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The day on which Brazil said “no” to the United States

Researcher recovers documents with the proposal to deport black Americans to the Amazon

Celebration of the abolition of slavery in Washington, 1866

reproduction Celebration of the abolition of slavery in Washington, 1866reproduction

Washington, December, 1862: in the middle of a Civil War that was costly in terms of lives and money, and in which the Government was desperate for funds to stifle the rebellion of the confederate states, President Abraham Lincoln, in his annual State of the Union speech, was bold enough to ask Congress for US$ 600,000 for purposes other than the conflict. “Congressmen need to release the money necessary to deport free black people to any place outside the United States”, stated Lincoln, the bicentenary of whose birth is celebrated this month. It was neither the first, nor the only time that the president, one year before proclaiming the emancipation of the slaves, spoke officially and publicly of his interest in deporting blacks: he made five political declarations to this effect, including two State of the Union speeches and the speech that preceded emancipation. “The place where I’m thinking of having a colony is in Central America. It’s closer to us than Liberia [a territory in Africa, dominated by the USA, where freedmen were sent]. The land is excellent for any people, especially the climatic similarity to their native land, and it is therefore suitable for their physical conditions”, he wrote in an article for the New York Tribune entitled, “The colonization of people of African descent”.

“The plan, officially proposed by President Lincoln and sanctioned by Congress, to start sending freed blacks or those about to be freed during the war to a colony outside the USA, is to become a reality within five weeks at the most. They will be transported at the government’s expense and supported during the first season there by the State and for this a sum has been approved by Congress”, stated an editorial in The New York Times in August 1862. It was in this spirit that Lincoln named James Watson Webb as ambassador extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of the United States. Webb was against abolition and he saw freeing the slaves as potentially more dangerous than slavery itself. “It’s not just in the interests of the United States and absolutely necessary for its domestic tranquility that it frees itself from the institution of slavery, but also as a consequence of the prejudice of our people against the black race, it is indispensable that the freed blacks are exported outside our frontiers, because with us they’ll never enjoy social or political equality”, stated Webb in a letter to Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward.

Military band of northern soldiers from the Union in the Civil War

reproduction Military band of northern soldiers from the Union in the Civil Warreproduction

Even so, this more “discreet” tone did not repudiate (even if Webb, in the situation he was then in, started to say he was against Secession and therefore against the “leprosy of slavery”) the editorial he wrote in 1843, for the Courier & Enquirer: “Freeing the slaves in the south and leaving them where they are will be the start of a conflict that can only end with the extermination of one or other race. The black race is characterized by its degraded ignorance and mental inferiority, while the slave owners are honorable, patriotic and high-minded”. It was as the official representative of the American government that in May 1862 this same Webb submitted the proposal to the Brazilian government for the constitution of a binational company to colonize the Amazon with emancipated black Americans or those who would be freed during the course of the Civil War. “The (Marquis of) Abrantes presented three proposals from the American ambassador. Their purpose was to transfer to the Amazon basin mainly those blacks who had been freed in the United States. Abrantes was to take copies of these extraordinary proposals and reply as appropriate to Webb”, noted Dom Pedro II in his diary in June of that year, when he already knew about the project for “deporting” blacks. The first historian to draw attention to this exotic story was Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, in the preface he wrote in 1968 for the book, “The Amazon for Black Americans” by Nícia Vilela. “It didn’t occur to me to look for other news about the project in Brazilian documentary sources. I was browsing through the personal archive of Ambassador Webb, which is today in Yale University, for things that were of personal interest to me when I found two texts relating to the project”, said Buarque de Holanda. The “tip-off” attracted the attention of historian, Maria Clara Sales Carneiro Sampaio, who went in search of more information. She found nothing in Brazil and so went to Yale, where she was given access to more than 2000 documents (which she transcribed) from the James Watson Webb Papers for the years 1862 and 1863.

