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The slaves of the slave

Life of Francisco Félix de Souza reveals how blacks used to trade blacks

In Quincas Borba, Machado de Assis tells the story of Prudêncio, the slave who was a victim of ill-treatment, who, as soon as he finds himself a freedman, buys his own slave to, right away, give him a beating. In politically correct times, of idealizing the victim, this seems to be one more example of the Sorcerer’s eternal nihilism. Unfortunately, history shows that art copied life, as is revealed by Francisco Félix de Souza, mercador de escravos [Francisco Félix de Souza, slave merchant] (Nova Fronteira/Ed. Unerj, 208 pages, R$ 29), by diplomat and historian Alberto da Costa e Silva, the biography of the former slave from the state of Bahia who was a slave merchant. Moreover, the book is a tableau, a cruel one, of now African Negroes profited, and plenty, by trafficking slaves, to live like kings and to buy weapons.

The life of Félix became a film, Cobra Verde [aka Slave Coast], in the hands of Werner Herzog, and a novel, The Viceroy of Ouidah, by Bruce Chatwin. But, thanks to Costa e Silva, the theme is treated for the first time with historiographic carefulness. Without leaving aside the rocambolesque fascination of his life: the poor man from Salvador who, in Africa, achieved power, nobility, and a fortune calculated at US$ 120 million, which made him one of the three richest men on the globe. When he died, 94 years old, he left 53 wives, 80 children, and 12,000 slaves.

Born probably in 1768, Félix arrived in Africa em 1788, to take command of the fortress of São João Batista de Ajudá, which, in the 18th century, was the epicenter of the slave export market of the Bight of Benin (40% of the captives who crossed the Atlantic came from that region), which earned it the epithet of Slave Coast. The tragic note of this was that those responsible for the maintenance of this trade were other blacks who would sell prisoners of war and those condemned by the law to European and Brazilian traders.

From the African elite to former slaves with a spirit of adventure, the effective participation of colored brothers in trading human beings under inhuman conditions, for forced labor, is undeniable. “King Guezo, for example, refused to sign a treaty with the English to abolish slavery in Dahomey, alleging that ‘to do so would be to change the manner of feeling of his people, accustomed since childhood to regard that trade as just and correct’. He added that ‘there were even lullabies about the reduction of adversaries to captivity’ “, says Costa e Silva.

In spite of the scarcity of resources, Félix benefited from a commercial scheme common to other middlemen of slaves: he would receive payment in slaves in advance from the Africans, in order to deliver, in the future, weapons and other articles. The time gave him the chance of working capital with the selling of captives. “The correspondence of the traffickers almost fails to let us perceive that the merchandise dealt in was human beings”, the historian explains. Faced by a market as organized as that one was, the Brazilian prospered in Ajudá as an intermediary and warehouser of blacks, a practice that brought agility to the purchase of slaves, since these were embarked in the largest possible number and in the shortest possible time. Sure and abundant profits.

Félix also relied on luck: if the prohibition of the traffic to the British colonies and to the United States brought down the price of the captives, the liberality of the Brazilian ports made it possible to charge increasingly higher amounts for slaves. And the Bahian was the main supplier for Brazil. In a short time, the Brazilian realized that he could earn even more by venturing into the transport of blacks: he bought several ships (including the slave ships that were auctioned by the British after they had been seized) and went so far as to order frigates in the USA. Involved in a dynastic dispute for power between two brothers in the kingdom of Abomey, Félix chose the side of the half brother of the king, Guezo, who not only saved him from prison (King Adandozan had decided to persecute the foreign traders), but also, after acceding to the throne, granted him the honorary title of Chachá (still granted today to the Brazilian?s descendants), viceroy of Ajudá, and a monopoly in the export of slaves. Félix was noble and rich.

In Ajudá, he built his two-story mansion in a district that shortly afterwards came to be known as Quartier Brésil. When he went out in the streets, he had a right to a slave who would protect him from the sun with a parasol, an armed guard, a stool, and an escort of musicians. Clever, he set up a network of alliances with the micro-states that populated the African coast and called other Brazilian slave merchants in operation as partners. Accordingly, he managed to succeed in difficult times, with the English policing the coast in search of Negro depots.

The Europeans came to look on him as an interlocutor of prestige and importance. Even the British vice-consul in Dahomey, John Duncan, albeit lamenting the fact that Félix dedicated himself to the slave trade, used to call him “the most generous and most humane man of the coasts of Africa”. The Chachá wanted to Europeanize himself and sent his youngest son to study in Portugal, years after with silver cutlery and monogrammed porcelain. When he received the Prince of Joinville for a luncheon, he greeted the noble with a salvo of 21 cannon shots.

Certain customs, though, he did not lose: he loved to serve feijoada( typical stew with pork and beans), beans with coconut milk, fish moquecas (fish stew with lots garlic, onions, peppers) and stews. In 1846, he was decorated by Portugal with the Order of Christ as a “distinguished patriot”. Félix was the most successful black trader, but he was not an isolated case. There are many examples of Brazilians, several of them blacks, who in the wake of the Chachá and apprentices of his method of work, did well as slave traders, such as Domingos José Martins, the king of the traffic in Lagos, or João José de Lima, who commanded the market in Lomé, amongst so many others.

But Félix was still the master. “When he signed a draft, it would be accepted without hesitation in Liverpool, New York, Marseilles and other markets. It used to be said of him that his word was sufficient, and no written document was needed to take on a commitment”, Costa e Silva says. Only old age corroded his power. In 1844, at the age of 90, with rheumatism, he seemed to King Guezo to have lost his old mercantile force and little by little was left aside in the slave trade. But he still had time to be almost one of the pioneers in profitably replacing the traffic in blacks by the export of palm oil, which was more and more used as a lubricant and also raw material for the incipient European craze for using soap for personal hygiene.

The palm oil had always been associated with the slave ships, since it was one of the food given to the captives during the crossing of the Atlantic. “The palm oil would be sold to the British and to the French, and it was often with merchandise achieved in this trade that slaves were acquired in the interior to be embarked onto the slave ships”, the historian explains. Félix soon perceived how far this hypocrisy went and the potential for changing from one pole of trade, which would soon be illegal (not to mention the growing risks inherent to the traffic, such as diseases, the loss of slaves, seizure of ships, etc.) to another one, connected and innocuous.

“The same large slave ship ports and the same companies that were dedicated to the trade in people continued to command the transactions with Africa. The slave ships were readapted to receive the barrels of oil, and their captains were the same ones who, before, used to trade in slaves”, the author observes. Félix ceases to be a symbol of the “odious trade”, to be transformed into an enterprising and creative capitalist. The root of the two men, is unfortunately, the same.