The paradox of diversity and unity has fascinated and puzzled students of Brazilian history. While neither the first nor the last to marvel at the apparent contradiction, Karl Friedrich Philipp von Martius revealed some of the most penetrating insights into the problem in his perceptive essay published in 1844 on how to write the history of Brazil. He warned of the undesirable extremes of writing either a history of each province in the vast empire, which would becloud an understanding of the broad forces contributing to national history, or a general study, which would lose sight of local peculiarities.
Concern with that dilemma has characterized Brazilian historiography. In the twentieth century João Ribeiro focused his attention on the problem and decided that the best approach to Brazilian history would be through a study of its “historic-geographic areas,” those “fundamental cells of the national organism.” He seems to be the direct inspiration for Ernani Silva Bruno’s work. Concerned with the traditional historiographical problem, Bruno offers his solution in these seven volumes: the histories of six large regions, the Amazon, Northeast, Bahia, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, Sao Paulo and the South, and the Far West, capped with a general history of Brazil.
The first six volumes follow an unvarying pattern. Each opens with “A Few Words to the Reader,” some broad statements to characterize the salient events to be discussed. It then proceeds into the main text, essays on the formation and development of the region whose total length averages approximately 160 pages per volume. Appended to each study are a chronological résumé, a regional vocabulary, a bibliography, and an index. Weaving together the various threads of regional history, the final volume offers a broad tapestry of national development. It opens with a general introduction in place of “A Few Words to the Reader” and closes with the usual appendices, minus, of course, the regional vocabulary. All the volumes contain excellent illustrations.
Historiographical problems plague an undertaking of this nature. For one, it would seem that the general history might have contributed more as an introduction and hence should have been the first rather than the final volume. For another, separating the histories of Maranhão and Pará, in the Northeast and Amazon volumes respectively, hardly seems logical either geographically or historically. After all, both were united as one administrative unit until 1772. The author, however, has minimized the problems, and he presents a novel historical and historiographical study worthy of serious consideration. There is no new material in the text, but, on the other hand, Bruno’s synthesis, interpretation, and periodization merit respectful attention. Equally laudable, he concerns himself with far more than the usual political history, devoting sufficient attention to economic, social, and cultural topics. This work is a handy reference tool.