Atlantic History Native Peoples of Brazil
Hal Langfur
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0330


This article connects two realms often considered separately, sometimes even antithetically: the historiography of Brazilian indigenous peoples and that of the Lusophone Atlantic world. While the first would seem to point toward the South American interior, the second presumably faces from the seaboard eastward. This difference in orientations has led many scholars of these realms to pursue their research with little reference to each other. Those who sought to understand Portuguese America’s transatlantic connections long ignored the colony’s diverse native populations, except as an initial, quickly vanishing element of the colonial encounter. Historians of indigenous Brazil, for their part, concentrated on establishing the legitimacy of their field of study, largely relegated to anthropology until the 1990s. The degree to which they might draw insights from the burgeoning scholarship on Atlantic history was a secondary concern. Moreover, although the Atlantic paradigm occupies a growing place in the broader historiography of colonial Brazil, it does so in the face of some ambivalence. Skeptics question whether Atlantic history simply re-inscribes a traditional privileging of European over indigenous peoples. Others note that Atlantic historiography too often marginalizes the South Atlantic. Consequently, the authors whose works are assembled here, representing a young but increasingly vibrant field of Brazilian indigenous history, seldom frame their research in Atlantic terms. Nevertheless, one can identify in their studies a de facto historiography of Brazilian native peoples as both dispossessed victims of and resilient agents in a consolidating South Atlantic world. The timing and nature of the changes indigenous peoples suffered, resisted, evaded, refashioned, or embraced differed markedly as they became actors in this larger world. As elsewhere in the Americas, outcomes depended on native social, political, and cultural constitution; the geography, ecology, and natural resources of diverse domains; relations maintained with neighboring groups; distinctive trade and labor regimes; imperial policies, projects, fears, and fantasies; and the religious and racial preconceptions and malleability of the colonizers. It is no surprise, then, that the books and articles comprising this bibliography constitute a complex and varied whole. After initial sections on general works and early primary sources, the organizational scheme is first broadly regional (Coastal Contact and Exchange, Highlands, Amazon Basin) then thematic (Warfare, Resistance, Diplomacy; Slavery; Evangelization and Mission Life) with considerable overlap. Thus a study of coastal peoples might well address the theme of warfare, while a slavery study might emphasize Amazonian peoples. The reader is therefore advised to consult both regional and thematic sections.

General Overviews

No general overviews focus on the history of Brazilian native peoples as constitutive actors in the broader South Atlantic world. This absence is a consequence of the scholarly disjunctures described in the Introduction. When the Portuguese arrived, forty or more indigenous language families, grouped into three major language trunks—Tupi, Macro-Gê, and Arawak—contributed to a matrix of as many as two thousand distinct semisedentary and non-sedentary peoples spread across a vast territory composed of regions whose geography and historical trajectories differed sharply. This diversity has confounded scholars in search of a synthesis no less than it did colonists seeking hegemony. Hemming 1978 (covering the period 1500 to 1760) and Hemming 1987 (covering the period 1760 to 1910) stand out as exceptions to this rule. Documenting what the author views as the destruction of native society by relentless colonial and national expansion (driven by processes scholars would later ascribe to Atlantic forces), these two volumes offer a cohesive narrative and a wealth of information based on published primary sources. The advent of newer theoretical and methodological approaches with their emphasis on native agency and archival research requires that these works be used in conjunction with more recent studies. Almeida 2010 provides the best concise synthesis in a slim volume that cuts through the complexity by highlighting key themes, including first contact, warfare, mission life, and late-colonial assimilationist policies. Edited collections gathering essays by specialists of particular periods, regions, and peoples offer another solution to the problem of synthesis. Spanning Brazil’s regions and extending into the 20th century, Cunha 1992 has helped to galvanize the field and establish its interdisciplinary standards in a major collaboration between anthropologists and historians. Three chapters in Salomon and Schwartz 1999, two of them stretching through the 19th century, together comprise a valuable overview. Each chapter is supplemented by a historiographical essay. Langfur 2014 collects eight essays organized chronologically and regionally, brought together by a synthetic introductory essay discussing the emergence and ongoing challenges of the field. The three-volume Fragoso and Gouvêa 2014 surveys colonial, not indigenous, history, but it is notable for its inclusion of native peoples, especially during the early stages of colonization. Two initial chapters in Gomes 2000 offer a basic narrative framed in the context of Portuguese indigenous policies. Schwartz and Langfur 2005 surveys the understudied history of relations between peoples of indigenous and African descent. Almeida 2010 provides a historiographical overview helpful for its thematic organization.

