Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies

Professor Stuart Schwartz

September 10, 2020

Tolerance from Below 

How did everyday people shape the modern world?  Throughout his half-century career as a historian of the Iberian Atlantic, George Burton Adams Professor of History Stuart Schwartz has broadened our understanding of the role played by everyday people in forming the modern state, economy, and quintessentially “modern” concepts like religious tolerance. His 2008 book, All Can Be Saved: Religious Toleration and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World, showed how ordinary people brought before the Inquisition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries articulated ideas of religious tolerance that challenged the most powerful legal and ecclesiastical institutions of their time. Blending intellectual and social history, Professor Schwartz upended the notion that tolerance emerged first from intellectuals like John Locke and eventually trickled down to the masses. Winner of the 2008 Cundill International Prize in History, All Can Be Savedalso received prizes from the American Historical Association and the American Academy of Religion. 

Professor Schwartz decided to become a professional historian at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1960s. As an undergraduate at Middlebury College, he studies at the National University of Mexico in Mexico City. He began doctoral studies at Columbia University. At the time, “there was a graduate program in Latin American history with Professor Lewis Hanke, a great expert on the subject.” It was through Lewis Hanke that Professor Schwartz made his first academic contact with Brazil, which became the focus for much of his research for decades in the following years. His academic interests also drew on an intellectual and cultural ferment about the politics of multicultural societies across the Americas. “Exactly at that time, two Brazilian films were being shown in New York: O Cangaceiro (1953) and Orfeu do Carnaval (1959). I was impressed with Brazil. And it was precisely at the time of the Civil Rights movement in the USA, when American society was looking for alternatives for the creation of a multiracial society.” 

Professor Schwartz entered Brazil for the first time in 1967. During this first trip, he met several Brazilian academics, such as anthropologist Luiz Mott (author of several works on LGBT themes in Brazilian history) and historians Luiz Henrique Dias Tavares (specialist in themes related to the history of Bahia) and Anita Novinsky (dedicated to the study of the Portuguese Inquisition in Brazil and the Jews who arrived in the country in the colonial period). In the late 1960s, both Portugal and Brazil were ruled by undemocratic governments. “When I arrived in Portugal, I realized that there was a very strong tendency on the part of the Salazar dictatorship to emphasize the great Portuguese deeds, and to completely ignore the period of the Iberian Union.” Building bridges across language and political boundaries, Professor Schwartz’s intellectual collaboration and friendships have given his research a strong international platform through a period tumultuous political transformations.

After receiving his PhD in 1968, Professor Schwartz began shaping a new generation of historical research on the colonial period by emphasizing how Indigenous and enslaved peoples negotiated and shaped the empires of Spain and Portugal in the Americas. Works such as Sovereignty and Society in Colonial Brazil(1973),Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society(1985), and Slaves, Peasants, and Rebels(1992) helped make labor and social relations of marginalized people central to understanding the origins and dynamics of Brazil’s multiracial society. In Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico (2000) and the Cambridge History of Native Peoples of The Americas. South America (1999), Professor Schwartz synthesized the latest scholarship on Indigenous peoples in books accessible for undergraduates. In 2015, he published Sea of Storms, in which he combined methods in environmental history with his decades of knowledge on plantation societies and colonial social relations in the Americas to illuminate the complex social and political forces that combine to make a “natural” disaster. 

In a career notable not only for the breadth and rigor of his archival research and the creativity of his interpretations, Professor Schwartz’s enduring links with historians across the Americas and Europe have helped to make Yale a world leader for the study of Brazil. At Yale since 1996, Professor Schwartz continues a long lineage of university scholars who have been dedicated to the study of Brazilian history. Professor Richard Morse, who was one of the leading Latin America scholars of his generation in the 1960s, helped to make Yale an early leader. Later, the first tenured woman professor in Yale’s History Department was the late Brazilian historian Emília Viotti da Costa, best known for her works From Senzala to Colonyand From Monarchy to Republic. Since joining Yale, Professor Schwartz has played a key role in molding new generations of historians as an educator of undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom hold academic positions at research universities in the United States and Brazil. 

The Past in the Present

Professor Schwartz’s current research explores a period in the sixteenth century when what is now Brazil was held jointly by the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies. “It is during this period that we find the roots of the Brazilian political system, its racial disparities and its social divisions,” he notes. “It is the period when the country’s first historian, Friar Vicente de Salvador, complained that the pursuit of individual interests instead of the common good was Brazil’s main problem. This is a warning that still holds true today, when the nation’s democratic institutions, its judicial system, its natural resources, and the health and well-being of the population, are increasingly being questioned.”

Much like in the 1960s, the legacy of colonialism in contemporary racism today is provoking conversations about the memorialization of slaveholders in statues and institutions across Europe and the Americas. The issue of whose perspective gets publicly enshrined is at the center of public debates about how we transmit and produce historical knowledge. In recent years, from London to San Francisco, statues of slaveholders have been toppled and buildings named after slaveowners have been renamed. 

Professor Schwartz understands where the desire to topple statues comes from. As a historian, he knows this desire is also not unprecedented. It reflects the way the past continues to shape our present political dilemmas. “Since the time of the pharaohs in Egypt, authoritarian governments have tried to rewrite the past and control history and historians. But I am not in favor of destroying monuments. We cannot change history, and the anachronism of requiring people from the past to adopt our beliefs and prejudices is the worst sin for a historian.” Continuing, he says “I am in favor of moving these statues to less prominent locations, since we no longer commemorate the acts or ideas that they represent”.

For Professor Schwartz, one figure who raises these issues about slavery and public memory is the nineteenth-century monarch of independent Empire of Brazil, Dom Pedro II. “Dom Pedro II was a monarchist and a slave owner. Does this mean that we must destroy the Petrópolis Palace? Of course not. It is a national museum where Dom Pedro II and his time - both positive and negative aspects – are preserved.”

Professor Schwartz’s research and teaching have helped generations of students and researchers to better understand the origins of their own societies and possible paths towards a more just future. “It is not just a hobby. History is with us all the time; it is clearly political and it is never ‘objective.’ But clearly there is a difference between objectivity and accuracy. The historian’s task and the purpose of his research is to unravel the past as accurately as possible, and present it in a narrative that is intelligible and informative for the present, thus constituting a guide for our future.”