Reference Entry


Stuart Schwartz

in A Historical Guide to World Slavery

Published in print January 1998 | ISBN: 9780195120912

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Of all the colonies and nations of the Americas, none was influenced by slavery more profoundly or for a longer period of time than was Brazil. From the mid-sixteenth century until the abolition of the slave trade to Brazil in 1850, about three million (some argue between three and five million) Africans were delivered to its shores, and Brazil had the unenviable distinction of being the last nation in the Western Hemisphere formally to abolish the institution, ending slavery only in 1888. During about three hundred fifty years slavery helped to shape the economy, society, and culture of Brazil.Portuguese contact with Brazil began in 1500, but no attempt at settlement was initially attempted. Instead, early activities centered on the extraction of dyewood. First contacts with the indigenous inhabitants, especially the Tupi-Guaraní-speaking peoples who predominated on the coast, were organized around barter. Europeans provided trinkets, tools, and weapons in return for Indian labor in the felling and delivery of logs to the coast. By 1533 the Portuguese crown developed a colonization scheme in which private capital and initiative were authorized under royal donations that assigned parts of the coast to certain minor nobles. In some cases, such as in the northeastern captaincy of Pernambuco, sugar plantations or engenhos were created. With this new activity, a transformation took place in relations with the Indians. The need for constant agricultural labor conflicted with indigenous concepts of work, and the Portuguese also proved unwilling to meet Indian demands for better compensation, especially since the French were also on the coast bidding for Indian labor. The result was an increasing move toward coercion and the enslavement of Indians as agricultural workers.By the 1570s sixty mills were producing sugar, and the enslavement of Indians was growing as expeditions swept the interior to bring in new laborers. By this time, however, Jesuit missionaries who had been in the colony since 1549 were opposing the capture of Indians. Royal laws beginning in 1570 prohibited the enslavement of Indians except when captured in a “just war” or under other sanctioned circumstances; although Indian slavery never disappeared fully from the colony and persisted on its northern and southern frontiers, the Portuguese turned increasingly to Africa for labor. Stiff Indian resistance, their high mortality from European diseases, and their apparent low productivity in plantation agriculture all contributed to the Portuguese turn toward African laborers who, while more expensive to obtain, seemed to be more productive, less able to flee, and less susceptible to illness. The first Africans who arrived were often given specialized tasks, and some were already familiar with sugar production through enslavement by the Portuguese on Madeira. The transition of the labor force was not fully achieved until the 1630s, and Indians and Africans often worked together on Brazilian plantations in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.The Portuguese had established outposts on the African coast in the fifteenth century and initially drew slaves from the Senegambia region. After 1590 slaves came increasingly from Angola. About seven to eight thousand Africans a year arrived in Portuguese Brazil before 1680, and by that date, the colony had perhaps one hundred fifty thousand slaves concentrated in the sugar-growing areas of the coast. The Dutch, during their occupancy of northeastern Brazil (1630–1654), also supplied roughly twenty-six thousand Africans to the plantations, taking Luanda for a short while and holding El Mina in the Bight of Benin as major ports for the Atlantic slave trade.The eighteenth century witnessed a great expansion of the Atlantic slave trade to Brazil, especially after the opening of Minas Gerais in the beginning of the century and the development of plantation agriculture in the Amazonian region (Pará and Maranhão) after 1750. Imports of Africans averaged around twenty thousand per year in the eighteenth century and were considerably higher in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. Demand was so high in the newly opened mining zones that restrictions on supply were imposed by the government in order to ensure a supply of laborers for coastal agricultural zones. In Maranhão a commercial monopoly company controlled the supply of slaves from 1757 to 1777. The Atlantic slave trade reached its height in Brazil in the nineteenth century, when—despite political turmoil and increasing British pressure against the trade—almost a million Africans were landed.It was a commonplace to say in the seventeenth century, “Without sugar, no Brazil; without slaves, no sugar; without Angola, no slaves.” The phrase underlined a basic constant of Brazilian slavery, its dependence on Africa. Although in some places