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The attack on the President of Brazil: Rio de Janeiro, 5th November 1897: The narration of the moment.

Frank Colson, Association for Information Management

5th November 1897, the attempted assassination of President Prudente de Moraes remains a resonant moment in the history of Brazil. The subject of detailed official enquiries, extensive press coverage, and private correspondence, those few fleeting moments on the Cais Pharoux in Rio de Janeiro have given rise to a richly textured historiography. The sheer wealth of the moment is an impelling challenge to the scholar, exposing as it does the selectivity of narrative, the dangers involved in constructing one , and the importance of that multi-threadedness which is historical reality. That we can attain any sense of this is in some senses the achievement of the new media.

Scholars have been acutely sensitive to the moment for very good reasons. The event in itself was enough to give rise to a considerable literature. For the bloody episode and its aftermath were the culmination of a number of resonant developments in the history of the Republic. It occurred as troops returned from the 'war at the end of the Earth' when they had razed the 'holy city' in Canudos, dispersing or killing most of its 20,000 inhabitants. The assassin was the tool of the Jacobins - a group pledg ed to seize power so as to 'purify the Republic'. 'Purification' meant the expulsion of foreign commerce from the country - apposite at a time when state bankruptcy loomed and with it the threat of foreign intervention. Nemesis followed November 1897 with the 'sanitation' of the Republic. This could be financial, in the burning of the currency; political in the purging of Congress and the Army; racial in the promotion of white immigration and a white-officer class in the Navy; a return to tradition in the rehabilitation of old families and the adoption by the new regime of patronage from the Church; spatial in the construction of a 'European capital' in Rio de Janeiro.

The achievement of 'Order and Progress' the hallmark of a regime bent on a fracture with a 'degenerate' past is all the more ironic since it emerges in happenstance manner from the official exploitation of the chance failure of a pistol on the Cais Pharo ux. The context has engendered a rich literature both fictional, and commentary, from some of South America's finest writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A fragile new world was created which violently divorced the worlds of the late-mediev al countryside and its urban counterpart in shantytowns from that of the neo-Parisian boulevard. Typically, the new moral order of a government whose elaborate public theatre featured Marianne and who boasted of representative government, openly practise d the 'electoral decapitation' of those who dared defy the President.

The sheer wealth of interpretation which might be derived from a study of the 5th and its aftermath has naturally been fuelled by the interplay of political and social influences which have informed students of Brazilian history whether of the colonial pe riod or of the modern day. Seen from the standpoint of the authors and editors of the most powerful recent publication, the four volume História da Vida Privada no Brasil, it might be viewed as a 'defining event'. They delineate boundaries of the individ ual, society, the private and public, the spaces within which power has been defined and exercised over the course of Brazil's history, but do not deal with the synchronicity of 'events'.

Remarkable achievement as it is, the História simply provides us with parallel narratives. Parallels do not meet. That these various 'histories' met on November 5th, 1897 is worth noting. The newspapers and reports carry the language of the 'backlands' r eligious practice. Their sense of place and property clashed with the holistic mentality of the Jacobin forces sent to prosecute them. Accident and contingency were equally alien to both. Their differences were in some ways slight - like their French for ebears we know more about what and whom the Jacobins were against; equally we understand that those from the backlands wanted only to be left alone. Both had a certain trust in Terror, evinced in the assassination attempt, in which the violent republicani sm of the Jacobins vividly contrasted with those who might desire the return of Dom Sebastião from the last Crusade. Liberal discourse, the language of business, representation and the 'calm and reflective discussion' of the elite seemed to exist on anot her planet, yet was the language of official reporting and voiced the savage reaction to the 'attempt'. These parallel narratives have their own logic: the new technologies allow us as scholars to convey the interaction between them - the deadly stuff of bayonets, and the 'liberal language of the politics of annihilation'.

The newspapers of the day are natural hypertexts. The long narrow columns of reportage, public notices, announcements and letters, so long neglected and so awkward to the historian, neatly house them. Data-capture technologies enable us to provide them to the reader replete with our own annotations. The links created by scholars in the construction of their own interpretations lie exposed: they can be identified, grouped so as to contain the references that underpin an argument. These are more than 'editi ons', since what is being done is more than a juxtaposition of sources. The new technologies privilege reference to the economic and social context of the assassination indicating the extent to which the political arrangements of the time failed to reflec t fundamental interests. That such a hypermedia structure should go beyond the capabilities of 'traditional' web-based' technologies is, as far as the historian is concerned, incidental, but worthy of note. Historians must be their own programmers.

More important is the finding that emerges from a close reading of the multiple narratives on the newspaper page. On the 6th of November the leading article in the Jornal do Commercio, doyen of the Rio press, reflected on the factors which created the 'm ental anarchy' in which assassination had become a part of the political arsenal. The course of Brazil's political history would continue to be determined by violence and not negotiation. Such is the finding that may be inferred from a rendition of the ne wspapers as advanced hypermedia applications.

To say the boundaries between Jacobin, sertanejo [rural peasant] and oligarch were not negotiable other than by violence is not to say much that is new: but to do it through a hypermedia application avoids the ambiguity of official discourse, and that is no trivial matter. The opacity of liberal dialogue has not helped the country in its search for democratic discourse. The 'hypermedia publication' achieves two things. It reopens a discussion of the work of major historians. It contributes more seriously to an examination of the 'liberal' dehumanisation of much of Brazil's past.

For that alone it is a worthwhile effort.