Saturday, January 31, 2009

Patrick Wilcken - Empire Adrift

A page turner it is not. This history book business is really cramping my style, because books like “Empire Adrift – the Portuguese court in Rio de Janeiro 1808-1821” make me read s-l-o-w-l-y. They make me ponder, and wonder, check stuff on the internet and think a lot – and that’s Not why I got into this book reading gig, man!

Because – small parenthesis here – it is hard to find the motivation to keep a tiny blog alive and sometimes, ironically, good books are just the thing that completely throws you off. Why bother?

Especially as a descendant of a people who, as every anglo-saxonic historian will stress, are poor letter writers and even worse at keeping journals. Seriously, could the Portuguese be less helpful? Thank God there was always a British consul or merchant around or else fact checking would be impossible.

Just kidding. Actually Patrick Wilcken is Australian which might still qualify him as anglo but obviously makes him totally lacking in the most annoying qualities of the british. The proof? I never once, during the whole book felt that he looked down even slightly on his main subject, the Portuguese royal family, and boy could he have!

D. João VI : fat, slothful, severely lacking in the personal hygiene department and chronically indecisive – yet Wilcken portrays as somewhat endearing, not quite as guileless as everyone around him seemed to think. D. Carlota (who was actually Spanish): scheming shrew and power hungry man-eater or a feminist before her time, struggling to have a say so in the kingdom she felt (and who can say otherwise) she was more fit to reign?. D. João’s mother the queen Maria I was certified insane and…well that’s that really.

So the court fled because that disgusting dwarf Napoleon wanted to get his greedy paws on…everything really, and ended up in Rio de Janeiro which was at that point basically a big outdoors slave market bearing to resemblance to any European city fit to host a king – it was just as well D. João preferred country air and the company of a selected few (but then not everyone had the stomach to watch him eat three whole chickens with his hands for lunch ) Funnily enough, Wilcken says the Spanish court also considered at some point decamping to Mexico. Just imagine the different world history we might have today.

One of the things I really appreciated in Wilcken’s book is that, while he follows the royal family (and entourage of thousands) as they escape the incoming Napoleonic Invasion and flee to Brazil, he never abandons the continent (unlike the king), and keeps the reader updated into what was happening in Portugal and indeed Europe.

His best quality as a history writer might be that he travels from the particulars of everyday life and singular characters to global events effortlessly, even elegantly.

Best factoid in the whole book? Palm trees are NOT indigenous to Brazil – they were first brought over by escaped Portuguese sailors from the island of Mauritius (insane isn’t it? – who can think of Brazil without palm trees?)

In the first and last monarchy in the tropics, the Portuguese reversed metropolis-colony dynamics and blindsided Napoleon. Portugal and Brazil’s history was altered forever – set on courses whose consequences are still felt today. It’s a fascinating piece of history and I doubt there’s a better or more readable account out there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.