Bert J. Barickman. A Bahian Counterpoint: Sugar, Tobacco, Cassava, and Slavery in the Reconcavo, 1780-1860. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998. xx + 276 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-2632-0.
Reviewed by Birgitte Holten (University of Copenhagen)
Published on H-LatAm (April, 1999)
The importance of being fed
Tradition has made out of Brazilian history the narrative of capitalist export agriculture--to some extent neglecting the obvious fact that all those people occupied in sugar making also had to feed themselves. This problem has--also traditionally--been pushed away with some remarks on slaves' kitchen gardens and cassava cultivation on the big estates.
Already in the first History of Brazil, written in the early seventeenth century by the Franciscan Vicente of Salvador, sugar is pointed out as the pivotal point of Brazilian economy and history. This tendency was elevated to an almost mythical dimension in Gilberto Freyre's legendary--and much critisized The Masters and the Slaves from 1947. The concentration on monoculture, latifundia, and slavery have been the constants of Brazilian economic and social history, in what has been called the "plantationist" perspective (p. 1).
The stated purpose of Bert Barickman's book is to "confront the plantationist view on its home ground" (p. 2), arguing that even when applied to Freyre's archetypical plantation region, this model proves inadequate. Barickman goes even further into the widths and depths of agricultural history, focusing on the fundamental question: "how plantation and nonplantation forms of slavebased agriculture, together with a vigorous local market, allowed the growth and expansion of the Bahian export economy" (p. 2).
Doing this, the book questions some of the generally accepted views on the fundamental character of Brazilian colonial and imperial society. One is the common assumption that the social relations were exclusively based on the master/slave dichotomy, the economy being equally biased in its focus on the export production. Other accepted truths have been that the internal market in Brazil was weak and undeveloped; that the food for the use of the great estates was produced almost exclusively on the same estates; that an eventual surplus production was disposed of in a quite haphazard way; and, finally, that slavery per se prevented the emergence of an internal market.
Barickman demonstrates, to the contrary, that the local production and distribution of foodstuffs was fundamental to the expansion of export agriculture (p.188). The great sugar planters relied on purchasing the foodstuffs they needed for their slaves and households on this local market, concentrating their own slaves' activity--and their own lands--on export agriculture. Cassava grows well on the sandy and poor soils in interior regions of the Bahian Reconcavo , while sugar needs rich soils like the massapes situated near the coast. Not surprisingly, soil quality is shown to have been an important factor for the choice of crop. Slaves were present in all types of production -- from the large plantations who could boast of up to two hundred slaves to the humble cassava-grower with just one or two hands. However, even demonstrating the hitherto neglected importance of the Bahian internal market, as well as its growth during the period of 1780-1860, Barickman stresses the fact that this market did not possess the dynamics necessary to transform the regional economy as a whole.
The inquiry follows two strategies: First, it investigates the relationship between production for local needs (especially cassava flour) and the export economy concentrated on sugar and tobacco, demonstrating the importance of the production and marketing of essential foodstuffs to the export economy. Second, it makes a structural survey of Bahian agriculture, comparing patterns of land tenure, the use of slave labor, and agricultural practices in the production of the Reconcavo's three main crops.
Chapter One, "Introduction", starts out from the historiographical context, arriving at a persistent criticism of the "plantationist view of Brazilian History" and the tradition depicting Brazil as "one vast plantation". This is, as Barickman rightfully stresses, an extremely vital tradition which only recently has been questioned. The resulting dismissal of the surrounding agricultural settings as irrelevant means that important parts of history have been neglected--the diversity of slave-based production, the very close relationship of export agriculture, internal economy and slavery--leading to the ignorance of an even more crucial problem--the expansion of the export economy requiring a local market for foodstuffs and the like not grown on the sugar producing estates. The study is finally placed in a wider and more international context. Fernando Ortiz' classical survey of sugar and tobacco production in Cuba, A Cuban Counterpoint, is cited as an important inspiration for the book, leaving a clear imprint on the title. A further intention of the study is to create a link between the recent studies on the Brazilian internal economy and the traditional studies on the export economy, and, even more ambitiously, it is planned as part of a greater comparative study on an international basis, focusing on the inclusion of the American slavery and export-agriculture regions in the emerging world economy.
