“For the Preservation of this Conquest”: Slavery and Society in Brazil

In 2007, Brazil, a country that occupies more than one-third of the South American continent, had the tenth largest economy in the world, but the highest levels of income equalities and wealth disparities. That economic paradox is enclosed by a larger socio-political myth of racial democracy, a purported social elasticity and racial harmony forged in the making of Brazil. However, both the economic polarization and mythology racial of harmony in Brazil, including the very establishment of the country itself, have the same point of origin: four centuries of enslavement by way of a multilayered process conventionally called the transatlantic slave trade. 

Overseas Portuguese expansion and arrival in Brazil initiated an irreversible encounter between Portuguese colonists, indigenous peoples, and imported African peoples. That encounter, or series of encounters, carved out a racialized colonial and imperial society through the symbolic processes of colonization, miscegenation, and the control of key economic activities rooted in coerced or enslaved labor. The Portuguese empire established its global reach from Lisbon through a network of factories and fortresses that engaged in slaving and the procurement of gold and other valued resources. 

In the course of Portuguese conquest and hegemony, however, African and Amerindian families, communities, and distinct cultural groups were fragmented, and political and cultural systems unraveled through the violent nature of that expansionism. A permanent settlement of Portuguese nationals never materialized in West Africa, but such a settler colony did take root in Brazil. For close to 400 years Brazil maintained an uninterrupted enslavement institution in law and custom. The history of Brazil has been one of colonial encounters and resistance, the importation and influence of Africans on the institution of slavery and the nation of Brazil, enduring plantation and mining enslavement, and elitist efforts to re-create Brazil in their own image and render Africans politically invisible and socially expendable chattel belonging to a permanent underclass. 

Slavery and Colonial Brazil, 1500-1822

Pedro Álvares Cabral anchored at Pôrto Seguro on the northeastern coast of Bahia in April 1500. Cabral commanded a fleet of 13 ships that departed the Portuguese capital of Lisbon on March 9, 1500, apparently destined for India but somehow found their way to what became known as Brazil (Brasil in Portuguese). In 1503, the name “Brazil” appeared in the historical record. By then, trading stations were established in Pôrto Seguro and Pernambuco, and Cabral and his men had encountered a largely homogeneous Amerindian population along the Bahian coast and in the basin of the Paraná and Paraguay Rivers. Tupi-Guarani and Tapuia were generic names for distinct and overlapping indigenous groups such as the Goitacá, Aimoré, and Tremembé. 

During the first three and a half decades of the 16th century, the primary economic activity revolved around the extraction and exportation of brazilwood, acquired through trade with indigenous groups, and manioc or cassava flour for the colony, which was the staple food in the new settlement. The Portuguese Crown prohibited the enslavement of Amerindian groups in a law of 1570, but excluded the Aimoré on account of their non-yielding spirit, though the general pattern of indigenous response to Portuguese colonization took the form of resistance to enslavement, succumbing to or allying with the colonists. The capture and enslavement of indigenous peoples was dominated by the bandeirantes(men from São Paulo born of indigenous women and Portuguese men). Those conquered experienced acute patterns of cultural violence, epidemics, and eventually a social or physical death. In the course of employing enslaved Amerindian labor and hunting down those who refused to yield to the colonists, Dom João III of Portugal dispatch a group of settlers to Brazil in 1531 and divided the Bahian coast into twelve hereditary captaincies granted to friends of the monarchy in 1534. One such hereditary captaincy was São Vicente and wherein the “lord proprietor” of that captaincy, Martim Afonso de Sousa, helped to established large-scale sugar cultivation in 1534. Four years later, the settlers of the Brazilian colony headquartered at Salvador (Bahia) received its first group of Africans imported through the port of Bahia, one of the most prosperous and important ports in the sugar-tobacco-enslaved labor enterprise in Brazil and the Americas.

The Portuguese established fortified trading stations (feitorias) on the West African coast and this system was initially used on the Bahian coast, whereas the use of a special customs house (Casa da Guiné e da Mina) in Lisbon to regulate the international enslavement enterprise proved futile and thus ships eventually by-passed Lisbon and made direct voyages between Brazil and Africa. Initially, African captives from West Africa were sent to Portugal, beginning in 1441, and though some remained in Portugal, others were sent to labor on large-scale plantations in the Atlantic, in places such as São Tomé off the West Central African coast. The system of sugar-cane cultivation in São Tomé and earlier in Madeira and the Azores was transferred to Brazil and as African importation into the Brazil, particularly Bahia, increased with the growth of sugar plantations by 1590, São Tomé became a distributing point for African captives from Africa enroute to Brazil. European convicts, clergymen, colonial officials, merchants, prostitutes, and soldiers had settled the island of São Tomé in the 1480s. 

