Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen

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Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen

Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen (1816-1878) was a Brazilian historian. His "História geral do Brasil" is still the starting point for any investigation of Brazilian colonial history.

Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen was the son of a German metallurgist brought to Brazil at government expense to carry out studies there. The family then moved to Portugal, where the boy entered the military academy, after which he studied engineering, political economy, and languages. At 23 he published his first historical work, a critical edition of a 16th-century Brazilian travel account.

Meanwhile, Brazil had become independent of Portugal, and in 1841 Varnhagen became a Brazilian citizen. The next year he was named attaché to the Brazilian legation in Lisbon, and he supported himself thereafter as a member of Brazil's diplomatic corps, usually, and by preference, in some capital where the duties were light and the archival resources large.

Varnhagen soon began work on the História geral, the first volume of which was published in 1854. He completed the second, final volume 3 years later and published a new, revised, and expanded edition in 1871. The work was based on prolonged research in the archives of Portugal and Spain, as well as on materials gathered in Lima, Asunción, Paris, and Vienna. Other works won him international recognition at the time, for example, his studies regarding Amerigo Vespucci, but it is the História geral that today's historians turn to for reference.

Varnhagen was convinced that "the historiographer is not a florid and verbose lawyer but a true judge who, after verifying the facts and hearing the witnesses, must make his decisions." However, like many historians in his day, he believed that with the facts the judgments would be self-evident and history would write itself. The result was a work that overwhelms by its detail. Varnhagen lacked both the ability and the inclination to sift out the really important from the trivial and thus arrive at synthesis, perspective, and integration. The História geral is an account based on painstaking verification among the original documents but filled with minutiae.

Yet Varnhagen did make judgments, sometimes unwittingly. He opposed the then popular romantic tendency to glorify the Indians. He preferred to note the contribution of the Negro and, most of all, the civilizing function of the Portuguese colonist. He believed in "Progress" and decried the past efforts of the Jesuits to resist Portuguese efforts to impose it by force upon the savages. He was a nationalist who thought that the knowledge of history and its heroes was the beginning of all patriotism; yet he opposed xenophobia and, at a time when Brazilians were still jealously guarding their newly won independence from Portugal, he gave the mother country its due. And, in these and other opinions, he sensed the central issues of Brazilian history: economic progress, political integration, the role of the Church, class disparities, race relations, and nationalism.

Further Reading

There is no book-length study of Varnhagen in English, although E. Bradford Burns, comp., Perspectives on Brazilian History (1967), gives considerable biographical information and an evaluation of Varnhagen's work. For historical background see José H. Rodrigues, The Brazilians (trans. 1967), and E. Bradford Burns, Nationalism in Brazil (1968). □