Chapter Two, "The Export Economy, 1760-1860," treats the macro-economic framework for the agricultural development of the Reconcavo. After the economic swamp of mid-century, Brazil experienced, during the second half of the eighteenth century, the rare phenomenon of being the economic center of the Portuguese empire. The growth of exportations continued after independence, only gradually shifting from sugar and twist tobacco to coffee and cigars. But this economic success-story did not imply in qualitative changes and improvements -- rather the opposite. The traditional sugar making process resulted in a high yield of clayed white sugars, ready to use without further refining. But, as the British and German tariffs for lower grade sugars were reduced, almost all Bahian planters shifted their attention to the production of dark brown mascavo sugars, a cheap raw material for the European refineries.
Chapter Three, "Farinha de Mandioca - 'The bread of the Land' - and its Market" demonstrates with multiple citations the real importance of cassava flour as the nutritive basis for the Bahian population--rich and poor, rural and urban. The government frequently ordered a minimum of the land on the estates to be cultivated with cassava to prevent earlier times' food shortages. Foodstuffs could be grown in three "regimes". Part of the estate could be reserved for cassava, worked by the slaves. But in boom times, the sugar farmers were reluctant to take good sugar soils out of production. The slaves could be given kitchen plots to grow vegetables for their own benefit and registers show their selling of products to the masters. And, finally, cassava was grown on minor estates, worked by the owner (or squatter) together with his slaves. All three regimes did exist in the Reconcavo, but the preeminence of the latter two leads to the questioning of the common supposition, that slavery prevented the emergence of an internal market in Brazil.
Chapter Four, "Crises and trends in the Regional Farinha Market" portrays a vivid depiction of the bustling Salvador market. But, even if the local market was growing, it was in some aspects vulnerable. Climatic problems formed a constant danger to agricultural production and the market forces favored the temptation to enter the sugar complex as a cane grower. This attempt would be seen as an upward social move, as cane growers, even dependent on the senhores de engenho, were regarded as part of the sugar complex . Barickman demonstrates, however, that the expansion of sugar did not imply the contraction of the cassava production. On the contrary, while prices remained stable, the output of farinha rose during the period studied. While more slaves were working in the sugar industry, more cassava was planted to feed them--a neat complementary relationship between the external and the internal economy.
Chapter Five, "Land" initiates a triad of chapters on the fundamental production structures. One of the conditions for the simultaneous growth of both sugar and cassava cultivation was Bahia's hollow agricultural frontier. There were great possibilities for expansion, even in readily accessible areas within a fair distance. The constant need for firewood for the cauldrons made the forests disappear, giving way to new cultivations. Land was not a scarce resource in nineteenth-century Bahia--although a source of social position and prices were low. A general tendency for the three main crops was that sugar was grown on great estates, tobacco on medium size, and cassava on the small ones. But the size of the individual estate was not as stable as has traditionally been supposed. Katia Queiroz de Mattoso has demonstrated this in her magistral study on Bahia in the nineteenth century, arguing that the Portuguese inheritance laws still impeded the accumulation of property during generations.
Chapter Six, "Labor", argues that slaves were fundamental in all parts of the Reconcavo. On the other hand, wage labor was extremely rare. The part of the labor force that was not enslaved tended to be agregados, free lodgers on a plot of land who could be called on to perform extra work needed on the farm. Conditions changed about 1850, as the Atlantic slave trade finally and definitively stopped. Slaves had been in abundant supply and slave-prices were low. But after 1850, slaves tended to follow the money--being sold to the new boom-area, the coffee plantations in Sao Paulo. Slaves continued to form a substantial part of the working force in Bahia where readily accessible land was still so abundant that the free labor force tended to turn into small-holders.
