A Sketch of the History of the Lower Middle Amazon

Most river bank towns in the Lower Middle Amazon began as both mission and military institutions in the seventeenth century following Portuguese domination of the area [1]. In the case of Obidos, its military significance is due to its geographical positioning at the narrowest point of the Amazon. It is also worth noting that many of the forts, such as Gurupá, Santarém and Obidos, were not established to protect the Portuguese from war-mongering aborigines, but to maintain supremacy over the English, French and Dutch colonisers in the early to mid seventeenth century (Reis 1979), as is also apparent in Bates' quote above.

The first picture shows the port of Belém on a rainy Sunday at the mouth of the Amazon and the famous Ver-O-Peso market.

Once the Portuguese hold on power was secured, the Crown's gave ecclesiastical control for the building of a network of mission villages, which were to be economically supported by `civilised, Portuguese Indians' (Kieman 1954, MacLachlan 1973, Sweet 1974). This provided the conditions for the commercial development of an export economy, largely built on extractive resources, or drogas de sertão, a project that depended on the subjugation of the Amerindian populations in order to supply their labour for collecting expeditions. The missions gathered together the Amerindian survivors of the slave raids, whose communities were already decimated by attacks and diseases. With such little resistance, it was easy to impose a new language, the lingua geral, throughout the Amazon as a further method of control and acculturation. In the lower middle Amazon, Amerindians arrived from a variety of parts in the basin. óbidos, for example, had Amerindians from the upper Rio Negro. There was, in general, a mixing up of people, a process helped by the ongoing destruction of the aboriginal cultural and social baseline.

This period lasted until the 1750s, when the Portuguese Crown grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of development initiated by the missions. The crown's response was to take over control of the 61 mission villages and implement the first coherent state policy for the settlement and exploitation of the area, in the form of a Directorate in 1755. This was formed largely around the freeing of labour of the Amerindians, paying them a wage, in order to encourage the export economy, and the introduction of slaves from West Africa for larger scale plantation agriculture. Each mission village had a director who commanded the organisation of labour and controlled the economy. The supply of labour had become a chronic problem and the Crown considered the best solution was to incorporate the Amerindians as much as possible into the development of civil society through the directorate system, which allowed for localised control (MacLachlan 1973). By the end of the mission period, MacLachlan writes that the total available Indian labour in the whole Amazon was around 30,000, of which only 6,500 men and women, he considered to be realistically employable (1973:208).

The second photograph shows the city of Santarém (pop. c. 250000). In the distance lies two rivers with different coloured water, the Amazon is brown and the Tapajós is blue.

Another product of the Directorate was a state owned company to oversee all economic activity, the "Companhia Geral de Grão-Pará e Maranhão". One of its main tasks was to administer the importation and consequent sale of the slaves. The policy of importing slaves was part of an attempt to start on the production of plantation crops, such as cocoa, sugar cane and tobacco, as was happening in the rest of the New World. This new agriculture policy arose as a result of the resistance of Amerindians to work as slaves (and their decline in numbers through disease and decimation), and to move away from the `extractive system' of the Amazonian economy based on hunting, fishing and gathering. The company as well as controlling the distribution of slaves, maintained a total monopoly in the export and import of commodities.

Arguably, the main aim of the Directorate was to develop agriculture in the region, as was being achieved elsewhere in the colony (Parker 1985:28). This would have the double effect of producing for a market of export commodities such as sugar, rice and cocoa, and just as importantly in creating a labour force of integrated Amerindians. The encouragement of miscegenation between colonisers and Amerindians was also part of the civilising zeal of the Crown (MacLachlan 1973). However, the consistent dominance of extractive activities, the unreliability of Indian labour supply, and the Crown's difficulties with settlers resisting demands to maintain a legal framework and pay wages proved to be the downfall of the colonial involvement in the area. By 1798, the Directorate was wound up and there was little direct state intervention in the area for the next sixty or so years. Most recognisable Amerindian villages in the area had been destroyed. There had been little success in building an export economy around a single product, such as was happening elsewhere in Brazil (see for example Simonssen 1954 on the Northeast). In sum, there were no suppliant workers and no civil society.

The end of the eighteenth century marked a significant turning point for future development of the area. The end of aggressive colonial rule meant the withdrawal of external controls. In addition, within a hundred years of systematic mission and crown intervention in the lower middle Amazon, there was a near complete annihilation of a coherent indigenous presence in the area. Indeed, Maclachlan (1973) writes that only 3000 identified Amerindians were registered as free labour. In other words, direct colonial rule had not only destroyed most of the indigenous population, and replaced them with much fewer `new' inhabitants, they had put in place a rigid and monopolistic system of economic and social control. With the force behind this system weakening, something else could start to emerge.

