Brazil: Five Centuries of Change (review)
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Ethnohistory 48.1-2 (2001) 377-379

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Book Review

Five Centuries of Change

Brazil: Five Centuries of Change. By Thomas E. Skidmore. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). xiv + 254 pp., introduction, maps, graphs, tables, bibliography, index. $.)

For three decades E. Bradford Burns’s A History of Brazil has been the most widely used single-volume history of Brazil in English. Rollie E. Poppino’s Brazil: The Land and People–Burns’s most important competitor–was never especially useful as a history text and has long been outdated. More recently, Ronald M. Schneider published Order and Progress: A Political History of Brazil, although it focuses almost exclusively on politics since 1889. Thomas E. Skidmore’s volume offers a serious challenge to the long-standing dominance of Burns’s text. Brazil: Five Centuries of Change was [End Page 377] written by one of our most distinguished historians of Brazil and the coauthor (along with Peter H. Smith) of one of the most widely used texts on the history of Latin America–Modern Latin America.

Skidmore’s book replaces Poppino’s old volume in Oxford’s venerable Latin American Histories series (edited by Skidmore). Brazil is extremely concise, covering five centuries in 238 pages of text. Emphasizing the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially the latter, it covers 1500—1830 in just 42 pages (two chapters). Two more chapters cover 1830—1910 in 50 pages. Nearly 60 percent of the text–four chapters and 142 pages–is devoted to the twentieth century. Nearly 100 of those pages deal with Brazil since 1964 (Skidmore’s specialty). The division of chapters follows fairly traditional political chronology and the rise of Brazil as a modern nation—state. Skidmore highlights the mixture of European, African, and indigenous peoples that creates Brazil and its own unique national identity. Brazil, he notes, "is a relatively successful multiracial society," with the largest "population of African descent outside of Africa." Yet, despite remarkable integration, it is hierarchically structured, and small elites have long been able to "defuse and deflect popular protest" (xiii). Unlike most Latin American nations, Brazil has become highly industrialized. It exemplifies the contradictions found in capitalism across the developing world.

Brazil’s greatest strength is that it is truly concise and synthetic. Some thirty-five maps, charts, and tables (or exhibits, as they are labeled in the book) provide very nice illustrative material for the narrative and analysis. For those who teach a course–or a part of a course–on Brazilian history, Skidmore’s emphasis on postcolonial and twentieth-century Brazil fits nicely into course plans and the textbook market. Not surprisingly, the book is very strong on political and economic history, especially for the twentieth century. Here Skidmore is drawing on his vast knowledge and many publications on recent Brazilian history.

For those who teach courses on Brazil that are more comprehensive, and with a strong emphasis on the colonial period, this volume will be less useful. Burns is much more comprehensive in his treatment of both the earlier centuries, and he is much stronger in his treatment of cultural and social issues. The Skidmore volume is a bit too concise at times and, for classroom use, the instructor will sometimes need to provide more explanation and supplementary information. It does set aside a good deal of space to discussion of race relations, although primarily on the black-white color continuum. Indigenous peoples are discussed, although not at great length. On a minor note, this book has far too many small errors. By my count there are some fifty typos or mistakes in the text, and the index is inadequate. It fails to include listings for a number of important terms in the text. [End Page 378]

Despite these minor irritations, Brazil: Five Centuries of Change is an excellent, concise synthesis that will likely become the standard text in English on the history of Brazil.

Marshall C. Eakin, Vanderbilt University


Burns, E. Bradford
1993   A History of Brazil. 3d ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Poppino, Rollie E.
1973   Brazil: The Land and People. 2d ed...