and at some times Brazilian slaves had a positive rate of reproduction (Paraná in the early nineteenth century; perhaps Minas Gerais in the late eighteenth), for the most part they did not, and thus slavery was maintained and expanded only through continual importation from Africa. The imbalanced sex ratios of the trade, favoring males 3:2, exacerbated the low fertility levels of Brazilian slaves. These factors, combined with brutal labor conditions and high mortality (especially among infants) as well as a tendency to favor women in manumission, all contributed to a negative rate of natural growth and continued dependence on Africa. Reliance on the Atlantic slave trade prior to 1850 also meant a continual presence of Africans and the reinforcement of African cultural forms and practices among the slaves in every aspect from language and religion to child-rearing practices. This reinforcement influenced not only slave culture but also Brazilian culture in general, as is evident in its cuisine, language, music, religion, and many other aspects of life.Although the work of the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre (Casa grande e senzala, 1933) focused on this African contribution to Brazilian culture and brought it to the attention of his compatriots, his presentation implied a certain “mildness” and acceptance in the treatment of slaves and in subsequent race relations. More recent research has concentrated on these issues and raised objections. While it is true that the Catholic Church, Portuguese legal codes, and royal legislation did provide some protection and mitigated the rigors of slavery, there is much evidence of abuse and cruelty associated with slavery in Brazil. Some of this resulted from the whims of sadistic masters, but there is considerable evidence that the basic theory of slave management was to extract the maximum effort and labor from slaves with little concern for maintenance, preservation, or reproduction, and then to purchase replacements for those who became infirm or died. This policy was made possible by the relative effectiveness and low cost of the Atlantic slave trade.Freyre's work also gave little attention to the slave “community” itself, and much modern research has sought to fill this gap. It is now clear that church-sponsored marriage among Brazilian slaves was rare, and illegitimacy rates often ran at 90 percent of slave births. Nonetheless, slaves formed families and sought to maintain familial ties despite the reality of separation by sale or division of property at the death of the owner. A degree of syncretism developed that allowed the integration of African religious beliefs with Roman Catholicism, and despite active repression, African religions like Yoruba-based Candomblé flourished. Overall, however, slave culture in Brazil seems to demonstrate a fusion of African, European, and occasionally Indian elements rather than the continuation of unchanged African practices. Slave society also imposed hierarchies and divisions that affected the ways in which the slaves saw themselves and their world. Distinctions were made among field hands, house servants, and artisans. The divisions among different African “nations” (ethnicities) were manipulated by slave-owners as a means of control, as were the distinctions between “Africans,” crioulos (Brazilian-born blacks), and mulattoes. These differences also operated among the slaves themselves in the choice of marriage partners, collaboration in resistance movements, and participation in voluntary associations such as religious brotherhoods. Such distinctions complicated the creation of a slave “community.”How slaves were employed was a key to slavery's nature and its development. The sugar industry absorbed the majority of slaves in the seventeenth century, and by 1710 there were more than five hundred sugar mills operating in the colony. The geography of Brazilian slavery then shifted south and west with the discovery of gold in Minas Gerais in 1695 and subsequent gold strikes in Goiás and Mato Grosso. The gold rush created a great demand for slave labor in all aspects of the economy. By 1800 Minas Gerais alone had a slave population of more than three hundred thousand; even more striking was the fact that the free population of color, freed persons and their descendants, was also growing rapidly, constituting more than one-third of the region's population. Thus by 1800 more than two-thirds of the population of Minas were slaves, ex-slaves, and their descendants. Parallel developments occurred elsewhere in Brazil. Perhaps nowhere else in the Americas, with the possible exception of Puerto Rico, did the free people of color constitute such a large segment of a society's population.Slaves worked in virtually every occupation in Brazil. On the engenhos the majority were field-hands, “slaves of sickle and hoe,” but in the technical aspects of sugar-making slaves were used as boilermen, mechanics, and even managers, and they were also employed as household servants. Planters preferred Brazilian-born