For more than a quarter-century, Eugene Ridings, now professor emeritus at Winona State University, has studied the activities of vested economic interest groups in imperial and early republican Brazil. In the present volume, the product of assiduous research in Brazilian, British, and U.S. archives and vast reading in primary and secondary sources, he has broadened the focus of his 1970 University of Florida dissertation, which concerned the Bahian Commercial Association during the Second Empire. Although he mentions other professional groups, such as the Engineering Club of Bio de Janeiro, he is primarily concerned here with the 25 commercial associations formed mostly in Brazil’s maritime ports, from Rio Grande de São Pedro to Belém, between the mid-1830s and the end of the century.
Ridings demonstrates that these organizations bore a functional resemblance to certain government agencies in late colonial Brazil, to the more familiar consulados of the Spanish Empire, and to early chambers of commerce in England and the United States. But the so-called Brazilian associations of the nineteenth century were markedly different in their membership: they excluded retailers, artisans, and most agriculturalists but included wholesale merchants, factors, bankers, insurers, and other leaders concerned with overseas imports and exports. Foreigners — Britons and Americans—occupied most of the leadership positions, though some notable Brazilians, such as the viscounts of Guaí and Mauá and Francisco de Paula Mayrink, also became members of the largely self-perpetuating boards. These spoke for memberships ranging from 100 to more than 850 and enjoyed access to the highest levels of imperial authority.
Most of the 12 competently written chapters are devoted to the programs that these interest groups favored or opposed. They favored and supported business schools, harbor improvements, railroad links between producing districts and maritime entrepôts, reduced tax levies on exports and imports, and the perpetuation of Afro-Brazilian slavery. They advocated programs that primarily benefited their own constituencies. They also rendered important services by collecting and publishing invaluable economic statistics; but they were hardly a force for progress. They were not proponents of industrialization, modernized highway or integrated railroad networks, abolition, foreign immigration, labor organizations, or termination of the imperial regime with which they had been so closely associated since 1840.
It is therefore not difficult to understand why many Brazilians did not admire these associations or why their influence waned after 1900. Because the author so convincingly demonstrates that their influence was at least as much negative as positive, it is surprising that he concludes that they were somehow “fundamental in laying the basis for the modern Brazilian economy” (p. 338). Such a contention surely requires more proof than this otherwise illuminating volume provides.