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Black intellectuality during the Brazilian Empire

Before Abolition, publishers and scholars who were the descendants of slaves played an important social role

Collection of the Portuguese Royal Reading Room Novel by author Teixeira e Sousa…Collection of the Portuguese Royal Reading Room

In November 1831, black typesetter Francisco de Paula Brito (1809-1861) purchased a bookstore from his mixed-race cousin Silvino José de Almeida, and transformed it into one of the largest publishing houses of the Brazilian Second Empire. Dom Pedro II himself was one of the partners of the publishing house, and he granted it the distinction of Royal Household Printer in 1851. Paula Brito’s importance was not limited to his business success: he was responsible for printing one of the first periodicals to defend the rights of blacks, and later published the first works by writers Teixeira e Sousa and Machado de Assis.

According to Rodrigo Camargo de Godoi in his dissertation Um editor no Império: Francisco de Paula Brito (1809-1861)  (A publisher in the Brazilian Empire: Francisco de Paula Brito (1809-1861)), defended at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences of the University of Campinas (IFCH-Unicamp) in 2014 and now published as a book by the University of São Paulo Press (Edusp), the publisher’s story is not just an isolated case: “There was a black intellectual movement that appeared towards the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries, composed of personalities such as legal scholar Antonio Pereira Rebouças and politician Francisco Jê de Acaiaba Montezuma, the Viscount of Jequitinhonha. They were the sons and grandsons of slaves who became free, attained a higher social status and held positions in areas ranging from medicine to journalism and politics.”

Integration by those of African descent into the cultural elite during the Empire period was never easy, since prejudice closed many doors to them. At the Largo São Francisco Law School in São Paulo, a number of professors (such as Avellar Brotero and Veiga Cabral) did not hide their racist tendencies – in fact, it was only in 1879 that a black man, José Rubino de Oliveira, was able to become a professor at this institution. However, resistance began to wane with the growth in the numbers of free Afro-descendants.

Collection of the Portuguese Royal Reading Room …and book published by editor Paula Brito: Black intellectuals in the 1840sCollection of the Portuguese Royal Reading Room

There was a large drop in the percentage of slaves as a part of the population during the 19th century, partly due to the growing restrictions placed on the slave trade, and partly due to the expansion of other forms of labor relations. According to historian Jacob Gorender, in his book O escravismo colonial (Colonial slavery), published in 1978, slaves accounted for 50.5% of the population in 1818. This percentage fell to 34.5% in 1850 and reached 15.2% in 1872. During this last year, according to Sidney Chalhoub, a professor at Unicamp and author of A força da escravidão (The power of slavery) (2012), 42.7% of the population was composed of free blacks and mixed-race people. At that time, out of every four black people, three were free. Many of them held important positions at educational institutions, in the arts, and above all in the press, as shown by Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto in her dissertation “Fortes laços em linhas rotas: Literatos negros, racismo e cidadania na segunda metade do século XIX” (Strong ties in shabby lines: black writers, racism, and citizenship in the second half of the nineteenth century), defended at IFCH-Unicamp in 2014 and awarded honorable mention by the Capes Dissertation Award in 2015.

What were the factors that enabled the appearance of these black intellectuals in a society that was still segmented by slave labor? According to Magalhães Pinto, in their efforts to overcome the barriers placed on the exercise of their civil rights, Afro-descendants had to rely on the channels of power and prestige then prevalent. As argued by critic Roberto Schwarz in his book Ao vencedor as batatas (The winner gets the prize) (1977), in a society founded on relations of personal domination (owner-slave), the distribution of government positions and the benefits of the State depended on personal favors from those in power. However, this distribution was not marked solely by “vertical, hierarchical relations of personal protection.” According to Chalhoub, there were also “horizontal networks,” composed of many individuals who acted in a more or less coordinated manner: “For example, when he began his journalistic career, Machado de Assis responded to many requests for reviews to publicize books for colleagues in the early stages of their careers.”

Brasiliana Library of the University of São Paulo Teixeira e Sousa…Brasiliana Library of the University of São Paulo

Among the best known of the socializing networks is Freemasonry. Ligia Fonseca Ferreira, a professor at the graduate program in language and literature at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and organizer of the critical edition of Com a palavra, Luiz Gama: Poemas, artigos, cartas, máximas (Now speaking, Luiz Gama: Poems, articles, letters, maxims) (2011), notes that two important black intellectuals, attorney Luiz Gama and writer José Ferreira de Menezes, joined the Loja América in São Paulo, which was founded in 1868. Two years later, the institution already supported a night school to teach basic literacy skills to 214 students: “The school received freed and manumitted slaves. Given the lack of libraries in the city, they also founded a library that was open to the public,” says Ferreira. She notes that Luiz Gama himself taught at the school, and some classes were given at his home.

In addition to Freemasonry, political parties also played an essential role. Facing strong competition from French bookstores such as Baptiste Louis Garnier, Brazilian publisher Paula Brito owed part of his success to the alliances forged with liberal politicians towards the end of the 1830s, and those forged with conservatives from 1840 until the end of his life. As Rodrigo Godoi shows, his political contacts enabled him to benefit from the labor of Africans who had been rescued from seized slave ships. These workers (who in practice were almost undistinguishable from slaves) were handed over to private parties, who, in exchange, were supposed to dress and feed them. As Godoi explains in his book, “above all, these concessions reflected social prestige […], becoming a synonym of political favor.”

