Bibliographic data

Abramo, Alcione: Ensino criativo de história do Brasil - colônia. São Paulo: Editora do Brasil, 10th ed., repr. [10. Aufl., Nachdr.], 1976, 13.

Who’s Discovering Who? Imagining subaltern perspectives in textbook comics from South Africa and Brazil by Friedl, Sophie (2018)

When it comes to illustrating the first encounters between European explorers and indigenous Americans, Africans or Asians, textbook creators frequently choose to use iconic illustrations of European ships or famous sailors. The covers of two history textbooks from Indonesia and Brazil, Sejarah and Ensino criativo, might stand as exemplary for this tradition. 1 The cover of the Brazilian book, published in 1976, features an image of the Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvarez Cabral, lionised for his supposed discovery of Brazil; he is depicted on board a ship, with a telescope as a symbolic accessory of a seafaring explorer, his stance redolent of dignity and commanding veneration. The illustration’s provenance is the subject of debate; what we know is that it was near-ubiquitous, appearing, for instance, in the four-volume encyclopaedia Grandes Personagens da Nossa História (Great Personalities of our History) published in Brazil in 1969. 2

Ensino criativo ’s cover is an example of a Eurocentric convention which considers Brazilian history to begin with the voyages undertaken by Portuguese explorers and narrates it from the colonisers’ perspective. An overwhelming focus on individual men who are held up as having ‘made history’ is as much an integral part of this narrative as is the framing of European exploration and seizure of other parts of the world as ‘discoveries’ of ‘new’ world region. 3

Numerous researchers have pointed out that this interpretation selectively obscures the fact that many of these areas had been populated before the Europeans arrived. The discourse of ‘discovery’ is therefore indicative of an exclusively European view on the events. 4 From the perspective of the peoples indigenous to today’s Brazil, however, the Iberian expeditions did not discover anything new; indeed, their members were themselves new and strangers to this setting.

Alongside Ensino criativo’s cover, its introductory pages, which take the form of a comic, conform to a narrative which takes Europe as the story’s starting point and follows the perspective of the ‘discoverers’ on their path to Brazil. Such a manner of telling this story is all too familiar to us. However, we are struck by the attempt made here by the author and illustrator, Alcione Abramo and Kazuhiko Yoshikawa, to use humour in their retelling to create distance from the common Eurocentric narrative. 5

In the source shown here, on page 13 of the textbook, the comic depicts an encounter between Portuguese colonists and indigenous Tupiniquins in the context of the arrival of Cabral’s fleet in the year 1500. First, a panel of the comic sequence shows a downcast sailor, who is struggling on his voyage of discovery but does not give up hope of coming upon land and for whom this hope is then indeed fulfilled. The bottom left panel shows a Portuguese man asking a member of an indigenous tribe whether the country has gold or jewels and whether a conquest would be worth it. The indigenous figure, complete with feathers and spear, is astonished and thoroughly perplexed – a response no doubt reflected in the reader, who will probably find the unceremonious cutting-to-the-chase of the European’s question almost funny in its inappropriateness. The sequence implies criticism of the greed of those who went on to conquer the region. In the third panel, to the right of this one, two indigenous people are secretly watching the Portuguese hold a religious service. One of them shows bewilderment at the new arrivals’ idea of celebrating a religious holiday: ‘Why don’t they drink, sing and behave like we do on a feast day?!?!’ The punctuation here is a typically drastic device, of the kind often found in comics, for the communication of the puzzlement and surprise felt by the indigenous watchers. They – and their perspective of the situation – are at the forefront of this panel and transmit their perspective on the explorers onto the reader. It is true that these indigenous figures are depicted, in a tradition of textbook imagery which continues in Brazil to this day, in the stereotyped style of exotic ‘native Indians’ 6 with feathered headdresses and loincloths. The primary focus of the panel, however, is the strange behaviour of the Portuguese. This manner of depiction enables the comic to raise the implicit question of who actually ‘discovered’ whom here and whose lifestyle is the ‘normal’, normative one.

