Global Amazonia

It is ironic that a location with deep global connections -the Amazon- has long been thought of as a pristine refuge, ecologically and culturally, from the rest of the world. Over the last two decades, people have come to realize however, that the Amazon was always managed forest, with a significant population that shaped their environment to meet their needs. A recent BBC program entitled “Unnatural Histories- the Amazon” captures the evidence that has changed how we thought about the Amazon’s prehistory. We now know that the Amazon was not always isolated from neighboring regions in its prehistory. The Tupi people spread from the Amazon to the Brazilian coast, replacing the existing population. The Inca employed Amazonian forces as archers, while Guarani raided as far as the Andes. The Caribs spread out into the islands of the Caribbean, where they later met Columbus. The region was integrated with neighboring peoples throughout South America.

These great population movements continued after contact with Europeans. Tupi prophetic traditions caused mass migrations in the early colonial period. More important, however, were the flood of refugees from Brazil’s Atlantic coast, as Indigenous peoples sought to flee from the invaders. For this reason, in the colonial period there were Spanish priests in the Andean regions who met Indigenous peoples who were originally from the coast. Elders in the tribes could remember their childhood on the Atlantic. Throughout the early colonial period, slave raiders set out from Belem along the main course of the Amazon, which quickly led to the depopulation of the main branch of the river. The Jesuits fought the slave raiders, but they also settled the native peoples into manufactured settlements called “reductions,” where they were far more vulnerable to disease.

There were also mass movements from the Old World into the Amazon. In 1769 the Portuguese Crown tired of trying to defend the population of Mazagao in Morocco. The crown ordered that the entire population be moved to Amazonia, in what is now the state of Amapa, so as to assert Portuguese control over this region. The main goal (as Maria Cardeira da Silva and Jose Alberto Silva Tabim have written) was to protect the area from the incursions of the French to the North. This was to be expected, as the Amazon was long fought over by the Dutch, French and English. By this time the Amazon had undergone a devastating drop in Indigenous populations, as elsewhere in the Americas, so severe that it may have triggered the Little Ice Age, because reforestation drew carbon out of the atmosphere.

In the nineteenth century the Rubber Boom flooded the forest with people from north-eastern Brazil, the United States, Europe and beyond. While the theft of rubber seeds by Henry Wickham led to the collapse of the Rubber Boom in 1910, the Amazon had been drawn deeply into the global economy. In the early twentieth century the young American Walter Hardenburg had entered into a contest with the Peruvian rubber baron Julio Arana over atrocities along the Putamayo river, then claimed by both Peru and Colombia. The case ultimately led to a Parliamentary inquiry in London, and a dramatic showdown between the two men, because Arana’s company was incorporated in London. Foreign capital has long been key to Amazonian development.

This is not to say that there are not important cultural survivals. But the Amazon as it exists today is the result of a long process of cultural and economic globalization. It is not some kind of lost world, as envisaged by Arthur Conan Doyle. I think about this every time I hear about “uncontacted tribes.” I don’t believe such peoples exist, at least not in the sense of a group of people whose history is uninfluenced by the outside world. There are people who flee from outsiders. John Hemming’s work describes the lengthy battles that native peoples fought to maintain their independence. I wonder how many of the “lost tribes” had ancestors who once lived in missions, but after the expulsion of the Jesuits had returned to live with their relatives in the forest. Or how many had originally lived along a main tributary of the river, but then fled into the interior to flee slave raiders or rubber tappers.

The Amazon is a forest defined by a long human presence, and that history is largely one of its Indigenous inhabitants. But it is not the story of an isolated region removed from economic and cultural globalization. I’m teaching a course on Amazonia this summer, and one of my key goals for the class is to have the students see the connections between local peoples and international forces. In some respects, Amazonia is much like the Arctic, in that it is an area deeply impacted by globalization, which is still often perceived as being relatively pristine, although newly threatened by outside forces. The people of Nova Mazagao, living in the Amazon with their memories of the Sahara, may have had a different perspective. In 1783 they suffered an epidemic from an unknown tropical disease, which caused heavy losses. They then received permission from Queen Maria the first to leave their new home. Many moved 30 kilometers away to what is now Sao Tiago, which still celebrates a festival celebrating the struggle with the Moors. Curious? Check out this short video here, which makes the point more clearly than I can about the long history of globalization in the Amazon.

Finally, if you are interested in Latin America, you might wish to see my own book on military terror and political history in Brazil. Also, if you do click on the link, please ignore the book’s ugly cover.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University


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