A sprawling “biography” of a vast country that has always been much different from any of its neighbors in South America.
"If you steal a little you’re a thief,” goes a Brazilian proverb, “if you steal a lot you’re a chief.” A colonial power, Brazil was a source of immense wealth for its colonizer, Portugal, for generations, even if the colonizing class soon found that the parent nation’s “finances had been seriously affected by the high cost of running the empire.” It was always a kind of business proposition. As Brazilian historians Schwarcz (Anthropology/Univ. of São Paulo; The Emperor's Beard: Dom Pedro II and His Tropical Monarchy in Brazil, 2004, etc.) and Starling write, although African slavery had existed for a long time before Portuguese ships appeared, when they did arrive, it was with an innovation: that slaves would be put to work in agriculture and not, as before, in artisanal enterprises. When Brazil became independent, it enshrined its own ruling class, with voting rights extended to only a small class of landowners; it was the last on the continent to abolish the slavery that had made its rich agriculture possible. Some of the aspects of the Brazilian approach to life, write the authors, seem constant and remain “shockingly resistant to improvement,” especially the violent undercurrent that has always run through the nation’s history. Another less pronounced current is regionalism; in the early 19th century, for instance, some of the southern provinces of the nation tried to break away, leading to a civil war. Yet, the authors add, history is not necessarily destiny. In their youth, a time of junta and military dictatorship, the thought that a leftist like Lula or Dilma Rousseff could become president would have been unthinkable, and although “extreme social injustice still exists alongside democracy,” the country is making strides in containing corruption and smoothing out some of the rougher edges of inequality.
A welcome, readable history of a country that ranks high among the world’s economic powers but is too little known beyond its own borders.