“A civilized person, an intellectual.” The character who thus describes himself, pompously, in Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1981 historical novel, The War of the End of the World, is only ever referred to as “the nearsighted journalist” and appears as a neurotic city boy, all allergies and nerves. The year is 1897, and the journalist has come to Brazil’s backlands to report on a fight to the death between the young republic’s modernizing troops and the almost medieval community of Canudos, populated by social rejects and religious fanatics. Once his glasses are smashed, the journalist’s civilized myopia gives way to a blindness that paradoxically enables him to identify with the wretchedness and grandeur of the doomed rebels. The Canudos War is grim historical fact, and the journalist—one of the few factually based characters in this great novel about myths and mind-sets—is an uncharitable portrait of Euclides da Cunha, whose account of the conflict supplied Vargas Llosa with much of his material.

Susanna Hecht’s The Scramble for the Amazon is in part the biography of this 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. This great scandal of Brazil’s Belle Époque had a second casualty: the unfinished potential masterpiece about the Amazon left behind in da Cunha’s desk drawer. The journalist died a one-book wonder, with his dream of merging his articles and field notes into a grand celebration of the Brazilian far west to be called The Lost Paradise remaining exactly that.

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. Brazil was founded in the sixteenth century on the brazilwood trade. Sugar in the northeast redefined the country’s existence in the seventeenth century, only to be superseded during the eighteenth by gold and coffee in the southeast; last came the short-lived surge of Amazonian rubber, harvested under conditions too inhospitable for a plantation system. By 1912, the industry had relocated to Southeast Asia, but rubber was still an economic and geographic frontier when Brazil became a republic by military coup in 1889, one year after the very belated abolition of slavery. Disgruntled slaver aristocrats; an upstart, authoritarian officer class; and thousands of ex-slaves, both native and African, for whom no provision had been made, a miscegenated, essentially migrant population composed of dispossessed tribals, longtime maroons, surplus serfs: such were the Brazilians in search of a society that would include them and, as Hecht emphasizes, an ideology that would define them—one which da Cunha attempted to supply.

The oligarchs quickly imported white laborers to replace their freed slaves. Against their dominant Europeanist values, da Cunha would propose the resilient mongrel energy of caboclos (mestizos) and mulattoes as the essence of Brazilian virtue. The Amazonian headwaters in Brazil’s northwest, where many such groups had emigrated, was an apt setting for da Cunha to make that case, given the disputed frontier with Peru: here Brazil might define its shape and currents, in every sense. But for da Cunha to acquire the insights that informed his Amazon writings, he first had to undergo the trauma of the Canudos War.

In fact, da Cunha witnessed that tragedy’s final act: some 25,000 northeasterners who, having fled bondage and drought, built an autonomous multiethnic community in Canudos under the leadership of the millenarian preacher Antônio Conselheiro, only to be starved out and slaughtered to the last man (women and children were prostituted or indentured) by the fourth military expedition sent against them. The previous three had been routed by creative guerrilla tactics that mixed indigenous and African techniques: drop traps and spikes, or luring starving soldiers to their doom with goat bells, or causing their horses to bolt into the thorn forests, where in Hecht’s words “man and beast were horribly flayed, impaled on the landscape itself. There they remained, mummifying in the increasing drought, ghoulish sentinels saluting the next attackers.”

Canudos was a form of quilombo, the sanctuaries founded by runaway slaves: safe houses, remote villages or “covert communities in plain sight” that were cradles of cultural and racial blending and political experiment. Some of these only came into view in the late 1980s. The syncretic religiosity of Canudos’s refugees, as well as their monarchism (they never forgot that it was the Princess Regent Isabel who abolished slavery) and rejection of republican institutions offended a secular military project founded on the Comtean principles of “order and progress”—the motto still inscribed on the Brazilian flag. But the “love” that took precedence over the other two ideals in Comte’s formulation was not in evidence during the brutal war on utopian Canudos. It was a mythic confrontation that has not lost its resonance, because its two camps still exist on either side of deep fissures in the sociopolitical imagination, with the utopian possibilities running the gamut from Waco to contemporary off-the-grid or survivalist communes.

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Born in 1866 near Rio de Janeiro to a family headed by a minor coffee grower, da Cunha was a former cadet and militant republican, a dyed-in-the-wool Darwinian and, at least initially, despite his own caboclo blood, a believer in white supremacy. Hecht says his loyalties became painfully confused in Canudos, “as coastal elite, military aide, and backland half-breed warred within him.” If he did not swoon into the arms of his people, as Vargas Llosa has him do, the great book he wrote about Canudos, Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands), published in 1902, certainly represents a shift in his thinking. Beginning with the promise of a fable about the suppression of a dangerous nest of backward degenerates, and prefaced with scientific expositions on the topography and historic sociology of the sertão, the semi-arid northeastern backlands, the book concludes on a note of awed respect for the sertanejos, so illogically “strengthened by hunger and hardened by defeat,” as well as anguished denunciation of the barbarism shown by the republican forces. Contrary to Comte, progress was not linear after all. Meanwhile, other “bronzed backwoods titans” had been colonizing the Amazon, and da Cunha the convert would soon spin theories about their resilience in the face of moral and physical conditions that had defeated the earlier white settlers.