Chapter Seven, "Production" gives a survey of the methods of cultivation for the three main crops, stressing the diversification of agriculture, especially in the final years of the period.
Chapter Eight, "Conclusions" puts a special stress on this diversity which has been so neglected in the history of Brazilian agriculture. The general acceptance of the plantationist view has efficiently overshadowed the underlying complexity. No doubt sugar was a fundamental factor in economy and society, but the focusing on one single crop has biased the picture and hindered the true understanding of society, even in the proper center of sugar production.
In his book Barickman offers a genuinely new vision of the Bahian agriculture, in the new microhistorical tradition promising very interesting results. New sources of documentation have been introduced in Brazilian historiography lately. The great departure from the traditional consensus, that the sources important for the study of the colonies are found in the archives of the European motherland, has produced a lot of newly found treasures in the municipical archives. Municipal studies are still few-- the results necessarily being geographically scattered. Stanley Stein showed the way already in 1958 in his pioneering study of Vassouras, followed by the rightly celebrated study of Rio Claro by Warren Dean. But while both these studies placed the focus on the big estates and the export economy--"a grande lavoura"--Barickman shows new ways in his demonstration of the importance of the smaller estates, even in the center of sugar production.
Municipal documentation can bring us very close to the unimportant persons of history--to those who normally only appear as anonymous numbers. The post-mortem inventories are one of the most suggestive sources of this kind, bringing the historian almost inside the house of some humble person, knowing the names of his children, his three pairs of holed stockings, and his only slave. The temptation of citing individual cases is inevitable and Barickman does not escape some slight abuse. The recent tendency to include this kind of documentation has created new possibilities for the approach to the social history of rural Brazil. By the way, I would like to stress the pioneering work done by Beatriz Ricardina Magalhaes and her students at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais. They have just finished a huge database of post-mortem inventories from Minas Gerais for the eighteenth century and are now moving up to the twentieth.
Even if currencies, weights, and measures of late colonial times and early empire are much less complicated than in earlier times, readers and students not accustomed with Brazilian history will appreciate the explanations in the start of the book. An appendix informs on sources fundamental for early Brazilian history, post mortem inventories, and manuscript censuses. This is another well considered element of the book, making it useful for teaching purposes, even if it will be difficult for neophytes.
Barickman's interesting proposal about the structures on the Bahian countryside raises the question of the generality of the described tendencies. They are shown to exist during the late colonial and the early imperial period -- a period characterized by expansion of the economy as well as the external trade and the continuing availability of African slaves. Would a similar analysis give the same results for the difficult time before 1780? And, would the growing dearth of slaves after 1850 mean a rapid decline in the frequency of slave holding on the small estates? Some considerations on the greater historical perspective would have made the book even better, but it does not amount to a crucial problem facing its other--and--outstanding qualities.
. Frei Vicente do Salvador: Historia do Brasil, 1500-1627, Sao Paulo, 1982.
. Ortiz, Fernando: Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azucar. Havana, 1940
. Mattoso, Katia Queiroz de: Bahia, seculo XIX: Uma provincia no Imperio. Rio de Janeiro, 1992.
. Stein, Stanley J. Vassouras: A Brazilian Coffee County, 1850-1900. New York, 1958 (1976).
. Dean, Warren: Rio Claro: A Brazilian Plantation System, 1820-1920. Stanford, 1976.
. Magalhaes, Beatriz Ricardina: Criacao de um banco de dados sobre o seculo XVIII mineiro. Revista do Departamento de Historia, UFMG, Belo Horizonte, 1987.
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Birgitte Holten. Review of Barickman, Bert J., A Bahian Counterpoint: Sugar, Tobacco, Cassava, and Slavery in the Reconcavo, 1780-1860.
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