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The Last Available “Place in the Sun”

ISSUE:  Autumn 1926

The Conquest of Brazil. By Roy Nash. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.

It is very unfortunate that most writers of books on Latin-American countries confine themselves to the various aspects of European civilization implanted there; the Indians and other races with more or less color in their hides, such as Negroes and Asiatics, and all their works, are brought in merely as a picturesque background. Perhaps this may be due to the fact that, for the present at least, the European elements are so completely in control of the politics, commerce and finances of these countries that it is easy for them to make the foreigner believe that they are “the whole show and the little dog under the wagon.” Or it may be due to a sort of racial egotism on the part of Europeans and North Americans which leads them, when in foreign parts, and especially in foreign parts which are populated largely by folk whose skin does not chance to be white, to regard, as important only those things that are like the things they have at home, and to disregard everything else as the products of inferior peoples, which—as such—are doomed to perish.

Consequently, it is a rare thing to come upon a hook written by a maa from the United States or England or France or Germany who is thoroughly acquainted with the geography, the racial make-up of the population, and the history—pre-Columbian and post-Columbian, for proper perspective—of the Latin-American country of which he is writing; and who understands without prejudice the significance of the common fact that in all except two of the Latin-American countries about 80 percent, of the population are most decidedly not of European origin, and that outside of a few centres—mostly urban—the prevailing type of civilization is anything but European in origin, type and psychology. Disregard or ignorance of such elementary facts as these, on the part of writers who furnish us with most of what we have to read on Latin-American subjects, is the chief reason why the average person in the United States has about as clear an idea of the true conditions in Latin-American countries as he has of the true conditions in the Kingdom of Graustark or the Republic of Andorra.

Whenever someone does produce a book which is based on the only possible foundation upon which a work of accuracy and value can be built up, namely, extensive knowledge of geography and climate, unprejudiced understanding of the racial make-up and psychology of the population, and a thorough grasp of the course of historical development, of the country in question—such a book ought to be received with the utmost respect, even if in some features it is open to severe criticism. Whatever errors it contains will, at least, be errors of misinterpretation of facts, or over or under statement of facts; and will not be errors based upon the fantastic ignorance of facts that characterizes most of the books written about our sister republics.

In “The Conquest of Brazil,” Mr. Nash has reported at great length his careful study of that immense republic, and he has done it as it should be done. His method is admirable and serves to bring out clearly the essential facts which, taken together, are necessary to a just understanding of a country considered as a social, historical, or economic organism. He surveyed the enormous territory, larger than the United States, if Alaska be excluded from the reckoning, and has succeeded in giving an exceptionally adequate picture of its diversity of topography and climate; and he has indicated with equal adequacy how these natural accidents inevitably affect such things as agricultural potentialities, human health, transportation and the development of industry. He then studied the population from the point of view of its racial components, each with its special psychological traits, and showed how the mingling of these components is producing a “new” race with a psychology all its own; along with the ethnological and anthropological study went the study of the history of the racial elements, and the history of the mixed race resulting from their amalgamation. In the humble opinion of the writer, Mr. Nash’s study of the population of Brazil, defective as it is in statistical data of importance (which probably were unobtainable), is one of the best studies of a Latin-American population published in English; in some ways, it is the best of them all.

In the sections of the work dealing with geography, climate and people, one can find many things to criticise. Most of them, however, seem to be due to plain carelessness on Mr. Nash’s part; such as the absurd statement, on page 10, that “the Far South was destined to be the highroad beside which arose the only civilization that developed in South America, that of the Incas of Peru.” There are others quite as far fetched as this. On the other hand, it is refreshing to note the thoroughness with which Mr. Nash smashes some of the decidedly harmful, but carefully cherished notions that we North Americans have about the tropics. One of these notions—quite a harmful one, at that—is that in the tropics temperature is high and human beings never have a chance to cool off. In speaking of the Amazon valley, lying practically at sea level and squarely on the equator, Mr. Nash states: “Over that enormous area temperatures vary only four degrees, from 77° to 80° . . . Monotony is a reality here . . . The coldest month is within four degrees of the hottest . . . A peculiar factor which mitigates this annual monotony should be stressed, however. Night is winter along the Line. At many points under the equator the whole annual range of temperature is experienced within twenty-four hours. And it is probably a literal fact that with a given number of people there is more shivering of nights among the naked savages of the Amazon forests than in the igloos of the Eskimos of Alaska.” He then goes on to say: “It is doubtful if at any point in the Amazon Basin maximum temperatures will reach the figures attained in New York City every summer. I have never heard of a case of sunstroke or thermic fever there. Certainiy safeguarding against heat in the tropics is much less of a problem than safeguarding against cold in the misnamed ‘temperate’ zones,” If we could persuade ourselves to accept this fact, and realize that discomfort and danger in the tropics are not due to the heat, but to diseases peculiar to the region, we should be able to form a far more accurate notion of what the tropics promise to the world.