In the middle of all the paper-work examined by Maria Clara there were drafts  of the project, letters sent to Seward about how negotiations were progressing and Webb’s notes about the situation in Brazil, which he believed lacked slave labor and would willingly receive the black Americans into its territory. From the material the historian gathered together she wrote her dissertation, “Black frontiers in the south”, under the tutor-ship of Maria Helena Machado, an associate professor at USP, where the work has just been defended. For her doctorate, Maria Clara, is going to expand the research to other countries also sounded out by Lincoln.. “This study reveals the little known influences of the Civil War in Brazil. The irony is the fact that President Barack Obama has Lincoln as his role model: if his wishes had prevailed the USA would have expatriated the Afro-Americans”, says Maria Helena. “He was a white man of his time and, of course, he shared many of the doubts of the racists from the south about the possibility of blacks becoming citizens. In the case of expatriation Lincoln’s interest reveals his doubt as to whether former slaves would be assimilated into American society, but also his feeling that most whites, especially those from the frontier states between the North and the South, would support abolition if they received a guarantee that the freed blacks would be ‘relocated'”, is the assessment of the Brazilian studies academic, Barbara Weinstein, a professor of history at Yale.

President Lincoln and his ambassador for Brazil, James Watson Webb

reproduction President Lincoln and his ambassador for Brazil, James Watson Webbreproduction

The main argument presented by Webb in his project was based on the supposed “chronic lack of a labor-force in Brazil, especially in the provinces in the north”: “The rapid increase in the value of blacks in Rio de Janeiro and the advance of coffee, added to the decrease in the slave population, unlike ours, who is an African type that is much inferior to those brought to Brazil, is rapidly depopulating the Empire’s Northern Provinces. The great need in Brazil now is for labor. Because of the characteristics of the climate and soil black labor is preferable to white”, the American justified. He does not fail to highlight the advantages of using black Americans. “In the hearts of the people of the United States, the climate and soil of which are suitable for slave labor, God created an aversion to slavery, which resulted in the biggest civil war ever seen. Those blacks who are ready to be released from slavery (freed) were trained for work, are docile and manageable but long for their liberty. God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, made it possible though politics and the interests of the USA and of Brazil, to guarantee them this liberty. Brazil is suffering because of a lack of labor. Four million blacks prepared for work, each one worth the equivalent of three native Africans, are longing for liberty and ready to buy it on the congenial soil of Brazil and under Brazilian laws and liberal institutions.” In short, Webb continues, “the Constitution of Brazil recognizes blacks as the equal of white men and equally eligible to the highest posts in the Empire, where the social distinction between the black and white races that used to exist has been almost eradicated”. The project, he guaranteed, was philanthropic.

The basis would be a concession to the Brazilian government of the right to exclusivity to bring to Brazil  freed African or Afro-American farm hands, or who were in the process of being freed. The name of the proposal indicates its true meaning: a concession to General James W. Webb, who would retain this privilege for 20 years. “The people to be introduced by the concessionaire and his associates will be called ‘apprentices’: their work for a period of five years and one month from the day they land in Brazil will be the property of the concessionaire”, the concession contract stated. “Instead of freeing the slave immediately he will be made ready to enjoy his freedom and at the same time pay for the teaching he will receive, the cost of his transport and his future dwelling”, observed Webb in the proposal. “There are strong indications that there were commercial interests in the project. Both Webb as well as Brazilians seemed interested in making a profit by administering an immigration company in the profitable molds of the colonization companies set up by English abolitionists in Africa, like the one that created Freetown, in Sierra Leone at the end of the 18th century, the aim of which was to offload Africans taken from the illegal slave traffic, or the purchase of the territory of Liberia by the American Colonization Society, in the 1820’s”, Maria Helena believes. “The finger of God is pointing to the provinces in the North of Brazil as the future home of freed slaves from the USA. Brazil and freed blacks will both equally benefit: a treaty between the USA and Brazil, by which all blacks freed by the USA should be blessed with land by the government of Brazil and, at the end of the years established, become Brazilian citizens with all the rights and privileges of the back population of the Empire”, argued Webb.

