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Foreword–Blame It on Rio

The Historical Vocation of Kenneth Maxwell

In one of his arresting and subtle works, Finding the Center (1984), V. S. Naipaul writes of the promptings of his craft and offers a narrative of his literary beginnings—a narrative intended to “admit the reader to the process of writing.” By now we know the themes and the methods of that writer: the journey from his small birthplace in Trinidad to the metropolitan center, the panic of arrival, the wanderlust that took him to distant lands in a world beginning to shake off its colonial heritage. There was glamour in the travel, and knowledge, the gathering together of the strands of a man’s life and background. In these pages by the gifted historian Kenneth Maxwell, we are “admitted” into the process of writing as well. A historian of great talent, working at the peak of his powers, takes us into the promptings of his own vocation. Piece by exquisite piece in this book, we see the historian’s method and the concerns that have been the driving passions of his life for four decades now: the peopling of the Americas, the shaking up of continents, the spirit that took a “precocious” Portugal into its imperial venture, the play between Portugal’s extensive imperial reach into Africa and Asia and the Americas, and the limits of its own demography and abilities, the rise of Brazil and its tumultuous history.  

The direction of Professor Maxwell’s journey reverses Naipaul’s, though. With the historian, it is the pushing outward of a child of the empire, a young man at Cambridge venturing into the tropics. Born in 1941, Maxwell belonged to a generation that was hanging on with its fingernails to the old imperial order. On a “misty, cold, damp, and dreary East Anglian evening,” in an old picture palace that had reinvented itself as an “art theater,” Maxwell had seen Marcel Camus’s film Black Orpheus. It “could not have been a greater revelation,” he writes. The ancient story set against the tropical background, the color and the vibrancy of that background, hooked him. “I determined immediately that Brazil, and above all, Rio de Janeiro, was somewhere I had to go.” He went there via Lisbon, and in that great Luso-Brazilian world he was to find his material, and his range, and they are on full display here. This “material” could have supplied great fiction or travel writing: Maxwell himself, as these beautiful pieces demonstrate, with their love of color, with their ability to conjure up a forlorn colonial outpost on the South China Sea (Macao), or the teeming streets of Brazil’s cities, or the life and murder of a rubber tapper, a union activist, in the hinterland of Brazil by a violent clan of ranchers, could have pulled it off and produced that sort of literary work. But he is a historian of ideas, and of social and economic life, and his insatiable, boundless curiosity infuses this work with an energy and a life all its own.  

Edward Gibbon, as we learn from the late historian John Clive’s loving tribute to the reading and writing of history, Not by Fact Alone (1989), once called the historian’s first person “the most disgusting of pronouns.” Gibbon was giving voice to an ambivalence, for the historian’s “I” was there in his work, in his footnotes, in the text itself, the writer’s personality and attitudes toward the subjects at hand. Macaulay, too, used his first person to convey to his readers a sense of immediacy, of places seen and oral histories he had collected. So did Tocqueville who had his own way of taking the reader into his confidence, of letting the reader know what that liberal aristocratic historian thought of revolutionary violence and pretensions, Clive tells us. The narrator’s “I” gives this work by Maxwell its unique place in what this prolific historian has produced. We saw precious little (directly, that is) of Maxwell when he produced his seminal biography of Portugal’s leading eighteenth-century statesman, Marquês de Pombal, and his attempt at a revolution from above, Pombal: Paradox of the Enlightenment (1995). Nor would we have surmised much about the historian had we read his definitive accounts of the Portuguese Revolution of 1974, or of the political traffic between Portugal and Brazil in the second half of the eighteenth century. This work is different: we are truly taken into the narrator’s confidence, admitted into the craft of writing. The personal pronoun is never intrusive though. There is a kind of trust between historian and reader, an illicit pact of sorts.  

We know and trust this historian: we are eager to travel with him to Macao or the Amazon forests; we are eager for him to tell us about other historians and chroniclers. We pick up his trail—and his likes and dislikes, for that matter. When he writes that Carlos Fuentes is “never one to use two words if more will do,” and that that Mexican writer in one of his works throws at the reader “every stereotype of hispanidad propaganda (Bulls, Virgins, Tangos, Gauchos, Don Quixote),” he gives voice to his readers’ verdict (most of them, I hazard to guess) on that exhibitionist writer. “My Portuguese was the swallowed nasal Portuguese of Lisbon, and I was utterly unprepared for the musicality, rhythm, and softness of Brazilian speech,” he writes on the occasion of meeting his first Brazilian in his academic supervisor’s office at Princeton. Until then his Brazil had been “entirely phantasmogorical,” he adds, the stuff of books and films. The historian’s trail, and the anxiety of the first probings of an alien world: they come together for us in that episode. And we don’t have to search for the historian’s pride in the world he had come to adopt in the Americas. It is there in Maxwell’s sense of exasperation with the “provincialism” of Europe. The Old World may have “discovered” and disrupted the New World, but the latter remade the Old Continent, he reminds us. The educated Europeans may have been fixated on classical literature and Renaissance cosmology. But they did so, he adds, while “drinking their American-produced coffee, smoking American-produced tobacco, binding their texts between American leather hides, and enjoying the leisure that the dividends from overseas investments made possible.”  

