Brazil’s Last Slave: The Captive Environment in Pernambuco’s Sugar Fields

Thomas D. Rogers, The Deepest Wounds: A Labor and Environmental History of Sugar in Northeast Brazil (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

Thomas Rogers’ The Deepest Wounds argues that Pernambuco sugar planters “saw no distinction between land and labor” (8). Enslaved and free workers on cane plantations were demoted in elites’ eyes to a level equal with the animals and the earth – merely another natural resource to be commanded by the planters (72-73). This monograph shows how workers fought to untangle themselves from this “laboring landscape” and transcend the slave=animal=nature equation (50). But if slave=nature, does nature=slave? As Rogers implies, while captivity eventually ended for the cane workers, the land was left behind in bondage. In many ways then, this book is about that slave who was never freed.

As framework for understanding the author’s arguments, equating land with labor, both captive to planters and later state technocrats, effectively blurs the distinction between ‘labor history’ and ‘environmental history,’ supporting Rogers’ goal of telling “one story” (8). While understanding the limits of comparing enslaved humans with objects in nature, as highlighted by reviewer Shawn Miller in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, by exploring the interplay between environmental change and social conditions, Rogers firmly situates his history in spacetime, similar to Kevin Coleman’s A Camera in the Garden of Eden about the 1954 banana-workers’ strike in Honduras. Methodologically, both authors creatively tackle the challenge of dealing with sparse archival records about often illiterate subjects by tapping into novel sources. Rogers examines landscapes and literature while Coleman uses deep description of photographs to contextualize his history. Both provide alternate views of their subjects that are richer for their intimate connection to place, yet also susceptible to problems of perspective.

For example, Rogers’ close analysis of changing landscapes and scientific innovation in the longue durée leaves less room for a more in-depth political analysis of events, such as the rise of Getúlio Vargas’s Novo Estado as seen in John French’s Brazilian Workers’ ABC. However, although French’s work gives a more robust labor history of this early-twentieth-century Brazil, he does not focus on the environmental change that accompanied urbanization in the way that Rogers does for the sugar field. In that respect, the two works can be seen as complementary. One is told from the viewpoint of rural workers in Pernambuco and the other from the industrial center of Sao Paulo. Together, they shed light on Brazil’s historic shift from the field to the factory, from the early rule of café com leite politicians to the rise of populism after the entry of the masses into politics.

Rogers’ broad archival base, including 49 interviews, archival research, and extensive use of secondary sources, helped mitigate the subjectivities of his literary interpretations of Brazilian writers like Gilberto Freyre, Júlio Bello, and Joaquim Nabuco, in a way that other authors have been unable to accomplish.

In conclusion, while the claim that planters viewed slaves as animals may be understood as demeaning to the enslaved, if we flip the comparison to elevate the environment instead of lowering humans, I see value in equating the land and workers. As Rogers says of abolitionists like Nabuco, the “environmental destruction wrought by slavery was key to their indictment of the institution” (49). Understanding how Pernambuco’s landscape remains enslaved to the monoculture production of sugar forces us to question whether cane workers today have truly escaped their captivity or remain in the same struggle that began over four-hundred-years ago.

N. H. Gill, 2017

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