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The Scramble for the Amazon and the "Lost Paradise" of Euclides da Cunha

The fortunes of the late nineteenth century’s imperial and industrial powers depended on a single raw material—rubber—with only one source: the Amazon basin. And so began the scramble for the Amazon—a decades-long conflict that found Britain, France, Belgium, and the United States fighting with and against the new nations of Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil for the forest’s riches. In the midst of this struggle, Euclides da Cunha, engineer, journalist, geographer, political theorist, and one of Brazil’s most celebrated writers, led a survey expedition to the farthest reaches of the river, among the world’s most valuable, dangerous, and little-known landscapes.
The Scramble for the Amazon tells the story of da Cunha’s terrifying journey, the unfinished novel born from it, and the global strife that formed the backdrop for both. Haunted by his broken marriage, da Cunha trekked through a beautiful region thrown into chaos by guerrilla warfare, starving migrants, and native slavery. All the while, he worked on his masterpiece, a nationalist synthesis of geography, philosophy, biology, and journalism he named the Lost Paradise. Da Cunha intended his epic to unveil the Amazon’s explorers, spies, natives, and brutal geopolitics, but, as Susanna B. Hecht recounts, he never completed it—his wife’s lover shot him dead upon his return.
At once the biography of an extraordinary writer, a masterly chronicle of the social, political, and environmental history of the Amazon, and a superb translation of the remaining pieces of da Cunha’s project, The Scramble for the Amazon is a work of thrilling intellectual ambition.

632 pages | 53 halftones, 14 maps, 2 tables | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 | © 2013

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Biological Sciences: Tropical Biology and Conservation

History: Discoveries and Exploration, Latin American History


“A journey into South America’s heart of darkness.” 


“A vividly detailed account of the complex interactions of the diverse Amazon dwellers of the late 19th through early 20th centuries, including native people, descendants of runaway slaves, rubber barons, peasant rubber tree tappers, ranchers, scientists, explorers, and the Brazilian military. . . . This scholarly but accessible work about an individual now somewhat forgotten to history will be of greatest interest to scholars and . . . Brazilian and Amazonian history enthusiasts.”

Elizabeth Salt | Library Journal

“Hecht writes not only with extraordinary historical assurance about her remarkably complex subject, but also with great passion and literary elegance. The book is, like da Cunha’s own work, the product of years of mediation, and brings together Hecht’s political-ecological research on and in Amazonia with a lot of archival spadework. There is also elegance of characterisation: not all academic authors would dare to describe their subject as having ‘the lambent eyes of a nocturnal animal.’ Hecht does, she is right, and the reader is grateful for her authorial courage. . . . Da Cunha’s remarkable fusion of the scholarly and the literary with all its acuity and also its eccentricities is matched by Hecht’s; style mirrors subject.”

Robert J. Mayhew | Times Higher Education

“This is an exhaustive and highly original book that sheds light on little-known aspects of both da Cunha’s life and the region’s history.”

Patrick Wilcken | Literary Review

“In part the biography of [an] unjustly forgotten figure. Hecht hails da Cunha as a frustrated literary and scientific genius who was actively involved in Brazil’s political transitions before being gunned down in 1909, at age 43, by his wife’s young lover. . . . Hecht places da Cunha’s quirky personal tale inside the more ambitious story of a country at the crossroads, freed from colonialism and monarchy, ready-fractured in class and ethnic terms, and coming into existence as a republic within the global commodity economy that had always shaped it.”

Lorna Scott Fox | The Nation

“Hecht seamlessly integrates generous portions . . . of da Cunha’s writings into his riveting narrative. Both authors are acutely aware of the costs, to humans and nature alike, of incorporating Amazonia into wider political economies. While da Cunha should not remain a minor figure outside Brazil, Hecht is a major interpreter of Amazonian and environmental history. . . . Essential.”

T. P. Johnson | Choice

“This is a tour de force that defies characterization; an exciting combination of geographical history and literary biography for sure. Its animating spirit, though, is intellectual history. Written from the perspective of a lifetime’s work in the region, and in clear and engaging prose, it is a major contribution to the understanding of the Amazon and its place in the wider continent.”

Imago Mundi: The International Journal for the History of Cartography

“Hecht launches this feast of a book with a moving account of the Canudos rebellion. . . . Monumental. . . . Compelling and elegantly written. The author’s deep knowledge of the Amazon and its history bursts from every page with the exuberance of a tropical rainforest. The Scramble for the Amazon is a revelation of a period, region, and cast of characters unknown to many readers. It will long remain the definitive account of this episode of South American history.”

