Reference Entry


Mohammed Bashir Salau

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771

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Compared with other countries in the Americas, Brazil has the largest number of people of African descent. This demographic reality dates back to the era of the slave trade, and it largely ensured that African cultural practices survived relatively more intact and institutionalized in Brazil than in other areas of the Americas. In earlier times African Americans viewed Brazil, despite its relatively longer history of involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, as a desirable racial paradise where people of all colors lived together in harmony with equal opportunities. This perception stemmed from several factors, including the strong show of African Brazilian culture that brings Brazilians of all backgrounds together, especially during carnivals. The image of Brazil as a racial paradise however, has been challenged and ultimately rejected by scholars, who increasingly note the contradictions in Brazilian society. Even though a growing number of African Americans no longer view Brazil's racial situation as desirable, they still recognize that the country has a relatively more pronounced survival of African cultural practices. For this reason Brazil has become a center of pilgrimage for African Americans seeking relevant sociocultural practices with which to enhance their African identity. In a sense, therefore, the foundation of the relationship between African Americans and Brazil was laid during the era of the Atlantic slave trade, in which the latter was involved from 1538 to 1850. Brazil's involvement in the Atlantic slave trade began soon after the Portuguese crown colonized the territory in the first quarter of the sixteenth century and initiated the pattern of parceling out large landholdings to nobles or established individuals. Specifically, the large estates that emerged at the birth of the colony created an increasing need for agricultural labor, which in turn gradually resulted in the enslavement of Africans through the slave trade. Over the next three centuries an estimated 4 million African slaves were transported to Brazil. They constituted 40 percent of all Africans enslaved in the New World through the slave trade. In the sixteenth century most were obtained from Guinea and the Gold Coast. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, the majority of Africans were imported from Madagascar, Zanzibar, and other areas along the Indian Ocean coast, as well as Angola and Congo. Angola supplied threequarters of the slaves received in Brazil in the eighteenth century. A significant number of slaves in the nineteenth century came from the Bight of Benin, although Angola remained by far the major source of supply. African slaves arriving in Brazil were predominantly male. Initially, the majority of them were settled around the northeastern regions of Pernambuco and Bahia, where they were involved in the production of sugar, largely for the European market. The sugar business expanded significantly between the sixteenth and late seventeenth centuries but declined thereafter. Despite this decline, slave imports intensified, owing largely to the discovery of gold and diamonds in southwestern Brazil. Important centers involved in the production of these minerals include the interior regions of Minas Gerais and Mato Grosso, and these regions utilized a growing number of Africans in mining activities from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century. Thereafter, the gold and diamond trades became less lucrative while sugar production revived briefly between 1787 and 1820. Although this sugar production required the use of more slaves in the coastal regions, it was the growing importance of coffee coupled with the diversification of crops in the central and southern parts of Brazil that largely sustained the continuation of the slave trade from the 1820s to the abolition period. From the socioeconomic point of view, colonial Brazil was not simply a producer of major export commodities; other, relatively less prominent export commodities also significantly influenced the slave trade to Brazil. African dependence upon substandard tobacco produced in Brazil, for example, contributed to an expansion in slave supply to the South American society. More important, however, the major export commodities themselves engendered diverse activities, including internal commodity trade. For instance, the tendency toward specialization in sugarcane planting created a continuous scarcity of foodstuffs, which in turn gave rise to their domestic production. This was especially evident in the growing of manioc. Cattle raising was also linked in part to the needs of the sugar economy. In short, internal commodity trade, export trade, the trade of African slaves to Brazil, and the use of slave labor were intrinsically related. an illustration by the French artist Jean Baptiste Debret from his book (published 1834–1839) about his experiences in Brazil during the years 1816–1831. Debret produced many valuable lithographs depicting the peoples of Brazil. New York Public Library; Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs; Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. While the slave trade lasted, there was no significant migration of African Brazilians to North America. The best-documented account of a slave of African descent who moved from Brazil to North America is that of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua. Baquaqua originally came from Djougou in what is today the Republic of Benin. As a youth he was enslaved in Africa and eventually shipped to the Pernambuco region of Brazil in 1845. Two years later Baquaqua was transferred to a ship captain in Rio de Janeiro for a fee. Eventually he sailed on his master's ship to New York, where he fought for his freedom. It was mainly through the assistance of the abolitionist New York Vigilance Society, however, that Baquaqua achieved his freedom. He then moved to Haiti under the auspices of the American Baptist Free Mission Society. In 1849 Baquaqua moved back to North America, and from 1850 to 1853 he attended New York Central College in McCrawville. Baquaqua wrote his memoirs in 1854 while living in Canada. They shed light on many issues, including Baquaqua's desire to return to Africa. See also Abolitionism; Autobiography; Festivals; Identity; South America; and Slave Trade.

Reference Entry.  1037 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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