Shortly thereafter, São Tomé developed into a nexus of the enslavement enterprise with the Gold Coast and the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries and supplied food, enslaved persons, and cowries for the São Jorge da Mina fort on the Gold Coast and the enterprise itself. In São Tomé, enslaved persons for export were known as escravos minas (“mina slaves”), negros minas (“mina blacks”) or minas (Africans from the “Mina” or “gold” coast). Many of these minas were in transit in São Tomé and destined for export (usually to and through São Jorge da Mina fort), as São Tomé became a key entrepôt in the enslavement enterprise and spice trade as well as an important sugar producer. By 1550, one-tenth of Portugal’s population in the capital of Lisbon was African and the majority of theescravos de resgate (enslaved persons destined for export) in transit on São Tomé were being sent to the Americas, principally Brazil. 

Africans of the island interior of São Tomé revolted in the last two decades of 16th century and maroon communities known as Angolares had established themselves in the dense forests of the São Tomé interior and on the southern coast around 1544. Those revolts prompted a Portuguese war of annihilation against these Africans in 1598, but the war was interrupted a year later by a Dutch invasion that devastated the Portuguese in São Tomé. Another revolt in São Tomé followed, but was put down in 1616. In the first half of the 17th century, the Dutch shook the stability and commercial monopoly of the Portuguese on the Atlantic coast of Africa and in Brazil by seizing Elmina (São Jorge da Mina), Arguim, São Tomé, Angola, and northeastern Brazil (renaming it “New Holland”). 

This Dutch offensive and capture of key Portuguese trading stations spurred the first large scale Portuguese attempt to recapture former Portuguese territories acquired by the Dutch in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The Portuguese lost Elmina on the Gold Coast but were able to expel the Dutch from Angola in 1648 and regain Bahia and the northeastern coast of Brazil in 1654. During the Dutch interim and thereafter, sugar remained the greatest colonial staple and a force that configured the economy and society in ways that shaped the Portugal-based monarchy, the Brazilian-based settler oligarchy, estates, and slavery in Brazil. As sugar became more important than the initial staple of brazilwood and later commodities such as tobacco, diamonds, and gold, the enslaved African population toiled on sugar plantations and engaged in construction, small-scale trading, and countless Africans dug and died in the gold and diamond mines. The ownership and draconian use of enslaved Africans permeated much of society, and though manumission allowed some of those enslaved to procure their freedom through the sale of agricultural goods or petty trade, Brazil maintained a constant supply of African captives from West Africa, West Central Africa, and southeast Africa. 

The Portuguese in Brazil imported and enslaved Africans who came primarily from western, West Central, and southeastern Africa and to a lesser extent the East African coast. Those regions correspond to the area from Senegambia to contemporary Angola and northern Namibia, and from Mozambique to as far north on the East African coast as Zanzibar. Main ports of entry in Brazil included Salvador in Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, and Santos in São Paulo. The principal Africans cultural groups that disembarked and toiled on the plantations and in the mines and urban centers included the Yorùbá (known as Nagô in Brazil) of contemporary Nigeria and Benin; Wolof of Senegambia; Manding peoples of Mali and Guinea; Temne and Mende of contemporary Sierra Leone; Hausa of contemporary Nigeria, Ghana, and Niger; Gbe language speakers, including the Adja and Fon (known as Gegê in Brazil) of contemporary Togo, Benin and Nigeria; Fante-Asante of contemporary Ghana; Bakôngo and Kimbundu of Kôngo and Angola, respectively; and so-called Bantu peoples such as the Chokwe of Mozambique and Waswahili peoples of East Africa. Nagô is the Brazilian terminology used for the Yorùbá, while Gegê applies to the Fon or Ewe-Fon of former Dahomey (contemporary Bénin). The Malês, as in the well-documented Malês rebellion of 1835, were generally any African Muslim in Bahia, and in Rio de Janeiro they were known as Alufá. The Fante and Asante were Akan peoples of the former Gold Coast and contemporary Ghana who were often subsumed under the category of mina (as in the “El mina” castle on the coast of Ghana), though a number of those enslaved in Brazil were not of Asante or Akan origin. They were largely non-Akan peoples situated to the north of the forest-based Asanteman (Asante nation) which controlled much of what is contemporary Ghana at its peak, and coastal states to the southeast and southwest of it. 

