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Paths to freedom

On the 130th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil, studies reveal the different roles of those involved in the process

Artist's Collection / Photo Rômulo Fialdini Amnesia, by Flávio Cerqueira, 2015. The Afro-Atlantic Stories exhibition at MASP and the Tomie Ohtake Institute in São Paulo will be open to the public from JuneArtist's Collection / Photo Rômulo Fialdini

Brazil imported more Africans than any other country and was the last in the West to abolish slavery. About 40% of the entire African diaspora—4.7 million people—were taken to the country between 1550 and 1860. Now, 130 years after the Golden Law was passed on May 13, 1888, growing scientific output on the subject is allowing us to understand new aspects of this regime, which continued for so long mainly due to the widespread use of violence. The book Dicionário da escravidão e liberdade – 50 textos críticos (Anthology of slavery and freedom: 50 critical texts), for example, is a collection of studies by Brazilian and foreign experts published by Companhia das Letras this month. These texts demonstrate how slaves have come to be seen as the protagonists of their own stories, capable of organizing rebellions and maintaining families even in the adverse conditions of the slave quarters. As academic research on the subject has deepened, specific characteristics of slavery in rural and urban settings have also come to light, as well as the relationships between black and indigenous slaves. Analyzed as a process involving various players, from politicians to workers’ associations, and above all, free and enslaved Africans and their descendants, abolition also came to be seen as a measure that despite establishing legal equality among the population, did not translate into racial equity.

Flávio dos Santos Gomes, a professor at the Institute of History of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and one of the curators of the book alongside Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, a professor from the Anthropology Department of the University of São Paulo’s School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP), explains that the last 20 years have been marked by deeper research into specific aspects of the history of Africa, slavery, abolition, and post-abolition. “These fields of research were previously approached in a broader and more comprehensive way, leading to generalizations regarding the origin of Africans and particular elements of slavery in Brazil,” he says. Another recent trend in the field, says Gomes, is to address the subject from the Atlantic perspective, showing how slavery permeated social, economic, and political relations between Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

By gathering data from theses defended in Brazil and the USA over the last 50 years, provincial censuses stored in public archives, and church records, Herbert S. Klein, professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, USA, found that two-thirds of the slaves who arrived in Brazil over more than 300 years of the slave trade were adult men. Seventy percent of them came from West-Central Africa, 18% from the Bight of Benin, and 6% from Mozambique. “About 80% of slaves of both sexes were economically active, which is an extraordinarily high participation rate,” he notes. The life expectancy of slaves in Brazil was 5–10 years lower than those in North America, who lived to 33 years of age on average.

As well as describing the profiles of African and Afrodescendant populations in Brazil, recent studies have tried to understand specific aspects of slavery in Brazil. According to Schwarcz, recent analyses of slavery in the Amazon, a region with historically few studies on the subject, are now helping researchers to understand the dynamics established between indigenous peoples and Africans in the country. The text “Amazônia escravista” (Slavery in the Amazon), which is coauthored by Schwarcz and Gomes and included in their anthology, shows that the arrival of Africans is linked to the establishment of crops in the region. Africans became the majority population in the eighteenth century due to the profitable nature of the slave trade, but also because the indigenous people were more resistant to compulsory labor and were able to escape from their captors more easily thanks to their knowledge of the territory. The Africans, on the other hand, arrived debilitated and sick after crossing the Atlantic in the hulls of slave ships—a journey that took about three months—and were considered “easier to tame.” Thus, while an African slave cost 20,000 reis between 1572 and 1574, an indigenous slave was worth just 7,000. Children were also sold. “Despite their majority, Africans did not completely replace indigenous slaves in compulsory labor,” Schwarcz reports. The slave system also used indigenous labor whenever possible.

The researcher says that until recently, historiographic studies indicated a simple process of substitution, where indigenous slaves were replaced by Africans, and after abolition, the jobs were taken over by European immigrants. “But recent studies prove that these populations lived together in the same spaces at the same time,” says the researcher. She explains that indigenous people and Africans worked together on sugarcane plantations in the states of Pernambuco and Bahia from 1550. “One of the unique elements of slavery in Brazil was its widespread use throughout the country, unlike in other colonial regions of the Americas, where it was rare or nonexistent in some places.” According to Schwarcz, the enslaved population was distributed nationwide as a result of various factors, with the discovery of gold leading to a gold rush in central Brazil in the eighteenth century and the booming coffee export industry linked to the use of slaves on farms in the Southeast from the nineteenth century onward.