  • Almeida, Maria Regina Celestino de. Os índios na história do Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Editora FGV, 2010.

    A succinct narrative and historiographical overview of the indigenous presence throughout the colonial period, especially along the Atlantic coast and in the Amazon region. After sketching pre-contact native societies, the author surveys the subsequent cultural encounters after 1500, wars of conquest and resistance, life in the mission villages, 18th-century changes in indigenous policy, and 19th-century tensions between ethnic identity, vassalage, and nationality.

  • Almeida, Maria Regina Celestino de. “A atuação dos indígenas na história do Brasil: Revisões historiográficas.” Revista Brasileira de História 37.75 (2017): 17–38.

    DOI: 10.1590/1806-93472017v37n75-02

    An assessment of trends in interdisciplinary scholarship concerning the history of Brazil’s indigenous peoples. Part of a journal issue dedicated to the theme, this essay stresses the importance of indigenous history for a thorough understanding of the development of Brazil’s multiple regions and its foundations as a colony and a nation.

  • Cunha, Manuela Carneiro da. História dos índios no Brasil. São Paulo, Brazil: Companhia das Letras, 1992.

    A seminal collaboration between more than two dozen anthropologists and historians, this work inspired a generation of scholars to pursue research in the area of indigenous history. Emphasizing native agency in the face of voracious territorial dispossession, the collection spans Brazil’s regions and its colonial and postcolonial history.

  • Fragoso, João, and Maria de Fátima Gouvêa, eds. O Brasil colonial. 3 vols. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2014.

    A chronological and thematic overview of colonial history, collaborative fruit of some of its finest scholars, this multivolume work includes coverage of indigenous peoples that exemplifies the degree to which traditional narratives of Portuguese America’s early history have been expanded and recast to incorporate native peoples, although they still all but vanish even from this survey during the final century of colonial rule.

  • Gomes, Mercio P. The Indians and Brazil. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

    Originally published in Brazil in 1988, this work by an anthropologist provides in its first two chapters a concise narrative of colonial indigenous history and a summary of relevant policies of the Crown, including an enumeration of important laws and royal decrees.

  • Hemming, John. Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians, 1500–1760. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

    A comprehensive mining of published primary sources provided the materials required to write this pathbreaking narrative history of what the author saw as the destruction of native society, ranging from the arrival of Europeans to the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1759. While still an exceptionally valuable reference, the study should be used in conjunction with more recent works that draw on rich archival materials and newer theories and methodologies.

  • Hemming, John. Amazon Frontier: The Defeat of the Brazilian Indians. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

    A continuation of the author’s narrative history begun in Hemming 1978, with similar attributes and limitations, this volume extends from the mid-18th century to the early 20th century. Part 1, which covers the period preceding independence, is the most valuable for readers interested in Atlantic connections.

  • Langfur, Hal, ed. Native Brazil: Beyond the Convert and the Cannibal, 1500–1900. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014.

    An introductory essay examines belated scholarly interest in the indigenous history of Portuguese compared with Spanish America, discusses key theoretical issues, and provides a historical overview. Subsequent chapters present studies from four regions: the Atlantic coast, the Amazon Basin, the southeastern interior, and the Central West. An overarching theme is the rejection of dualistic approaches dividing Brazil’s indigenous communities into those who defied colonial domination and those who succumbed to it.

  • Salomon, Frank, and Stuart B. Schwartz, eds. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Vol. 3. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Taken together, three extended essays in this volume provide a valuable overview. John Monteiro (Part 1, pp. 973–1023) surveys the first century of coastal contact and conflict with Europeans; Robin Wright (Part 2, pp. 287–381) includes but also moves beyond the coastal encounter from 1580 to 1890; and Neil Whitehead (Part 2, pp. 382–442) focuses on northeastern South America. All three chapters include historiographical essays representing the state of the field in the late 1990s.

  • Schwartz, Stuart B., and Hal Langfur. “Tapanhuns, Negros da Terra, and Curibocas: Common Cause and Confrontation between Blacks and Natives in Colonial Brazil.” In Beyond Black and Red: African-Native Relations in Colonial Latin America, Edited by Matthew Restall, 81–114. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

    An overview of relations between peoples of indigenous and African origin, one of very few texts to address this fundamental issue. Ranging over regions and centuries, the authors find ample evidence of both conflictual and amicable encounters, as both of these sectors of the colonial population struggled to withstand the demands of European settlers.

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