The indelible marked left by these Africans permeate the foods and dishes of Brazil (one of which is the national cuisine), the lexicon and pronunciation of Portuguese, the musical and dance form of samba, the martial art of capoeira, carnival, and the African-based spiritualities of candomblé, the Xangô (Shango) tradition in Pernambuco, and Macumba (candomblé transformed in Rio de Janeiro in the 1900s). Macumba developed into Umbanda in the southern parts of Brazil. 

Of the Africans imported to Brazil, the Portuguese preferred the acquisition of new Africans as opposed to growing this population locally, since the average life span of an enslaved person was approximately 15 years upon arrival in Brazil. There was greater preference for Adults rather than children, and the Portuguese could have focused on local reproduction since the male to female ratio was typically 2:1. Sugar fazendas (plantations) defined enslaved life during the 16th and 17th centuries, many were poorly fed, and as women in Bahia bound sugar cane into bundles in the field, there was a focus on importing Africans from the Kôngo-Angola region in the latter century. 

One of key contributions of Africans from this region was the development of quilombos (liberated communities), of which the most notable is Quilombo dos Palmares or the state of Palmares (“land of the palm trees”) established around 1608 in the northeastern state of Alagoas. Its well-known leader was Ganga Zumbi, and his death on November 20, 1695 marked the observance of Dia Nacional da Consciência Negra (National Day of Black Consciousness) in Brazil. Residents of Palmares referred to this quilombo as Angola Janga, and the term “quilombo” probably derived from the Kimbundu termkilombo, a male initiation camp and military society in Angola. The polity of Palmares had a structure that paralleled those found in West Central Africa and has been described as a gigantic agglomeration of mocambos (small maroon villages encamped in the forest) with central and local councils, and egalitarianism among women and men. The Dutch invasion of Pernambuco facilitated the escape of many to Palmares and other maroon settlements. Much of the history presented on Palmares, however, does not come from any African or descendant of this state. Hundreds of quilombos exist throughout Brazil. The principal quilombo communities include Calunga in the state of Goias; Rio das Rãs, Bananal, Barra in the state of Bahia; Turiaçu and Frechal in Maranhão, an area which was reported to have had four hundred quilombos; Oriximiná in the state of Pará; Ivaporanduva in São Paulo; and Mucumbo in Sergipe. 

Quilombos were common throughout the colonial era and maroon activity intensified in the 18th century as mining in the Brazilian hinterlands and African importations increased. The discovery of alluvial gold in significant quantities and the exploitation of gold and diamond deposits in the states of Minas Gerais in the 1690s, and in Goiás and Mato Grosso in the early 18th century, coincided with a calculated preference for Africans from the costa da mina region (i.e., the former Gold and Slave Coasts of West Africa). Gold in Minas Gerais was an important source of labor demand after 1695 and until the end of the gold boom in 1750, and although the large expansion of the slave trade was credited to gold discoveries in the area, far more enslaved Africans arrived after the gold boom subsided. 

As for diamonds, Diamantina or Tejuco became the center of the diamond-mining district in Minas Gerais upon the discovery of diamond in the second decade of the 18th century. Demographically, older adults died in greater quantity in the diamond district and young adults, not so surprisingly, were to the ones to escape in greater frequency and in groups to forge their own settlements and control as much of their lives as possible. Africans from most of the above noted African localities labored and lived in and around the mines in Minas Gerais and the coffee plantations elsewhere. In the 18th century, the primary Brazilian ports per volume were those in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Recife, and São Luis and, hence, a large Yorùbá (Nagô) and West African coastal presence, though many came from the African interior to the littoral, in addition to a Bantu-Kôngo one in places such as Salvador and Rio de Janeiro. 

