Marília Arantes Moreira, a research student at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Latin American Studies, recently met up with Brazilian historian Luiz Felipe de Alencastro in a Paris café to discuss his latest article, The Ethiopic Ocean – History and Historiography 1600−1975. With the headquarters of Oscar Niemeyer’s French Communist Party in the background, he also had much to say about ongoing projects on south Atlantic studies as a new cultural area of knowledge. 

Luiz Felipe de Alencastro is known for his influential and prodigious output, especially the books História da Vida Privada and O Trato dos Viventes, in which he explained Brazil’s formation outside of its territory in light of its crucial role in the bilateral slave-trade network with Africa. Embedding Brazil in a global context, he revealed how economic geography imposed political conditions on colonisation.

In The Ethiopic Ocean, Luiz Felipe de Alencastro explores the core of traditional interpretations of Atlantic history, introducing a Brazilian point of view. He utilises the term ‘Ethiopic Ocean’ as a geo-historical aggregate for comprehending the subequatorial seas of western and eastern Africa, considered as ‘an ocean in its own right’ in the Sailing Age, and as a means of reasserting a complexity that modern cartography was unable to offer. Since 1850, with geopolitical transformations, another ocean has been shaped. As underlined in his article, ‘significantly, the American Cyclopaedia (in 1873) designates north Atlantic as the “Atlantic proper”.’

The historian relates his immersion in the study of whalers while a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, in 2012. Averse to driving, he started waiting at New Bedford Whaling Museum to avoid the junkies sheltered at the bus stop on his way back home. After coming across their accurate maps and charts, including one showing whale concentrations, he re-read the ‘wonderful work’ Moby Dick (1851) and realised that those sailors also knew what the slave traders had realised: the north Atlantic is shorter than the south: ‘It is all about the thermic equator, located 10 degrees above Senegal.’

The Anticyclone of Capricorn that governs southern currents and naval routes was key to exploration of Africa. Like Jesuit Padre Antonio Vieira’s sermons, it seemed to justify transmigration as ‘singularly favoured and assisted by God’, morally validating slave trafficking as a stage in the evangelisation of African bodies and souls that would be converted in Portuguese colonies.

The purpose of Luiz Felipe de Alencastro’s article is not to explain the south Atlantic (as previous essays did), but rather to compare traditional historiographies, demonstrating how this phenomenon was interpreted differently. His deep historical analysis of Portuguese, Brazilian, Belgian, British and North-American literatures, as well as the Annales School, shows how this geographic zone was only dimly perceived – and underestimated. Yet ‘Brazil and Africa cannot be merely footnoted’, he argues.

Alencastro redefined the south Atlantic as a ‘network’ instead of ‘system’ after realising that, differently from the Indian Ocean or the Caribbean, it depended on the Eurocentric system. As the slave trade was interrupted, the network collapsed. So did communication between Africa and South America, for more than 120 years. Relations were only revived after 1975, with the independence of Angola and Mozambique.

Another point is that The Ethiopic Ocean isn’t purely maritime. For example, it includes Minas Gerais leather for rolled packs of exported tobacco. Silver from Potosi, via Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, was the currency used in exchanges with China. Nevertheless, São Paulo, Pará, Maranhão and the Amazon belong to another geographical pattern.

The ‘opening of Brazilian ports’ (1808), part of the Royal Navy’s offensive across the whole south Atlantic, is another deceptive symbol of Europeanisation, argues Alencastro. ‘In fact, that’s when “Africanisation occurs.’ After 1815, Brazilians and Cubans appropriated abandoned British and North American schemes all over Africa, constituting a significant episode of displacement. Would that make any sense with Marx’s idea of the ‘dark side’ of capitalism? ‘Yes. The British abolished the slave trade, but kept buying commodities made by slave hands.’

To Alencastro, Brazil didn’t become a nation until the five million Africans got there, victims of the Atlantic slave trade. ‘If the majority of the population is black and there were none, then Brazil was not yet born.’ Brasileiro wasn’t a demonym until 1850. When legal union was complete, there were 6.5 Africans for every Portuguese or white descendent in the country. Clearly, intellectual debates on Atlantic history remain unresolved, not least concerning Eurocentric bias and openness to new perspectives.

Marília Arantes Moreira, is a research student at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS). She read history and international relations in Brazil, at Pontifícia Universidade Católica and the University of São Paulo, specialising in maritime and global history in the American context. With a scholarship from the Brazilian Ministry of Education, she is currently researching colonial Brazilian history with a transnational approach.  


This is an abridged version of The Ethiopic Ocean and Luiz Felipe de Alencastro’s new perspectives on the south Atlantic, which is published in full on The Latin American Diaries blog