The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization

In This Review

The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization

By Gilberto Freyre
Alfred A. Knopf, 1946
432 pp.

Freyre inspired an army of imitators, but few equaled his readability or his rambunctious, meandering, infinitely varied and deeply erotic interpretation of the formation of Brazilian society. He argued that in the tropics the Portuguese established a "polygamous patriarchal regime" where "widely practiced miscegenation tended to modify the enormous social distance between the Big House and the slave hut." His book, the first of a trilogy covering Brazil's social development over three centuries, forced Brazilians to look again at the profound impact the long centuries of slavery had on their personalities and mores. By examining witchcraft, medicine, households, the role of food and clothing, and the social impact of forms of economic organization, Freyre anticipated much of the more narrowly focused academic "new" social history that was to follow. Never a Marxist within a milieu where Marxist scholars set the agenda, he was much criticized when he later embraced the military regime in his own country, and his ideas provided the intellectual foundation for the ideology of luso-tropicalism with which the Portuguese dictatorship tried to justify its empire in Africa, claiming they were less racist than the northern Europeans.

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