Gilberto de Melo Freyre

Gilberto de Melo Freyre
Gilberto de Melo Freyre

Gilberto de Melo Freyre was the author of many books that traced the cultural heritage of Brazilians from Indians, Portuguese, and African slaves. He was born on March 15, 1900, at Apipucos, near Recife, and after being educated at home attended the American Baptist School, the Colégio Americano Gilreath de Pernambuco.

From a wealthy plantation family, he traveled to the United States to complete his education, attending Baylor University at Waco, Texas, where he graduated with a bachelor of arts.

He then went to Columbia University, where he graduated with a master of arts in Latin American history in 1923. At Columbia he was greatly influenced by lecturers Franz Boas, J. H. Hayes, and Edwin R. A. Seligman. Freyre then journeyed to Europe, visiting anthropology museums in Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal.

Returning to Brazil, Freyre, who started teaching sociology, organized in 1926 the first northeastern regionalist congress to be held in Recife, which saw the publication of his "Regionalist Manifesto." His political activity in Brazil meant that after 1930 and the collapse of the Third Republic, Freyre had to leave Brazil.

He left in October, going to Bahia and then to Portugal via Portuguese Africa, which he felt was a historic opportunity to experience the Portuguese diaspora. In Lisbon Freyre studied at the National Library, and in February 1931 he was offered a position in the United States working as a visiting professor at Stanford University.

This allowed him to spend time researching the nature of slavery in the United States. Freyre returned to Brazil a few years later and helped found sociology departments at the University of Rio de Janeiro and the University of São Paulo.

In 1934 he was to organize the first Congress of Afro-Brazilian Studies, which was held at Recife and achieved notoriety in political circles because of its emphasis on establishing the causes of Afro-Brazilian poverty as environmental.

Freyre spent most of his life studying the socioeconomic development of the area around Recife—the northeastern part of Brazil. He documented the many links between that part of Latin America and the Portuguese colonies in Africa, particularly Portuguese Guinea (modern-day Guinea-Bissau), São Tomé and Príncipe, and Angola.

His studies of Portuguese colonialism made him believe that since the Portuguese had, before they found Brazil, extensive colonial experiences in Africa, they were better equipped to deal with the problems in the Americas than the Spanish were. This, in turn, Freyre argued, led to a more successful multiracial and multicultural society.

The author of many books, his best known was Casa-grande e senzala (The big house and the slave quarters, published in 1933), which was translated into English as The Masters and the Slaves.

It was a detailed sociological thesis that described the relationships between the Portuguese colonial masters and their African slaves. It also includes plans of the Noruega Plantation in Recife, which was used as the basis for a section of the book.

He compares and contrasts at length the Brazilian plantation society with that in the southern United States, noting that the planters in both areas were keen on "the rocking chair, good cooking, women, horses and gambling."

Although early detractors called Freyre a communist and a pornographer, he was socially conservative and had worked as secretary to his cousin, Estácio de Albuquerque Coimbra, who was governor of Pernambuco from 1926 to 1927 and from 1929 to 1930.

In 1946, with the reintroduction of democracy to Brazil, Freyre was elected to the national constituent assembly and was a member of the chamber of deputies from 1946 until 1950. In 1949 Freyre represented Brazil at the United Nations General Assembly with the rank of ambassador.

He welcomed the rightwing military government of Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco in 1964. He rapidly became closely identified as a supporter of the government, and his sociological work was increasingly criticized for its highlighting of "benign" aspects of Brazilian slavery.

In 1968 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Münster, in Germany. Repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize, he was never invited to join the Brazilian Academy of Letters. He died on July 18, 1987, at Recife.