James Woodard and Barbara Weinstein

The success of Negros da terra is evidenced by its multiple printings and the crucial but unquantifiable consensus among historians of Brazil that it is a classic. In the shorter term, it was also reflected in other kinds of popular and scholarly recognition, in Brazil and in the United States. Within months of the book’s release, Rio de Janeiro’s leading newspaper named it one of the books of the year, an unusual distinction for a work of colonial history. A month later, the same newspaper published a long, insightful interview with the book’s author, which further contributed to the book’s circulation beyond the academy. In the United States, Negros da terra was the recipient of an honorable mention for the Howard F. Cline Prize in Latin American Ethnohistory, a rare commendation for a book on Brazilian history, and a singular one for a monograph published in Portuguese.

Rather than rest on his laurels, John redoubled his efforts to demonstrate the importance of indigenous peoples in Brazilian history across the centuries and to contribute to the larger Latin American historical corpus. Even as reviews of Negros da terra began to appear, he was at work on his “The Crises and Transformations of Invaded Societies: Coastal Brazil in the Sixteenth Century” for The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas (1999), which also featured the collaboratively produced essay “Destruction, Resistance, and Transformation: Southern, Coastal, and Northern Brazil (1580–1890),” in which the imprint of Negros da terra remains apparent. Another project begun during those years was his contribution to the Cambridge Economic History of Latin America (2005–2006), which was to cover the region’s labor systems from the Columbian encounter through the mid-nineteenth century. The result was a tour d’horizon of great erudition, in which John’s remarkable personal modesty is also apparent. While many scholars would have approached his task as an opportunity to tout the importance of their own work, perhaps while copy-and-pasting from old publications, John demurred, introducing the first third of the essay, which would deal with forced native labor in colonial Latin America, “The main focus falls on sixteenth-century developments in the Caribbean, New Spain, and Peru; because of space limitations, this chapter does not discuss patterns of indigenous labor in other regions extending into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” In other words, Brazil, despite its now-evident importance as a site in the development of systems of indigenous slavery, would go unmentioned in a broader discussion of unfree, but non-slave forms of labor recruitment and regimentation in the areas of greatest Amerindian demographic density.

The approach of the year 2000, as the quincentennial of the first arrival in South America of a Portuguese fleet, however, provided ample opportunity for reflection on the encounter between Old World and New on Brazilian shores, including presentations and publications in Brazil, Europe, and the United States. A handful of these works became chapters in the postdoctoral thesis John presented in August 2001 to the committee that would award him the equivalent, at São Paulo state universities, of a full professorship. Titled “Tupis, Tapuias e historiadores: estudos de história indígena e do indigenismo” (Tupis, Tapuias, and Historians: Studies in Indigenous History and the History of the Study of Indigenous Peoples), the collection was as marked by tensions and transitions as Negros da terra had been. While its introductory framing found John lamenting what he saw as the paucity of serious historical work on Brazil’s native peoples, study of which remained largely the province of anthropologists, the chapters that followed showed him moving into new thematic, chronological and geographic terrain. This expansion of his fields of interest and expertise included a turn from the traditions in social history that had characterized most of his work to that point toward the history of ideas, identity, and memory, as well as an increasing interest in the nineteenth century. In its final chapter, the thesis pointed to a new geographical orientation in his studies, though one that contained within it echoes of earlier interests and approaches.

Only the first of these tensions and transitions would be fully resolved, John pointing out to the Brazilian Studies section of the Conference on Latin American History in 2012, “the number of publications, masters’ theses, and doctoral dissertations covering subjects linked to the history of Amerindian peoples [in Brazil] is on the rise.” This profusion of original, university-produced scholarship, a complete reversal of the situation that existed when he began the work that became Negros da terra, led John to confess, “I find it hard to keep up with the bibliography,” an implicit disavowal of his lament of ten years earlier. This remarkable set of developments, including the fact that less than two decades separated the contemporary flourishing of historical scholarship on Brazil’s indigenous peoples from the conception of ethnohistory as a field in that country – in Manuela Carneiro da Cunha’s História dos índios no Brasil and John’s contribution thereto, followed two years later by Negros da terra – was in large part due to John’s efforts, inspiration, and example. For beginning with his arrival at the University of Campinas in the mid-1990s, John began to devote vast energies to graduate training, serving on sixty doctoral committees in Brazil between 1995 and 2011 and directing eighteen doctoral dissertations between 2000 and 2012. The equivalent figures for masters-level committee service and advising were thirty-two and ten for the period 1995–2013, totals that on their own reflect a considerable effort on John’s part, as well as on the part of his students, who produced works of real scholarly importance, many of them published as books, the Brazilian masters thesis in history not yet having become the vestigial practicum of the North American academy. At both the doctoral and masters level, one may note qualitative change as well as quantitative growth, as John’s graduate training came to involve increasing numbers of students of history, as opposed to anthropology, the history department at Campinas in particular proving over time to be more welcoming than the University of São Paulo’s had been when he visited as a graduate-student researcher. These shifts within the Brazilian academy coincided with John’s continued engagement with his counterparts in the United States, in conference presentations and professional service, as a visiting professor at Harvard University and the University of Michigan, and through Negros da terra, his masterwork, which helped to inspire doctoral-level work on Brazil’s indigenous peoples at institutions from Johns Hopkins University to the University of Texas at Austin. Not only in Brazil, but in the United States as well, the pessimism expressed in John’s introduction to his 2001 thesis was mooted in the very short term.

