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Pernambuco was historically a key state in the vast Northeast region of Brazil, between the São Francisco and Parnaíba rivers, whose relative political weight in the nation steadily declined over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The largest Portuguese colony in Brazil in the sixteenth century, and still the third most populous in 1872, by the mid-twentieth century Pernambuco had slipped behind the modernizing southern and central-southern states. With approximately seven million residents, although the seventh-most populous Brazilian state in 1990, Pernambuco was marginal in many respects to the political, economic, and cultural dynamics of the modern nation.

This profile, however, conceals the vital role Pernambuco has played throughout most of Brazil's history. The first Portuguese colony there was established in 1503 at the expense of the indigenous Tupinambá and Potiguar.

Duarte Coelho Pereira and his sixteenth-century successors exterminated the indigenous people, expelled French challengers, and established a plantation society based on African slavery. By the early seventeenth century Pernambuco was Portugal's most prosperous Brazilian colony and the world's leading sugar region. This primacy ended when Dutch annexation of the northwest coast above the São Francisco River between 1630 and 1654 caused many mill owners (senhores do engenho) and planters to relocate to other sugar colonies farther south, and when the eventually dislodged Dutch fostered competitive sugar-growing in the Caribbean. Although sugar continued to provide wealth and status to a few, the society entered a long decline into the characteristic poverty that burdens it today.

Pernambuco is marked by an oligarchical social structure and social attitudes engendered by the plantation system. After the abolition of slavery in 1888, the slow modernization of the sugar industry was not paralleled by a reform of social policies and attitudes. Despite modernization, the sugar industry and the economy of the state continued to decline; and as centralized usinas (factories) replaced engenhos, land was concentrated in fewer hands, jobs became fewer, and the plight of the rural poor steadily worsened.

As society grew more complex, Pernambuco was divided into three distinct geographic-economic-cultural zones, from the humid coastal sugar zone (zona da mata) to the transitional agreste farther inland, where diversified agriculture in the twentieth century created flourishing new economic and cultural centers, notably the city of Caruaru. Beyond this, the sertão (backlands), a semi-arid region of scant rainfall and xerophilous vegetation, stretches over six hundred miles from the scrubby upland hills (Borborema) back to the middle São Francisco River—a region of impoverished subsistence farmers and great cattle barons in sharp distinction to and often in competition with planters and exporters on the sugar coast.

Most Pernambucans remain marginal to the cash-crop economy, and despite the importance of the port of Recife, the state capital, until the late twentieth century most were rural peasants. A century-long trend of migration to the cities has slowly changed the urban-rural ratio, a process sharply accelerated beginning in the 1960s. By 1990, urban residents—many of them recent migrants from the hinterland—outnumbered rural peasants three to one. Demographically, economically, and politically Pernambuco focuses closely on the port of Recife, which, with a population of nearly two million, is home to nearly a third of its inhabitants. Thus, as rural misery continued, it was accompanied by daunting problems in the urban center.

Pernambuco's sense of regional and national leadership, and its relative isolation after 1630 from the political center of Brazil, contributed to a history of political separatism and revolt during the Brazilian independence period at the beginning of the eighteenth century and through the weakly centralized Brazilian empire in the first half of the nineteenth. Having earlier lost political jurisdiction over Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte, and Ceará to the north, Pernambuco lost Alagoas and the lower São Francisco River in the revolt of 1817, further isolating the interior from the political center at Recife. The political and social history of the state has been characterized by struggles between interior and coast and commercial and planter classes, punctuated by violent episodes from the War of the Mascates in 1710 through the Confederation of the Equator (1824), the Praieira (1848–1849), the Quebra-Quilos revolt (1874–1875), and the Peasant Leagues of the twentieth century. The liberal federalistic and regional rhetoric that frequently defines these ruptures masks a continuous and as yet little-understood participation by the destitute and marginal masses in the history of the state.

Since the 1950s Pernambuco has been the site of an important rural land movement. Midcentury mobilizations among sugar workers were repressed by the military government, but rural trade unions regained strength with the democratic opening in the early 1980s. Although agrarian reform in 1985 promised redistribution and titles, hundreds of thousands in the rural Northeast remained landless. Am economic crisis in the 1990s gave birth to the Rural Landless Workers Movement (Movimento do Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, MST), a political movement based on land redistribution and citizenship. The Pernambucan MST builds on a long history of social mobilization that continues into the twenty-first century.

See alsoBrazil: 1808–1889; Brazil: Since 1889; Brazil, Organizations: Peasant Leagues.


The best overall guide to an understanding of Pernambuco is Manuel Correia De Andrade, The Land and People of Northeast Brazil, translated by Dennis V. Johnson (1980). Gilberto Freyre, The Masters and the Slaves (1986) and The Mansions and the Shanties (1988), are still indispensable for understanding the nature of and transitions in the colonial patriarchal society. James E. Wadsworth, Agents of Orthodoxy: Honor, Status, and the Inquisition in Colonial Pernambuco, Brazil (2007) provides a detailed history of the Inquisition and its effects on colonial Pernambucan society. Peter L. Eisenberg, The Sugar Industry in Pernambuco: Modernization Without Change, 1840–1910 (1974), and Martha Knisely Huggins, From Slavery to Vagrancy in Brazil: Crime and Social Control in the Third World (1985), discuss the social effects of incomplete modernization. Robert M. Levine, Pernambuco in the Brazilian Federation, 1889–1937 (1978), is a perceptive analysis of the twentieth-century political transitions in Pernambuco. The horrifying social effects of Pernambuco's historical development are made clear in Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (1992). The politics of rural mobilizations from the mid-twentieth century through the start of the twenty-first are analyzed in Angus Wright and Wendy Wolford, To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil (2003), and in Anthony W. Pereira, The End of the Peasantry: The Rural Labor Movement in Northeast Brazil, 1961–1988 (1997).

                                     Roger Cunniff

                                 Okezi Tiffani Otovo

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