African Lives of the Enslaved in Brazil 

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Image result for slavery in brazilAlthough Christopher Columbus claimed the Americas for Spain in 1492, in 1501 Pedro Cabral returned to Portugal with claims to Brazil. The Portuguese and Spanish looked at the New World as a place for mining and agricultural production (Gomez 62). Due to the vast amounts of opportunities that could prosper from the New World, the Portuguese imported African enslaved persons to Brazil. Unlike any other nation in the New World, Brazil had the most imports of enslaved African persons due to the rich land and potential for wealth, which helped foster the Brazilian culture.

Slavery had existed well before the discovery of the Americas. The Portuguese had been involved in slavery in the Eastern hemisphere. For years, they had been trying to find new routes to the Indian Ocean Commerce other than through the Red Sea and Arabian Peninsula. In 1475, the Portuguese managed to cross the equator and a decade later in 1487, the Portuguese succeeded in rounding the Cape of Good Hope. At this point, the Portuguese were exporting about seven hundred kilograms of West African gold within a peak of a year, which averaged nearly four hundred ten kilograms of West African Gold per year. However, between 1497 and 1498, Vasco da Gama’s voyage gave Portugal access to the Indian Ocean Commerce. By 1520, the Portuguese had become an Indian Ocean power (Gomez 61). Furthermore, in excelling in trade within the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese were also expanding its terrain and profits in the newly discovered Americas.

Pedro Álvares Cabral set sail in 1501 with the intentions of reaching India; however, due to strong currents, Cabral and his crew were pushed further west. Sighting birds, which signaled land, Cabral headed in the direction of the birds, and discovered the land now called Brazil, named for its wood (BBC). Cabral returned to Portugal with new claims to land in the Americas. Taking advantage of the opportunities the New World had to offer, the Portuguese quickly settled into Brazil.

In the beginning, the Portuguese made use of the indigenous people, making them work plantations. Yet, the indigenous people were unfamiliar to the European disease environment, so they lacked immunity. They were subjected to smallpox, measles, influenza, diphtheria, whooping cough, chicken pox, typhoid, trichinosis, and enslavement, all of which impacted the indigenous people’s population signaling its drastic decrease. Africans on the other hand, had been exposed to the Europeans disease environment for years and held more immunity than the indigenous people (Gomez 62). As a result, in the early 1500s, African persons became the new labor force in Brazil, enabling Brazil to become the largest nation of slave imports; nearly half of all Africans brought to the Americas, about half made their way to the shores of Brazil (Gates).

The use of slaves was not restricted to one region, nor was the type of labor required from the slaves subjected to a specific region. All over Brazil, African enslaved persons were used for their labor from farms to mines. In the early 1520s, Sugar was Brazil’s leading export. Sugarcane was planted mostly in the northeastern region of Pernambuco (Gomez 63). Although sugarcane plantations populated the majority of the African enslaved persons labor, enslaved people also worked on mines, on agricultural farming lands, with domestic farming, cleaning waste deposits, selling goods in the cities, transporting goods or materials across lands, and female enslaved persons worked as prostitutes, cooking and supplying food for work places, and in the homes. Enslaved people whom were forced to clean waste products became known as “Tigers” from the spots that appeared on their skin due to the leakage of acids from such filth (BBC). In the early 1700s, Brazil’s mining production took over its sugarcane plantations, which populated the Brazilian economy during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During the eighteenth century, gold and diamond deposits were discovered; thus, turning Brazil’s sugar concentration over toward the exporting of mining production (Gates).

Enslaved persons of Brazil were not all calm and passive, many of the enslaved persons displayed signs of resistance. In the early 1550s, the enslaved persons created the Capoeira, a dance-like form of self-defense. The enslaved took pride in their thought-up dance, entertaining settlers and some using their dance to escape enslavement. But the Capoeira was not the only form of resistance the enslaved people tried. In 1708, the Church of Sal San Francisco was constructed; the majority of the work force consisted of slaves and freed blacks. To rebel against such undesirable labor, these workers sculpted figures of pregnant angels on the ceilings and walls. Other forms of resistance were striking their masters and denying their services, setting crops on fire, breaking machinery in factories, and offering ultimatums (Gates). In 1806, a group of slaves refused to work unless said demands were carried through:

“If my Lord also wants our peace, he must agree to the following: Friday and Saturday to work for ourselves; give us casting nets and canoes; more flour; reduce the daily quota of sugarcane we must cut; more men to cut the wood; someone to tend the fire at the kettles; we should be able to play, relax, and sing anytime we want. Accepting all the above, we are ready to serve you as before” (BBC).