John Hemming | Times Literary Supplement

“Susanna B. Hecht’s extraordinary book is as penetrating and graceful as its subject matter:  the lost writings of Euclides da Cunha on the Amazon. Indeed, Hecht is our modern-day da Cunha, presenting the miraculous forest and its people in all its complex wonder. And she throws in a tragic love story to boot. The Scramble for the Amazon and the ‘Lost Paradise’ of Euclides da Cunha is a truly remarkable book, destined to be a classic.”

Greg Grandin, author of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City

“Every so often a book comes along that forces all of us to shift perspectives, embrace new paradigms, deny much of what we have learned in order to relish in the wonder of the new. Susana B. Hecht as a scholar and author has always been a catalyst of fresh dreams, a fountain of new and raw intellectual insights. Her latest book is a work of wonder, a fusion of literary history, poetic reflections, and unshackled anger. I cannot say enough in praise of her scholastic audacity, integrity, and devotion.”

Wade Davis, National Geographic Society

“Hecht distills major historiographic lines of inquiry spanning precolonial to contemporary Latin America: from the sociocultural history of quilombos and the economic legacies of plantation complexes, to the development of geography and the biological sciences as disciplines nurtured by expansionist state ideologies, to the political and military contingencies of late Imperial and early Republican Brazil. Likening the transnational circuits of capital relying on extractive enterprises in the Amazon to the contemporaneous European ‘Scramble for Africa,’ Hecht evokes the interplay of socio-ecological landscapes from the perspective of an exceptionally capable participant-observer.”

Gabriel de Avilez Rocha | Terrae Incognitae

“Susanna Hecht’s wonderfully ambitious book unveils an unknown chapter in the history of the Amazon—indeed, the history of the world. The Scramble for the Amazon would be important if it merely showed how Euclides da Cunha, almost unknown to Americans but one of Latin America’s greatest writers, was also a significant figure in political and environmental history. But it uses da Cunha and his unfinished masterwork, Lost Paradise, to show how Amazonia played a central role in global politics a century before rock stars began staging ‘save the rain forest’ concerts. As a bonus to readers, her translations of da Cunha’s brilliant Amazonian writings are excellent, and the sadly moving love story at the center of his life—key to understanding his work—is artfully woven into the rest of the material.”

Charles C. Mann, author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus

“This majestic book—a monumental labor of love—is like nothing else written about Amazonia. A richly detailed survey that locates regional history in the complex matrix of colonial competition, it vividly brings to life a singular and singularly important figure in Brazilian literary history. There is a standard hyperbole that a book will change our view of a given topic, but this time, in many ways both large and small, it’s unquestionably true.”

Hugh Raffles, author of In Amazonia: A Natural History

Table of Contents



Part 1. Os Sertões: The Pre-Amazonian Life of Euclides da Cunha
1. A Short Prelude: From Os Sertões to As Selvas
2. The Unlikely Protagonist
3. The Afterlife of Revolution
4. A Quilombo Called Canudos
5. Mud-Walled Jerusalem, Mud-Walled Troy

Part 2. The Scramble for the Amazon
6. In the Times of Scrambles in the Land of the Amazons
7. Imperialisms, Revolutions, and Resolutions in the Caribbean Amazon
8. “American Amazon”? Colonizations and Speculations
9. Wall Street, Rebels, and Rio Branco
10. Peru, Purús, Brazil
11. Euclides and the Baron

Part 3. As Selvas: Into the Litigious Zones
12. “Impressions completely new to me”
13. “Such is the river, such is its history”
14. In the Realm of Rubber
15. Argonauts of the Amazon
16. In Hostile Territory, Part 1: Official Report of the Joint Boundary Commission
17. In Hostile Territory, Part 2: Ex-party Report from da Cunha to Baron Rio Branco

Part 4. Cartographer at Court
18. Return of the Native
19. Maps, Texts, and History
20. “Events that perhaps lacked a historian”: Reflections and Supplements to the Formal Report of the Joint Survey Commission
21. Everyday Forms of Empire: The Tropicalist Ethnography of Euclides da Cunha

Part 5. Abyss and Oblivion
22. Killing Dr. da Cunha
23. Hamlet’s Lament
24. Illusions and Oblivion

A Note on the Text: Fragments, Translation, and Photos


Conference on Latin American History: Elinor Melville Prize

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