Race Relations in an Amazon Community
By Charles Wagley**

The great Amazon Valley is one of the most distinctive regions of Brazil. The striking tropical environment, the natural system of communications afforded by the Amazon River and its tributaries, the physical contribution of the American Indian to the formation of the present population, the persistence of aboriginal traits, and the characteristic extractive industries which are the basis of its economic life are all factors which have combined to produce a distinctive regional variety of Brazilian national culture.

Like other aspects of this Amazon regional culture, inter-racial relations differ somewhat from those encountered in other parts of Brazil. In the Amazon all three racial stocks - the European Caucasoid, the African Negro, and the American Indian - which have entered into the formation of the modern Brazilian population are present. But they are present in different proportions than elsewhere in Brazil. Race mixture has occurred in the Amazon with approximately the same - if not greater - frequency as it has throughout Brazil; but it has take place under different historical and social circumstances. Common Brazilian attitudes, modes of behaviour, and concepts regarding each racial group are conditioned by the regional society and culture of which they are a part. The Amazon Valley is an integral part of Brazil, and yet it stands out as a characteristic cultural area of this enormous nation. 

The relations between the 'racial groups' which make up the present population of the Brazilian Amazon can only be understood within the context of this regional society and culture, and in terms of the trends of regional history. As elsewhere in Brazil , the Portuguese colonist came to the Amazon seeking a fortune. But in the Amazon Valley the terrain did not lend itself to the establishment of a plantation system producing sugar for the world, as it did along the north-east coast. Nor was gold discovered, as in the central plateau region of Minas Gerais and southern Bahia in the eighteenth century. The best the colonist could do in the Amazon Valley was to extract the so-called drogas do sertão, products of the tropical forest such as hardwoods, cinnamon, urucu and cocoa, for sale in Europe. It was not a very lucrative trade and the colonists were not able to afford to buy African slaves and the mine owners of the central mountains region.

Relatively few Europeans were therefore attracted to this part of Brazil and the number of Negro slaves in the region was insignificant.

Only during the period between about 1880 and 1912, when the Amazon Valley had a world monopoly of forest rubber, was the area a relatively prosperous part of Brazil; after 1912, when competition from the Eastern plantations caused the collapse of the high price for wild rubber, the Amazon again became an isolated and depressed region. The isolation of the Amazon region from the rest of the country has been an important factor in the persistence of numerous traditional culture patterns in the rural areas of the Valley. 

The small number of Portuguese colonists who came to live in the Valley after 1616, when Belém was founded near the mouth of the river , were forced to depend upon the rather sparse Indian population to work for them. They needed the Indians as collectors of forest products, as agriculturalists to grow food for them, and in fact for all types of manual labour. They soon resorted to slavery to secure Indian labour. Numerous raids penetrated in the interior, returning with Indian slaves but leaving behind numerous corpses of Indian men, women, and children. The aboriginal population along the mainstream and along the lower tributaries of the Valley would certainly soon have been liquidated if it had not been for the missionaries who arrived in the Amazon with the first Portuguese military expedition. In the seventeenth century religious orders, especially the Jesuits, were competing with the colonist for the Indian . The colonist needed and wanted Indian slaves, while the missionary wanted to protect the Indians from the colonist in order to make Christian of them.

The missionaries established aldeiamentos - or mission stations - at strategic points along the Amazon river system, into which they attracted large numbers of Indians from various tribal groups . Under the paternalistic régime of the Jesuits and other missionary orders, these Indians were taught Christian ritual and ideology, new handicrafts and European customs. The colonists, however, continued their slave-raiding, even attacking mission stations. Although edicts were issued from time to time prohibiting slavery, the colonists found numerous legal loopholes which allowed them to go on taking slaves. They prevailed upon the Crown to allow them to make slaves of 'prisoners of just wars' and of Indians 'ransomed from the cord' (i.e., snatched from the hands of cannibals). 'Just wars' and 'cannibalism' increased vertiginously, and Indian slavery continued. In the middle of the eighteenth century, however, the Jesuits were expelled from Brazil, the control of the Indians passed into civil hands, and the mission stations were transformed into civil towns and villages. Indians slavery was again outlawed, but Indians were subjected to compulsory labour for the colonists, for which by law they were supposed to be paid. This system soon disintegrated into a form of peonage and of debt servitude, which persisted in the Amazon until the present day century, and outright slavery was reported in isolated areas until late in the nineteenth century.

The result of both the protective activities of the missionaries and the 'slave raiding' of the colonist was the assimilation and acculturation of the Amazon India. It is estimated that the Amazon Valley contained more the 500,000 aboriginal people, and by 1850 the majority of these had been brought into the orbit of Luso-Brazilian life. Under the reforms promulgated by the famous Portuguese Prime Minister, the Marquess of Pombal , during the second half of the eighteenth century, miscegenation between the European and Indians, which had begun early in the seventeenth century, increased considerably. Portugue male colonist were offered special inducements - in the form of land grants, free tools, tax exemptions, and even political posts - to marry native women. By 1852, it was estimated that 52 per cent of the population of the Valley were Indians, 26 per cent mamelucos (Indian-European mixtures), and the rest Europeans and their few Negro slaves [1].