Nevertheless, and inevitably, a pattern had been established for the future of the region. Economic activity was guided for the maximisation of exports for European markets. The Crown had never been interested in stimulating local development by encouraging competition for imported products. The region was always put at the service of external demands, which were totally ill-conceived. Pombal's hopes for increasing exports could never be realised, or as Hecht and Cockburn note, '[n]ot for the last time in the Amazon the expectations of treasure vastly outstripped reality.' (1989:70).

What proceeded the abolition of the directorate is arguably the defining moment in the initial formation of the riverine Amazonian peasantry. The conditions of existence were such that the opening of the nineteenth century marked the beginning of a 'free' rural riverine peasantry, formed largely from the new mixed population and the survivors of the destruction of Amerindian societies in the lower middle Amazon. My argument is that the loosening of external control on the area (which led to Independence in 1822) and the burgeoning local population, colonists and all, led to a re-organisation, or a re-constitution of social forms (see also Parker 1985:35-8). In short, there was a release of social energy, of which the Cabanagem revolution (starting in 1830 and ending around 1836, see Di Paolo 1985) was the most violent expression. What were the characteristics of the period and how did they influence the evolution of the riverine peasantries?

Roberto Santos (1980) describes the period 1800-1840 as 'a fase de decadencia', that is one of decline. He shows, through the use of figures for the value of exports and income per capita for Amazonia as a whole, that there was little change from the beginning to the end of the period, and indeed it went down significantly around 1810. Only from 1840 onwards did exports begin to pick up, associated with improved cocoa distribution and then with rubber, which of course was to dominate the rest of the century.

From 1805 to 1840, economic activity declined, as function of both the world economy, weakening Portuguese hold on power in all its colonies and various internal factors to Amazonia. The most important of the latter was a massive civil war in Amazonia, known as the Cabanagem, in which an estimated third of the population lost their lives between 1835-1840. The directorate's legacy was a region full of tensions social discontent, between colonists, crown employees, slaves, Amerindians and the mixed blood populations, as well as conflicts between economic activities (see Di Paolo 1985:88).

The Cabanagem was a mass movement and is difficult to characterise essentially. Some have portrayed it as an Independence anti-monarchicist movement, (Flavio 1971, Santos 1980), others as a series of incoherent political mutinies (e.g. Reis 1979). Still another historian has described it as the most significant uprising in the Brazilian history (Di Paolo 1985:17). Following Independence, there remained a section of the elite loyal to Portugal. This group clashed with the growing population of native-born Brazilian entrepreneurs, who wanted Independence from Southern and Northeastern Brazil, and with it more progressive change for relations of labour and property and the masses who were calling for recognition of rights and citizenship [2] (see Anderson 1985 also for an excellent discussion). A large scale and widespread rebellion developed in the early 1830s with an alliance between the Amazonian entrepreneurial elites and escaped slaves, mixed-bloods, Amerindians (except the Mundurucus, who helped quell the rebellion in the middle Amazon for the colonial loyalists) and urban workers. Most of the action centered around BelÈm, the seat of administration for the whole Amazon. The cabanos, as the rebels were called after the type of dwelling in which they lived, executed the reactionary governor of the region in 1835 and installed a compromise candidate for both sides. This man eventually pandered to the reactionary demands and manage to prevent further progress. By 1836, the movement had been stopped by the huge armies called in from the South of Brazil. The old colonial elite were able to retain a tentative hold on power, but at a price.

The Cabanagem period ushered in periphery-style modernity into Amazonia. It revolutionised the relations of domination in the control of labour, and effectively freed people to organise themselves economically and socially without external control. This encouraged the process of dispersal into the rural areas around towns, something which had begun previous to the rebellion in the dismantling of the command economy and the mission villages. Even though the demands of the rebellion were not met, the cabanos did succeed in creating space to re-constitute themselves in the new political economy that was emerging. Their labour was now fully free, they occupied riverine land around towns, used other non-valorised resources (lakes, rivers and floodplain land) and were tied to markets through the exchange of goods with traders. The travel writers of the early to mid-nineteenth century (Spix and Martius, Bates, Wallace for example) attest to the viability and flourishing of this riverine society and economy in the lower middle Amazon, still largely unchanged by the rubber boom in the early to mid nineteenth century.

At this time, people were controlled not through their labour, but the products of it, by merchants patrolling the river banks and forest areas and the exchange value of the commodities. The consequence of these processes was the emergence of various peasantries, formed in the nexus of local factors and the domination of Amazonia by external interests. Independent peasants produced their own conditions of existence, developing in an informal economy, while being irrevocably tied to the world market through the prices of products they were selling and exchanging.

In summary, by 1840 the conditions which were to determine crucially the formation of Amazonian peasantry were in place. Santos has described the period immediately prior to this as stagnant and bases this on the value and amount of exports from the region. However, I have briefly juxtaposed this position with the internal dynamics of the lower middle Amazon as a period of intense social conflict and upheaval, which resulted in the growth of a particular type of peasantry.

