13 February 2017: Historian in focus: Matthias Röhrig Assunção
Matthias Röhrig Assunção studied in Paris and Berlin and first taught at the Institute of Latin American Studies, Free University Berlin. Since he joined Essex in 1993, Professor Assunção has established himself as a leading expert on the history of Capoeira with his book 'Capoeira. The History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art' (Routledge, 2005).
He has published widely in leading journals, and with major academic publishers, in the UK and abroad, on the social and political history of Brazil, and popular culture in Brazil and the wider Black Atlantic. He is also the co-director and producer of the documentary film 'Body Games. Capoeira and Ancestry', which won several awards, such as the Public History Prize (film category) of the Royal Historical Society, and the Intangible Culture Film Prize of the Royal Anthropological Institute (2015).
Daniela Stan, frontrunner for the Department of History, caught up with Matthias to find out more about his own history and how it shaped his academic interests of today.
Which place in the world would you say shaped you the most as an academic?
"I did my undergraduate studies at a French university called Vincennes which was like an experimental university at the time in terms of the teaching, mainly because of the events that took place in May 1968 (student rebellion).
"This university was set up in '69 and in '74 I started studying there. There weren't any exams, any marks, it was all about discussion between the lecturers and the students. It was very different from what we grew accustomed to now.
"I had the opportunity to be taught by some very great historians and I think that helped me a lot to develop my skills and interest in history."
And which of the academics whom you've met along the way would you say shaped you the most?
"Many of them wrote about the history of France such as Madeleine Riberioux. We students most admired Jean Bouvier, a Marxist economic historian who was incredibly sharp in his analysis of the political economy. His classes were packed and very intense. I am still grateful to Michel Winock, who made me first go to the archives, browse through documents and select primary sources for comment. We were also encouraged to work in groups, which didn't always work, but when it did, it was fantastic. That general enthusiasm to engage with a topic for the sake of it is more difficult to find in our contemporary world and I find that a bit sad.
"When we were told that the diploma from Vincennes may not be recognized by employers I finished my History degree at Paris VII (now Denis Diderot), which was also a very cosmopolitan place to study, just like Essex. Here I took a course with Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch and Jean Marseille, great historians of Africa, about the 'economic dependencies' of the Third World countries from the West.
"Also of great importance for me was Daniel Hémery, a specialist of Vietnam, who taught a course on the 'intelligentsias', the role of dissident intellectuals in history. I liked the course so much that he became my MA supervisor. A lot of inspiration for my PhD topic was provided by Bob Conrad, who at the time was teaching at the Free University in Berlin. He wrote great books, which I still use in my teaching today, such as the wonderful collection of primary sources about the lives of enslaved workers in Brazil, or his work 'The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery'."
If there is one thing you would bring back from that teaching system what would it be?
"I think people were very motivated to learn, discuss, argue and convince each other. It wasn't so much about getting a diploma at the end of everything. Now it's all very pragmatic, very focused on academic success and marks and that is not really what's most interesting and worthwhile about university.
"I read a lot of books at the time, which I did not necessarily use in a specific essay, it was just because I was interested, I wanted to learn. This was very good as a system and I try to keep it to this day, but it is difficult. In a way I am in the same situation as the students. I start writing an article so I only read the books I need for that article or that chapter of a book. But there are so many books and articles outside my immediate field of research or teaching which look great, but usually I don’t have enough time to read them.
"It's good to do this, to read widely, without always thinking of the immediate use it could have. Because if you don't, you become very narrow and if you study humanities or history you have to be open minded. And of course, to study history, you have to like reading a lot."
How would you advise students who are driven by their marks to be more interested in the subject rather than the 1st or 2:1 on their degree?
"It's not easy, because now the academic system is quite rigid. For a start, students are now given essay questions. Nobody ever gave me an essay question in my whole time as undergraduate student. We would have to develop our own questions, and answer them, and that was very good for the development of our research skills. I mean, I understand that we couldn't possibly go back to that, but today it's very difficult to come up with really innovative work, given the amount of regulations, deadlines and forms to fill in.
"But I firmly believe that you can achieve so much more if you are genuinely interested in a topic. And if you really focus on your reading or what's going on in your class without chatting at the same time on your mobile... I mean, this permanent distraction by social media is fatal, I feel that it negatively affects my concentration - I try to put strict time limits to it."
Why did you focus on Latin American Studies both as a student and academic?
"Well, mainly because I grew up in Brazil and at the time there was a dictatorship. As an adolescent I didn't quite understand all the things going on. There was a lot of violence, repression and armed struggle and I wanted to understand all that. By studying history I was trying to better understand the world around me."
And your documentary, why did you focus specifically on Capoeira?
"When I did my PhD, I was sitting in dusty archives all day and I needed some compensation; some physical activity or sport. So one of the things I decided to practice was Capoeira. I did it for a number of years before I started my research on it.
"The teachers told us the history of Capoeira, which didn't really match what I was learning from books or archives, there was a clash. For example, you will notice that mainly the feet and head are used to attack. The Capoeira teachers said that's because the slaves started this practice and they had their hands bound by chains, so that's why they had to use their feet. And the music that accompanies it was because they wanted to disguise their martial skills as a dance so that the slave owner would not know that they were doing something essentially dangerous.
"So these were the stories I heard a lot and because of what I researched on slavery I thought they were completely untrue, because the illustrations we have of slavery from the 19th century in Brazil, you can see that the chains slaves have are on their ankles so that they cannot run away, but they needed their hands to work as slaves.
"The other thing, which led to the project in Angola and the film, is that the more I read or find out about combat games in Africa, in particular in Angola, the more I am convinced that African combat games were and are always associated with music: hand clapping, drums, and singing. It's just a normal way for Africans to practice combat games like Capoeira, so that association is not something which can be explained by their enslavement.
"When you look at archival evidence in Brazil, the first document historians have found of Capoeira is from the early 19th century, from police chiefs or judges. They all say "Capoeira is really dangerous, we have to repress it". So nobody was ever fooled into believing that it was just an innocent dance, they perfectly knew that Capoeira was a dangerous game and they repressed it harshly. When slaves got caught doing Capoeira, they were immediately punished with 300 lashes of a whip or incarcerated. This was how I got into studying the history of Capoeira."
What would you say students are most drawn to, here at Essex, as part of the modules you are teaching?
"I teach a first year module on Latin American societies and students are always very interested in the Native American peoples. The Aztecs, the Inca Empire, the Arawak in the Caribbean, the Tupí in Brazil, those indigenous societies and why they were destroyed.
"They are also often interested in the history of slavery, how 12 million enslaved Africans were brought to the Caribbean, to Brazil, how they survived, and how they were exploited.
"The history of Brazil is also becoming popular, because people have seen a lot of reports on the Olympics, on the Amazon rainforest or the current political crisis."
The documentary Body Games - Capoeira and Ancestry was one of the major outcomes of Matthias' research project into the Angolan Roots of Capoeira.
More information about our historian in focus
Modules taught by Professor Matthias Röhrig Assunção