Although the death at Canudos of Gen. Moreira César probably spared Brazil a ruthless dictatorship (for a few decades, anyway), the republic had further disappointments in store for da Cunha, as a financial crash, military infighting, political corruption and what he called “the complete moral collapse of this country” crushed his ideals. Indeed, the naïf who crowed that he had “married the Republic” when he wed Ana de Ribeiro, daughter of one of the 1889 coup instigators, was soon betrayed by his spouse in a more literal fashion—not surprising, perhaps, given his irascible yet cerebral nature, and his long absences from home on engineering or surveying projects.

While Hecht makes da Cunha’s expedition into Amazonia and associated writings the main channel of her analysis, in “A Short Prelude” she summarizes his conclusions about the region, along with her whole thesis, before leading a tour of the tale’s many winding tributaries. This approach shunts aside our protagonist for chapters on end, but the episodes of contextualizing are richly rewarding, as are the long samples of da Cunha’s works, superbly translated by Hecht. Reproductions of his so-called maps are less helpful, despite guidance on reading “Euclidean cartography” as “cultural texts.” I found myself wanting one straight map of Brazil—as well as a modern, legible view of the Upper Purús and other watercourses, whose intricately contested relationships are impossible to fathom without it.

Hecht is credited with founding the multidisciplinary field of “political ecology” in The Fate of the Forest, a classic book she wrote with Alexander Cockburn nearly twenty-five years ago. The duo presented the Amazon’s deforestation and exploitation partly in terms of the military strategies of the 1960s, as well as the depredations of national elites allied with multinational corporations; nor did they let current development organizations off the hook. Against these, the authors defended more modest forest-dwellers, from tribal remnants to artisanal garimpeiro miners. The Scramble for the Amazon goes back in time to insist, with da Cunha, that there is no such thing as a pristine wilderness: “natural” spaces are always social and political. In this view, the notion of virgin terrain has historically been the ideology of imperialistic designs. The European scientists and adventurers who still “dominate our view of Amazonia” created the fiction of “a tabula rasa waiting for the industrious enterprises, colonists, and civilizing missions of the imperial North and whiter races,” she writes. On the local level, however, territorial claims were likely to be fought over the palimpsests of old and new treaties, amid issues of prior occupation and cultural allegiance. That’s why these concepts mattered, wielded in “a savage tournament of historical geography” (as one explorer with an agenda called it) and involving outriders of the many powers competing, overtly or otherwise, for the territory and resources of an emergent Brazil.

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Hecht steadily paddles us through this history, examining the contribution of Amazon mythology—on a par with “Orientalism”—to the West’s self-perceptions, as well as the legacy of scientific pioneers like the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. She salutes unglamorous surveyors and administrators, and probes into US filibustering and the scarcely more subtle maneuvers of the international banking and commercial interests looking for a toehold in the region. And she shows how the preconception of terra nullius fed the fantasies of people who never would set foot there. In the 1850s, the American oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, along with other Confederate ideologues and creationists who saw their economic model stymied in the United States, pictured the Amazon as part of an “American Mediterranean” divinely linked by winds and tides to the United States. In a south-reaching version of Manifest Destiny, conquered tropical lands would relieve the Southern states of a proliferating black population, and the entire basin would be turned over to cotton production. “Maury felt that British self-interest…would permit them to cast a blind eye to the way the commodity was being produced,” Hecht writes. The dream also depended on polygenetic notions of environmental determinism: “This is the land of parrots and monkeys,” Maury wrote, “and only the African is up to the task which man must realize there.” The Civil War spoiled that one.

Later, as republican Brazil began to wield regional clout and air its expansionist ambitions, conflicts over frontiers came to a head with both the colonial powers and its Latin American neighbors. Hecht recounts the complex history, sociology and economics of what she calls the Caribbean Amazon (today, the Amapá state of Brazil), the hazy status of which became untenable after the gold rush of 1855. Utopian neocolonialists like Henri Coudreau claimed that the so-called Contestado region and the bizarre, opportunistic “Independent Guianan Republic of Cunani” (1885–91) were essentially French. This unlikely assertion was contradicted by the Swiss scientist-spy Emilio Goeldi, in Brazil’s employ, whose ostensibly archaeological report mentioned that the locals “in fact want to belong to Brazil.” This is equally unlikely, Hecht points out, because so many locals were runaway slaves and other deserters from that country. In 1898, the Swiss government arbitrated between Brazil and France and ultimately accepted the arguments of José Maria da Silva Paranhos, the Baron of Rio Branco and da Cunha’s future patron. The Brazilian diplomat flattered the United States by citing the Monroe Doctrine while brazenly appropriating the fugitive population of the Contestado: he labeled them culturally and linguistically Brazilian, thus capturing 261,588 square kilometers of territory “for the patria that many of them had rejected.”

