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Review: As it happened – Brazil

It’s difficult to know how to assess this documentary for you.  This is certainly an important story.  Five hundred years ago, Portuguese travellers landed on the shores of a country that they named after its native Brazil-wood tree.  An important source of wealth for this country was sugar, but the settlers realised there weren’t enough locals around to work the sugar fields, so additional labour was brought in – slaves, imported from Africa in one of the largest forced migrations in history.  Up to four hundred slaves at a time were squashed into ships on a sea journey that took months.  Many died and were dumped: “manageable losses”.  Those who survived were branded with hot irons and faced a life of hard labour and beatings.

Even when the slave population outnumbered their masters two to one, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that unrest among the slaves led to any concerted uprising.  With no photographic evidence from the period, the programme relies on ‘talking heads’ – historical experts and social anthropologists – who unfortunately seem rather dry and uninspiring.  I would have liked some comparisons with social and industrial development in other countries and a review of the international pressure that built up on Brazil to abolish slavery.

Instead the film concludes, too simplistically, that the legacy of slavery is ‘homelessness, street children and unemployment’, while questions about population explosion and the role of the Catholic Church are not explored properly.  On balance, the programme gets a (wavering) thumbs up for its important subject matter, not for its presentation style or participants.  The best way I can sum up it up is to paraphrase the judge Lord Birkenhead who told the prosecuting barrister in one trial that, having read the long and detailed brief, he was no wiser about the case – but undoubtedly better informed.

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