I was struck during my period as British Ambassador to Brazil (2008-2013) by the powerful contribution the UK had made to Brazil’s development. I was also struck by how little was known about this nowadays in both countries. These connections are not just a matter of historical record. They affect how the two countries see each other as potential partners for the future.
When I was accorded the honour of becoming Robin Humphreys Fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies, I explored with Professor Newson how we might use the convening power of ILAS to bring together contemporary academic insights into the connections between the two countries. Of course one can look back at the work in the 1930s and 1940s of Alan Manchester and Gilberto Freyre. They were closer to the heyday of what Manchester called the “British Pre-eminence”. Since then, Leslie Bethell and others have made major contributions in their writing on these issues. Yet I firmly believe in the importance of history being continuously refreshed and re-interpreted through discovery of new facts and the application of new minds.
I am delighted that ILAS will host “The British in Brazil” on 13-14 May with so many eminent scholars participating.
Perhaps best known is the British contribution to sport in Brazil. It was Charles Miller who not only introduced football to Brazil but fostered its development in the early decades of last century. This year the World Cup – which will have a larger viewership worldwide than any other event in human history – is hosted in Brazil, now the beating heart of world football. It also marks the hundredth anniversary of the first match played by Fluminense against a professionals, a visiting team from Exeter City Football club. The last hundred years have been rich in Brazil-UK football and other sporting connections.
The popular historical works “1808” and “1822” have made better known to Brazilians the UK role in Brazil’s opening-up to the world and its independence.
Among the reasons for UK involvement was the huge British interest in trade with Brazil (for a while a more important trading partner than the whole of Asia). This in turn led to investment (mining, manufacturing, railways, agriculture) and a focus on Brazil of British services (shipping, banking) as well as scientific and literary attention. The UK was the largest trading partner of Brazil up to World War One and at times in the 1920s too and remained the largest investor up to World War Two.
Entwined with British trade interests was the development of British foreign policy after the Napoleonic Wars in a framework to encompass our dealings with the whole world. It was the great George Canning who made clear Britain’s opposition to re-intervention by the former colonial powers in Latin America and determined that Britain should help secure Brazil’s fledgling independent status within the Concert of European Powers. I always loved gazing at the painting in the Brazilian Foreign Ministry of Ambassador Charles Stuart in his red suit presenting the terms of independence from Portugal to the Emperor of Brazil. A piece of theatre to save face all round and entrench a new reality.
Britain’s political philosophy was not always well received in Brazil. Fighting against slavery trade all round the world had become politically correct and indispensable in British domestic politics, as well as expedient to avoid damage to British trade. This had implications for relations with the United States (nb the Amistad case) but even more so for UK relations with Brazil. Even today, there is some resentment of the UK effort to force Brazil into abolition.
With Brazil internationalising and the UK taking again a close interest in Brazil and its region, now is a very good moment to look at the historical connections between the two countries and to ensure we understand them. I very much hope that the ILAS event will be the beginning of a re-evaluation of what the two countries have meant to each other. I also hope that it will be possible to send messages beyond the academic community about this shared history as a way of energising the bilateral relationship going forward.
We are two countries just about in line of sight of each other across the Atlantic Basin and both with a huge amount to offer to the world in the 21st century. We can do this better together.