The Americas 60.4 (2004) 655-656
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Perhaps a half million people perished in northeastern Brazil in 1877-79, victims of the Great Drought—roughly 14% of the region's population, and 5% of Brazil's total. Yet this infamous event, which traumatized the region and shaped its history and perception, has had little scholarly attention. Greenfield's is a brief and acute analysis of the way in which the drought was perceived, confronted, and used, that not only addresses this lacuna but sheds light on imperial society and politics generally.
Greenfield researched debates, periodicals, correspondence, government reports, and the apposite secondary sources. While informed by discourse analysis, his approach typifies the best in traditional methodologies, in a deftly handled balance. Thus, while he discusses the way in which the catastrophe was perceived and portrayed, he also demonstrates the distance and relationship between such discourse and the material impact of the drought. Despite the coarse cruelty narrated, the analysis is generally dispassionate and judicious. While he makes it clear that the national and local elites used the drought for their own benefit, constructed it in terms of convenience, and perceived its victims in terms of contempt, fear, and ignorance, Greenfield generally eschews dismissive generalizations. Instead, particularly in his discussion of the political and local aspects of the drought, he displays the rich complexities of imperial life. Here, the past recovered is grim, for political figures used the drought for patronage, to secure cheap labor, and to build pet projects. [End Page 655] Then, when the costs became inconvenient, they declared the drought over and drove the survivors back into the hinterland.
At times, Greenfield seems to accept the established literature's caricature of the political elite as a monolithic mandarinate, detached from the provincial reality of the Northeast. Fortunately, this is implicitly contradicted by Greenfield's own fine research. His study of social and political practices at the local and national levels makes it clear that views of the drought's victims (sertanejos or backlanders) were more a matter of class assumptions than extra-regional prejudice or lack of local experience. Greenfield could have stated that familiarity with the reality did not hinder such assumptions—they were more a matter of social hierarchy and elite Europeanization. Indeed, one could cite very similar views about the local rural poor of the south by southern, ruling-class spokesmen. Again, despite the author's occasional conflation of imperial elite, Rio elite, and political elite, his adroit discussion of drought politics and policy belies such reductionism. Instead of a uniform political elite ruling from and for the center, he gives us back a past of contingency and center-periphery dialectic, in which politicians weave ephemeral webs of patronage and power spun and suspended between the nation's capital and its far-flung provincial counties.
The piece points to a number of possible research targets. For example, as Euclides da Cunha and others since have indicated, racial assumptions about the backlanders can probably be teased out of the discourse, and would be important in understanding elite prejudices. The impact of the drought on local power structures analyzed here might also be pursued as a significant factor enabling abolitionism in the years immediately following. Finally, the place of the Great Drought in the hinterland's tradition of mass violence, extending back to the Regency rebellions, the Quebra-Quilos rebellion, and forward to the Canudos war, might be worked out in a larger history of hinterland political mobilization. In such future work, Greenfield will be owed much, for he has compelled us to come to terms with the event and with what it tells us about Brazil's nineteenth century.
Jeffrey D. Needell