Multiple protagonists
Recent research on abolition reveals that slavery in Brazil was officially ended as a result of the efforts of several key players, including political leaders, trade unions, and the Africans and Afrodescendants themselves. The debate over emancipation started long before the final abolition agreement, with pressure to end the slave trade beginning around the time Dom João and the Portuguese Court moved to Brazil in 1807. After 1870, the debate grew louder and abolitionist groups and movements started to appear in various regions of Brazil. “The idea of abolition was spread around slave countries by sailors and travelers, and slaves were galvanized by the news of Haiti’s independence,” explains Schwarcz.

Angela Alonso, a professor at the FFLCH-USP Department of Sociology and president of the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP), explains that early interpretations of how slavery was abolished were written by abolitionists sympathetic to the imperial crown, who attributed excessive importance to Princess Isabel’s (1846–1921) role in the process. In these descriptions of events, the princess was portrayed as the main protagonist, when in reality, many different sectors of society had been fighting for the cause since at least 1868. “I identified the existence of more than 200 abolitionist associations operating in Brazil between 1868 and 1888, meaning that many different groups were engaged in the campaign,” says Alonso, who studied newspapers from the time.

She highlights the work of abolitionist leaders who operated on different fronts, such as Luís Gama (1830–1882) in the legal system, José do Patrocínio (1854–1905) in the public sphere, Joaquim Nabuco (1849–1910) in Parliament, and André Rebouças (1838–1898), who was involved in various areas. One of the tactics they employed, especially after 1883, had already been used by other countries in the fight to free slaves. According to Alonso, abolitionist activists in the US helped slaves escape and took them to slavery-free regions, or even to Canada. “In Brazil, there were no regions free of slavery, so people had to work hard to create them,” he says. They established campaigns in smaller provinces where there were fewer slaves and local authorities were sympathetic to abolitionism, and where it was difficult for the repressive forces of the imperial government to reach, such as Ceará. The campaign involved convincing people to free their slaves and raising funds to purchase their freedom when necessary. In 1884, after many slaves had been emancipated in numerous municipalities, the president of the province, in alliance with abolitionists, declared the end of slavery in the region. In response to these events, Patrocínio and Nabuco organized celebrations in France and the United Kingdom, increasing international pressure on the Brazilian government to draw up a plan for the complete abolition of slavery. The same tactic was later adopted to liberate the province of Amazonas.

Alonso believes the 1887 mass flight of slaves from Itu to Santos, on the coast of São Paulo, was the catalyst for another significant event. Under government orders, the Brazilian Army massacred the fugitives as they crossed the Serra do Mar mountain range. The event had negative repercussions across Brazil and aggravated the existing crisis between the government and the army, which was demanding higher pay for troops at the time. The military declared that from that point on, they would no longer suppress rebellions or recapture fugitive slaves, thus removing the empire’s means of supporting slavery.

As well as the enactment of a law prohibiting slave labor nationwide, leaders of the abolitionism campaign also demanded payment of a minimum wage to those freed from slavery and donation of land near railroads, so that land would not need to be expropriated from slave-owners. The wealthy landowners, meanwhile, demanded compensation for the loss of their slaves. “In 1888, the Golden Law rejected both requests, and the result was a political tie,” Alonso says, noting that the empire did not commit to enforcing the law or to establishing any public policies to help former slaves enter the job market.

Wlamyra Albuquerque, a professor of history at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), found that slave revolts occurred even in the early days of slavery in Brazil. Famous rebellions such as the Malê revolt in Bahia in 1835 and the Manuel Congo revolt in Vassouras, Rio de Janeiro, in 1838, had repercussions across the country, highlighting the issue of potential insurgencies in some regions. “These uprisings helped lay the foundations of the abolitionism movement,” says the historian. The cause grew gradually over time and began to involve social groups such as shoemakers, bakers, and journalists, who created societies devoted to raising the money needed to buy the slaves’ freedom. The possibility of buying a slave’s freedom—whether alone or through third parties—expanded after the Law of Free Birth was passed in 1871. “Abolition was not conceived solely in the highest political and institutional spheres. Numerous people and groups were involved in the process,” says the researcher.