The enslaved people of Brazil were tired of such harsh treatment. They were treated as objects less than animals. The value they had varied, but were still little. Enslaved African males were the majority of imported slaves and were responsible for the majority of the labor force. Enslaved African females were few but were responsible for mostly household affairs and pleasing the settlers in town. The majority of the settlers that came to Brazil were European, young males trying to prove themselves worthy, ambitious gamblers, or criminals or other people not wanted close to the main lands of Portugal. As a result, fornication between the settlers and the slaves was common. Enslaved African children were not valued; enslaved adults cost more than children (BBC). Due to the treatment and lack of appreciation, these enslaved persons grew tired and felt a need to fight back.  However, unlike most nations, Brazil does not use race as a cultural divide.

Brazil is different from most other nations that were involved in the slave trade because Brazil did not have ethnic exclusiveness. Brazil lacked numbers. In other words, the majority of Brazil’s population was enslaved Africans and European male settlers. A desire to raise families diminished on all sides, but children that were born were not neglected. Enslaved females attempted to abort themselves in order to protect the livelihood of their unborn child (BBC). Slave masters did not want to bear children with enslaved African women, but when a child was born, the master took them in. Generally, the masters taught the children the Portuguese language and educated them, unlike the British. For the most part, the children remained slaves, but there were instances where a child would become the next heir. Families were not the only form of integration. In 1710, the city of Diamantina was built and people both black and white lived together, integrated, day to day (Gates). A change in atmosphere was beginning to take place. Enslaved people were using revolts as a means to claim freedom and masters were finding maintaining their slaves more and more difficult.

In 1822, Brazil declares independence from Portugal and the son of the Portuguese King crowns himself as Emperor I of Brazil. A few decades later, in 1850, the slave trade in Brazil ends; however, slavery continues for a few more decades until Princess Isabel signs the “Golden Law” in 1888 abolishing slavery in Brazil. Brazil becomes the last colony in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery. During that same year, the Bronqueamento is enacted. This policy was put in place to encourage the migration of Europeans to Brazil in order to whiten the population (Gates). During this time, Brazil was heavily populated by the former enslaved Africans and people of African descent. After the abolition of slavery, people of African descent felt the need to shed light upon the roles in which their ancestors played to help establish the Brazilian culture.

During the years of slavery in Brazil, the enslaved African people continued to practice their love of music, dance, and religion, which played a huge role in the cultivation of Brazil and after the abolition of slavery, those of African descent wanted to acknowledge such influences. In 1918, Afro-Brazilian historian Manuel Querino published an essay about the influence Africans had on Brazilian culture. About a decade later, in 1933, scholar Gilberto Freyre published The Masters and the Slaves. The book detailed the roles that African slaves had in the development of the culture of Brazil. Later, in 1975, the Institute for Research of Black Culture was founded with the hopes of exterminating racism in Brazil. In 1989, Lei Cao was passed, which was an act against racism. In 2001, the descendants of slaves living in Rio da Ras were allotted a title of ownership by the Brazilian government, assuring them that they will never be forced from their land. And in 2003, the State University of Rio de Janeiro becomes the first university in Brazil to ordain affirmative action (Gates).

Brazil has come a long way since its first days of slavery, dating back to the 1500s. The culture of Brazil is largely populated by the enslaved Africans traditions taken from their homelands and incorporated with various festivities throughout Brazil. In addition, Brazil continues to be heavily populated with people of African descent; being the world’s second most black populated country at one point. Since the end of slavery, Brazil’s government has also drastically transformed. From a monarchy, Brazil became a federal republic, to a dictatorship, to finally a democracy. In 2010, Dilma Rousseff becomes Brazil’s first female president (Timeline: Brazil). Although Brazil appears to be a country of magic and wonders, the taste of slavery is still very much remembered and seen through various regions of Brazil.





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