The transitions implied in the thesis’s turn to ideas, identity, and memory, together with John’s advance into the nineteenth century, were not so neatly resolved. To be sure, neither was an outright rupture with his earlier scholarship. Already in Negros da terra one may note the beginnings of an argument about the way Portuguese colonists classified different indigenous groups according to their alleged aptitudes for conversion and civilized comportment, and how these ethnic classifications shaped strategies to secure and discipline labor. This subtext to John’s earlier work came to the forefront in “Tupis, Tapuias e historiadores,” several of its chapters elucidating the ways in which certain assumptions about indigenous peoples not only worked their way into intellectual debates, archival collections, and scholarly production, but also into the formulation and implementation of policy, with often grave consequences for Amerindian peoples. In other words, John’s increased interest in representations did not preclude attention to material forces.

Indeed, as John’s contribution to the Cambridge Economic History of Latin America suggests, he kept one foot in the materialist tradition he had been formed in and did not rule out the bringing together of old and at least some new, envisioning a labor history “to be written … in terms of the actions and strategies, triumphs and defeats of those who most matter.” For John as a scholar and an advocate, of course, those who most mattered were the country’s indigenous people. The pursuit of their history, as he described it in The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, had to register the impact and legacies of colonialism, but it must also involve “rethinking Indian history itself – that is, the history experienced and reflected upon by Brazil’s native peoples.” In part because of the massive weight of John’s teaching responsibilities, that problem remained unresolved, though glimpses toward resolution may be found in two essays written after the works gathered in “Tupis, Tapuias e historiadores,” the first a paper eventually published in the edited volume New Approaches to Resistance in Brazil and Mexico (2012), the second a contribution to a multivolume history of São Paulo across the ages, in its introduction and epilogue containing John’s remarks on the contemporary presence of indigenous peoples in Brazil’s largest metropolis.

The geographic transition signaled in the thesis’s final chapter was toward Portuguese-ruled South Asia, to be considered alongside Brazil as a site of colonial-era inter-ethnic mixture (mestiçagem) that left indelible imprints on history, society, and culture. While the chapter contrasted the work of two twentieth-century authors, the Paulista Alfredo Ellis Júnior and the Goa-born descendent of Portuguese settlers Germano Correia, the incipient project of which it was a part aimed to take a considerably longer view, one that would examine Portuguese colonial policies alongside actual relations between settlers, natives, and clerics on the ground, as well as the emergence of new kinds of social classification and the forging of colonial and postcolonial mythologies in relation to real and imagined processes of mestiçagem and its absence. The transition signaled by John’s turn to Goa was thus at least a triple return: superficially, to his earlier work on the racist pseudo-scholar Ellis Júnior, as he acknowledged in the chapter in the thesis; geographically as well as topically, to Portuguese India and to the subject of his undergraduate thesis at Colorado College, “Portuguese Colonization in the Tropics: Afonso de Albuquerque’s Marriage Plan in Goa,” which had been researched and written under the direction of Peter Blasenheim; temporally, to the early history of Portugal’s world-spanning empire, colonial Goa to become the object of the same careful research and discerning analysis once given seventeenth-century São Paulo. At the heart of that dauntingly complex project, as John described it, was something akin to what drove the making of Negros da terra: “to recuperate a missing link in the history of Portuguese expansion, raising questions that have much to teach us about the Brazilian past.”

John’s recuperation of that missing link will not be made, for he was killed in an automobile accident in March 2013 as he drove home from the University of Campinas, leaving family, friends, and colleagues in Brazil and abroad stunned by their loss. Some of John’s unfinished work will be taken up by his former students, but there is no way of recovering the entirety of what we have lost and what might have been. The quiet, easy way with students, the understated erudition, the knowing smile for the absurdities of academic life will be long remembered by those fortunate enough to have known him, together with the many other qualities that made him who he was. John’s scholarship – especially Negros da terra, until now a missing link in the English-language historiography on Indian slavery in the Americas – will live on.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!