The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Fall 1979, Volume 25, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor
Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
The Frontier in Latin American History.
By Alistair Hennessy. Histories of the American Frontier Series. Ray Allen Billington and Howard R. Lamar, Coeditors. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978. Bibliography. Glossary. Index. 202 pages. $12.50 Cloth, $6.50 Paper.
Reviewed by Roger L. Cunniff, Professor of History, Director of the Campanile Press, San Diego State University.
Under the distinguished guidance of Ray Allen Billington, the Histories of the American Frontier Series has since 1963 explored in depth the frontier experience in the United States, and has contributed enormously to our understanding of our national history. The series with this volume inaugurates an ambitious attempt to extend the analysis of the frontier into other national and continental areas. The Frontier in Latin American History illustrates abundantly not only the rich harvest of insight with which we may expect to be rewarded by future volumes in the series, but the inevitable perils of treading on new ground.
Alistair Hennessy, Professor of American Studies at the University of Warwick approaches his task-a synthetic history of the frontier experience in Latin America-with a clear understanding of the variety of Latin American cultures and historical determinants. He has obviously experienced the frustration of attempting to establish for his undergraduates a unifying pattern for the history of Latin America while retaining necessary detail and preserving the sense of kalaedoscopic variety of that vast area. Professor Hennessy can only be applauded for his courage in undertaking this pioneering work of synthesis. In the main, he has succeeded in his aim of bringing coherence from the mass of studies pertaining to the frontiers of several colonial ventures and twenty republics over their four-and-a-half centuries of history. This is the most useful comparison to date of the frontiers in the various Americas. Although the author relies most heavily on works in English, he makes excellent use of a wide variety of secondary materials in Spanish, Portuguese and French. Indeed, the other virtues of the book aside, the bibliography will be of great value to the teacher or layman attempting to make better sense from the labyrinth of Latin American history.
Using Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier hypothesis only as a starting point, Hennessy finds his most difficult task to be the selection of a unifying theme and an interpretation of the frontier experience in Latin America. He settles finally on the occupation of space and the frontiers of settlement as an activity which involves the various cultures and nations of Latin America, and which has persisted continuously since the earliest colonial conquests. Within this broad scheme he proceeds to sketch in less than one-hundred-and-fifty pages a widely differing group of frontiers over more than four centuries of history. Treated in succession are the Indian Frontier, the Maroon Frontier, Mining Frontiers, Cattle Frontiers, Agricultural Frontiers, and the Anglo-Hispanic Frontiers. One chapter deals with various frontier types, such as the seringueiro (Amazonian rubber-gatherer), bandeirant’e (17th-century Brazilian adventurer-prospector-slaver), gaucho, vagueiro, chiclero, etc. Concluding chapters discuss the “contracting frontiers” of the 20th century and compare Latin American frontiers to those in other parts of the world.
In the short space allotted each frontier or frontier type Hennessy manages to impart a surprising amount of information with a concise, enjoyable writing style. However, this independent treatment of frontiers overwhelms his attempts to bring unity to the book, and the reader finds it difficult to escape the impression of a textbook containing a mass of unrelated information rather than an integrated interpretation of history. This basic flaw-certainly common in attempts to synthesize Latin American history, and perhaps unavoidable to some degree given the present state of Latin American historiography-is only partially compensated for in the two concluding chapters, in which Hennessy applies himself to more closely-integrated synthesis. Again, perhaps because of the spotty historiography at his disposal and the immensity of the task, his treatment of the various frontiers is extremely uneven. The treatment of the Indian Frontier (one of the best sections in the book) extends well into the 19th century, but the discussion of most other frontiers is limited essentially to the colonial period, with very little discussion of the vast changes which occurred during the economic and political transitions of the 19th century.
We are several times frustrated by provocative interpretations which are never fully developed. For example, Hennessy dismisses as outside the scope of his book the fascinating meeting of two frontier traditions (Anglo and Latin) in California, thus precluding any substantial discussion of what has arguably been the most influential economic and psychological frontier in the history of Mexico. More important to his thesis, he argues-quite correctly-that while rural areas were settled much more quickly than in North America, there was from the beginning far greater urban influence in the settling of Spanish and Portuguese America than in Anglo-America, and the continuous locus of power, prestige and influence in the urban centers has impaired effective settlement of the Latin American interior. Given this persistent condition of rural isolation and urban focus, he argues, the frontiers of Latin America have probably been more of a negative than a positive influence, allowing the power and egotism of rural latifundistas to blight any growth of democracy in rural areas. With virtually all land controlled by large landholders from early in the colonial period, rural democracy, independence of attitude and political populism were rare growths, and the peasant naturally sought any betterment of his condition in the city rather than in the interior. This is an interpretation of genuine use to our attempts to understand Latin American history, but Hennessy first fails to substantiate it satisfactorily and then applies it too heavily. A large part of the problem is his excessive reliance on the history of the colonial period, while ignoring or downplaying much of what has happened in the 19th and 20th centuries. For example, the movement of hundreds of thousands of squatters into the interior of the Brazilian Northeast, the Chilean South, the Andean montaña, and the United States Southwest has created a continuing frontier pattern.
Despite this more recent frontier pattern, Hennessy’s thesis is still attractive, if in a modified form, but his corollary argument-that Latin America never developed a frontier myth, and is unlikely to do so-is unpersuasive. While it is true that Latin Americans do not seem to have the Anglo-American confidence that they can defeat and harness Nature and while many major works of Latin American literature, such as Sarmiento’s Facundo and Alegria’s Golden Serpent, unquestionably stress this negativism, a vast body of popular and folk literature, poetry and song has created in Latin American minds the image of a frontiersman who has been shaped by his environment and experiences to be brave, honest, independent, democratic and uncouth-in short, the same virtues and flaws popularly believed to have been created by the North American frontier-and a lamentation that these characteristics are being eroded by civilization. While Hennessy is correct in pointing out that the historiography of most of Latin America contains no well-developed frontier hypotheses comparable to that developed by Frederick Jackson Turner, he is surprisingly remiss in ignoring a most significant exception, the work of Brazilian historian Joao Capistrano de Abreu, who turned the attention of Brazil’s intellectuals to the interior in the first decades of this century with his seminal works Caminhos antigos (Ancient Roads) and Capitulos de historia colonial (Chapters of Colonial History). Like Turner, Capistrano emphasized the democratizing influence of the frontier and created a solid populist tradition in Brazilian historiography which remains influential today.
Close examination of the expressions of the Latin American popular mind will show that the frontier myth is much more pervasive and deeply-rooted than Hennessy will allow. That the myth flourished so obviously in the United States is probably due primarily to the material prosperity for which it seemed an attractive explanation This made possible the degree of literacy and sheer volume of publications which rendered the myth highly visible to the literati. Should any area in Latin America achieve comparable prosperity, the myth-makers stand ready to nourish into full flower their own frontier myth from its seedbed in the imagination of the people.