The production and distribution of rubber then dominated Amazonia until 1912. The lower Middle Amazon was not a significant area for rubber production, though it was an important trading area for boats going up and down the Amazon. By contrast to the earlier part of the century, there was massive international interest in the area and an accompanying influx of immigrants. The key moments of social change included the introduction of steam transportation in 1853, the immigration of large number of Portuguese to the area in the 1850s and then Northeastern Brazilians around 1877 to increase the extraction of rubber chiefly in the Upper Amazon. Faster transport greatly enhanced distribution of goods, and also meant that the riverine forests were cut down to provide fuel, a factor almost totally overlooked in the history of the floodplain and traditional Amazonia. The population, according to Santos (1981) grew more than seven fold, from 90,000 in 1800 to 695,112 in 1900.

Another crucial legacy of the rubber period was the system of aviamento (trading relationship between boss and worker that normally ends in the worker being in long term debt). In the lower middle Amazon the control of labour was through the trader or 'middle-man', that is the person linking the producer with the export firms. Clearly, this trader could not control the worker directly, but only through prices and the extension of credit. This was supported by a personalised patronage system, a monopoly of access to goods on behalf of the producer, and sometimes violence. Often the producer remained in debt to the creditor/trader for a lifetime, being exploited through a pseudo-personal relationship and dependence for access to necessary items. Nevertheless, in the lower middle Amazon such ties were relatively looser than where rubber was produced in much larger quantities. This allowed for the flourishing of a seasonally patterned economy centered around the production of a few key commodities, nourishment and local trade with the domestic organisation of labour. Such rural communities that developed at this stage, of which the ethnographic case study in this book is a prime example, were tied to various externalities such as demand for products, such as rubber, cocoa, firewood, for which they had no choice but to provide for, since their bonds of debt gave them little freedom to create new markets or take over distribution. At this early stage, they were literally at the service of others. Even if these outsiders did little to control the content of the peasantries' daily lives, they undoubtedly shaped their form and their reproduction. This, of course, is a key characteristic of merchant capital as it has historically developed in the region (see Nugent 1993, McGrath 1989).

Following the demise of rubber and exit of international capital, there begun another period which is crucial to the formation of the contemporary riverine peasantry. The period 1912 to around 1965, bears similar characteristics to the 1800-1840. Both were times of very little state intervention or capital investment, and yet both times are significant for the dynamism of local social processes. Each epoch shares is the correlation between little external interest in the area and the consolidation and growth of the various riverine societies and economies.

The twentieth century of the riverine areas of the lower middle Amazon has seen an expansion of peasant economic and social possibilities and a subsequent fragmentation of its relative homogeneity (Nugent 1993). The building of a road to Santarém from Cuiabá in the sixties, linked the area to central Brazil for the first time. A number of large scale mining operations have developed, such as the bauxite mine on the Trombetas and the open cast gold mining in the Tapajós. The bauxite mine, at least, has brought little change to the area. Its only formal link to the area is through jobs during the period of construction. Otherwise all labour is skilled and imported, as are most of the goods consumed and all the bauxite is exported to be processed. In other words, its effect on the local economy is minimal, though it cannot be denied that Oriximiná has grown in recent years as a result of agricultural produce being sold onto the mine engineers and workers.

The jute boom from 1940s to 1980s also brought in money for floodplain dwellers, even if it did use the patron-client trading relationship formed in the nineteenth century. With the money earned from jute, many floodplain dwellers in the lower middle Amazon were able to buy motor boats, build houses from terra firme hard woods and asbestos roofing (rather than floodplain trees and thatch), and, importantly, buy fishing technology, such as nets, or the nylon to make nets. This development helped the transition from the fall of jute prices, following the opening of the national market for jute and the introduction of plastics to replace jute bags, to the growth in demand for fish, overseas and internationally. Again, none of these developments arose from the stimulation of internal market, but from the introduction of a product to an existing petty commodity repetoire, which it comes to dominate, following external demands (see Gentil 1988).

The economic and social history of the Lower Middle Amazon can only be perversely characterised as stagnant and decadent in any period. What is remarkable in reconstructing the economic and social history of the area, as I have outlined briefly here, is the dynamism of the forms and techniques of local production, even if the relations of production and distribution have remained largely the same since the second half of the nineteenth century. The change from jute production to fish processing is one such example. There were two jute bundling factories in Obidos in the early 1980s, by the early 1990s, both had been converted into ice making units to store the processed fish. At the primary production point, the money earned from jute sales, allowed a number of floodplain dwellers to buy boats, which in turn were transformed into small one to four tonne capacity fishing boats. These changes did not occur over night and are by no means isolated examples of the apparent effortless ability of regional economies to adapt to external pressures. Such is the entrepreneurial ability engendered in the historical conditions under which regional societies have developed.


[1] For example, Santarém the fort was completed in 1682 and in Obidos the fort dates from 1697.

[2] It should not be forgotten that revolutionary change was occuring in France and in Haiti, with Toussaint L'Ouverture slave led rebellion.