multiple historical heritage

Image: Mariana Tassinari / Jornal de Resenhas


The selectivity of what is designated as “our” historical heritage

Forte dos Reis Magos and Engenho de Cunhaú are colonial buildings in Rio Grande do Norte, preserved and accessible to public visitation, with a large presence of tourists in their spaces, in addition to the frequency of potiguares, who consider them privileged examples of our heritage historic.

We who, paleface?

Certainly, tourists do not go on their tours in search of rigorous critical History classes, which does not mean giving them wrong information about the new places and the human beings they know. The situation is even more serious in relation to the potiguares: who are we, historically, what historical heritage is ours?

Debates on Historical Heritage in Brazil were articulated by Mário de Andrade, in his draft for the federal body created during the Estado Novo dictatorship (1937/1945: Andrade was not an ideologue of that dictatorship), implemented with many limits in relation to the proposals of that thinker.

Mário outlined a conception of multiple historical heritage, which included social diversity and even physical or immaterial support, both buildings and knowledge and beliefs.

The National Historic and Artistic Heritage Service effectively implemented in that Brazil ended up prioritizing Catholic buildings, plus the administrative and military ones of the Portuguese Crown (there was no separation between State and Church in the absolutist monarchy), provided great services for the guarantee and physical survival of architectural complexes , with an emphasis on colonial churches from Minas Gerais and Bahia, plus those military installations (fortresses and the like) and administrative (other government bodies) existing since colonization.

Of course, all this needed to be preserved, restored, studied; most of the buildings, along with their collections, were at risk of destruction, infested by termites. But SPHAN's social focus was very clear: headquarters of dominant institutions. There was no effort to preserve traces of slave quarters and Afro religious yards, as well as indigenous villages. The first Candomblé yard listed by IPHAN (successor to SPHAN) was Casa Branca do Engenho Velho (Salvador, BA), in 1984, still a civil-military dictatorship, possible action by rare critical professionals, perhaps government interest in supporting sectors population of African descent.

The problem of the cut of social class suffered by the Brazilian historical heritage, in these governmental actions, was not his alone, it runs through erudite historiography, until recently, as can be seen in the title of the first volume of the “History of private life in Brazil”, organized by the competent historian Laura de Mello e Souza, with very good collaborators: Daily life and private life in Portuguese America… That America was never just “Portuguese”, except from the administrative angle! Indigenous peoples and African slaves were also, in different ways, the same America!

This dilemma applies equally to Rio Grande do Norte – Portuguese, indigenous and African. The delirium of a captaincy (later province, then state) only white-European, or white/European, is just…a delusion! It's good that we potiguares look at ourselves in the mirror: we have the face and body of an enormous mix of Indians with whites and blacks; our “typical” diet reproduces this mix, with corn, cassava, rice and giblets sauce, plus pasta, ice cream and sandwiches; our vocabulary does the same.

But what we usually designate as our historical heritage seems to be just… European! And we idealized this heritage, evoking the beautiful architecture and locations of those buildings: the mouth of the Potengi River (Forte dos Reis Magos) and Canguaretama (Engenho de Cunhaú), with its seafront. We often think that the fort existed only to prevent the invasion of the territory by other Europeans (as if it did not play a role of power over indigenous peoples and African slaves); we literally sanctify the mill with the beatification of the Catholic martyrs in the struggle against the Dutch in 1645 (as if the indigenous and Africans who died there were not martyrs of Portuguese colonization, even before the other invaders). The fort and the ingenuity were not pretty for those who worked in them or felt other of their effects. Its beauty, in today's eyes, almost always corresponds to an abstract vision, a landscape devoid of thought.

There is a lack of critical historical reflection on these architectural evidences of colonization, as well as on similar ones referring to Empire and Republic. Noble titles are unrelated to slavery. The careers of senior officials in the Estado Novo and the civil-military dictatorship of 1964/1985 are ennobled, as if they were not marked by torture and murder.

Certainly, this is not a problem exclusive to Rio Grande do Norte or Brazil: tourists who visit Egypt watch dazzling spectacles of buildings, jewels and sacred objects from the pharaonic universe, unaware of the cruel effort required of those who produced those gems or made it possible its existence. Poor Egyptians today are led to believe in this universe as their and humanity’s heritage, universalizing pharaonic power as the matrix of everything – the “embalmed pharaohs” of the song “Rancho da guavada”, by João Bosco and Aldir Blanc.

We potiguares are not a homogeneous block, unified by the nation, which is also observed in relation to other states. Many of us represent histories of social classes, genders, ethnic groups and so many other levels of sociability, in search of equality and Justice, not yet achieved. We lost buildings (the Art Gallery, built by the municipal government of Djalma Maranhão, demolished free of charge); we erase memories of social practices and characters.

If we are mostly mestizos, those places of colonizing power can also be preserved as a reminder of those who threatened and exploited our ancestors. And those who are not mestizo in the epidermis experience miscegenation in the daily experience of food, vocabulary and other cultural practices.

Our historical heritage goes beyond fortresses, mills, palatial halls, although we must preserve, study, and get to know these spaces to better understand their importance in social relations. Such heritage, expanded and socially contextualized, will be able to encompass us in the complexity of our experiences.

Having recovered such facets, it will be more credible to speak of a Potiguar (or Brazilian and universal) historical heritage, which includes conflicts and attempts to overcome them in the struggle for equality and Justice.[1]

* Mark Silva He is a professor at the Department of History at USP.



[1] Thanks to Dacio Galvão, who encouraged me to write these comments.

See this link for all articles