This was surely a perverse interpretation of uti possidetis, the principle dating back to Roman times that Brazil brought to bear in its territorial disputes. It is a form of “facts on the ground,” or ownership by virtue of prolonged and productive occupation. But Rio Branco was a crafty, seasoned operator whose experience in the United States and Europe—notably at the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 that carved up Africa—gave him the measure of the threats to Brazil’s independence from both continents. When he became foreign minister in 1902, he continued to fend off alien territorial ambitions: Brazil’s present shape was drawn in the teeth of France, Britain, the United States, Belgium, Bolivia and Peru.

Hecht makes repeated comparisons to the Scramble for Africa, but why would that episode cast light on South American nations vying with one another, as well as more distant Atlantic powers, over the boundaries of the jungles buffering their own lands? And perhaps only the tribes—variously resistant, dispossessed or enslaved—could identify as “imperialism” the efforts of Brazil and Peru to bag for themselves the confusingly charted and anarchically colonized area around the Purús River that rubber had suddenly made so valuable.

Hecht’s tendency to lend cachet to neglected incidents by invoking a Western paradigm is ironic in the light of da Cunha’s efforts to establish local particularity as the foundation for Brazilian nationalism. He was friendly with other mixed-blood intellectuals engaged in the same task, such as Cândido Rondon, the great communications engineer and defender of the Indians, and the novelist Joaquim Machado de Assis, much of whose work satirized the elite’s slavish devotion to European and classical culture. Hecht leaves this cultural circle unexplored.

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Brazil versus Peru was the conflict da Cunha made his own. His crusading articles on the subject in 1904 inspired Rio Branco to send him as the joint leader of a binational reconnaissance commission that would map the river routes in the Upper Purús and gather data to help decide which country should have them. Da Cunha was well suited to the mission, being both a civil engineer and a lyrical patriot who interpreted the tropical landscape as a work in progress, much like his country. The whole of Amazonia was a place of maddening indefinition where solid forms fought to emerge, with the plants developing “palisades,” “sieves” and “filters” thanks to which “in the end terra firma was carved out.” It was a place still marred by primitive animal shapes, but on the right path: “the last unfinished page of Genesis,” da Cunha called it, “still incomplete and marvelously writing itself.” Such passages transmit the excitement and wonder of a world liberated from God by Darwin, as well as a passionate desire to fathom its dynamics. At the same time, da Cunha’s understanding of the creatively destructive aspects of the fluvial cycle led him to a compromise between Positivist progress and catastrophism. If nature was a “monstrous, dissatisfied artist” endlessly “retouching, redoing,” it provided a metaphor for an always inconclusive history that needed to be worked at, and it vindicated the potential of a hybrid people made more fit by disaster.

In his nation-building polemics, da Cunha deployed a vast knowledge of ethnography, mythology, astronomy, geology and more to wrest tropical reality from previous partial accounts while organizing data into “expansive interconnections.” However, he was hardly less “shackled to the regime that guided” him than previous explorers, and his style did not often adopt the “austere lexicon of technical diction” he so admired in contemporary scientists like Jacques Huber. To an imaginative environmental determinist, even one who threw history into the mix, the harmony of landscape and national character was just too suggestive and tempting a subject, leading to splendid flights of imagination. Here is da Cunha on Peru—which he’d never visited—and the modern and ancient Peruvians:

As one travels from the crumpled and demolished coastal lands, confined to the trembling filigree of seismic faults and their periodic cataclysms, and then ascends the imposing immobility of the Andean Cordillera held in place by a rigid skeleton of dolomite, one moves from a rebellious and febrile republic, periodically agitated by the irritable weakness of its caudillos, to the wreckage of a patriarchal empire propped up by an inflexible theocracy and caste system…. That strong and peaceful race which gave pride of place to its agricultural inspectors, its engineers who opened roads and canals…this civilization was undone by treachery and the brutality of Spain.

