling women and children of Canudos were sent off to brothels or dismal lives of indentured servitude. The conflict was one of the major wars of its age anywhere on the planet and was followed avidly in the national and European press.2 In Brazil, it was meant as an object lesson for other insurgencies. Even so, other uprisings, like the Contestado Rebellion in Santa Caterina (1914–17), took their inspiration from the Canudos resistance.3
Da Cunha began his book as a narrative on the triumph of white culture and the inevitable extinction of degenerate races by the more advanced ones. He proposed his work as a kind of nostalgic ethnography of a vanishing world, crumbling before inevitable civilization. At the end, with Canudos’s Vasa Barris River literally running red, the prisoners of war rotting in a mass grave, the head of Antonio Conselheiro, the “King of jagunços,” impaled on a pike, led the returning battalions back to a deliriously cheering Salvador. But the larger meaning of barbarism and the taste for annihilation remained in the air. Os Sertões is an unhappy epic of a backwoods polity, an autochthonous, desperate, and brave population who were, as he would describe it, “the bedrock of our race.”4 This was the revelation of da Cunha’s book for Brazilians, who at the time could barely take their eyes off the Atlantic with its arriving boatfuls of new books and stylish fashions.
Os Sertões was a literary sensation, an icon of “Brazilianness” in sea of derivative novels. Da Cunha was soon considered among the most illustrious writers of his time—indeed of any time—eclipsing virtually all of his cohort, with the possible exception of his friend the great mulatto novelist and satirist Machado de Assis. Euclides, Machado, and a handful of literary critics such as his friends Silvio Romero and José Verissimo (who will appear later in these pages) were concerned to create a Brazilian literature, a national literature that did not obtain its style or inspiration from mostly Francophone pretensions.5
The battles of Canudos were da Cunha’s Iliad. He transformed what had been framed as straightforward military repression against a backward, racially degenerate monarchist uprising into a more complex, essentially anticolonial rebellion. The revolt was, as he wrote it, the ambiguous expression of an autonomous national culture, a culture that he and his literary circle felt could be described by Brazilian writers only in Brazilian idioms, since Europe had no words for their experience. This hybrid culture bred in the backlands landscape was also largely invisible to the coastal elites (inveterate and avid Europhiles) and the masters of the new republic.6 As da Cunha put it: “What we know of the sertões is little more than its rebarbative etiology, desertus. . . . We could easily inscribe on large swathes of our own maps our searing ignorance and dread: Here be Dragons. . . . Our own geography remains an unwritten book.”7 His next task was the inscription of another enormous backland, a “new geography” of Amazonia, into Brazil’s national destiny.
As Selvas: Explorer, Scholar, and Paladin of the Amazon
It was in the clashing imperialisms of Peru and Brazil, the last great contest in the Amazon Scramble, that da Cunha’s next role in the formation of the young republic unfolded. What was at stake in these arbitrations was, in da Cunha’s view, 720,000 square kilometers of Amazonia, the source of one of the most valuable global commodities at the time, rubber. As an aide to the Baron Rio Branco, José Maria de Panhanos, da Cunha mapped one of the longest tributaries of the Amazon, the Purús, and developed the nationalist/imperial narrative that would shape the boundary mediations between Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru by unveiling the hidden histories of Amazonian conquest and settlement. Had Peru won the arbitrations it would have become an Amazonian superpower—a kind of Brazil. Instead, Brazil with its documents, maps, essays. and arguments, largely prepared by da Cunha, prevailed, giving us the map of the Amazon we know today, as he brought into focus unseen worlds—places, he would argue, that were the most Brazilian of Brazil.