For a brief moment, this depiction of events steps outside the Eurocentric view and switches sides, taking on the perspective of the indigenous Americans. This manoeuvre is indicative of an awareness on the part of the author and illustrator that the experience of America’s so-called ‘discovery’ took place across diverse perspectives. The depiction here, with its hint at a change of perspective, is part of a trend relating to the historiography which emerged in Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s, when some historians, responding to the dominance of Eurocentrism, sought and claimed to take a genuinely indigenous view on events. 7

It is, of course, an impossible undertaking to re-experience the first encounters between European and Americans from the true perspective of those involved. This is particularly the case where that perspective is that of indigenous peoples, due to the almost complete lack of source material which might allow us to begin reconstructing their view on events – in sharp contrast to the more or less reliably documented European perspective. The Tupiniquins of Brazil or the South African Khoikoi did not, as far as we know, record their experiences with the sailors arriving in their territories in drawings or text which a textbook might use to present a multi-perspective view of these events. 8

This is a gap which the medium of comics, in its ability to imagine and contrast differing perspectives, might attempt to fill. ‘The educational value of comics’, observes the history educationalist Stefan Semel, ‘appears to lie above all in [the challenge of presenting] history from the perspective of the “nameless”, combined with the opportunity [they provide] for changing perspective’. 9 Comics are an eminently suitable medium for permitting shifts in perspective at specific points in a theme or topic due to their openly fictional nature, which gives the medium the poetic licence to replace absent or unavailable sources with imagined depictions – a licence that reconstruction via text, history teaching’s classic medium, does not have, or cannot make use of without incurring criticism. 10 Comics make no claim to historical authenticity 11 ; they invent dialogues and trains of thought which are more or less plausible and put them in the mouths or minds (or speech bubbles) of figures from the past. The clearly humorous nature of the illustrations, as seen in the Ensino criativo example, and the lack of pretension to historical accuracy that is evident in their graphic values, make comics more immune than other media to questioning of their correctness or otherwise and enlarge their field of potential to supplement established canons of historical knowledge with perceptions from the past which are not reflected in conventional historical documentation.

The cartoons in Ensino criativo only hint at the range of possibilities for the free imagination of subaltern perspectives which resides in comics. For its time of publication, during the Brazilian military dictatorship and the strict regime of censorship it practised, the critique of Eurocentrism and colonialism which the book implies is surprisingly open, and the author’s affinity to those opposing the Brazilian regime is evident. 12

The South African history textbook Looking into the Past provides an exemplar of textbook authors’ specific and systematic use of the medium of comics to escape the reiteration of a Eurocentric narrative of ‘discovery’. 13 The source we have selected for analysis here, headed ‘Europeans come to the Cape’, is a comic depicting the first encounter between the indigenous Khoikoi and the group of explorers around the Portuguese Bartolomeu Dias. 14 The comic that appears in this book and that in Brazil’s Ensino criativo refer to linked events - the arrival of Portuguese explorers on African and American soil and their subsequent claiming of these territories - taking place in 1488 and 1500 respectively. 15

Looking into the Past explores the arrival of Dias and his crew on the South African shore from an African and a European perspective; the authors make use of the panel-based layout of comics, which allows individual images to be arranged into a sequence, as an ’instrument of control whose arrangement channels and directs the reader’s gaze’. 16 The depiction includes a fictitious source, extracts from ‘Bartolomeu Dias' diary’ which refer to the events in question. True to the textbook’s title, the content here is focused on ‘looking into the past’ from divergent points of view. In contrast to Ensino criativo, the indigenous perspective is the dominant one. One of the tasks given in the book explicitly calls on students to put themselves into the place of the Khoikoi. Another difference from Ensino criativo is the depiction of the Europeans as speaking an incomprehensible, mysterious language: ‘!* #…@! x-x …? * !! … @*?-!-?’, one of the new arrivals asks a member of the Khoikoi, in whose puzzlement the reader shares in full.