Da Cunha’s writings in defense of Brazil’s claim to the Purús and its rubber wealth consist largely of trashing the enemy’s character. Crammed into their barren coastal strip, the Peruvians never shook off the conquistador mentality of extraction and pillage; their society is “a restless mingling of all the races but not yet a people.” They are a rootless, predatory, get-rich-and-get-out lot, whose invasions of the bucolic Brazilian Amazon have left a trail of deforestation, squalid camps, and native groups tricked and crushed. Such inveterate “nomadism” is deeply vexing to one who believes in the higher evolutionary stage of agriculture, with its stable, constructive sociability. The caucheiro, or rubber baron, “perfects only the attributes of slyness, agility, and violence. In the end, it is a barbarous individualism. There is a lamentable involution in a man forever exiled from settlements…like a fugitive from civilization.” Da Cunha is particularly disgusted, therefore, by the faux-genteel mask of the big profiteers: “The caucho baron is irritatingly absurd in his elegant brutality, in his blood-stained gallantry and his vagrant heroism.” It sounds like a stolid medieval Teuton’s grumbling about effete Latins; sure enough, the baron “reappears in Paris,” there to fritter away a fortune and start again.

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Caucho means “rubber,” in Spanish as well as in Portuguese. Hecht is thorough on the botany and cultural-industrial history of the various latex-producing trees, but the fascinating upshot of her account is that two different species imposed their respective exploitative ecologies, each of which seems to reflect the “national character.” There are surely some chicken-and-egg issues here, ignored by both da Cunha and Hecht. At any rate, the Peruvians worked with Castilla (initially because of the geographical frequency of that species on their side of the Amazon), which required the felling of whole groves by coerced native labor, collecting the pooled rubber underneath the trunks, and rampaging on to the next grove. The Brazilians specialized in Hevea, regularly tapped by immigrant seringueiros in long-established, relatively sustainable settlements where one was polite to the natives for the sake of security. This contrast justified Brazil’s claim on moral and civilizational grounds as well as those of uti possidetis, leaving the Peruvians with nothing but a dusty legal claim based on the 1777 Treaty of San Ildefonso.

During the binational survey expedition, the conflict got personal. For one thing, its leaders detested each other. As da Cunha relates in his deliciously aggrieved report to Rio Branco, the Brazilians lost their boats and most of their supplies, but this only hardened their resolve to advance—to the fury of the Peruvian members of the expedition, who according to da Cunha wanted to turn back as soon as the going got tough. In da Cunha’s telling, the starving Brazilians are constantly struggling to dig their canoes out of the sandbars under the smirking gaze of the fat, rested Peruvians; but the highest patriotic moment comes when da Cunha is dismayed to see no Brazilian flags at the commercial outpost of Carlos Scharff, the infamous Peruvian rubber lord. Noticing that the decorative greenery on the walls includes paxiuba palm, whose fronds are bright yellow on green, da Cunha elaborately thanks his hosts: “instead of seeking out a Brazilian flag from the mercenary heart of some commercial factory, they had instead searched in the soul of the forest, taking from it precisely the tree that most symbolized the superior ideas of rectitude and stature.” The Peruvians have to pretend that this exquisite tribute was deliberate.

Despite his nationalism, da Cunha was honest enough to admit that the Brazilian system was no picnic, either. The tellingly few passages in which he stops mauling the Peruvians to examine the alternative scarcely depict the decent yeoman-farmer society he hints at elsewhere; instead, they bewail the iniquities of latifundismo and debt peonage. Faced with the predicament of the seringueiro, trapped both physically and economically, da Cunha betrays a horrified empathy with “the tapper’s torment: a man confined to the same trail, tethered to the same trees, for his entire life, setting off each day from the same point along…the endless circuit of this wall-less dungeon.” But not to worry, because improved legislation and communications will fix “evils…[that] prove above all the mere fact of distance.”

Focusing on da Cunha’s holistic approach, his socialization of nature, and his championing (albeit for Darwinian reasons) of a “bronzed” popular class whose enforced transformation from sertanejo to seringueiro he cast as a triumph of creole resilience, Hecht fairly presents da Cunha as a proto-political ecologist. On the other hand, his xenophobia remains a bit shocking—more so than his supposedly superseded environmental determinism, forms of which we still intuitively espouse (nobody gasped when David Cameron said recently of the British Isles that “our geography has shaped our psychology”). Da Cunha’s more progressive theories failed to influence Brazil’s self-concept as a nation, which turns Hecht’s eulogy to this remarkable writer and thinker into the melancholy exhumation of a counterfactual dream. His Amazonia notebooks, inaptly titled Á margem da história (At the Margin of History), were published to little fanfare in 1909. The sociologist Gilberto Freyre, who supported António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship in the mid-twentieth century, was exceptional in rescuing his ideas of miscegenation and environmental adaptability—a connection that did little for da Cunha.

And, in any event, such ideas did not catch on even then. Given the persistent white racism and fixed constructs of folksy “authenticity,” perhaps only the Tropicália movement of the 1960s dared to embrace the kind of dynamic, mongrel, nativist-modernist culture of which da Cunha might have approved (right down to its claim to be in the “evolutionary line” of Brazilian popular music). A half-century later, progress continues to be slow. Two-thirds of Brazil’s poor are black or pardo. And the Amazon is still a site of myth, desire and despoilment, of controverted self-definition and international dispute.