BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Hal Langfur, PhD, associate professor of
history at the University at Buffalo, has published for more than a
decade on indigenous Brazilian groups faced with colonization and
armed subjugation by the Portuguese, as well as on the mythologies
that grew up around their cultures.
His latest book, “Native Brazil: Beyond the Convert and
the Cannibal, 1500-1900” (University of New Mexico Press,
2014), is an important contribution to literature aimed at the ways
Brazil’s native peoples shaped their own histories in the
face of religious, cultural and geographical domination.
Here, Langfur moves beyond early European accounts of their
astonishment at the natives’ nakedness and conduct —
particularly cannibalistic rituals — and looks skeptically at
the process of converting them to “clothed, docile Christian
“The book contributes to the unfinished task of dispelling
the stereotypes fostered by polarized views of the native peoples
that have impeded our ability to make sense of Brazil’s rich
indigenous past,” he says.
Langfur focuses on the two practices of conversion and
cannibalism to demonstrate how both were used by the Portuguese to
legitimate their treatment of the 2,000 or so indigenous tribes,
some with histories that extended back 10,000 years, and that
comprised Brazil’s population at the time the region was
invaded and colonized by the Europeans.
“Conversion provided the ultimate confirmation for
colonists that their mission was just and that guileless native
peoples might willingly submit to conquest,” Langfur
“Alternatively, the Portuguese invoked cannibalism to
emphasize the natives’ savagery, legitimate their slaughter
and justify their enslavement.
“To this day,” Langfur says, “the original
convert/cannibal contradiction has obscured the complexity of
indigenous cultures and social conduct, and the choices and
ambiguities inherent in diverse responses to colonialism.
“In order to understand the many peoples who altered the
history of an enormous swath of the Americas,” he says,
“we need to move beyond our own limitations.”
This book not only offers the opportunity to begin that process
— by recognizing and correcting Eurocentric presumptions
about Brazil — but explains why they should be corrected. In
doing so, Langfur tells us much about the process of colonization
itself, an understanding that can be applied to the experience of
many native peoples.
Langfur is the author of “The Forbidden Lands: Colonial
Identity, Frontier Violence, and the Persistence of Brazil’s
Eastern Indians, 1750-1830” (Stanford University Press,
2006), which concerns a pivotal but unexamined surge in frontier
violence that engulfed the eastern forests of 18th-century
Brazil’s most populous region, Minas Gerais, now
Brazil’s second most populous state.
His articles on this and related topics have appeared in many
peer-related journals. He currently is working on a book titled
“Adrift on an Inland Sea: The Projection of Portuguese Power
in the Brazilian Wilderness.”