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The fight for abolition

Study reconstructs the role of the abolitionist movement as a social force that led to the freeing of slaves

Open-air mass in celebration of abolition and illustration depicting an abolitionist, two slaves, and Parliament

Public Domain Image Open-air mass in celebration of abolition and illustration depicting an abolitionist, two slaves, and ParliamentPublic Domain Image

The history of abolition in Brazil is not limited only to the legal initiatives taken by the imperial government, to the international economic situation, or even to slave rebellions. These are the central themes that have guided scholarly interpretations of the subject to date. Yet a robust abolitionist movement – and its pro-slavery counterweight – also played a key historical role during the twenty-year period that preceded the Lei Áurea (Golden Law), that is, from 1868 to 1888. This little-known perspective underpins the book Flores, votos e balas (Flowers, votes, and bullets), published by Companhia das Letras. The author is the sociologist Angela Alonso, professor with the Department of Sociology at the University of São Paulo’s School of Philosophy, Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP) and chair of the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP). Her research took six years and included a one-year stay at Yale University.

“Because I’m a sociologist and I adopted an interdisciplinary approach, I paid attention to the mobilization of public space, to which historians have perhaps failed to pay due heed,” says Alonso, who also wrote Joaquim Nabuco (2007), a biography of the abolitionist politician from Pernambuco. “I realized that, based on its structure and characteristics, I was looking at a social movement, as described by sociological theory, very similar in structural terms to the movements that took place in England and the United States.” It is by no mere chance that one of the points that the researcher highlighted in her study is the link between a part of the Brazilian abolitionist movement and abolitionist activists abroad. “We have rarely seen such a comprehensive study of this topic,” says Professor Lígia Fonseca Ferreira, of the Undergraduate and Graduate Program in Language and Literature at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp). Ferreira is a scholar of the period and the biographer of Afro-Brazilian attorney, abolitionist, and poet Luiz Gama (1830-1882).

One of the exponents of the internationalist element of anti-slavery activism was the educator Abílio Borges (1824-1891), who, although a member of the imperial elite, maintained close ties with the British and French associations that were fighting against slavery overseas. Borges, according to Alonso, “was wagering on embarrassment abroad” when he sponsored an emancipationist petition signed by French politicians and delivered to Emperor Pedro II through France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The document embarrassed Emperor Pedro II,” explains Alonso. “Looking like a land of slavery tarnished the Empire’s reputation.”

Abolitionist confederation in 1888, with José do Patrocínio (standing, first on left) and André Rebouças (seated, first on left)

Public Domain Image Abolitionist confederation in 1888, with José do Patrocínio (standing, first on left) and André Rebouças (seated, first on left)Public Domain Image

The characters
Borges – who until now had been best known as the inspiration behind the school principal in Raul Pompeia’s novel The Athenaeum – is one of the central figures in Flores, votos e balas, as is the renowned abolitionist André Rebouças (1838-1898), the black engineer who was often called on to design modernizing projects and who maintained close ties with power circles. On the side of those defending slavery, Alonso spotlights the figure of Paulino Soares de Sousa (1834-1901), the driving force behind the tactics and maneuvers of the “stubborn” wing of parliament’s Conservative Party.

Alonso points out that the government – or the State – is the necessary apex of a triangle whose other two points are formed by society’s abolitionist movement and counter-movements. “A clear sign of this interplay is the fact that sometimes the State brought abolitionism inside of parliament, while sometimes it repressed it,” says Alonso, referring to a series of changes in policy lines during the period in question, when leadership of the government alternated between, for example, Manuel de Sousa Dantas, an abolitionist with the Liberal Party Liberal (1884-1885), and the Baron of Cotegipe (João Maurício Wanderley), a pro-slavery advocate from the Conservative Party (1885-1888).

According to Alonso, this political indecision shows that the relatively widespread notion that abolition was a consensual or inevitable process does not make sense. Her research suggests that the idea of emancipating the slaves represented a substantial threat to the status quo. “The Empire was founded on slavery, not only in economic terms,” states Alonso. “The social hierarchy was based on owning property, which conferred power and prestige, and the most important property was slaves. Slavery also bolstered the political party system, because the electorate was defined according to income.”

The novelist José de Alencar (1829-1877), a conservative federal representative and one of the most fervent anti-abolitionist spokesmen, warned about the panorama looming in 1867: “A puff of air will be enough to. . .toss the Empire into a volcano.” However, he was not defending slavery outright but rather employing the rhetoric of fear in an attempt to delay the process. This is what Alonso calls the “circumstantial defense of slavery”: sectors of parliament were “compelled by circumstances to justify the existing slave system, without defending the institution itself, which, they admitted, by that point in the century had been condemned by civilization and morality.”

Parliament during voting of the Golden Law in 1888...

Public Domain Image Parliament during voting of the Golden Law in 1888…Public Domain Image

On the world stage
This tense state of affairs was the outcome of the process studied by Alonso, where two dynamics played out, one abroad and the other at home. “In the foreign realm, a wave of abolitions was sweeping the world, while Brazil remained a slave-based society, drawing international attention,” says Alonso. The process reached the height of tension in 1850, when Brazil succumbed to pressure from England and outlawed the Atlantic slave trade – although it was some years before the law took effect. Still, until the 1860s, Brazil was somewhat protected by the fact that the West had two other major slave-holding societies: Spain, with its colonies of Puerto Rico and Cuba, and the United States.