crioulos and mulattoes for the more skilled occupations. Tobacco farms and cattle ranches also made extensive use of slave labor, as did cotton plantations in Maranhão and Pernambuco in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even subsistence agriculture employed slaves, although in smaller units than found in export crops like sugar. The average size of an engenho slave force was eighty to one hundred slaves, and this was also the case on coffee estates prior to the development of very large properties of three to four hundred slaves in Rio de Janeiro and western São Paulo in the late nineteenth century; yet slaves were owned by all segments of the population, and the average holding was probably two or three slaves. Slavery was such a ubiquitous institution that during certain periods of economic expansion even peasants acquired slaves in order to increase production. Owning a slave was a symbol of status as well as an economic investment during most of Brazil's history.Drawing showing slaves clearing land on a Brazilian plantation, nineteenth century.In some segments of the economy, slavery was essential. Gold-mining in Minas Gerais and western central Brazil was distinguished by its heavy use of slave labor, a dependence so marked that the government, faced with contraband and avoidance of taxes, eventually sought in 1735 to control gold production by levying a tax on the number of slaves employed. By the early nineteenth century, when mining was in decline in Minas Gerais, that province still had the largest number of slaves in Brazil, employed in everything from ranching to food production for local and national markets.Slavery was not limited to the rural areas. By the early nineteenth century slaves were ubiquitous in Brazilian cities, performing a wide range of activities, as cooks and household servants, artisan craftsmen, ambulant street vendors, manual laborers, and stevedores. Rio de Janeiro in 1849 had a population of about two hundred thousand, of whom almost 40 percent were slaves. Similar situations were found in Salvador, Recife, and other large cities. Urban slaves often worked with little supervision as negros de ganho, hiring themselves out for service. They sometimes formed themselves into groups or work gangs. These cantos were particularly well-organized in Salvador along African ethnic or linguistic lines and controlled the movement of goods within the city. The access of urban slaves to the money economy allowed for some accumulation and fostered manumission by purchase. The presence of slaves on Brazil's city streets caught the attention of many observers, and their participation in a broad range of social activities—such as religious confraternities and public festivals—gave the Brazilian cities a distinctive look and character.Slaves responded to their situation in a number of ways, accommodating, resisting, or seeking some social space within the constraints of slavery. Slaves in Brazil resisted in a variety of ways. Flight was common, and fugitives often formed small communities or quilombos in inaccessible places, raiding nearby plantations and farms and sometimes threatening rural towns. Slave-owning society employed bush captains (capitães do mato) to capture fugitives; expeditions usually moved quickly to eliminate the threat of quilombos by destroying these communities. Most were relatively short-lived, but there were significant exceptions. While most of these quilombos were small, a few reached considerable size. Quilombo Grande, destroyed in Minas Gerais in 1759, had about one thousand inhabitants. Largest of all was Palmares in the mountains of Alagoas. Fighting between the Portuguese and the Dutch in the seventeenth century resulted in many slave runaways and the formation of a series of associated maroon settlements. The so-called “republic” of Palmares lasted for almost a century and was said to have had twenty thousand inhabitants at its height. It was destroyed in 1695 after a heroic defense.Given the risk and price of repression, large-scale slave rebellions were relatively uncommon. Nevertheless, between 1807 and 1840 slaves in northeastern Brazil, especially in Bahia, mounted a series of rebellions, many of which were organized around African ethnic affiliations. The most serious of these, the Malé revolt of 1835, involved Yoruba Muslims in the city of Salvador.For many slaves the path from slavery to freedom was entered by manumission. Legal provisions and Catholic tradition made the voluntary freeing of slaves possible, and masters recognized its economic benefits as well. Prior to 1850 perhaps no more than 1 to 2 percent per year were actually manumitted, but the hope of freedom served as both incentive and control. The process favored Brazilian-born slaves and especially mulattoes. Women were freed at a rate twice that of men. Many manumissions were purchased by the slaves themselves, and about 20 percent of the manumissions were conditional on further service or other obligations. In some periods almost half of the grants