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  • Legislating the Lash: Race and the Conflicting Modernities of Enlistment and Corporal Punishment in the Military of the Brazilian Empire
  • Zachary R. Morgan

During the period of Brazilian Empire (1822–1889), members of the elite, who were for the first time independent from the Portuguese state, implemented a series of radical changes in their pursuit of “modernization.” In doing so, they hoped to place Brazil on the world stage. For Brazil, and especially for its new capital city of Rio de Janeiro, the period of Empire represented a break from the colonial past; its government, economy, and labor sources were eventually all but reinvented. Both the government and private citizens spent vast funds “modernizing” Brazil’s great cities, creating public works, changing public health, and building an industrial economy. While these changes continued and accelerated throughout Brazil’s First Republic (1889–1930), this article examines the beginning of Brazil’s modernization efforts.

The Brazilian military was a crucial institution in crafting Brazil’s modernity. In the early decades of the empire, Pedro II and parliament reorganized the military to shift power away from regional militias into a centralized national institution. Based on a European model, the colonial Latin American militaries had “performed seemingly contradictory functions by enforcing royal law while collecting, watching over, and employing males considered criminal, menacing, or, at best, unproductive.”2 Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the modern Brazilian prison system remained a nascent institution. The population of desprotegidos, or the unprotected, consisted of vagrants, criminals, orphans, and the unemployed. Not surprisingly, in a society that relied on the labor of enslaved African men and women for nearly four centuries, Afro-Brazilians made up the bulk of this economically underprivileged group. The political elite wished for the desprotegidos to be “controlled,” and that control often took the form of widespread arrest and, for men, subsequent impressment into one of the military branches. The military therefore took on a proto-penal role as a receptacle for Brazil’s undesirables.3

Following the end of the legal African slave trade in 1850, manumission led to rapid growth among the free black population. In addition, many ex-slaves fled the plantations of the countryside to find work in the urban centers, work that generally did not materialize. As Thomas Holloway argued in his Policing Rio de Janeiro, the role of administrator for Afro-Brazilians shifted from the private, the slave master during the era of slavery, to the public, the police force, prison and military in the post-abolition period. Brazil’s government had to control, rule, and represent this free black population. The progress so important to the Brazilian elite during this period—the modernization of Brazil in its own eyes and in the eyes of the world—was inextricably linked to the visibility and controllability of Afro-Brazilian bodies. Only by “cleansing” the cities of their “undesirable” elements could the Brazilian elite hope to present their cities as modern metropolises equal to their European and North American counterparts.4

Among historians of Brazil, a common argument exists that members of the military elite (officers in the army and navy) shared a common definition and goal of modernity. However, scholars too often present the changes implemented by the two branches of Brazil’s armed forces as a shared single policy, folding policies affecting the navy, for example, into changes taking place in the army.5 An examination of nineteenth-century military policy shows us that the military elite in each branch of service, although deeply committed to the “Order & Progress” that adorns the Brazilian flag, did not share a common agenda; even if in name they shared the common goal of “modernization.” In fact, the means by which officers of the Brazilian army and navy conceived and implemented modernity were not only distinct from one another; at their core they were often mutually exclusive. After the Brazilian empire’s embarrassing difficulties in filling the military ranks during the Paraguayan War (1865–70), parliament looked to improve military recruitment with the passage of the Recruitment Laws of 1874. For members of parliament and army officers as well, the goal of modernization was imagined through the adaptation of...

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