The history of crime and policing offers a unique opportunity to explore Latin American social history at the margins. Penal codes and criminal statutes are political efforts to define inappropriate and unacceptable behavior. These idealized constructions are given meaning by the concrete actions of the police and the courts. In all societies in all times, the institutions charged with the enforcement of criminal statutes effectively determine which behaviors will be criminalized and punished.
Thomas H. Holloway’s study of nineteenth-century Rio de Janiero is the most important contribution to this field yet published. Holloway has carefully interrogated a vast quantity of archival material, including the records of police agencies, courts, and the Ministry of Justice. As a result, he can provide a convincing summary analysis of arrest statistics. In a less comprehensive manner, he examines the uses of incarceration and corporal punishment by the police and the courts.
Holloway convincingly argues that these judicial and police agencies were props for the Brazilian slave regime and instruments of racial oppression. In the early decades of the century, police agencies were understaffed, poorly trained, and badly led. Law enforcement was therefore arbitrary and often brutal. Independence, political reorganization, and the tentative embrace of reform ideology eventually led to a larger, better-trained, and better-disciplined police force and a reduced level of capricious police violence. This process of modernization was, Holloway suggests, the foundation of Brazil’s slow progress toward eventual slave emancipation.
Holloway is most convincing when describing the connection between the actions of police and judicial institutions and elite demands for public order and protection of property. Because they determined budgets and controlled the advancement of police officials and judges, the wealthy and powerful were especially well situated to establish priorities for law enforcement. Holloway’s servicing of this large and important argument, however, leads him to pay too little attention to the ways that the poor, both slave and free, helped to determine the de facto definition of crime and antisocial behavior.
Even the poorest and most brutally exploited members of society hold and seek to defend moral and ethical values, a sense of right and wrong. Although these codes do not narrowly coincide with criminal statutes or police priorities, the poor and weak commonly use the police and the courts to enforce their sense of justice by selectively informing on (or protecting) neighbors, family members, and workmates. Records of arrests and court decisions therefore reflect in some measure the internal norms of the popular classes. These vulnerable groups are not merely acted on. Using guile and indirection, slaves and poor freemen utilized the institutions of the elite to accomplish their own ends.
As is common in this field, Holloway pays little attention to gender. This social arena, the world of the police and criminals, is overwhelmingly masculine. Confrontations between the police and criminals are generally confrontations between men. The norms of masculine culture determine in fundamental ways the character of this dangerous and violent discourse. Police efforts to eliminate capoeira, for example, appear to invite analysis along these lines.
These comments are not offered as direct criticism of this book. Researchers in this field seldom engage these themes. Holloway has written an excellent book that will significantly influence future studies of crime and policing. His illumination of the essential character of the institutions of public order in nineteenth-century Rio de Janiero also has important implications for social and political historians of the period.