Amazonian Routes
Indigenous Mobility and Colonial Communities in Northern Brazil
Heather F. Roller


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

The introduction challenges three durable and interrelated stereotypes about Amazonian history: that the tropical environment prevented the development of large, stable societies; that native Amazonians and their descendants were culturally predisposed to a wandering existence; and that settlement could have been imposed only from above. In contrast to works that depict the historical process of settlement as led by the colonial state, the central argument of the book is that native Amazonians used mobility to create enduring communities within the colony. The introduction explains how ethnohistorical methods have been used in this study and highlights the book's contribution to the literature (mostly coming out of Spanish America) on native mobility and the history of "colonial Indians." The relevance of anthropological, ecological, and geographical perspectives on Amazonia is also outlined here.

1From Missions to Towns: A Spatial History of Colonial Amazonian Settlement
chapter abstract

Historians have generally depicted the Amazon as a blank slate before the Pombaline reforms of the second half of the eighteenth century. One gets the impression from the literature that almost overnight, by royal decree, the Amazon filled with new villages.

2Forest Collecting Expeditions and the Pursuit of Opportunities in the Sertão
chapter abstract

This chapter and the next examine ways in which native Amazonians fulfilled their service obligations to the state while seeking social and material resources in distant places. Chapter 2 focuses on the opportunities afforded by participation in the state-sponsored collecting expeditions, which annually departed each Directorate village for the sertão, the rivers and forests of the hinterlands. Most broadly, the chapter aims to provide a satisfactory explanation for the cases of apparently voluntary participation in the expeditions—cases that undermine the conventional view that only coercion could induce Indians to take part. Using evidence drawn from the crewmen's own testimonies, collected upon the return of each expedition, the chapter shows how the collecting trips afforded room for independent action, fostered the expansion of social networks, and shaped the economic prospects of native Amazonians.

3Searching for "New People"
chapter abstract

This chapter examines a different type of state-sponsored expedition to the interior: those sent with the goal of persuading independent native groups to relocate to colonial villages. Colonial Indians maintained friendly, long-term contacts with these groups in order to persuade them to resettle, and the individuals who brought about such resettlements, or descimentos, would often receive royal privileges in exchange for what was seen as important service to the crown. The descimento process was another way in which colonial Indians collaborated with the state while pursuing their own aims outside the village and interacting with people who lived outside the areas of effective Portuguese control. This chapter presents new evidence on the participation of colonial Indians as informants, sponsors, leaders, and hosts of descimentos, and it seeks to explain why they took such active roles in what has usually been portrayed as a missionary- or state-run enterprise.

4"The Indians of This Town Ebb and Flow": Absentee Movements Within the Colonial Sphere
chapter abstract

This chapter traces the spatial trajectories of Indians who left their assigned villages and relocated, sometimes repeatedly. Some of these absentees returned to their original territories or joined fugitive communities. But that path leading into the forest and out of the Portuguese colonial sphere was not as well traveled as many contemporaries and historians have assumed. An analysis of absentee records kept by village administrators during the second half of the eighteenth century reveals that among those absentees with specified destinations, the majority headed to other Directorate villages, where they became productive members of their new communities. This finding challenges the historiography's characterization of the villages as state labor distribution centers that repelled, rather than attracted, migrants. It also calls into question the validity of the assessment, made by both contemporaries and historians, that native absenteeism had depopulated the colonial villages. Instead, one village's population loss was often another's gain.

5Defining Indians and Vagrants
chapter abstract

This chapter examines the emergence of a native and mixed-race population that was not tied to the old institutions of colonial Indian life. The existence of such a population provoked difficult questions of definition and identity, for both colonial officials and colonial subjects: Who was an Indian and who was not? Who could be obligated to serve in the villages of the Indian Directorate and who could legitimately claim exemption? As antivagrancy campaigns attempted to corral increasing numbers of Indians into the state-run villages in the 1770s and 1780s, individuals devised novel strategies to live where they wished and to control their own labor. By the end of the century, the stability of the corporate Indian villages had been undermined, and the Directorate system was abolished.

6The Struggle for Autonomy in the Early Nineteenth Century
chapter abstract

This final chapter examines the system of administration that replaced the Indian Directorate in 1798. This led to two important changes: (1) enterprises that previously had been sponsored by the crown and managed by the colonial Indian villages, such as the collecting trips and the resettlement expeditions, were privatized; and (2) colonial Indians lost their distinct legal status and were expected to assimilate into a mixed, peasant class. The chapter shows how these changes provoked an increase in regional violence and eventually contributed to the outbreak of Brazil's largest regional rebellion, the Cabanagem (1835–1840), as Indians and their mixed-race descendants struggled to defend their autonomy in a newly independent Brazil.

chapter abstract

The conclusion revolves around the various stories that have been (and still are) told about mobility in the Amazon. From early colonial narratives to nineteenth-century travel literature to contemporary stereotypes, these stories have reinforced the view that native Amazonians and their descendants lacked a connection to the land, and they have been used to justify outside intervention in the establishment of settlements. This book has offered an alternative story, of native Amazonians whose lives were mobile and rooted at the same time, and whose communities endured into the nineteenth century and beyond. It is a story that is relevant to Amazonian peasant communities today, as they attempt to claim land and resources that are threatened by powerful outsiders.

chapter abstract