Gilberto Freyre (1900–1987) was born in 1900 in Recife, the principal city in Pernambuco, the oldest region of colonial Brazil. His upbringing in the northeast of Brazil where, from the sixteenth century, plantation society had taken root, would be important to both the focus of his work and the nature of his assertions. Having been influenced by the cultural anthropology of Franz Boas while studying as a postgraduate at Columbia University, Freyre sought to chart the melding and borrowing that had taken place in Brazil along cultural lines. However, he didn’t limit himself to discussions of culture and cultural mixing, making bold claims about the political and social significance of this mixing as well as its implications for Brazilian national identity.
His most famous book, published as Casa Grande e Senzala (Big House and Slave Quarters) in Portuguese in 1933 and translated into English as The Masters and the Slaves in 1946, was the first in a trilogy also comprising The Mansions and the Shanties ( 1963) and Order and Progress ( 1970). Casa Grande e Senzala was written while lawyer and politician Getúlio Vargas sought to consolidate his presidency. Over the course of the authoritarian regime that followed, the idea of ‘racial democracy’ became a mainstay of attempts to generate and mobilise Brazilian national identity, with many tracing this idea back to Freyre’s influential text.
Though Brazilian ‘racial democracy’ has been rightly debunked and labelled a myth (Araujo 2015), it’s easy to see why many people have identified The Masters and the Slaves as its inspiration. Freyre makes a series of connected claims about the Portuguese settlement of Brazil which, over time, would be generalised and given the label ‘luso-tropicalism’. According to Freyre, because the Iberian peninsula had itself been subject to various waves of occupation and settlement, with considerable mixing (both biological and cultural) taking place between settler and subject populations, the Portuguese colonists had a relaxed attitude to ‘miscegenation’. Miscegenation between the relatively small group of (almost exclusively male) Portuguese settlers and the native Amerindian population of Brazil was justified by the colonisers in terms of the lack of labour power. In time, however, with their nomadic culture being destroyed by enslavement and the imposition of a latifundist, paternalistic, ‘ranch’ model of sugar cultivation, Amerindians were succeeded by African slaves. Extensive three-way cultural mixing led to the emergence of a finely graded, syncretic set of beliefs and practices wherein it was difficult to discern ‘original’ forms of group culture. For Freyre, it was this ‘admixture’ and the supposedly benign environment conducive to it which formed the basis of Brazilian national identity.
While Freyre denied that this book (and his work more broadly) contained the germ of notions of ‘racial democracy’, he would double-down on his claims about the relative benevolence of Portuguese colonialism. Invited to visit Portugal’s African colonies amid the Cold War and calls for independence, he wrote enthusiastically about the prospect of places like Angola and Mozambique following the example of Brazil, with luso-tropical culture forming a bulwark against the possible influence of both Soviet communist and American capitalist ideology. Indeed, by the 1960s luso-tropicalism had begun to inform Portugal’s colonial policy, with reforms (the abolition of forced-labour laws and loosening of an exclusionary statute around Portuguese citizenship, for example) being introduced in the spirit of its principles. The idea never attained such status in Brazil, however, where, in his book The Negro in Brazilian Society (1965), Freyre’s fellow sociologist Florestan Fernandes set about underlining the sharp, US-style racial divisions and associated forms of discrimination that characterised life for ‘Afro-Brazilians’ in Sao Paulo.
There are also questions over Freyre’s methods and handling of sources. He draws on a wealth of disparate material, from memoirs to official statistics, though his judgement of this material reflects his own idiosyncrasies rather than any systematic scrutiny. Furthermore, the tenor of his analysis is largely of a piece with the patriarchalism of plantation society. The discussion of family life contained in The Masters and the Slaves, for example, addresses sexuality in a way that occasionally shades into prurience – and the sexuality in question is abidingly and exclusively male. Then there is the issue of race. A Boasian commitment to cultural modes of explanation didn’t prevent Freyre from making overtly racist statements. He certainly challenged some of the basic premises of scientific racism, but did so without ever relinquishing underlying notions of biological difference (Celarent 2010).
There is still something to be learned from Freyre’s work, however. It is interesting as an account of racial and cultural mixing around which a narrative of national identity would be constructed, prompting questions about the role of mixedness in the national imaginary which are as important as ever. He was no apologist when it came to the social system created by Brazil’s ranch model of sugar production plus the patriarchy and racism through which it was animated. But, as shown above, Freyre and his thinking were shaped by this system and its legacies. Prejudicial ideas about race and sexuality are in turns rejected and indulged, with this inconsistency allowing his work to be ‘parlayed by Brazilian conservatives into an image of ‘racial democracy’ that masked Brazil’s ongoing racial issues’ (Celarent 2010: 344). Indeed, perhaps the most significant testimonial to Freyre’s work is the groups who have put it to use – elites and governing classes in Portugal and Brazil – with his hymn to miscegenation being adapted into a national chorus which continues to jar for the victims of racism and marginalisation.
Anderson, W., Roque, R. & Ventura Santos, R. (Eds.) (2019) Luso-Tropicalism and its Discontents: The Making and Unmaking of Racial Exceptionalism. Oxford & New York: Berghahn.
Freyre, G. (1946)  The Masters and the Slaves. New York, NY: Knopf.
Freyre, G. (1963)  The Mansions and the Shanties. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Freyre, G. (1970)  Order and Progress. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Fernandes, F. (1970)  The Negro in Brazilian Society. New York & London: Columbia University Press.
Araujo, A. L. (2015) ‘The mythology of racial democracy in Brazil’. Open Democracy, June 22.
Celarent, B. (2010) ‘Book review: The Masters and the Slaves. By Gilberto Freyre’. American Journal of Sociology, 116(1): 334-339.
De Almeida, M. V. (2008) ‘Portugal’s Colonial Complex: From Colonial Lusotropicalism to Postcolonial Lusophony’. Paper presented to Queen’s Postcolonial Research Forum, Queen’s University, Belfast, April 28.
What are Freyre’s key claims regarding Portuguese settler colonialism in Brazil?
Can you situate Freyre’s work in the context of the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate that raged in the first half of the twentieth century?
How might Freyre’s upbringing and education have shaped his claims about Brazil and Portuguese colonialism?
How does the idea of ‘racial democracy’ draw on Freyre’s notion of luso-tropicalism?
Submitted by James Rosbrook-Thompson