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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 735-739
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Projeto Resgate Barão do Rio Branco:
Recuperating Sources for the History of Colonial Brazil
Geraldo Mártires Coelho
Doing historical research in Brazilian archives on the three centuries of colonial rule—extending from the Portuguese discovery in 1500 to formal independence in 1822—has always been a major challenge. Due to a variety of factors—some bureaucratic, others climatic—Brazilian archives have not traditionally been the most apt place to store the historical sources for this period. In 1838, Emperor Dom Pedro II (known for his patronage and his eagerness to construct an identity for the young Brazilian nation) founded the Instituto Histórico e Geográfico Brasileiro (IHGB) and sent research missions to Europe in search of sources for the writing of Brazil's colonial history. In other words, shortly after the end of colonial rule, the government already lamented the dearth of colonial-era source documents under its own administrative authority.
It soon became evident that those missions to European archives—which included some of the most renowned officials of the Brazilian empire, such as historian Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen (1810-78)—produced meager results. There were too few researchers relative to the mass of documents they were trying to collect, and the arduous process of copying was compounded by the difficulties in discerning which documents should be transcribed. Practically speaking, these missions produced very little in the way of documentary collections relevant to the study of the newly independent nation's colonial past.
This imperial campaign to amass documents did not just reflect an official cultural policy of Dom Pedro II. The emperor's initiative can be regarded as a representation of the cultural prospects of a nation that, in the mid-nineteenth century, continued to depend on slavery and export agriculture. Undoubtedly elitist in nature, we should not underestimate the efforts of the Brazilian imperial intelligentsia to construct the basic foundations of a Brazilian historical culture. If, in the words of Alfredo Bosi, the Brazilian national novel was born [End Page 735] with José de Alencar, then we can say the founding of the IHGB shaped the earliest explicitly national historiography, even if it was inspired by the writings of French romanticism. For the original members of this institution, the nation and national sentiment could no longer depend primarily upon foreign historians. The era of foreign historians like Portuguese Rocha Pita and the Englishman Robert Southey had ended.
Over the next 150 years, the situation in Brazil's archives (with the exception of private institutions like the IHGB, a few public ones such as the Arquivo Nacional, and a handful of state archives) progressively worsened. Brazil subjected both its architectural and its documentary patrimony to similar neglect, and vast realms of Brazilian memory were irretrievably lost, leading to the elimination or destruction of the foundations of a polymorphic Brazilian culture rooted in the colonial era. Despite these daunting conditions, much of Brazil's colonial history was researched and written in Brazil itself; these works, in the end, tended to reflect the structural difficulties this entailed.
The lacunae in the Brazilian archives could only be filled with recourse to the European archives, and particularly those in Portugal. So more recently, colonial historians responded by going abroad to archives—especially in Portugal, but also in Spain, France, and the Netherlands—that housed documents relevant to the period. Certain collections, such as those of the Inquisition or the deliberations of the Overseas Council, contained documents that had been created overseas in the first place. Thus, from the 1970s onward a significant number of young colonial historians pursued their graduate training or research in Europe. Between 1980 and 1990 a substantial portion of young Brazilian historians completed their graduate studies in Europe or the United States, a trend that would be reflected in the theoretical and methodological frameworks these students later developed in Brazil.
The general conditions for research using colonial sources began to shift around 1990, when the state of Minas Gerais...