Collection of the Royal Reading Room …and Paula Brito: regulars in the intellectual circles of the EmpireCollection of the Royal Reading Room

However, the emergence of black intellectuality was not only based on connections with the propertied classes, maintains Magalhães Pinto. “It is common to explain the rise of people like Luiz Gama, José do Patrocínio and Machado de Assis based on the identification of the presence of some big shot as a protector,” she affirms. “Without denying the importance of the logic of favors between “the powerful” and “dependent free persons,” my research has allowed me to access other networks of protection that are as important as these.” Magalhães Pinto notes the cases of Arthur Carlos, Ignácio de Araújo Lima and Theophilo Dias de Castro, involved with the publishing of newspapers A Pátria and O Progresso, the first examples of black press in São Paulo, which were connected with the Nossa Senhora do Rosário and Nossa Senhora dos Remédios brotherhoods. According to Magalhães Pinto, individuals often participated in different associations over the course of their lives: “Vicente de Souza, whom I am studying in my post-doctoral research, participated in more than 50 religious, political and literary organizations. He has connections to Freemasonry and positivism. He was an abolitionist, a republican and a socialist. Several leaders of the workers’ movement in Rio de Janeiro during the 1890s were black.”

Paula Brito created a sort of club, the Sociedade Petalógica, whose members met at his bookstore to discuss current topics. Members included politicians such as the Viscount of Rio Branco (José Maria da Silva Paranhos), Eusébio de Queiroz and Justiniano Rocha, writers Joaquim Manuel de Macedo, Teixeira e Sousa and Machado de Assis, journalist Augusto Emílio Zaluar and actor João Caetano. As Machado de Assis wrote in his chronicle Ao acaso (At random), published in 1865, members of the Sociedade Petalógica talked about everything, “from the removal of a Ministry to the pirouette of the latest trendy dancer.” It was a “neutral field” in which young intellectuals could meet with mentors, and Italian singers could speak with former ministers.

Digital newspaper library of the National Library Issue of Revista Ilustrada of 1880 shows writer Ferreira de Meneses (at the window, on the left) and journalist José do Patrocínio at the Gazeta de Notícias, which the two ownedDigital newspaper library of the National Library

The grandson of freed blacks who had already learned how to read in the 18th century, Paula Brito had access to books while he was quite young, which enabled him to become a typesetter in 1824. He also wrote poetry (one of his poems, “Ode à imprensa” (Ode to the press), was written for Dom Pedro II at the Imperial Palace); and after he bought his cousin’s bookstore, he began to print dozens of newspapers. It was he who published one of the first periodicals of the black press in Brazil, O mulato or O homem de cor (The mulatto or The man of color), which criticized the absence of Afro-descendants in public positions.

Once they made their way into socialization networks, black intellectuals were able to pave the way for others. Paula Brito gave work to Teixeira e Sousa, which led to the publication of Cânticos líricos (Lyrical songs) in 1841 and O filho do pescador (The fisherman’s son), the first Brazilian novel, in 1843. Paula Brito also published the first poems and articles of Machado de Assis in his newspaper Marmota Fluminense. According to Godoi, it was Paula Brito who introduced the figure of the “modern publisher, the one who purchases the manuscript and publishes it” into Brazil. At a time when publishers usually published pirated translations of foreign authors, he decided to purchase texts and rights from domestic authors.

Nevertheless, these intellectuals were the targets of a great deal of criticism. Some researchers, such as historian Humberto Fernandes Machado (author of the dissertation “Palavras e brados: A imprensa abolicionista do Rio de Janeiro, 1880-1888”) (Words and exclamations: the abolitionist press of Rio de Janeiro, 1880-1888), affirm that journalists such as José do Patrocínio had “a paternalistic, conciliatory and reformist posture,” which was in line with the interests of the slave owners. Similar accusations had already been made in the 19th century against Machado de Assis by black grammarian Hemetério José dos Santos. In the opinion of Magalhães Pinto, considerations of this type ignore the fact that black intellectuals had to engage in dialogue with a very diverse public, which included both slave owners that were averse to any concessions, and radical abolitionists.

Digital newspaper library of the National Library Issue of Gazeta de Notícias announces the publication, in folder format, of the first Brazilian novel, O filho do pescador (The fisherman’s son), by black author Teixeira e SousaDigital newspaper library of the National Library

According to Chalhoub, black intellectuals became more visible in the 1870s because abolitionism became a generalized movement, attracting intellectuals from different political philosophies (liberals, conservatives, republicans). However, after slavery ended, “there was a silencing of the legacy of slavery: the republican regime was created to a large extent as a reaction to the perception that the Crown, by aligning itself with the fight against slavery, was harming the interests of coffee growers.” From that point on, black intellectualism began to lose influence.

1. Fortes laços em linhas rotas: Experiências de intelectuais negros em jornais fluminenses e paulistanos no fim do século XX (nº 2009/09115-0); Grant Mechanism Scholarships in Brazil – Doctoral; Principal Investigator Sidney Chalhoub (IFCH-Unicamp); Grantee: Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto; Investment R$126,751.52.
2. Operários das letras: Escritores, jornalistas e editores no Rio de Janeiro (1850-1920) (nº 2014/19669); Grant Mechanism Scholarships in Brazil – Postdoctoral; Principal Investigator Sidney Chalhoub (IFCH-Unicamp); Grantee Rodrigo Camargo de Godoi; Investment R$182,696.80.

Godoi, R. C. de. Um editor no Império: Francisco de Paula Brito (1809-1861). São Paulo: Edusp, 2016, 392 p.