- Punishment in Paradise: Race, Slavery, Human Rights, and a Nineteenth-Century Brazilian Penal Colony by Peter M. Beattie
Peter M. Beattie
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015
xiv + 337 pp., $94.95 (cloth); $26.95 (paper)
Peter Beattie's Punishment in Paradise is a powerful investigation of the largest coerced-labor penal colony in nineteenth-century Brazil. Located off Brazil's northeastern coast, the island of Fernando de Noronha is today a major ecotourist destination. Was Fernando de Noronha a place of punishment or paradise? Was carrying out a sentence on the island more or less oppressive than living as a slave on the mainland or being conscripted into the Brazilian military? Probing such questions reveals competing concepts of slavery, freedom, human rights, and masculinity in the nineteenth century. Situating Fernando de Noronha in an Atlantic context, Beattie draws upon travelogues from foreign visitors and intellectual production from penologists in and outside Brazil. The heart of the source material, however, is the rich collection of letters, ledgers, and reports generated from within the prison. Papers from dozens of prison commanders and local governors provide both quantitative data—on the island's population and its microeconomies—and detailed, personal stories of convicts, their families, and their life outcomes. Beattie examines the full range of how individuals lived and labored on the island as well as how intellectuals imagined the colony should be.
Punishment in Paradise is thus a microhistory that advances larger historiographical questions about coerced labor and human rights during the age of abolition. As previous works in this vein have demonstrated, rather than a binary of slavery and freedom, a spectrum of "unfree" statuses abounded in the nineteenth century. For example, Beattie's earlier work, The Tribute of Blood (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), revealed how Brazilian soldiers, often poor men of color conscripted into the military, might count among the unfree. Punishment in Paradise builds upon this literature by focusing on how a vast array of unfree peoples overlapped in one penal colony and how they were organized according to shifting ideologies not only of crime and punishment but also of gender and sexuality.
Beattie uses the term "category drift" to describe how the "intractable poor" of Brazil were vulnerable to changes in social and legal status, moving in and out of categories like slave, freedman, convict, and soldier (5–6). Although race is in the subtitle of the book, Beattie finds that it was poverty that brought men and women to the island. The first chapter surveys Fernando de Noronha from the point of view of one arriving on its shores. In prisons structured like military barracks and private convict homes that were like slave shanties, the built spaces of the island exemplified the slippage between these varieties of legal status. Several chapters detail the lived experience of convicts, from their spiritual and social activities to the types of labor and commerce they performed to sustain the colony. Other chapters speak more broadly to competing intellectual debates on [End Page 103] criminology, penology, and human rights, such as whether flogging, torture, or capital punishment were just instruments of punishment.
A chapter titled "The Jealous Institution and Brazilian Penology" explores the key theme of heterosexuality and family status as well as how the nuclear family was an organizing principle of the prison. Married men were privileged among the convict population and were allowed to live with their families. Penologists imagined convicts' wives as tools to maintain order in the colony (to the point that some were accused of "recruiting" women to the island as a solution to both male homosexuality and romantic rivalries). Sections of this chapter that compare brothels to military barracks and present personal stories about gendered honor are excellent.
One criticism is that women, who made up to 20 percent of the island population (mostly children, some wives of convicts and guards, and a small minority of female convicts), remain on the fringes of the book if not necessarily of the island. This may be due to a lack of adequate sources. Although the book is...