Having studied the land and the people, Mr. Nash goes on to study the effect of the land on the people and of the people on the land, asking himself the question: What are the Brazilians able to do with Brazil? This is, of course, the most interesting section of the book. It is made doubly interesting by the fact that Mr. Nash is careful to show that Europeanized Brazil—the Brazil of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Bahia and even of Para—is but one small element of the great whole.

The importance of Brazil in the family of nations is very much greater than most of us realize. We should stop occasionally to reflect that all that we have and are comes, in one way or another, from the sun; and that Brazil, lying as she does in the heart of the torrid zone, is a land upon which solar energy is poured out in prodigious amounts. The world of today is in desperate search of stored-up solar energy in the form of food stuffs and raw materials for industry. Brazil, with her thirty millions of people, contains less than two percent, of the population of the earth, while her land area—most of it under the tropical sun—is five and five-tenths percent, of the total area of the earth. In other words, Brazil represents an enormous “place in the sun” that is almost unpopulated: throughout the most of her territory, the average density is less than two to the square mile.

The late Ambassador James Bryce pointed out, in his admirable book on South America, that Brazil is the last remaining unpopulated productive area of any considerable size on earth. The world’s population, thanks to our sanitation and medicine, increases with disconcerting rapidity, especially in the northern hemisphere. The pressure of population on the soil is tremendous, and in many regions—such as northern Germany, parts of Spain, Italy, Japan—is already intolerable. The steadily augmenting millions must have food. Whatever we may think of the Kaiser’s usual utterances, we must credit him with wisdom when he said that Germany had to have a place in the sun: he meant, in the tropics, where the sun is most effective. North European, Asiatic and North American soils are yielding about their limit already, and unless new methods of agriculture are discovered, the increasing populations will soon have to look elsewhere for their sustenance. Brazil, according to Lord Bryce, is the last remaining unpopulated area capable of producing basic food stuffs, since half of Brazil is temperate in climate, due to altitude; and the other half, the tropical half, can be utilized if only tropical diseases can be controlled. We know now that they can be controlled. Therefore, if Lord Bryce was right in his judgment (he usually was!), Brazil is destined in the near future to be the seat of a tremendous development. She is also likely to be the bone of contention —the choice prize—the supreme loot—which will provoke struggles to the death between nations too burdened with population to be able to feed themselves. With this idea in view, it is perhaps not so difficult to understand why Brazil (and Argentina before her) drew out of the League of Nations!

In this account of what Brazil really is, and what the Brazilians, controlled by their racial and historical psychology, are doing with their resources, Mr. Nash has given to all who are interested in the future of our present-day civilization a mass of accurate information of the first importance: of first importance, because the northern peoples, before many more years go by, will have to turn to the tropics and utilize them for food production, unless they are willing to reduce their living standards to the level of those of the Chinese peasants. In presenting his information, Mr. Nash very often allowed himself to fall into the most pernicious of expository vices—a flamboyant style. So exaggerated is his language in many parts of the book that it may cause his work to fail to receive the consideration it unquestionably merits. Verbal fireworks have no place in a book as scientific as this is meant to be. It is exceedingly unfortunate that the work should have such a defect. It is very likely to cause many a reader to believe that Mr. Nash’s facts are as bombastic as some of his presentation of them; whereas, in reality, underneath the exaggeration of metaphors and the nonsensical lyricism lies a bed rock of realistic observation of Brazil that is of the greatest value.


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