The elevated role of Rio de Janeiro was evident by the mid-18th century and, in 1763, it replaced Salvador as the capital of Brazil. The 19th century witnessed the development of the coffee industry, which became Brazil’s most profitable export. Coffee in southeast Brazil created the largest single market for enslaved to Americas after 1820, and approximately eighty percent of the enslaved Africans to this region came from West Central Africa. Certainly, as these industries flourished, the increase demand for enslaved African labor remained high and the Africans’ indigenous knowledge of mining, metallurgy, cattle rearing, and agriculture suited a plantocracy that concentrated on the initial production of sugar, and later exploitation of diamond, gold, and coffee resources. 

With the increased number of skilled Africans imported to Brazil as laborers in those industries and the changing legal definitions of a “maroon colony,” the “slave hunters” (capitães do mato) who pursued them, and of slavery itself, why was Palmares not replicated in other eras after its demise at end of the 17th century? Though two large-scale quilombos
, Ambrósio and Quilombo Grande, lasted into the early second half of 18th century, the definition offered by the colonists and used in the pursuit of “maroon colonies” was that such a group was five or more “fugitive blacks” encamped on unused lands. This definition of maroonage encouraged smaller and more manageable bands, while discouraging larger, more troublesome formations that raided plantations, procure arms and provisions, and captured and persuaded other enslaved Africans to join them. In essence, the proliferation of small maroon settlements lessened the incentive for large, Palmares-like settlements as the former and manumitted Africans came to represent tolerated, non-threatening or oppositional forces to slavery in colonial and imperial Brazil.

Slavery and Imperial Brazil, 1822-1889

The lack of maroon communities large in size and scope in the latter 18th and 19th century was also due to the focus of plantation-based enslavement on a single crop, the great demographic disparity between whites and enslaved Africans, rare opportunities for manumission among the enslaved, and high rates of estate owner absenteeism that gave way to a socially and spatially diffused institution of slavery and one where slaveownership permeated the entire social order based on racialized hierarchies. Moreover, the 18th century witnessed voluminous importation of Africans and a consistent number of manumission, including those who accumulated capital and purchased their freedom through petty trade, and colonial authorities in the post-Palmares era refused to negotiate with maroon communities unlike the French, British, and Dutch colonists in their respective colonies. 

The continuity of the imperial Brazil meant destroying quilombos of significance and mocambos on the periphery of plantations; otherwise, the nation would have met its demise. Brazil, thus, had to maintain some relative balance between increased African importations and manumitted Africans in the interest of minimizing maroon settlements or significant revolts, though, both freed and enslaved Africans faced slavery as part of the same institutional arrangement where the only difference between freedom and enslavement was a new social identity from being legal chattel to manumitted chattel. As a result of this social ordering, some Africans with the means and ambition returned to Nigeria, Togo, Bénin (former Dahomey), and Ghana (former Gold Coast) beginning in the first half of the eighteenth century to the twentieth century in response to the aforementioned social context and other issues which characterized 19th century Brazil. 

During the 19th century, the focal points of enslaved labor were the coffee plantations of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and the Portuguese Court had been transferred to Rio de Janeiro in 1807 under protection of the British Royal Navy with the French or Napoleonic invasion of Portugal. In 1807, the British abolished the international “slave trade” and imposed a free trade commercial treaty on Brazil, lifting and replacing previous mercantile commercial regulations. In 1821, Dom João IV of Portugal was forced to return to Lisbon, but before his departure, he appointed his son Pedro as regent of Brazil. The next year, Pedro was proclaimed emperor of a Brazil politically independent of Portugal. 

In the shift from colony to “independent” nation, the continuity of the monarchy and bloodlines thereof prevailed. Slavery also prevailed as the institution of coerced labor and ownership of the enslaved became more diffused across a greater cross-section of imperial Brazil in the post-independence period. The idea of independence for some and enslavement for the cultural other is not surprising during imperial Brazil for the slave trade and slave-related activities accounted for much of Portugal’s Atlantic commerce and total income and thus Brazil received almost fifty percent the trade volume of Africans transported to the Americans between 1519 and 1867. 

By the 1840s, coffee had become the principal export commodity and two decades later coffee production extended beyond Rio de Janeiro to the interior province of São Paulo. Coffee production and the institution of slavery financed imperial Brazil and became a unifying factor that bound the elites together. The prominent of coffee engendered a flourishing internal slave trade wherein significant labor transferred from sugar plantations in the northeast to the coffee regions prompted subsidized mass European immigration by 1880 to meet increasing labor demands. In fact, thousands of Europeans, mostly Italians immigrants, came to labor in the coffee estates in the 1880s. Yet, the setting for the recruitment of white immigrant labor was due to African resistance and revolts, war, and the officially designed and sanctioned policy of branqueamento or whiting of the Brazilian population.

