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The visible history

São Paulo State Archives make seven thousand images of documents on slavery available on-line

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Letter written in 1875, addressed to the chairman of the City Council of Belém do Descalvado, in São Paulo State: easy access to documentseduardo cesar

In 1883, six years after slavery had been abolished, a new social organization was established in São Paulo and officially recognized by the president of the province. A group of women founded the Associação Protetora dos Escravos [Association for the Protection of Slaves], whose objective was to ensure compliance with the 1871 Lei do Ventre Livre law [according to which children born to slave women after it was enacted would be free]. In addition to focusing on historical facts directly related to slavery, the creation of the association reveals another social aspect of those times: these associations often comprised only women, at a time when they had no political rights, such as the right to vote. “The women found a way to enter politics when this was forbidden to them,” says historian Rafael Marquese, a professor and researcher at the School of Philosophy, Literature, and Humanities of the University of São Paulo.

This is attested to by the original by-laws of the Associação Protetora dos Escravos. The document is available on-line, along with seven thousand other images related to slavery. These documents were recently digitized by the São Paulo State Public Archives ( The “Escravos” collection is a group of letters addressed to the president of the province of São Paulo. It includes official letters on investigations of slave trafficking, lists of slaves registered in the municipality, statistics on the slave population, and other documents concerning the 1764-1890 period.

All this material was collected by government authorities in the province of São Paulo. In the 1950s, the documents were gathered into a single collection. The work of organizing these documents and digitizing them took three months and cost R$ 30.9 thousand, provided by the Program for the Support of the Development of Iberian-American Archives (Adai), a Spanish Government fund for the development of national archives.

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Accounting books from 1882, from the town of Santa Branca, with information on the freeing of slaveseduardo cesar

Another document that has also aroused the interest of scholars is an official letter written on July 26, 1886 by the Ministry of Business Affairs, Agriculture, Trade, and Public Works and addressed to the inspector of the São Paulo State Treasury and Finances. The official letter was written in response to a question from the inspector on the registration of slaves in the town of Bananal. Some of the slaves had claimed that they had been “imported” into Brazil after the enactment of the Law of November 7, 1831, which banned the transatlantic slave trade. In other words, the slaves could not be held captive. The order from the Ministry, however, is clear: the Tax Inspector of Bananal could not refuse to register the slaves. The registration had been created by the government to oblige plantation owners to register the correct number of slaves so that these slaves could be accounted for in the demographic census. This registration also identified the slaves who had been born before and after the enactment of the Lei do Ventre Livre law.

“Although the Law of 1831 had banned slave trafficking, active slave trading persisted from 1835 to 1850,” says Marquese. In the 1880s, abolition gained a new impetus when antislavery activists encouraged the slaves who had arrived illegally in Brazil to demand their right to freedom. “Bananal was one of the towns where this reaction was very active, because it was a coffee-growing region where many slaves lived. It was also a center of anti-slavery activists and protests led by José do Patrocinio, from Rio de Janeiro, a leading exponent of the Brazilian abolitionist movement.” The official letter of the Ministry shows how the law was ignored when the issue was slaves and slavery.

In the opinion of historian Carlos Bacellar, coordinator of the São Paulo State Public Archives, such documents shed light on the period and act as a driver of other investigations about slavery in São Paulo. One additional advantage is that these documents can be consulted online. History professors as well as high school teachers can download the documents and use them to illustrate their classes,” Bacellar says.