The members of the indigenous population, as they appear in these comics, use language to comment on the arrival of the Europeans which the traditional narrative would ascribe to the so-called discoverers. When one of the Khoikoi exclaims: ‘I never saw anything like that before!’ and another comments: ‘These are strange men with clothes that cover all of their bodies!’, the reader is reminded that this was a mutual discovery and a mutual experience of strangeness, and that a judgement of another’s lifestyle is tied to the point of view of the person arriving at it. The observation of a Khoikoi, ‘They speak no language one can understand’, finds its mirror image in Bartolomeu Dias' likewise fictitious diary entry ‘The herders had no language that we could understand’. While Ensino criativo uses the cultural differences signalled in divergent clothing styles to create a stereotypical characterisation of the indigenous Americans which, for all it is done with humorous intent, cannot help but cast them in the role of the exotic, Looking into the Past references those same cultural differences to help students attain a fundamental epistemological insight: the awareness of the fact that all human perception and memory is indissolubly bound to a specific perspective. 17 On the pages that follow, the authors connect this discovery (pun intended) with tasks and exercises on source criticism that draw on the students’ own experience. Their post-colonial and deconstructivist background is evident from this approach.19

The use of comics, as practised by Clacherty and Ludlow in Looking into the Past and by Abramo and Yoshikawa in Ensino criativo, to aid students in taking an unfamiliar view on the so-called ‘discovery’ of what became, respectively, South Africa and Brazil, can provide us with a number of insights into changes in historiography, education and society in general in the countries in question. The 1970s history book from Brazil, written and published under dictatorship and censorship, gives us a hint or glimpse at the prioritisation of an indigenous perspective in relation to a specific moment in the narrative. The South African example, meanwhile, presents a bold, systematically conducted confrontation of divergent perspectives, accompanied by a guide for students to acquiring empathy with the indigenous point of view, which was published in the era of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to an admittedly imperfect democracy.

17Admittedly, the multiperspectivity here is practically limited to dual perspectivity, although Dias‘ arrival at the Cape was experienced by a number of diverse individuals rather than simply by two different groups. Such a literally ‘multi-perspective’ depiction would be likely to be extremely difficult and require a higher degree still of fictionality in its handling.


[1] Abramo, Alcione: Ensino criativo de história do Brasil. Colônia. Ensino de primeiro grau, São Paulo: Editora do Brasil, 1976; Suhartono: Sejarah 2. Perkembangan kerajaan Islam dan perjuangan melawan kolonialisme, Yogyakarta: Widya Utama, 1993.

[2] Cf. Wikimedia,; (15.09.2016); Philippsen Kappke, Beatriz: Viagens, (05.09.2016).

[3] Cf. Melo, Fábio: Crítica ao Eurocentrismo, (05.09.2016). The text that follows uses the masculine form (for ‘Portuguese’, ‘Europeans’, etc.) when the depictions from textbooks the author analyses indeed only show or refer to men.

[4] Cf. Corrêa Leite, José; Nogueira Galvão, Walnice: A invenção do Brasil [Interview with Fernando Novais], in: Teoria e Debate 44 (2000), (05.09.2016); Mittag, Detlef: Ethnozentrismus in Unterrichtsmaterialien, FernUniversität in Hagen, 2007, 16, (15.09.2016); Nakip, Tahir: Eurocentrism in World History Textbooks. The Case of Canada, in: İslâm Araştırmaları Dergisi 32 (2014), 127-154, hier 134, 140, (15.09.2016).

[5] The extent of the contributions of the author and illustrator to the way the comic is presented is unclear. The author, Alcione Abramo, was a history teacher at the Instituto de Educação Estadual (Institute of State Education), a state school in São Paulo. At the end of the 1960s and in the mid-1970s, she authored a number of textbooks on general and Brazilian history. The textbook’s illustrations are by Kazuhiko Yoshikawa, a Brazilian of Japanese origin and a pupil and long-term close collaborator of the Italo-Brazilian comics artist Nico Rosso, whose work is very well-known in Brazil. Yoshikawa specialised in illustrating school textbooks. Cf. Guia dos Quadrinhos, (04.09.2016); Rodrigues, Toni: Entrevista. Jô Fevereiro. O primeiro assistente de Nico Rosso, in: MeMo. A Revista da memória gráfica 1(2012), 100-104, hier 101, (04.09.2016); Rodrigues, Toni: Luiz Rosso. Seguindo a veia artística da família [Interview], in: MeMo. A Revista da memória gráfica 1(2012), 124-129, here 128, (04.09.2016); CRE Mario Covas: Lembranças do meu mestre. Depoimento de Paulo Markun, (11.07.2016); Laboratório de Ensino e Material Didático da Universidade de São Paulo, (11.07.2016).