But as these countries marched towards the end of slavery, Brazil grew isolated on the world stage. This inevitably triggered a rift within the political elite. “It was no longer a matter of whether or not to respond to international pressure but rather a matter of how fast,” Alonso emphasizes. The process culminated with parliament’s 1871 passage of the Lei do Ventre Livre (Law of Free Birth) as “a sign that Brazil was civilized.” By that point, notes Alonso, part of society was already engaged in an organized mobilization. “I would stress that the process did not begin in 1879, when Joaquim Nabuco [1849-1910] and José do Patrocínio [1854-1905] started to take action in the public arena, but rather the decade before,” says the researcher.

Alonso divides this trajectory, which ended with abolition, into the three phases alluded to in the title of her book: flowers, votes, and bullets. “Flowers” refers to the symbol of the abolitionist demonstrations sponsored by, among others, Borges and Rebouças, who were not only involved in politicking but also founded associations and promoted public ceremonies. “Abolition began to be advocated in spaces that were not truly political,” says the sociologist. Theaters were soon hosting the demonstrations, alternating them with performances. Unlike what happened in the United States, where Quaker churches were the hubs that disseminated civil society’s abolitionist campaigns, Catholicism was not only the reigning faith in Brazil but was also the official State religion. This made it easier to win souls over to abolitionism among the social elite and intellectual circles, for whom theater was the favorite form of entertainment. The promotion of abolitionist principles and activities also benefitted from the advances that introduced the printing and circulation of independent publications.

“Concert conferences,” as the activists called them, spread across the country. Starting in 1883, they were accompanied by the adaptation of the U.S. strategy of organizing slave escape routes into free territories. The difference between Brazil and the United States was that there were no officially free territories in Brazil; they came into being as abolitionists freed streets or neighborhoods. The activists gradually liberated these territories, relying on the acceptance of slave owners or through fund-raising campaigns that bought the freedom of slaves.

...and the crowd outside: the text of the law was cut to the minimum necessary

Public Domain Image …and the crowd outside: the text of the law was cut to the minimum necessaryPublic Domain Image

Judicial activism
The strategy spawned a nationwide campaign, which was successful mainly in Ceará and Amazonas, provinces that had relatively few slaves and counted on abolitionist governors. In the case of Ceará, the movement resulted in the abolition of slavery within province borders in 1884, and the territory became a destination for runaway slaves and freedmen from all over the country. Another strategy that drew its inspiration from abroad was that of Luiz Gama, who looked for legal loopholes and petitioned the court to grant slaves their freedom. “Gama was part of a faction of abolitionism that defended judicial activism, contrary to Nabuco, who believed reform should come through parliament,” says Fonseca. Alonso argues that “they didn’t strictly disagree, but their strategies were complementary, each relying on a different style of activism.”

The freeing of the slaves in Ceará ushered in the “vote” phase, when the political class decided to react. When Sousa Dantas was appointed to head the imperial government in 1884, abolitionists helped draft the government’s program and launched 51 candidates in support of it. However, the abolitionists lost, “less at the polls than in the counting,” according to Alonso. When Sousa Dantas fell from power, Cotegipe’s pro-slavery government took over, inaugurating the “bullet” phase, with the police force and plainclothes militias openly and fiercely repressing abolitionist activities. “It was at this point that the process of civil disobedience burgeoned,” the researcher says. José do Patrocínio declared that “true abolitionists are prepared to die.” In the opinion of the historian Carlos Castilho, professor at Vanderbilt University in the United States, this attests to the valuable role that social movements played in this process. “The struggles for political and civic participation have their own histories, and historiography needs to rethink them,” says Castilho.

Thanks largely to abolitionism as a social movement, the cause won some of society over, or at least earned its tolerance. “When the process came to a close, abolitionism enjoyed the tacit support of the urban population, which remained silent about runaway slaves,” says Alonso. “Slavery was eaten away at from all sides.” Yet the process ended in a stalemate. Those who favored slavery gave in, but the abolitionists were unable to implement their program to extend rights to freedmen. The cabinet of João Alfredo Correa de Oliveira – prime minister to Emperor Pedro II – triumphed in its effort to make the Golden Law a mere two-paragraph declaration that did not compensate slave owners for their losses but also did not guarantee former slaves a dignified life.

1. Circulation of ideas and strategies of action in the Brazilian abolitionist movement (nº 2009/05921-1); Grant Mechanism Scholarships abroad – New Frontiers; Principal Investigator Angela Maria Alonso (School of Philosophy, Literature, and Human Sciences, University of São Paulo/Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning); Investment R$78,689.12.
2. Abolitionism as a social movement (nº 2012/08495-6); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Angela Maria Alonso (School of Philosophy, Literature, and Human Sciences, University of São Paulo/Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning); Investment R$ 116,566.11.

ALONSO, A. Flores, votos e balas – O movimento abolicionista brasileiro (1868-88) (Flowers, votes, and bullets: the Brazilian abolitionist movement [1868-1888]). São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2015, 568 pp.