At the heart of this book, its binding if you will, is of course Portugal’s imperial journey: it is the historian’s beat and his pride. It was the Portuguese, he reminds us, who linked the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, who mapped the coastline of Asia, and explored the African coastline from Cape Verde in the West to the mouth of the Red Sea in the East. In one of those mysterious spurts that enable a particular people to do stunning, surprising feats, the Portuguese recast and revisioned the world. Their advantage, we learn, was less navigational than conceptual: their cartography enabled them to arrive at a “new graphic conception of global space.” The Portuguese broke the monopoly of the trans-Saharan trade route between West Africa and the southern shores of the Mediterranean. In less than two decades after Vasco da Gama’s voyage of discovery of 1497–1498, Portugal had claimed a vast dominion: Brazil in 1500, Goa in 1510, Malacca in 1511, Hormuz in 1515, and so on. Portugal aimed for the passageways of trade, the “choke points” of international trade: Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Mombassa and Mozambique, Malacca, the Azores, Macao at the mouth of the Pearl River in China, Cape Verde. The Portuguese must have intuited their own weakness. Portugal, Maxwell reminds us, was after all, a “small country with a large empire.” No wonder the Portuguese hugged the coasts—and stayed aloof from the interior of the worlds they probed and ventured into.  

Weakness—and backwardness—stalked the imperial push. The nemesis was not far behind. In the span of a few decades after that remarkable spurt, Portugal itself slipped under Castilian hegemony in 1580. A deranged monarch had taken the country and its nobility on a quixotic crusade into North Africa; the venture had issued in tragedy and the decimation of the country’s nobility. Philip II had offered a traumatized Portugal rescue. But an absentee, semi-alien monarch would not do. Portugal was to recover its independence in 1640, but the imperial thrust was broken. There would be no Portuguese empire in the Orient. The very national epic of Portugal’s voyages of discovery, The Lusiads, by the great poet Luís Vaz de Camões, published in 1572, was a lament for what might have been. There was patriotism aplenty in Camões, and there was national pride, to be sure. The poet, who had spent seventeen of his adult years as a sailor and soldier in Goa, Cochin, and Macao, praised Portugal’s urge to “discover the sun’s very cradle in the East.” But Camões himself was a child of disappointment. The trajectory of his country—the early success, then the steady retreat from progress, and Castilian rule—brackets his life. He was born the year Vasco da Gama died, in 1524; he died in 1580, right as his country was slipping under the Castilian noose. Portugal succumbed to despondency, and the sorrow is there in The Lusiads, and a knowledge of the heartache that came with the imperial temptation. In Canto IV, a wise old man comes to the shore to bid farewell to the voyagers and to weep for his country, and for the sorrow that imperial appetite heaped upon her:  

Oh craving of command! Oh vain Desire! Oh vainest vanity man miscalleth Fame! Oh fraudulent gust, so easy fanned to fire By breath of vulgar, aping Honour’s name! What just and dreadful judgement deals thine ire, To seely souls who overlove thy claim! What deaths, what direful risks, what agonies Wherewith thou guerdonest them, thy fitting prize!