[6] Cf. Diogo Francisco Cruz Monteiro has identified a repetitive, idealising and Eurocentric ‘fetish of the native Indian’ in many of the illustrations to be found in the history books incorporated into Brazil’s state textbook scheme in 2011. Cruz Monteiro, Diogo Francisco: Indígenas e Iconografia didática. A Imagem dos ìndios nos Manuas de História do programa Nacional do Livro Didático, Jundiaí: Paco Editorial, 2014, 156. Cruz Monteiro, Diogo Francisco: Indígenas e Iconografia didática. A Imagem dos ìndios nos Manuas de História do programa Nacional do Livro Didático, Jundiaí: Paco Editorial, 2014, 156.

[7] Cf. Corrêa Leite; Nogueira Galvão, 2000.

[8] The principle of multiperspectivity in history teaching entails learners engaging with ‘a historical event from multiple - at least two – different perspectives as taken by those involved or affected [by the event]’. Students learning this way will encounter sources whose authors belonged, for instance, to different social groups, nations, faiths or genders or were in differing situations at the time of the events. The history educationalist Klaus Bergmann has emphasised the fact that in multiperspectivity, correctly done, sources do not simply reflect divergent views on events, but point to perspectives determined by the context of the actors‘ lives. Cf. Bergmann, Klaus: Multiperspektivität, in: Bergmann et al.: Handbuch der Geschichtsdidaktik. Band 1, Düsseldorf: Schwann, 1979, 216-218.

[9] Cf. Semel, Stefan: Comics im problemorientierten Geschichtsunterricht. Die spinnen, die Comicer, in: Uffelmann, Uwe (Hg.): Neue Beiträge zum problemorientierten Geschichtsunterricht, Idstein: Schulz-Kirchner, 1999, 205-220, hier 215; ähnlich Mounajed, René: Comics und historisch-politische Bildung, 29.05.2012, (15.09.2016).

[10] Cf. Semel, 1999, 207, 211. It is perhaps no coincidence that both the textbooks we have examined here are for primary school children. Comics appear to have more limited scope for the imagining of historidcal perspectives at secondary level.

[11] Cf. Mounajed, 2012.

[12] Alcione Abramo came from a family well-known for its leftist leanings and its connections to the workers‘ and redemocratisation movements in Brazil. She was involved in numerous human rights organisations and in the foundation of the Brazilian workers’ party Partido dos Trabalhadores. Cf. Abramo, Alcione: ohne Titel, 18.04.2006, (20.07.2016); Fundação Perseu Abramo: Sobre Perseu Abramo, 11.02.2010, (11.07.2016).

[13] Clacherty, Glynis; Ludlow, Helen: Looking into the Past, Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 1995, here 62-63.

[14] The heading and the content that follows it suggest to a degree that Dias' expedition was the first to reach South Africa. Tahir Nakip has pointed out that it is Eurocentric to declare Dias the discoverer, or first circumnavigator, of the South African Cape and to neglect to mention the other peoples from far-flung regions, such as Arabs, Javanese, Indians and Ethiopians, who had circumnavigated the Cape before him. Clacherty and Ludlow do not refer to Dias' voyage of exploration as a ‘discovery’ and do not claim it to have represented the first arrival of non-indigenous people in what later became South Africa. Cf. Nakip, 2014, 134, 139.

[15] Bartolomeu Dias was a leading participant in both these events: he declared the South African Cape to have been discovered in 1488 and reached the Brazilian coast as a captain in Cabral’s fleet in 1500. Cf. Livermore, Harold V.: Bartolomeu Dias. Portuguese Explorer, 08.09.2015, (15.09.2016).

[16] Semel, 1999, 208.

[17] In this, the book’s authors have provided us with an example of how comics might be used to aid students in the acquisition of deconstruction skills, as suggested by the history educationalist Johannes Meyer-Hamme. Döll, Frauke: Comics im Geschichtsunterricht [interview with Johannes Meyer-Hamme 09.09.2015], (15.09.2016).


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