Feature image: South America in the 1710s (detail). Map: Freg Stokes

Guaraní Labour and British Capitalism

Dr Freg Stokes recently completed his PhD in History, focusing on the history of Indigenous resistance to colonisation in the Atlantic rainforest of South America from the early sixteenth century. In this video, originally produced for the Ka’a Body Exhibition at Paradise Row Gallery in London, he presents his findings on the role played by the labour of the Guaraní peoples in the emergence of British capitalism. He also examines the role of Guaraní resistance in impeding the expansion of the capitalist system in the Atlantic rainforest.

Freg Stokes’s PhD thesis mapped the resistance of Guaraní peoples to colonisation in the Atlantic rainforest of South America during the emergence of capitalism, from 1500 to 1768. Over the course of six years, he consulted archival sources and conducted interviews with contemporary Guaraní writers, to make maps and infographics visualising this history.

This research process revealed a history of Indigenous resistance that had obstructed deforestation throughout the inland Atlantic Rainforest. In the 1500s Guaraní resistance strategies, including both flight and open conflict, thwarted Spanish attempts to create a silver route from the Andes through Paraguay. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Guaraní groups impeded the extraction of yerba mate (a plant used to create a caffeinated beverage) from Paraguay’s forests. Together, these actions played a critical role in both conserving the Atlantic Rainforest and ensuring the survival of autonomous Guaraní populations.

South America in the 1710s. Map: Freg Stokes

In the coastal Atlantic Rainforest, contrastingly, the appropriated labour of Guaraní women and men played an important role in the restoration of Portugal’s Atlantic Empire and the opening of the Brazilian gold commodity frontier. The subsequent flow of gold from Brazil to England contributed to the development of British capitalism in the eighteenth century. In his thesis, Freg argued that in light of this, the appropriation of Guaraní labour and knowledge should be acknowledged as a contributing factor (among many others) in the global emergence of capitalism.

But this process did not end with a complete victory for the forces of capitalist integration. Guaraní peoples have continued this political struggle to the present day, ensuring that the Guaraní Teko, or way of being, lives on.

In July 2023 Freg will commence postdoctoral research at the Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology in Jena, Germany, on the relationship between Indigenous resistance and forest conservation in tropical South America since 1492. He will do so as part of the Pantropocene Project, a cross-disciplinary investigation of colonial impacts on tropical rainforests across the Spanish Empire.

Stokes will be conducting archival investigations and working with Indigenous researchers in South America to map the history of Indigenous resistance in South America’s tropical rainforests. He will then be working with archaeologists and climate scientists in Germany to explore how to integrate this history into deforestation and climate modelling.

Freg Stokes on location during his PhD.



Feature image: South America in the 1710s (detail). Map: Freg Stokes