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CR: The New Centennial Review 2.1 (2002) 117-181

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The Accident of America:
Marginal Notes on the European Conquest of the World

Luis Madureira
University of Wisconsin-Madison

At the invitation of Universal History,
which had set the holiday for April 21,
Admiral Pedro Álvares Cabral
arrived with a fleet of shimmering caravels
in a naval procession of topmasts and sails,
of standards and of crosses,
of cassocks, halberds, armors and arquebuses
to inaugurate the future Republic
of the United States of Brazil.1

—Menotti del Picchia, República dos Estados Unidos do Brasil (1928)

In a poetry collection published with considerable fanfare In 1924, Oswald de Andrade, the well-known Brazilian avant-gardist, refers derisively to Pedro Álvares Cabral's fortuitous mooring off the South American coast on April 21, 1500, as "the Brazils accident" 2 [o acaso dos Brasis]. Cabral, "the man who invented Brazil," 3 commanded the second Calicut-bound Portuguese fleet that departed from Lisbon in the wake of Vasco da Gama's return from his fateful rounding of the Cape of Good Hope. The accidental sighting [End Page 117] of the land the Portuguese initially named Vera Cruz is something of a commonplace in Luso-Brazilian history. Notwithstanding its reproduction in the majority of the sixteenth-century chronicles of Portugal's "conquests and discoveries," 4 it has been dismissed as implausible by at least one eminent historian, who asserts—without substantiation—that "historians now agree that Cabral followed a determined route [uma orientação determinada] so as to proceed with the exploration of a geographic zone whose existence had been suspected" 5 (Serrão, História de Portugal, 3:102). On the other side, and in keeping with a contemporaneous and continent-wide effort to redefine the cultural identity of America, Oswald de Andrade sees in the random discovery of Brazil a sign of the contingency and arbitrariness of Portugal's claim of colonial possession, an historical demonstration of Brazil's cultural independence. To quote Mário de Andrade, Oswald's prominent fellow traveler, "the accidental Cabral [o acaso dos Cabrais] . . . having by probable accident [acaso] discovered Brazil for the probable first time, ended up claiming Brazil for Portugal." 6

These ludic accounts of Portugal's colonization of "the province of Santa Cruz" appear to anticipate a familiar "postcolonial" critique of the myth of Europe's cultural predisposition for the conquest of the world. They adumbrate what Gayatri Spivak defines as "the alternative to Europe's long story . . . not only short tales (petits réçits) but tampering with the authority of storylines. In all beginning, repetition, signature." 7 Against a Eurocentric civilizational itinerary, which Hegel famously lays out in The Philosophy of History, the Brazilian modernists intimate not only that Europe's hegemony may not have been the result of its superiority of mind, culture, or environment, but that, as a recent scholar has argued, "it has [to] be seen in a context of shared technological and geographical knowledge, high potential for commercial success, and other factors that place it, in a hemispheric perspective, as something that could have been undertaken by non-Europeans just as easily as by Europeans." 8 As Fernand Braudel queries, alluding to the early fifteenth-century (1405-33) expeditions that took Ming squadrons, under the command of the great eunuch admiral Zheng He, as far as Arabia and the Abyssinian coast: "What if the Chinese junks had sailed round the cape of Good Hope in 1419, in the middle of the European recession we refer [End Page 118] to as the Hundred Years' War—and world domination had fallen to the lot of that huge and distant country, that other pole of the populated world?" 9 "How was it that . . . Arab navigation stopped short just before 'the powerful current of Mozambique, which carries ships . . . south,' [and thus] did not lead to Arab domination of the world?" 10 In this paper I should like to explore the extent to which the aleatory character of European domination unsettles the authority of the West's long...


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