Courtesy of Galeria Pilar/Photo Léo Ramos Chaves A família (n.d.), by Sidney Amaral (1973–2017). Polished bronze (10 × 20 × 2 cm). Edition 03/03 – Artist’s proofCourtesy of Galeria Pilar/Photo Léo Ramos Chaves

In the 1960s and 1970s, the São Paulo School of Sociology promoted the idea that slaves were unable to affect their own paths in life. Renowned thinkers associated with orthodox Marxism insisted that slaves had no class consciousness, something intrinsic to free laborers who work for pay. But that belief has changed. “Today, the overriding historiographical belief is that slaves did not suffer from anomie,” says Marcelo Mac Cord, a professor from the School of Education at Fluminense Federal University (UFF). He explains that this school of thought found its inflection point in English theorists such as Edward Palmer Thompson (1924–1993), as people began to see slaves as historical subjects.

Albuquerque believes that this kind of perspective relativizes the historiographical view that prevailed until the mid-1980s, which attributed the most important role in the abolition process to pressure from the British. As a result of abolition laws passed in various other regions of the Americas during the nineteenth century, international pressure grew for Brazil to do the same. After signing treaties with Great Britain that laid the legal groundwork for prohibiting the slave trade and emancipating Africans found aboard slave ships, Brazil enacted a law that banned the Atlantic trade in 1831. Beatriz Gallotti Mamigonian, a professor from the Department of History at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), says that the 1831 law was rarely enforced and did not have much effect on slave traffickers and owners. “Even having been given the legal right to freedom, about 800,000 Africans were imported and kept as slaves between 1830 and 1856,” she says. According to Mamigonian, the 11,000 that were intercepted and emancipated remained under the care of the imperial government, working in factories, public construction, and hospitals. “They worked without pay in exchange for food and clothing, like slaves,” she

The day after
Despite recognizing that the Golden Law established racial equality in the eyes of the law, Albuquerque, from UFBA, states that the legislation did not result in any sense of racial equality in society. “Many white abolitionists wanted to rid Brazilian society of black people, so government bills often envisaged deporting former slaves to colonies in Africa. Today, one of the main challenges in this field of historiography is to understand why legal equality did not translate into social equality,” says the researcher. In fact, after the official abolition of the slave trade, racial hierarchies became even more deeply ingrained. “At the turn of the twentieth century, the notion of eugenics was taking hold in schools of law and medicine. Black people were seen as biologically incapable of reaching the same level of intellectual development as white people,” he says.

According to Gomes, from UFRJ, the theory of racial determinism motivated the Brazilian authorities to invest in “social whitening” projects. They created policies that encouraged European workers to move to the country, a strategy that differed from many Caribbean countries, such as Cuba, where the priority was to attract Asian immigrants to work in sugar production. “The historical narrative was that Europeans were invited to work in Brazilian factories and farms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century because they were more qualified than former slaves,” says Gomes. In reality, however, most immigrant families were no better qualified, he notes. Robério Souza, a history professor at Bahia State University (UNEB), explains that despite attempts to replace the workforce of former slaves with European immigrants, Africans and their descendants did not disappear from the market and fought for space alongside the newcomers both in factories and on farms. “But there was a hierarchy that afforded white immigrants the best positions,” he says, pointing out that at that time, there was no legislation to regulate working hours or salaries, which would only be established in the 1930s under the government of Getúlio Vargas (1882–1954).

Researchers are trying to understand why abolition did not translate into racial equity

One of the options available to former slaves was to serve in the armed forces, according to research by Álvaro Pereira do Nascimento, a professor of history at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ), Nova Iguaçu campus. Nascimento says that it was not uncommon for escaped or freed slaves to enlist in the army or the navy in the mid-nineteenth century, and this remained a possibility after slavery was officially abolished. In the armed forces they received a salary, a uniform, and somewhere to sleep—but they continued to suffer from the violent practices that characterized slavery in Brazil. “In 1910, 90% of sailors in the Brazilian Navy were black,” says Nascimento, who studied army and navy records stored in the National Archives, at the Brazilian National Library, and in the Navy Archive.

Nascimento believes that research on post-abolition, which has attracted increasing attention from Brazilian researchers since the 1980s, is a fertile field of knowledge that deserves to be studied in more depth. “These analyses will help us to better understand the mechanisms behind racial inequalities that still exist in Brazil today,” he says.

SCHWARCZ, L. M. e GOMES, F. dos S. Dicionário da escravidão e liberdade – 50 textos críticos (Anthology of slavery and freedom: 50 critical texts). São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2018.