Brazil LAB and Graduate Program of the Museu Nacional hosted their first joint seminar: Encounters on Decolonizing War-Making with João Biehl

Friday, Apr 2, 2021

On Thursday, March 25, 2021, the Brazil LAB and the Graduate Program in Social Anthropology of the Museu Nacional (UFRJ, Brazil) held the first joint seminar of the series Encounters. João Biehl, Susan Dod Brown Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Brazil LAB, delivered the talk “Insurgent Archivings: Decolonizing the War of the False Saints (Mucker) in a Southern Settler Frontier (1868-1874).” Adriana Vianna, Professor of Anthropology at the Museu Nacional provided comments and Federico Neiburg, also a Professor of Anthropology at the Museu Nacional, moderated the event.

Professor Biehl shared results of his research on the Mucker War, a conflict that took place in the second half of the 1800s in the German settlements of Southern Brazil. Following independence from Portugal, Brazilian authorities founded several colonies for European immigrants in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Around the 1860s, a group of German-speaking colonists began to be singled out as the ‘Muckers’, being rendered by the local authorities as “mad” and immoral due to their religious, linguistic, and healing practices. In the following years, a violent persecution perpetrated by the state and local elites decimated the Muckers.

Inquiring about epistemological fissures, Biehl’s work presents groundbreaking archival and ethnographic contributions to that story. As a descendant of German colonists from the region, Biehl conducted a sensitive return to the history of the conflict and of his own family. In doing so, he explored the sentience of undocumented historical traces while rescuing a hidden side of the conflict: the suffering experienced by the Muckers. Employing ethnographic and sensorial tools, Biehl probed how another type of longevity persisted in that story. Poetic reminiscences coming from the marginalized group and their descendants revealed insurgent modes of care, survival, and resistance.

In that process, the nature of the archival evidence was also reinvented by Biehl and his interlocutors, with other actants (such as gardens and yards) serving as key elements of plural narratives. Potent visual accounts of the past and the present formed a central part of Professor Biehl’s reflections, unveiling new, decolonial nuances of a conflict marked by many layers of prejudice, including religious, racial and ethnic. Biehl demonstrated how the Muckers challenged the monopoly of the divine and science, becoming historically known as sectarian and murderous fanatics. This portrayal did not only bring violence against them, but it also helped to sustain the establishment of eugenic imaginaries in the emergent nation. Investigating the reverberations of these phenomena also in the aftermath of the conflict and up to current days, Biehl showed how the central elements of the Mucker War are deeply connected to Brazil’s contemporary conundrums.

In her comments, Professor Vianna addressed the affective implications of Biehl’s research, emphasizing that the “return to home” can operate as an insurgent heuristic in the craft of ethnographies. Vianna also tackled how the structural frameworks of gender and race played out in the Mucker conflict, especially alongside the symbolism of extreme violence. Questions from the audience included the issues of messianism, settler colonialism and the portrayal of the Muckers in the arts.

The event was co-organized by the Brazil LAB and the Graduate Program in Anthropology of the Museu Nacional and held in Portuguese. It can be watched here.