The Presence of Brazil’s Black in Sociologist Cardoso’s Work

Slavery in BrazilDependency and Development in Latin America, the book many consider to be Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s most important academic legacy, was first circulated in mimeographed form in 1967.

It was then published in Spanish two years later as Dependencia y Desarrollo en America Latina (1969), and is as much a reflection on the times it was written as it is the quintessential statement on dependency theory.

The 1979 English revision came after it had been published repeatedly in Spanish, Italian, German, and French.

Só é possível entender o que eu disse sobre dependência se você remontar a análise da escravidão, o que ninguém faz. Pouca gente lê.“(2)

Here, Cardoso states that it is only possible to understand what he said about dependency by resurrecting his analysis of slavery, which few people ever do or care to read.

Co-authored with Enzo Faletto, Dependency and Development in Latin America is listed 41st on the International Sociological Association’s ranking of the 100 most important books of the 20th century; yet is clearly out of date considering the political and technological changes that have taken place over the past 25 years.(3)

The end of the Cold War, technological advance, globalization, terrorism and security have profoundly altered the course Latin American development has taken since Dependency and Development in Latin America was written.

Still, the historical roots of Latin American economic development remain, and in the case of Brazil these roots are inexorably linked to slavery.

Destroying the Myth of the Brazilian Melting Pot

Cardoso states that for him it was the Negro question which connected empirical studies to national issues.(1)

As Cardoso recalls, Florestan Fernandes and Roger Bastide sought to demonstrate that UNESCO was wrong in its assumption that Brazil was a melting pot society without racial problems, and that the Negro was not, in fact, equal in Brazil.

As a student, Cardoso studied some aspects of this problem jointly with an anthropology student who later became his wife. Together, with Bastide and Florestan, they interviewed Negroes at the University and visited them in the favelas of São Paulo, where what Cardoso saw of poverty and prejudice had a radicalizing effect on him.(1)

This effect is easily understandable if one considers that the social distance between the poverty-stricken world that exists upon crossing the threshold into a Brazilian favela and the middle and upper class worlds they surround is more extreme than most North Americans could ever begin to imagine.

According to Cardoso, Florestan emphasized the historical perspective, so they read old newspapers and anything Negros had written about former times. They took many notes, developed systematic files, and tried to be very empirical in their approach.(1)

The Roots of Cardoso’s Methodology

Cardoso, however, soon began to refocus his perspective on the Negro from interpersonal relations to the historical-structural framework particular to the Negro’s position in Brazilian society.

For this reason, Brazil’s colonial and imperial past had to be considered because it is the context in which slavery and abolition took place.

Cardoso describes the economic system in colonial Brazil as a plantation system based on slavery, but integrated into the expansion of mercantile capitalism, within a competitive international framework.(2)

In Capitalismo e Escravidão no Brasil Meridional, Cardoso (1962) emphasizes that slavery and abolition in Brazil need to be understood in reference to the broader expansion of global capitalism.(5)

Portuguese Navigation

With regard to the beginnings of this expansion for Brazil, Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvarez Cabral was in search of a trade route to India when he accidentally landed on Brazil’s coast in the year 1500.

Cabral’s landing in Porto Seguro marked the beginning of the Portuguese colonization of Brazil and enslavement of its indigenous populations.

The enslavement of indigenous people was attempted since a reliable source of labor was needed to obtain Portuguese commercial objectives.

It became apparent, however, due to the Indians’ periodic rebelliousness, susceptibility to European disease and complete incomprehension as to what the notion of productivity was – combined with a corresponding aversion to hard labor – that Negro slaves imported from West Africa were much more valuable.

“Hell on Earth”

Tobacco was the main product exchanged for African slave cargoes. Plantation life was comparable to hell, wrote a Jesuit Father trying to convert African and Indian slaves to Christianity in 1627, but it was from land worked by slaves that the economy and society of Brazil unfolded.(4)

Slave desertions among Indians were regular since they were relatively familiar with the territory and able to communicate amongst themselves about how best to flee.

Negro slaves, on the other hand, frequently came from diverse regions of Africa and were of many different ethnicities.

As a result, many African slaves were unable to communicate with each other, let alone the Indians or Portuguese they encountered in Africa or Brazil. African slaves were completely ignorant as to how to survive in the countryside or jungles of Brazil.

They had neither a historical, linguistic, nor genealogical basis on which to unite, so their potential for collective rebellion was all but nonexistent.

For better or worse, Negroes adapted to the brutal system of forced labor over time. Unlike Brazilian Indians, Africans had been uprooted, arbitrarily separated and brought in successive waves to an alien land.

Thus, the plight of the African slave was in many ways even more hopeless than that of the Brazilian Indian, which was at best doomed.

Development, Portuguese Style

The notion of development is contradictory during Brazil’s colonial period (1500-1822) because, as in Spanish America, the Portuguese crown neither encouraged nor permitted the growth of industry.(4)

The economic activity that did take place was based entirely on extractive wealth from the land.(4) This wealth was appropriated by the crown in large measure and deposited into the Portuguese royal treasury in Lisbon.

As a sociologist, Cardoso highlights the significance of slavery in his research because it illustrates how the Negro’s present day position in Brazilian society is a reflection of their heritage, and how this heritage of slavery must be considered when one discusses dependency and development in Latin America.

An external event set into motion a process which would lead first to Brazilian independence and finally to the abolition of slavery by the end of the 19th century.

As we shall see next, this process would have a profound effect on not only Cardoso and his analysis of dependency and development in Latin America, but on the entire course of Brazilian history.

(1)  Freire, V.T. 1996. “Para lembrar o que ele escreveu: FHC explica a formação de suas idéias sobre a história brasileira e por que elas não mudaram” (Remembering what he wrote: FHC explains the formation of his ideas about Brazilian history and why they haven’t changed). Folha de S. Paulo, October 13, 1996. 

(2) Kahl, J.A. 1976. Three Latin American Sociologists: Gino Germani, Pablo Gonzales Casanova, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, Inc.

(3) International Sociological Association. 1998. “Books of the Century.” ISA XIV World Congress of Sociology (Montréal, 26 July-1 August 1, 1998). Referenced May 20, 2005 (

(4) Levine, Robert. 1999. The History of Brazil. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

(5) Cardoso, Fernando Henrique. 1962. Capitalismo e Escravidão no Brasil Meridional (Capitalism and Slavery in Southern Brazil). São Paulo: Difusão Européia do Livro.

This is the third part of a multi-part series on former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Richard F. Kane, from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of Illinois State University, can be reached at



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