were purchased. Manumission provided some hope of freedom, and slaves made great sacrifices to obtain it for themselves and their loved ones, contributing to the growing free population of color in Brazil.Slavery was still a vigorous institution in Brazil in the mid-nineteenth century, but anti-slavery pressures were building both within the country and outside it. The movement for abolition developed slowly. British pressure had forced Brazilian concessions on abolition of the slave trade in 1831, but despite this pressure, the trade did not effectively end until 1850. This was particularly important in the Brazilian case because of the negative demographic growth rates of Brazilian slave populations. Early attempts to replace slaves with immigrant workers failed because the workers received poor treatment and because European nations imposed restrictions on further immigration. By the 1860s planters in southern Brazil depended on an internal slave trade that moved workers from the declining sugar economy of the northeast to the expanding coffee zones of the south, and by 1880 almost two-thirds of all the slaves in Brazil were concentrated in those zones.Changes affecting Brazilian slavery were not limited to the situation of the slaves themselves. By the 1860s the national and international contexts were also changing. The service of slaves and freed-men in the war against Paraguay (War of the Triple Alliance, 1864–1870) created new anti-slavery sentiments in Brazil; the U.S. Civil War left Brazil and Cuba as the last slave-owning nations in the hemisphere. The Brazilian monarch, Dom Pedro II, while sympathetic toward abolition, did nothing to upset his traditional political backers, most of whom opposed an end to slavery. New elites, however, were emerging. As fresh plantation zones were opened for coffee, the new planters were less wedded to traditional labor forms and more willing to consider alternatives. Above all, a growing urban middle class and an incipient sector of industrial labor came to view slavery as an atavistic and unproductive system.The abolitionist movement received considerable impetus from the 1871 Law of Free Birth, which provided that the children born of slave mothers after that date were free. This put the slave-owners on notice about slavery's ultimate end, although the provision that the children so freed had to remain with the master until age twenty-one lessened the immediate impact. A fund set up to purchase the early release of children born after that date was not very effective. Still, the slave population was declining and aging, and the end of the slave system was in sight. In 1872 slaves still made up 70 percent of the plantation labor force, but they were only 20 percent of the total work force and only 16 percent of the Brazilian population.By the 1880s planters were seeking alternatives to bound labor. In the northeast, sugar-planters began to free their slaves and then to contract them and the large free population of color as tenants, sharecroppers, and wage workers. In the south, Italian immigrants began to appear in large numbers on the coffee plantations. More than one hundred twenty thousand immigrants arrived in São Paulo between 1886 and 1888. These changes were accompanied by a mounting abolitionist crusade carried out in the press and in public meetings, led by people such as the upper-class activist Joaquim Nabuco, the fiery mulatto journalist José do Patrocinio, and the ex-slave lawyer Luiz Gama. After 1885, mass flight by slaves and increasing violence against slave-owners contributed to the final collapse of the system.It has been argued that abolition eventually came more to relieve Brazil from the problems of slavery than from a wish to emancipate the slaves. Some conservative planters and politicians continued to fight a rearguard action in defense of slavery, but the real debate was over whether former owners would receive compensation. Some provinces (Amazonas, Ceará) moved to abolish slavery in the mid-1880s, stimulating further pressure from the slaves and abolitionists on the national government. Final abolition was decreed without compensation on 13 May 1888. By that time, with slaves constituting only 5 percent of the Brazilian labor force, abolition was in reality simply the formal recognition of a process that was already almost complete. The “Golden Law” was not signed by Dom Pedro II, emperor of Brazil, but by his daughter, Princess Isabel, acting in his name. The monarchy itself fell in the following year.Slavery's end did not result in a program of land redistribution or other efforts to facilitate the entry of former slaves into the work force of the country. Lacking education, capital, and opportunity, they tended to sink to the bottom of the social ladder. Their dire circumstances were not the product of discriminatory legislation but of discriminatory practices and economic condition.

Reference Entry.  3247 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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