American slaves

reproduction American slavesreproduction

In private the American ambassador even admitted that in the case of the states in the south of Brazil, the arrival of White European immigrants would be a solution, but this would not work in the tropical region to the north. “With the slave trade at an end and seeing that the colonization of Europe is set out in imprudent and egotistical laws, well then, let Brazilian statesmen be humble given the prospects that the future holds. Unless the provinces in the south are satisfied with workers from outside, which can only be achieved with a change in the Empire’s colonization laws, the provinces below the equator will lose their workers and because of this the North is going to go back to being inhabited by Indians and wild animals, from which they had been rescued with the introduction of African labor”, wrote Webb, in a private letter to Secretary of State Seward. But it was not just the Union that was looking to Brazil as an escape-valve, capable of resolving the problems that were knocking on its doors with the generalized abolition of Africans, as a result of the advancing war. The confederate states were already considering this movement long before Lincoln, especially after another controversial project that had been developed at the end of the 1840’s by southern lieutenant, Matthew Fontaine Maury, an academic who specialized in marine currents, the inventor of underwater telegraph and the river torpedo which was used by the Confederates for whom he was an idol during the Civil War, on a par with Robert E. Lee. “Under the guise of a discussion about free navigation in the Amazon, Maury proposed the mass emigration of southern cotton planters and their slaves to the Amazon basin, or even the enforced emigration of slaves, making the Amazon the safety valve of the USA”, says Maria Helena.

According to the researcher, foreseeing the possibility of a confrontation between the North and the South and given the threat of losing control of the situation that could arise with a “race war”, Maury proclaimed the transfer of blacks, led by those from the south, to Brazil. “I’m not wishing to transform a free territory into a slave one or introduce slavery where it doesn’t exist. Brazil is a country very much like Virginia. I know that you would be happy to wake up one day and state that slavery no longer exists in Virginia; and this without removing the chains from one single arm or freeing one single slave”, wrote Maury. “There was the question of political representation. The Confederates placed the Amazon within the context of the view of Southern leaders who believed it was necessary to expand slavery to a new territory so that their leadership would continue to exist. The Confederates saw slavery as something permanent and necessary to their way of life and they were prepared to shed however much blood was necessary to prevent abolition”, assesses Barbara Weinstein. “That’s the only way of understanding the extent of the proposals of Maury who had convinced himself that the favored scenario for Southern interests lay in the Amazon. As new states were incorporated into the Union and the population of the non-slave states grew, the South saw its representativeness threatened. Expanding and annexing other territories was a way of balancing political forces”, adds Maria Helena. “The moment the Confederates decided to separate from the USA many started worrying about how to beat an industrialized and more populous North. Little by little the Deep South became convinced that it would have to make an alliance with Brazil, the Deepest South, in order to survive and guarantee that slavery would be maintained in that hemisphere. For characters like Maury, Brazil was not only the hope of winning the Civil War, but also an ideal refuge in case of defeat. It was the so-called ‘slave imperialism'”, states Brazilian academic, Gerald Horne, head of Afro-American History at the University of Houston.

Therefore, taking the Amazon was a need and even a duty, part of their “manifest destiny”: “Who’s going to people the valley of the powerful Amazon” That imbecile and indolent people, or will it be developed by  a race with energy and ingenuity, capable of taming the forest and bringing to the surface the resources that lie there?”, Maury asked in a letter to his brother-in-law, William Herndon, who had been charged by the US Navy to explore the area without permission from the Brazilian government. “I don’t think Brazil will place any obstacle in the way of populating the region with American citizens who have chosen to go there with their slaves. Just as the valley of the Mississippi was the escape valve for slaves from the North, now free, the Amazon will be the same for those slaves from Mississippi”, the Confederate soldier believed. The establishment of a “Republic of the Amazon” would be the pinnacle of southern expansion into Brazil, to the point that black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, confessed he felt alarmed with these Amazon plans that, according to him, “had been started by capitalists from our metropolises and by means of expeditions to Brazil, a country with which they had unsuccessfully tried to establish a treaty for the protection and propagation of slavery on the continent”. “For the Confederates the combination between the two great slave nations of America was necessary, a form of resistance to abolitionist pressure from the rest of the world”, notes Horne. Seward, through Webb, reprimanded Brazil on several occasions for its supposed collaboration with southern ships that put into Rio and Salvador. He also was afraid that the Empire would officially recognize the confederate states.

Negro_richmondReproductionIt was precisely the project of “slave imperialism” for absorbing the Deepest South, as Maury proclaimed in the 1850’s, which in 1862 threw a bucket of cold water over a similar proposal made by Webb. “Maury’s crusade was necessary for Brazil to snap out of its inertia and prepare to face up to the question of the navigation of the Amazon. In 1851, the imperial government was already trying to come to an understanding with the river-bank states of the Amazon and its tributaries for a future policy of navigation and protection limits of the Amazon”, explains Nícia Vilela in her book, “A Amazônia para os negros americanos” [The Amazon for black Americans]. So only in 1867, given the new stable picture of inter-American relations, did Brazil feel happy to open up the Amazon to international navigation. “The Brazilian reaction to Webb’s project, was drawn up, in fact, as a result of the pressure of Maury’s proposal, a decade earlier. While Americans in the USA publicized the advantages of occupying the Amazon basin and the riches that would be generated by the free navigation of the river, Brazil began to make diplomatic efforts and draconian policies to hold back the North American advance on the sovereignty of the Empire”, notes Maria Helena. Therefore, Webb should not have been surprised by the Brazilian government’s negative response.

