Archive for November, 2006|Monthly archive page

Brazil: Colony, Empire, Capital

1. 1500, a Portuguese fleet enroute India anchored at what is now known at Porto Seguro in the Bahia area of what is now known as Brazil. Off course and on target, the Portuguese established a fortified trading outpost.

In the 16th century, Portugal was lightly populated, with numbers measuring below those of the indigenous people inhabiting the coastal and interior areas of pre-Brazil. These indigenous peoples were organized as tribes, trading and competing with each other for subsistence.

Portugal was a mercantile monarchy, with the king as the merchant- monarch. Titles to land and court were handed out to temper, bait, discipline, and isolate the nobility. Commercially, Portugal functioned as both a maritime and land-based itinerant peddler, conveying goods, and brokering trades for others and its own account, among Africa, Asia and Europe.

The outposts established by the Portuguese in Brazil were isolated points of contact for trade and barter with the indigenous people. Initially, iron pots, bracelets, tools, and fabrics were traded for brazilwood. This wood was the source for the red dye so important to the emerging textile industry of Normandy and Flanders.

Barter might support subsistence based economies and even an itinerant peddler or two, dressed in rags or royal robes, but barter is not commerce.

A critical determinant of Portuguese mercantilism was the lack of internal development, the isolation and separation of city from countryside, the meager surpluses extracted and available from the domestic markets based on subsistence agriculture. These limitations determine mercantilism in Portugal, and everywhere, and are reproduced at every point of its history, in its expansion and decline. Mercantilism staves off its own obsolescence through “horizontal expansion,” but the expansion of trade, of mercantile extraction, requires expansion of the need to trade.

Barter contains no such necessity. There is no necessity to reproduce the process of exchange beyond the use of the products bartered. Expanding the need to trade requires a compulsion to labor. Barter contains no compulsion to labor in the service of, on behalf of, trading itself.

The Portuguese commercial outposts quickly became staging areas for the hunting, capture, enslavement, and ultimately, the extermination of the indigenous peoples. With every advancement of its mercantilism into Brazil, Portugal reproduces the content of its own “advanced backwardness;” Portugal’s internal imbalance sustains the advance of the “world markets;” Portugal in Brazil proves that compulsory labor is the historical underpinning of free trade.

S.Artesian, November 5, 2006.

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