Today [around 1950], only some 30,000 to 40,000 tribal Indians remain in the Amazon Valley - an insignificant part of the 1,500,000 people who inhabit the regions. But the genetic influence of the American Indian in the modern Amazon population is very apparent. According to the 1940 census, more than 50 per cent of the people of the Amazonian states of Brazil were classed as <I>pardo</I>, or brown; 40 percent as <I>branco</I> , or white, and the remainder as <I>preto</I>, or Negro. Although the category of <I>pardo</I>, as used in Brazil, includes various combinations of Caucasoid, Amerind, and Negro mixtures, it is the impression of most observers that a large proportion of these <I>pardos</I> - and many people classed as 'white' as well - have American Indian ancestors. It would be safe to estimate that at least 50 per cent of the people of the Amazon are at least partly of Indian descent. 

As early as the 1850's these Amazon 'Indians' and mamelucos were, socially and culturally, Brazilian peasants, despite their physical characteristics and the language which most of the rural population spoke at that time. Since the missionaries to Brazil encountered Indians speaking tongues belonging to the Tupi-Guarani language family, a form of this language was reduced to European script and used by them in their teaching. Indians whose native language was totally different were taught this língua geral (general language) and it soon became the language most commonly used by the newly-formed Brazilian peasant of the region. As late as the second half of the nineteenth century, it was spoken 'along the main Amazon for a distance of 2,500 miles' [2]. Near large towns and cities, it was used indiscriminately with Portuguese, but in the more distant areas of the Valley língua geral was the only language [3]. It was because of the widespread use of this language, and because of the physical appearance of the people, that most nineteenth-century foreign visitors spoke so often of 'Indian customs' and 'native life' when describing the small communities along the Amazon. What they describe, however, are old Iberian traditions, sometimes fused with aboriginal customs. They speak of the 'strange rite of crossing one self [4]'; of the celebrations and processions on Saints' days [5]; of the old Iberian Catholic custom of ritual godparenthood (compadresco system), and of granting children 'a blessing' in good Luso-Brazilian style. 

These so-called 'Indians' lived mainly by Luso-Brazilian culture patterns and were already members of the regional society, serving as rubber collectors, canoemen, agricultural labourers, workers in domestic and public service, and members of the armed forces. Since the nineteenth century, these Amazon peasants, or caboclos as they are apt to be called, have been brought into contact with regional and national life. Língua geral has been replaced by Portuguese throughout the Valley, except in a very few isolated localities. Nowadays the rural caboclos discuss national and state politics, and if semi-literate they vote. They are Catholics, and annual celebrations of the patron saint of their community is a major event. September and other civic holidays of Brazil are celebrated by these rural Amazon people as they are elsewhere. They play futebol, or soccer, which is Brazil's national sport. The legal and political institutions, the educational systems, and many other aspects of their social life are those of the nation. They are not 'Indians' but rural Brazilians and much that may be said about rural life in the Amazon Valley might also be said about rural life in other parts of Brazil. 

Yet the Indian has left an indelible mark upon Amazon rural life. Most of the methods used today in exploiting the environment are of Indian origin; the slash-and-burn farming methods, the techniques and lore used in hunting and fishing, and the knowledge of the products of the tropical forest which are collected for sale, are all derived from the Indian heritage. Innumerable Indian folk beliefs persist alongside those of Iberian origin; and in the rural neighbourhoods, even in the working-class districts of large cities, medicine men called by the língua geral term of pajé treat and perform cures by old Indian magical methods.

The Indian was the predominant element in the physical make-up of the Amazon population. In contrast with other regions of Brazil where the Indian was early eliminated as an active element, the American Indian has here continued to be an important element in society. While people of Amerind physical characteristics are not numerous in other regions of Brazil, the caboclo or tapuia (both terms used for people of Indian racial type) are an important element to be considered in a study of race relations in the Amazon Valley.


* The field work on which this report is based was carried out under the auspices of Unesco as a preliminary survey for the International Institute of Hylean Amazon. The research was also sponsored by the Council for Research in the Social Sciences of Columbia University. I wish to thank Clara Galvão, Eduardo Galvão, and Cecilia Roxo Wagley, who also participated in the field research, for making their field notes available to me. 

**In Race and Class in Rural Brazil, pp. 116-120. 


[1] Correa Filho, Virgilio. 'Devassamento e Ocupação da Amazônia Brasileira', Revista Brasileira de Geografia, Vol. IV, No. 2, 1942.

[2] Bates, Henry Walter. The Naturalist on the River Amazon, Everyman Library, London, 1930.

[3] Wallace, Alfred Russel. Narratives and Travels in the Amazon and Rio Negro, London, 1853.

[4]Agassiz (1896).

[5] Smith (1879).