What new disaster dost thou here design? What horror of our realm and race invent? What unheard dangers or what deaths condign, Veiled by some name that soundeth excellent? What bribe of gorgeous reign, and golden mine, Whose ready offer is so rarely meant? What fame hast promised them? What pride of story? What palms? What triumphs? What victorious glory? That sorrow and despondency of Portugal—and the urge for reform and repair—are caught in Maxwell’s pages. But that despondency that until recent years hovered over Portugal, a steady shadow and companion, did not travel to Brazil. The tropics worked their will here. Indeed, it is doubtful, I would think, that a child of an empire in decline (Britain) of Maxwell’s temperament would have been hooked on another somber land. There may have been troubles in Brazil, but the history was one of tumult and possibilities. In that Luso-Brazilian encounter, the issue, the child of the encounter, bounced with greater freedom, had less burden to carry than the motherland. In its passage from colony to imperial center (the monarchy had quit Portugal for Brazil in the wake of Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies’ invasion of Portugal in 1807) to independent nationhood in 1822, Brazil charted its own course; Portugal had for all practical purposes become a dependency of Brazil. A central theme of Brazil’s history, and a theme that Maxwell handles with amazing skill, concerns the tension between liberty and order in Brazilian history. In a land where the whites constituted a distinct minor ity, the revolution that held the attention of the oligarchs and the elite of the land was not the American Revolution in 1776 but the Haitian slave revolt. In Haiti’s fire, in the success of its rebels, the Brazilian elite saw the specter of its own undoing. There was fear of revolutionary “contagion” and a recognition that a society that would give unfettered run to the idea of “equality” in a land “ordered by racial as much as by social hierarchy” would be torn asunder. Progress in this outwardly flamboyant land was tethered to order. Nor was the American republic, for that matter, so keen on seeing its liberty replicated in the South American landscape. In a characteristic bit of homage to liberty’s reach, Thomas Jefferson, in 1820, had written to a Portuguese-born friend, Abbé Corrêa da Serra, in praise of a new world in the Americas free of the curse of Europe’s wars, of a day over the horizon when the fleets of Brazil and the United States would ride together “as brethren of the same family and pursuing the same object.” Jefferson was in retirement in Monticello then. As Maxwell reminds us, the decisive American voice on the independent nations of South America belonged to John Quincy Adams both as secretary of state between 1817 and 1825 and as president in the four crucial years that followed. Adams was bereft of tropical romance. “He saw South Americans as irredeemably corrupted by the Roman Catholic religion, Iberian tradition, and the tropical climate.” Brazil had to find its own mix of liberty and racial assimilation. Maxwell allows Brazil its final flourish and vindication, a signature of its own on this great quest: the seminal, great figure of its independence, Jose Bonifácio, was a metallurgist. He aimed for a Brazilian race that would “amalgamate” all the diverse “metals” of Brazil, blend them into a common national identity. * * * Now a word about the “introducer’s” personal pronoun. My knowledge of the Americas is rather scant, of the Iberian world a bit better. My authority for writing these brief pages of appreciation I owe to Kenneth Maxwell’s flattering and surprising invitation. I couldn’t have declined the honor, though undeserved. Circles are closed and connections are made in these pages. It was at Princeton where Maxwell met his first Brazilian, as we were told. It was there, on the same campus, a decade later, where I met Professor Maxwell. We are roughly the same age; he had grabbed the colonial drama of the time, Portugal’s struggle with its last African colonies and Portugal’s struggle at home with its rebellious young officers who had had their fill with imperial burden. It was with excitement that I can still call up that I read his magnificent depiction of the Portuguese Revolution of 1974, and my admiration of his craft has never ceased.  

My second claim is given me by the work itself. Maxwell writes of broken worlds and “hollow empires.” A child and a chronicler of matters and lands Islamic and Arab, I know something of that malady and of the trajectory of civilizations that rise on impulse, draw on mysterious energy, and then succumb to despondency. I may be unfamiliar with the settings of Professor Maxwell’s work, but the themes are innately, painfully, familiar. The very first time I came upon fado music and songs, I understood not a word, but I intuitively, readily, caught the themes and the mood—love and loss and lament. I had no difficulty “entering” the haunting songs of the great Amália Rodrigues: we have her peer in the legendary Egyptian woman singer Umm Kulthum, who must be reckoned the twentieth century’s greatest Arabic singer, and whose themes and tone were evocations of loss and sorrow. The “fado” in the Portuguese fragments by Maxwell is familiar to me in the same way. Of all of Maxwell’s work, this work is meant for the general reader (hence my casting) who wants to know about the history of chocolate, or the voyages of discovery that have remade our world, or the true historical sociology of pirates and piracy.  

Our towering historians are few and far between. In the age of the 24/7 cable channels and the gabfest and the instant analysts, those historians are sure to become rarer still. Attribution, rigor, fidelity to sources, once the assumed tools and ways of the craft, are flung on the sidelines. Behold in these pages this distinguished historian, the (younger) peer of Bernard Lewis on Islam and C. Vann Woodward on Southern history and Arthur Schlesinger on the American experience and David Landes on economic history. In these pages we are in the hands of a guide who truly owns his field, and roams its expanses with easy authority and a genuine wonder at the ways of our world.  

Fouad Ajami