Title: Honor and Violence in a Changing World: Ceara, Brazil, 1830s-1890
Name: Martha S. Santos
2564 Queenston Road, 2nd floor
Cleveland Heights, OH 44118-4352
216-371-1058
seanmar@earthlink.net
Year: 2002
Type: Dissertation Fellowship
Summary:

This dissertation seeks to examine how social, economic and political processes intersected with local understandings of honor and helped condition the reproduction of inter-personal masculine violence among poor free peoples from the backlands of the Northeastern province of Ceará during the second half of the nineteenth century. Primary source research has uncovered the following findings:

First, beginning around 1845, the expansion of the agricultural and cattle-ranching provincial economies combined with a landholding structure that allowed poor sertanejos (inhabitants of Ceará's arid inland) secure access to land and water brought them a degree of prosperity. Families cultivated subsistence plots and in time marketed agricultural surpluses that enabled the most prosperous among them to purchase small numbers of slaves. Poor male sertanejos came to associate their claims to honor with independent agricultural production, slaveholding, ability to provide sustenance to their families, and control over women's movement and sexuality. Honor, in turn, was poor people's currency in day-to-day negotiations that largely relied on personal relationships.

Second, far-reaching social and economic changes that began in the 1860s reversed these gains. Declining cotton prices, a declining slave population, recruitment for the Paraguayan war, and recurring drought threatened poor families' livelihoods and undermined male claims to honor. In particular, these transformations hindered the efforts of poor young men to become autonomous producers.

Third, within a context of increased competition, small farmers and ranchers that faced difficulties holding on to their material resources engaged in violent acts in a struggle to keep land, animals, and access to water holes.

Fourth, dispossessed families dealt with their losses by migrating or becoming drought refugees. Some men became bandits, while others engaged in wage labor. Women increasingly assumed the role of household head and earned a degree of autonomy from patriarchal control. In this context, men committed violent acts against family and non-kin women as a way to regain masculine honor both at home and at the community level. In addition, young men without other symbols of honor resorted to fights and used them as contests through which they asserted masculine reputation.

Fifth, the expansion of the police and criminal justice system that began in the 1850s further exacerbated violence in Ceará. Poor free men violently resisted attempts to incarcerate them for violation of social control regulations, especially bearing weapons and fighting in public. Moreover, the reliance of law enforcement on army and police soldiers that came from the group of poor, young men generated more male aggression. As agents of the State, they routinely practiced police brutality and engaged in brawls that reenacted the employment of violence to establish masculine reputation.

Finally, this research shows that acting within a milieu of hardship, competition, and State formation processes that divested them from other signifiers of status, poor sertanejos redefined masculine honor as predicated on a capacity for violence during the second half of the nineteenth century.