British Association for American Studies


Book Review: American Mirror: The United States and Brazil in the Age of Emancipation by Roberto Saba

Princeton University Press, £30.

Despite our training in matters of context, causality, and contingency, historians still love to drop a ‘did you know’. For historians of the nineteenth century United States, one of our favourite ‘did you knows’ is that after the end of the Civil War thousands of American Confederates moved south to Brazil, where slavery remained legal. Southward migration, they hoped, would allow them to recreate the working conditions and economic prosperity of antebellum South. While their project ultimately failed, the descendants of these Confederados, who mostly settled in western São Paulo, continue to celebrate this history through monuments, re-enactments and by regularly flying the Stars and Bars.[i]

One of the many accomplishments of Roberto Saba’s American Mirror is that it reveals the deeper processes that undergirded the failure of the Confederados. By the time this Reconstruction-era migration took place, Brazil’s economic and political elite had repeatedly rejected the overtures of Southern planters, instead casting their lot with the ascendant capitalist class of the north-eastern United States. A long process of courtship, exchange and comparison helped make up their mind. As Saba elegantly writes, it was thanks to the increasing influence of this cohort and the free labour economic order that they advocated that ’the Southern proslavery utopia died twice: in the battlefields of North America and in the jungles the of Brazil’ (143).

This is a transnational study that retains a focus on the nation-state. The ‘mirror’ of the title at times functioned as a window in an alternative reality, showing Americans what the end of slavery might have looked like if had have happened following a long process of pressure, negotiation and accommodation rather than abolition as a result of a Civil War. This gradualism had a notable effect on the impact of emancipation in Brazil. As Steve Hahn noted in his 1990 American Historical Review article ‘Class and State in Postemancipation Societies’, unlike the Southern aristocracy of the United States, the landed class, or fazeindeiros, in Brazil ‘retained their property, control over labor, and local prerogatives’ after slavery was abolished there in 1888.[ii] However, whereas Hahn and others have demonstrated the power of comparison in illuminating the afterlives of slavery, Saba enriches our understanding by showing that contact between Brazilian and American ‘reformers’ (a category that here incorporates entrepreneurs, traders and factory managers as well as educators and publishers) shaped the development of capitalism in both countries in the half century between 1840 and 1890.

As well as demonstrating the consequences of this exchange on both sides of equator, the scope of the book captures the complexity of a developing national economy. Chapters pivot from country to country, city to farmland, and from intellectuals to politicians to landowners, though we hear disappointingly little about the experience or perspectives of enslaved peoples.

The book is split into two parts. The first, ‘A New World Unchained’ recounts how American and Brazilian capitalists found common interest in the years up to and including the Civil War. Chapter 2, which focuses on the investments of American entrepreneurs in infrastructure projects in Rio de Janeiro and finds that Yankee efficiency eventually trumped British arrogance when it came to courting the support of Brazilian powerbrokers, is especially impressive. The second part, ‘the World Free Labor Made’, shows how abolition in Brazil was negotiated through constant reference to the United States. Brazilians witnessed the growth of American agro-industrial capitalism from near and afar, leading them to advocate a kind of proto-development theory whereby Brazil would reach maturity by following the methods of their American neighbours. Mechanization would increase production and allow for the concentration of wealth in the hands of landowners, and the labour supply could be supplemented with a steady flow of immigrant workers from Europe. This created the conditions for the end of slavery but also foreclosed the possibility of a truly liberatory emancipation.

This is a deftly written and reasoned book. As noted in the introduction, the author sees American Mirror making three interventions in the existing literature. First, that the Brazilian embrace of free labour came in part because of the unviability of the proslavery vision of national development; second, that the belief among reformers that support for antislavery was crucial to the development of capitalism disrupts a recent tendency among historians to focus solely on those who saw emancipation as a gateway to a more egalitarian society; third, that American interests in Brazil were a formative and heretofore unappreciated influence on the United States ascent to global power in the decades before 1898.  

The first argument is made clearly and compellingly. Saba compares different American prescriptions for Brazilian national development in the decades preceding the Civil War. The assumption that a joint interest in slavery would be enough to link the interests of Brazilian and American planters (what Matthew Karp has imagined as a ‘Vast Southern Empire’) was no match for the promises of increased efficiency and innovation made by conservative modernizers.[iii] The assurance that emancipation would unleash economic growth while keeping intact the hierarchies that had legitimated the slave system ultimately convinced influential coffee planters that moving away from slavery would enable them to maximize profit and entrench their own political standing.

Arguments two or three are advanced through subtle shifts in emphasis rather than direct intervention. We learn that powerful Brazilians grew to support abolition for economic rather than moral reasons but hear very little about what this might do for our understanding of the relationship between abolition and a wider world of reform. It therefore misses the opportunity to connect the development of post-emancipation discourses on liberty and human rights with the formation of an economic order founded on free labour. Similarly, while the depth of analysis makes this story worth the attention of any scholar of American foreign relations, the author’s suggestions for this might mean for our broader understanding of American global power are regrettably brief.

These elisions may leave readers searching for more direct engagement with the author’s interlocutors, but the richness of the material more than makes up for the occasional pulled punch. Saba has both recovered the cross-continental dialogue that underwrote emancipation in the Americas and recentred the built-in limitations of the free labour system that replaced slavery on the continent. In so doing, he has rescued this important episode in the history Brazilian-US relations from the enormous condescension of the ‘did you know’.

End Notes:

[i] Associated Press, “Deep, Deep South: Brazilians Proudly Celebrate Their Confederate Ancestry,” The Guardian, 27 April, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/27/brazilians-celebrate-confederate-ancestry-deep-south.

[ii] Steven Hahn, “Class and State in Postemancipation Societies: Southern Planters in Comparative Perspective,” The American Historical Review 95, no. 1 (1990): 88.

[iii] Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).