The centerpiece of this well-laid historical table is the conjuração mineira, that abortive revolt whose unhappy outcome signalled the failure of an early break with Portugal, and which was later resurrected after 1822 by a new nation in search of its heroic roots. Since independence, historians in Brazil have alternately eulogized or denigrated both the conspiracy and its tragic central figure, Tiradentes. Often the importance of the movement was made to rest on the significance of its hero and when the latter was found wanting, the former was disregarded. Kenneth Maxwell in this recent and important book has presented a new interpretation of the Minas conspiracy, which breaks through this old impass by arguing that the stillborn movement was the result of changes in Brazil’s colonial status and was subsequently the stimulus of a series of imperial changes that breathed new life into the colonial system. By studying the conspiracy in terms of the changing equations of Anglo-Portuguese and Luso-Brazilian relations, Maxwell needs neither heroes nor successes to see the significance of the event. Whether the Minas conspiracy is, as Maxwell makes it, the central event of the period, however, remains to be seen.
The book is well-conceived and executed. The title is appropriate, since both Brazil and Portugal are the author’s concerns, and, in fact, some of the best pages are devoted to figures and events in the metropolis. While Maxwell has used social and especially economic data (the statistical appendix is excellent), the book is primarily a political narrative and analysis. Archives in Brazil, Portugal, and England were consulted, and much use has been made of the seven volumes of investigation and trial proceedings (Autos da Devassa de Inconfidencia mineira) published in the 1930s. Maxwell, however, frankly states that this volume’s originality stems not so much from new sources as from a new reading and interpretation of materials already familiar to historians. This was almost inevitable since the Inconfidencia mineira is perhaps the most studied event in colonial Brazilian history. But, it is also because of traditional historiographical concern with this subject that a challenging new interpretation is all the more welcome.
The organization of the book is chronological, and the thesis, while complex, is presented in a simple and straightforward manner. In effect, the eight chapters fall into three sections, each of which represents a separate part of the argument, and together they present Maxwell’s view of the Luso-Brazilian connection, 1750-1808. The first two chapters set the stage by examining the changing relationship between Portugal and England in the mid-eighteenth century. Here Maxwell demonstrates how the actions of Pombal in the 1750s eventually combined with changing economic conditions in Brazil and the Atlantic world in the 1760s, to turn the balance of Anglo-Portuguese trade in favor of Portugal by the 1770s. Having established these changes, Chapter Three then seeks to demonstrate alterations in the colonial relationship between Brazil and the metropolis. Maxwell argues that the rise of a powerful Portuguese mercantile bourgeoisie and the eventual removal of the restraining, or perhaps more perceptive, policies of Pombal, led in the 1780s to the rise of an unbridled neo-mercantilism. This in turn generated the growing impatience of the Brazilian elite and stimulated ideas of independence.
The next four chapters comprise the core of the book. They trace the background, origins, personnel, and events of the conspiracy from inception to betrayal and trial. It is impossible here to do justice to the richness of the detail or the complexity of the argument, but the author basically finds the conspiracy’s origins in the reaction to an increased tax burden which threatened the captaincy’s elite. In fine with recent Brazilian historiography, Maxwell sees the movement as socially conservative and far more interested in a rupture of the colonial status than in modification of existing social situations. By a detailed examination of the background and motives of the conspirators and the prevailing economic conditions of Minas Gerais, the author presents an explanation of the conspiracy’s failure and the reason for its betrayal. Much of his argument hinges on a close reading and exegesis of the documents and the establishment of a new chronology of events. Maxwell posits a plot involving far more people than were apprehended, including merchant interests in Rio de Janeiro and a subsequent cover-up by government officials anxious to hide their own negligence. While the involvement of groups other than the mineiro poets, priests, and lawyers is central to his argument, the evidence available to prove this is mostly circumstantial. The shortsightedness of the participants and “skulduggery” caused the movement’s failure, but “they had thought new thoughts” and had made the relationships of the past “meaningless.”
The final chapter, “Compromise,” is in effect the conclusion that completes the chronology and rounds out the thesis. Maxwell believes that Portuguese policy was reformulated in the 1790s by a group of neo-Pombalists who saw the Minas plot as a warning of impending crisis. Their modifications were only partially successful, but in a world beset with Jacobin terror, Haitian bloodletting, and the threat of racial violence in Brazil itself (Bahia, 1798), it did not take much to convince the Brazilian elite that the new markets for their cotton and sugar might be best or at least most safely exploited through the continued Portuguese connection. This chapter, while filled with insights, is somewhat more sketchy than the rest of the book since it deals with so broad an historical canvas.
There is perhaps no other monograph that has so skillfully and imaginatively drawn together the various strands of Pombaline and post-Pombaline Luso-Brazilian history. The attempt to examine the Minas conspiracy from both a Brazilian and an Atlantic perspective is important, and its results are, on the whole, fruitful. Much of the interpretation and analysis is exciting, but there are also places where the argument is drawn dangerously thin over gaps in the evidence. This is especially true in the analysis of the chronology of events in Minas Gerais and the subsequent and sometimes bizarre judicial inquiry. Here, however, given the various interests involved and the number of hands which could have altered documents, we can probably never expect sounder evidence than the author presents. Still, it remains that explanations of some of the most troubling incidents, such as the complicity of the Viscount of Barbacena or the “suicide” of Claudio Manoel da Costa, are based ultimately on suppositions.
Perhaps more serious criticism can be directed at the central thesis and the inner connections between the three sections of the volume described above. Maxwell makes an excellent case for the importance of the changing Anglo-Portuguese connection as it influenced Portuguese policy, and he does the same for the effects of this changing policy on Minas Gerais, but he also seems to strain in an attempt to find direct English penetration or influence in Brazil. It is perhaps his desire to find this penetration that leads to the hypothesis that Rio merchants anxious for free trade “possibly” supported Tiradentes (p. 136). But, as Maxwell himself shows, the Minas conspirators gave little attention to commerce and virtually none to Rio de Janeiro. The “English America” they hoped to recreate was post-not pre-1776. Lastly, the centrality of the Minas experience in the reformulation of Portuguese policy in the 1790s is also open to question, since there were so many other sources of political concern, and since the economic underpinnings of Brazil had, at least temporarily, shifted to the sugar and cotton of the north and northeast. Unless we accept Maxwell’s previous thesis of the broader extent of the plot, then there is little reason to believe that Minas Gerais weighed so heavily in later policy readjustments.
But a review of a book as good as this one should end on a positive note. Maxwell’s volume must also be recognized as a sophisticated and forceful defense of Pombal as an architect of empire. He has demonstrated how Pombaline reforms continued the Portuguese tradition of tying the colonial elites to imperial interests, at exactly the time that Bourbon reforms were destroying such bonds in Spanish America. Maxwell’s view of Pombal emphasizes his planned policies, although these sometimes had tragicomic results. This evaluation of Pombal stands in marked contrast to the far less sympathetic one presented in Dauril Alden’s Royal Government in Colonial Brazil. The debate over Pombal and the effects of his policies in Brazil will not be brought to a close by Conflicts and Conspiracies, but surely this is the most cogent and convincing exposition of a pro-Pombal position published to date. Because of the importance of the subject, the breadth of scope, and the considerable skill of the author, scholars will value this volume. That would be enough, but the challenging hypotheses put forward also are sure to mark its publication as an historiographical event, and a point of departure for future work in this field.