Da Cunha would write a great deal of the social geography of Amazonia’s least-known western territories through the formal surveys of the Purús River, the recovery of the region’s hidden history in documents, treaties, maps, and oral accounts, in his own rural sociology and political commentary on the disputed territory that had been called for centuries “the Land of the Amazons.” This was his Odyssey to the Iliad of Canudos. The ravaged northeasterners would reemerge in the Amazon through the great sertanejo*1 diaspora, as they fled El Niño droughts and the residues of slavery and migrated to the watery forests and the labor-starved rubber economy.8
As Selvas: The Jungles
Considering the continental size of Amazonia and the fact that most European polities had colonies in South America, the lack of attention that has been paid to competing Amazonian imperialisms is surprising. The famously uncertain or creative boundary lines, the endless contestation over lands and labor, the contending ambitions over mythical or actual bounty kept adventurers, ecclesiastics, crowns, and spies riveted on greater Amazonia. The rise of steam travel and the opening of the Amazon to international trade made exploration vastly easier, made possible the explosive commerce in latexes, and intensified the politics of the Scramble.
Most scientific travelers of the nineteenth century had agendas beyond the sale of their collections, the advancement of science, or simple exploration. Even a casual rereading of these works places them at the heart of imperial trajectories.9 Naturalists, surveyors, and adventurers were part of what Joseph Conrad called “Geography Militant,” the colonial enterprise concerned with both science and conquest.10 Strikingly, most nineteenth-century naturalists portrayed Amazonia’s “reality” to European readers as an untrammeled wildness, a “Land without History,” as da Cunha would title (with great irony) a famous set of essays. Recent scholarship, as well as da Cunha’s own reports, reveals far more complex regional economies, sociologies, and histories. This moment of Euro-American imperialism and Atlantic globalization had no better or more eloquent scientific or social observer than da Cunha.
Da Cunha’s Amazon writing addresses topics a century ahead of his time: “everyday” forms of state formation, environmentalism, political ecology, comparative imperialisms, social history “from below,” political cartography, and comparative social history. He wrote on tropical geomorphology, and he remains a premier historical ethnographer. These contributions would be difficult to grasp, though, if there were no unifying thread of Brazil, the Amazon, his time, his style, and history. Placing da Cunha’s work in the global context of “Scramble for Amazonia” helps clarify the purposes of his prose.
The Scramble for the Amazon
Another protagonist of this book is Brazil’s greatest diplomat, the Baron of Rio Branco. Rio Branco incorporated an area the size of France into the young republic and secured the Brazilian boundary of more than twelve thousand miles, most of it in Amazonia. His diplomatic talents had been honed in legations to England, France, Germany, and the United States. Sent initially overseas as a kind of pleasant sinecure during the last decades of Emperor Pedro II, he lived in Liverpool, the most important European port for tropical commerce. As a member of the Brazilian delegation there, he was well placed to note the prominence of Amazonian latex in the world economy, an insight that eluded many southern Brazilians, entranced as they were by the wealth of their coffee production. Other postings sent him to Paris and, especially relevant, to Berlin during the “Scramble for Africa”: the European powers, inflamed by highly public colonial exploits such as those of Stanley in the Congo, inter-European rivalries, and more than a century of covert and detailed resource surveys, parceled out a continent among themselves, heedless of the local inhabitants.11 These lessons about the imperial ambitions and practices of European powers were not lost on Rio Branco. Later stints in Bern and in New York also proved highly strategic.
Rio Branco was also alert to the territorial ambitions of the other hemispheric republics, the United States to the north and Peru and Bolivia to the west. Rio Branco had spent time in Washington preparing for a territorial adjudication between Brazil and Argentina that was mediated by US president Grover Cleveland, and there had seen firsthand American methods of continental consolidation. By 1902, when Rio Branco took over as the minister of foreign affairs, North Americans had had more than half a century of enterprise and programs aimed at the Amazon. The Baron observed with a combination of admiration and apprehension the US adventures in the Spanish American West (where a third of Mexico became US territory), its filibustering hemispheric forays into Central America and the expropriation of Panama from Colombia.
Brazil confirmed its national boundaries in Amazonia by thwarting the imperial ambitions of France, Britain, the United States, Belgium, Bolivia, and Peru. In this Scramble for the Amazon—a territorial grab that occurred at the same time and involved many of the same actors as the Scramble for Africa—da Cunha, as Rio Branco’s agent, carried out remarkable feats of physical exploration, political maneuverings, and discursive construction. Da Cunha deployed e...

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