Social Turbulence and Promise Lost: The Case of Two Scholars of Brazilian History and the 1960s


2017-02-15 By Kenneth Maxwell

To read today’s press you would think that the coming of Donald Trump is a shock beyond recognition.

Yet conflict and shocks in Washington are clearly nothing new.

We certainly lived through larger social upheavals before, notably the one’s of the 1960s.

It is clear that we are present at the creation of a new historical epoch; yet the pressures to pretend we are not are strong and reactive. Put simply, contestation of Washington is not new in the United States, nor did opponents of Donald Trump invent it.

During the Vietnam War the university campuses were in open revolt against the war and the compulsory draft for military service. Many of my generation were victims of the confrontations of that time of troubles.

Washington DC During the 1968 Riots.

Two friends in particular I remember very well had their lives changed and the biases of the left undercutting their careers.

Both were graduate students who worked as I did on 18th century Brazil: David Davidson of Yale University, and William Joel Simon of the City University of New York.   Both were New Yorkers. David was born in the borough of Brooklyn, and Bill Simon in the borough of Queens.

Bill Simon studied the scientific expeditions in the Portuguese overseas territories, or as they were called during the late 18th century, the “philosophic voyages.” He concentrated on the expeditions of Bahia born and university of Coimbra educated, Dr. Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira, to Amazon and Matto Grosso (1783-1792) and on the contemporaneous scientific expeditions in Angola by Joaquim Jose da Silva (1783-1808), and of Manuel Galvao da Silva in Mozambique (1783-1791).

Both were students of the new faculty of natural sciences at Coimbra University in Portugal established after the root and branch reform and modernization of the curriculum by the Marques de Pombal (1772).

Bill was drafted into the US army and sent to fight in Vietnam.

He wrote to me about his 18th century research from various jungle outposts. He completed his dissertation despite these obstacles.

It was a remarkable work. The more so since many of Rodrigues Ferreira’s prime specimens and manuscripts were stolen and shipped to Paris by Etienne Godfrey Saint-Hilliare during the French invasion of Portugal in 1808 at the time of the Napoleonic wars.

Later many of his illustrations and diaries were shipped to Brazil where they languished and were eventually only partially published. Rodriques Ferreira died in 1815, his health broken, and subject to the bitter jealousies of his fellow naturalists. And many his remaining specimens and illustrations in Portugal were destroyed during a fire at the Museu de Bocage in Lisbon in 1978

Bill Simon’s dissertation was published in English in Lisbon in 1983 by the centro de estudos de cartografia antiga, and it remains the best work on these remarkable explorations.

But on his return to the USA after military service he was never able to get an academic job, largely in my view, because of anti-military prejudice, against those who had been obliged (often against their will) by the military draft to serve in Vietnam.

He worked in the reinsurance business in New York City.  He died at far too young an age, probably I suspect, as a result of the health hazards to which many Vietnam veterans were unknowingly subjected.

David Davidson was a student of the historian Richard Morse. His father ran a nightclub in Miami. He was an unconventional student. He became a protégée of Sergio Buarque de Hollanda, the great Brazilian historian, who was then a visiting professor at Yale, and he became a close friend of Sergio’s family, staying with them in São Paulo, and accompanying Sergio during his research in the archives of Vila Boa de Goiás (today Goiás Velha)

I still have my correspondence with David Davidson from the time of his researches in the far west of Brazil and in the Amazon basin. He wrote to me from Goias, Manaus, and Belem. While in São Paulo, David stayed with Sergio.

In the preface to the second edition of his book “Monções,” (literally “monsoons”, a name taken from the Indian Ocean, but here referring to the seasonal riverborne routes into the Brazilian interior, used by the early explorers and traders), Sergio Buarque de Hollanda called David “his companion researcher during my last visit to Cuiabá, when, as we used to say, we were together in 1967,  on our admirable “entrada” (The term used for the early explorations of the interior.)

David and I had intended in fact to write a history of Pombaline Brazil together.I would cover the south and central Brazil. He would concentrate on the far west and the Amazon basin. His dissertation was on the “rivers and empire” during the Pombaline period.

It was never published. It is still the best-unpublished work on the 18th century Amazon.

But like Bill Simon, David Davidson, was also a victim of the Vietnam War.

He got his first job at Cornell University. Black students, inspired by the “black power movement” took over the Willard Straight Hall on the campus in April 1969 and armed themselves. It was at the height of the Vietnam War, and the violent confrontations of the civil rights movement.

A very dangerous standoff ensued. David helped mediate between the radical black students and the university administration, and helped defuse the confrontation. But this profoundly affected him. In 1973 he gave up his job and dropped out and became a follower of oriental philosophy.

I went up to Cornell to see him, but he had disappeared into the forest. I left a message for him marked out in stones by the roadside. The next day we met. But he was no longer interested in history. He had utterly abandoned his research. He also died far too young in 2010 of pancreatic cancer.

Bill Simon and David Davidson were scholars of a lost generation. Both were members, as Sergio Buarque de Holanda, wrote “of that curious band of enthusiasts who discover the lost world of the ancient dead”.

Both David and BIll could have gone on to make major contributions to Brazilian history.

But in their different ways both were victims of that turbulent epoch.