- Naked Tropics: Essays on Empire and Other Rogues
Whether tackling scholarly subjects or commenting on issues of the day, Kenneth Maxwell always writes with scintillating wit and charm. He reads widely, plunges into archives to carry out original research, and makes it his practice to see the broad picture. In this collection of previously printed essays and articles, preceded by a brief memoir of his first encounter with Brazil (which tells us more about him than about Brazil), he seeks to introduce the reader to a broad range of subjects, stretching from the culture of sixteenth-century pirates to the situation of Macao on the eve of China's takeover in 2000.
He writes about the larger context for Columbus' enterprise, focusing on how the Portuguese had, well before him, made "a great leap of global geographical perception" (p. 32). In another chapter he recalls the brilliant career of the now-forgotten Portuguese savant Abbé Corrêa da Serra, who became a good friend of Thomas Jefferson, visiting him often at Monticello. He also takes the Amazon as his subject: the destruction of its forests and native inhabitants, and the frustrated effort of Chico Mendes to create extractive reserves for the rubber tappers. Strangely, however, [End Page 687] none of his work on Portugal in the 1970s is included here. Having all these contributions together in one volume is certainly useful, especially since it includes a comprehensive index even to the authors mentioned in the footnotes, but it is difficult to know the audience for which the book is intended. Some of the more substantive sections can profitably be used in undergraduate instruction, but probably only in photo-copied form.
The intellectual core of the book centers on Maxwell's old and continuing love: the trans-Atlantic Portuguese empire during the "long" eighteenth century, from 1660 to 1807. By then Asia had lost its previous importance for Portugal, merchants were politically ascendant in the mother country, and England both posed a danger to the empire and offered protection from France and Spain. As he did in a prize-winning 1968 essay (not included here), Maxwell stresses how Enlightenment ideas—much more widely accepted in Portugal than one might think—had ambivalent meanings, for adherents could either emphasize the importance of scientific and technological advances and the need for rational, strong, centralized government or advocate for constitutional checks on the power of absolutist rulers. This ambivalence transpires clearly when Maxwell examines how the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Portuguese empire fitted into Pombal's economic and political scheme as well as into his effort to reform education. In a paper delivered before the Royal Historical Society in London, Maxwell broadens his purview somewhat to glance at the Spanish American aspect of the trans-Atlantic trade, the Bourbon reforms, and the competition of England and France in the Caribbean. A well-known chapter convincingly traces how the republican ideas voiced in the conspiracy hatched in Minas Gerais in the late 1780s gave way to a conservative reaction on both sides of the Atlantic in the face of the French and, especially, the Haitian Revolutions, leading to a trans-Atlantic consensus on the value of a united Portuguese empire. I am less impressed by his chapter on Brazilian independence, as it seems intent on proving a negative, namely that Brazil was not like either Spanish or English America. On the other hand, there are here as elsewhere small gems of interpretation and stimulating insights, such as his notion that in 1820 Portugal declared its independence from Brazil, well before Brazil did the same in relation to Portugal.
At times Maxwell expresses his impatience with those historians who slight the importance of individual actors or focus more on economic and social forces than on ideas. Yet he himself is careful to place the actions of men (women are notably absent from this book) and the significance of their thought within the economic and social context of their time. This is as it should be...