“General: I had the pleasure of reading with the utmost attention the documents you entrusted me with and now I’m replying to you with regard to your plan for introducing freed slaves into Brazil. I have to admit that the objective in itself is highly interesting. It is my personal opinion that your ideas merit consideration and many of them, under favorable circumstances, would be highly useful However, nothing of this order may be attempted in our country, because we have a law that expressly prevents any freed black from entering our frontiers. I attach the law for your information. I reiterate my kind regards. Abrantes.” The project was shelved. “The Brazilian political elite was already focused on attracting white European immigrants to Brazil: immigration and colonization plans were totally oriented in the direction of ‘whitening’ Brazil’s population, and even a proposal for bringing Chinese workers failed because Parliament did not accept the arrival of ‘non-whites'”, is Barbara’s analysis. “There was also the wish to protect the Amazon from foreign commercial intrusion, especially at a time when the rubber trade was firming up as a significant source of foreign currency. There was even thought of creating agricultural colonies in Pará at this time, but they would be for white Europeans.” On the American side the Brazilian rejection encouraged caution.

The Brazilian Amazon at the time of the American proposal from Webb

reproduction The Brazilian Amazon at the time of the American proposal from Webbreproduction

“You think that the sight of the finger of God pointing to the provinces in the north of Brazil as the land of promise, rest and repair for the slaves from the states of the South of this Republic and you ask the president to be able to negotiate a treaty to remove such men. Without further consideration the president cannot attend to this request”, wrote Seward in an open letter to Webb, which was published in The New York Times. “The president, although he denies granting you at this time the authority you are asking for invites you to continue your discussions, starting from the important position that you occupy in a country with such a suggestive condition for liberal thought.” The secretary of state and the president seemed not to be talking the same language (it only has to be remembered that Seward was passed over by the Republican Party in favor of Lincoln to run for the Presidency): “I refuse to move the colony of freed blacks to any State without obtaining the prior consent of its government. At the same time, and subject to the consent of the Senate, I offered to negotiate with the USA on behalf of several States located below the tropics, or that had colonies in these places, in favor of the voluntary emigration of people of that class to their respective territories, on condition that they were received in a fair and human way. I’m sorry to have to say that many who would like to do this don’t do it because only Liberia and Haiti are available and the people aren’t as interested in going to these places as they are to others”, said Lincoln in his State of the Union speech, making it clear that he still hoped to see voluntary deportation become a reality.

“Mr. Seward talked a lot about the question of the emigration of the black population. Men of power, among them President Lincoln, believed that the best thing for both races was separation and conservation of the north just for whites. But members of the Emancipation Party were against this removal because they did not consider it wise to give up so many muscles and arms and wondered if it was prudent to deliver this power to nations that were not necessarily always friends of the USA”, wrote Lord Lyons, a minister from England based in Washington, to his superiors, reporting a conversation he had had with the Secretary of State a few days before the proclamation of emancipation. “Lincoln, however, presided over a nation that was embroiled in a violent war and he needed support from abroad and therefore the last thing he wanted was to become involved in a conflict with a foreign nation. Any interest he had in the project or in the Amazon was smaller than his need to keep good diplomatic relations with Brazil”, Barbara believes. “A reason for American blacks to stay in the north was because of the reluctance on the part of some nations, especially Brazil, to receive them in the middle of a Civil War, in the same way that the sympathy of this country toward the confederate states was fundamental for the rebels”, believes Horne. This was a determining factor in the arrival of former-Confederates in Brazil after the war.

“Many emigrated and even tried to bring their slaves (some even managed) because they wanted to live in a country where there was still slavery. Most became disillusioned and returned, but many remained and founded communities. Some even thought about using Brazil as the platform for building a new slave empire and reversing the result of the war”, says Horne. But the finger of God was now in the hands of the north.