The expanding areas of São Paulo experienced numerous revolts and rebellions in the nineteenth century. However, the greatest number of revolts by enslaved Africans occurred on the plantations of northeast Brazil, particularly in Bahia, which had more than twenty between 1790 and 1841. Though resistance intensified in that period for those in Bahia, there was continuous African struggle against slavery as well as influence upon the institution, since we have ample examples of such efforts in the form of mocambos and large-scale revolts. One mocambo established on the fringe of a plantation in Ilhéus (now part of Bahia) in the late 18th century consisted of a group who killed their overseer, but later composed a letter to their former owner defining the conditions upon which they would return to captivity. They sought the power to determine their life and labor and to protect their culture. The group was eventually captured by trickery and its leaders, including a number of other participants, were re-sold in Maranhão, which had an established market for troublesome and enslaved Africans to work in the cotton fields of the Amazonian region. 

One of the better-known revolts was the Malês rebellion of 1835 in Bahia, and much has been written about course of its events. The years 1830-1880 were characterized by numerous military conflicts in South America, including the war of the Triple Alliance in 1865-1870 between Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay against Paraguay. In all these military conflicts, large numbers of African troops were deployed. In contrast, a small number of freed Africans in Brazil participated in the anti-slavery or abolitionist movement, since this movement was largely a white elite effort wherein government officials created anti-slave trade regulations and imposed related taxes to encourage planters to use European immigrant workers. 

Europeans were greatly encouraged to immigrate to Brazil to live and work on coffee plantations in the late 19th century. This critical period witnessed the abolition of slavery in 1888 through the Lei Áurea (“Golden Law”), the mass immigration of Europeans, the socio-political pressure on Africans to marry white so as to improve the race, the denial of voting to Africans through literary requirements in the 1891 constitution, and the destruction (by fire) of historical documents and archives related to the enslavement enterprise ordered by Rui Barbosa on May 13, 1891. A military coup supported by the coffee aristocracy toppled the Brazilian empire and in the wake of imperial Brazil, the society became one governed by armed forces and its leadership during the next half a century.

At the height of European imperialism in Africa and other parts of the non-Western world, in addition to the emergence of anthropological theories linked to colonialism, Brazilian elites sought to address the complexion of the country by instituting branqueamento or its national program of whitening in Brazil. Some, such as João Baptista de Lacerda who delivered a speech at the 1911 International Congress on Race entitled Sur le métis au Brésil: Le nègre passant au blanc, à la troisième génération, par l’éffet du croisement des races (“On the mongrel in Brazil: The Negro [African] passing to the white, the third generation, by the effect of crossing of the races”), believed this whiting process could be accomplish by the third generation. 

Presumably faced with a racial threat to their social order, the whites in Brazil united on the idea of racially transforming Brazil. For them, the creation of the mulatto, in the words of Sylvio Romero, was a “condition of victory for the white man.” This victory necessitated the disappearance of the African population, while severely circumscribed nature of life and living made is so that free blacks and "mulattos" were subject to laws that seldom distinguished between them and those enslaved. 

In the post-abolition period, former enslaved African descendants were disproportionately confined to low-paying jobs, poor housing facilities, unemployment, limited educational opportunities and, as a group, lacked political and economic power all behind a façade of racial equality. Many found themselves earning a living as housemaids, civil workers, and prostitutes during the first republic of Brazil (1889-1930). Their sufferings embedded in the carte de visite (“presentation” or picture cards) and picturesque wooden figurines of urbanized enslavement became extremely popular, especially among the local white elites, in the post-abolition era for they idealized the colonial and imperial past and evoked a nostalgia of an idyllic slavery. Those elites sought to profit not from the revenue generated by these memorabilia but rather the psychological comfort they provided by way of a fictional past that was never a reality for either the enslaved or the slaver.

© Kwasi Konadu, 2010, reproduction by permission @Diasporic Africa Press

Kwasi Konadu is associate professor of history at City University of New York, in the Center for Ethnic studies department. He specializes in African, Akan, and African diasporic history

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