Gabriel Rocha recently joined the Brown History Department as Vasco da Gama Assistant Professor of Early Modern Portuguese History. He received his PhD from New York University and, before coming to Brown, taught at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His work centers on the social, environmental, and maritime history of colonialism and slavery in the early modern Atlantic world, with a focus on the linkages between Atlantic Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, and Iberia.
Your work places Portuguese history into a broader Atlantic context, making connections between the Iberian peninsula, Africa, and the Americas. Why is it so important that we look beyond Europe to understand the global impact of Portuguese history?
Rather than telling the story of empire as a project that originated in Europe and expanded outward through conquest and trade, I try as much as I can to recover multiple perspectives rooted in various places and regions that are integral to understanding the who, what, where, and why of colonial struggle. Situating Portugal in the early modern world becomes, in this respect, more than crafting a narrative around a single imperial or national history. I’m more concerned with examining how diverse peoples and groups moved through the Atlantic and beyond, entering into arrangements and conflicts with others in ways that changed the social, political, economic, and environmental landscape for themselves and those who came after. It makes for a messier story than seeing an empire in isolation, but hopefully offers us a more accurate basis for reckoning with the past and its aftermath.
Much of your teaching and research brings colonial history into dialogue with environmental history. Why must historians attend to the natural world in order to understand the history of colonialism in the early modern period?
Being imaginative with the archives that we have, and employing interdisciplinary insights where possible, environmental historians are in a position to track changes in nature in material terms, to consider shifts in popular and elite perceptions of the environment, and to weigh how economic and political formations came about to justify, enact, or subvert sweeping transformations that were detrimental to many and beneficial to few. When we better understand the changing iterations of plunder waged against people and the planet across different historical periods, it becomes easier to grasp how present forms of race- and gender-based discrimination, anthropocentrism, and other structures of inequality are not, as we recognize them today, perennial aspects of the global order. These toxic forces have historical beginnings – and, sooner than later if we act accordingly – an end.
You are currently writing a book about the Atlantic Acceleration in the long fifteenth century. Can you explain what this “acceleration” was and how you became interested in this topic?
It’s often said that Portuguese and Spanish mariners inaugurated contact across the Atlantic. But if we think in broader temporal, spatial, and ecological terms, it becomes clear that a great number of species and materials regularly cycled through the vast expanses between Africa, the Americas, and Europe long before the so-called Age of Discoveries. From coming across many unexpected references in Iberian sources to sardines and other migratory fish, I became interested in what happens to our assumptions about power (in relation to people and nature) when we write these perennial non-human oceanic movements back into the rise of empires in the Atlantic world, rather than treating them as ahistorical background noise. The story becomes more about how, in the centuries after 1492, the maritime space between Africa, the Americas and Europe became humanized in a way that it hadn’t previously. With this infusion of people – the great majority of whom experienced involuntary exile from Africa to the Americas – the pace by which material and social connections linked the societies surrounding the Atlantic basin accelerated dramatically. To refer to this historical sea-change as an acceleration helps to convey a process that was rife with deepening forms of violence and dispossession.
What is your favorite history book?
I'll answer this impossibly difficult question by expressing my appreciation for a colonial Brazilian history book that has been recently translated into English: the late John Manuel Monteiro’s Negros da terra [Blacks of the Land]. It’s a work of remarkable scholarship on seventeenth-century Brazil that traces confrontations between sovereign Indigenous peoples of eastern South America and Portuguese colonizers of what became São Paulo, and how patterns of enslavement and the rise of provisioning economies in the region helped underpin the plantation regime in northeastern Brazil. In reading it as a graduate student in an Atlantic History program, I remember being struck by how Monteiro’s analysis of regional integration in colonial Brazil mirrors the connections that scholars working on Native American slavery and plantation economies have uncovered in recent years between North America and the Caribbean. It’s a reminder of how the Atlantic history paradigm at its best pushes us to productively read across different historiographies.