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Slavery And Its Impact On Brazilian Society
By James Denison

For almost four hundred years the brutal and inhumane institution of slavery was utilized in Brazil. Millions of Africans were torn from their homelands, shackled, whipped, tortured, raped, starved and treated worse than animals. Countless African men, women and children died en route to Brazil. Many died from disease from the appalling conditions on Portuguese ships (including sleeping in their own feces and urine), and still others were thrown overboard, to die at sea, when ships needed lightening. As unimaginable as the hardship and suffering was for these unwilling immigrants under the institution of slavery, the nightmare did not end for millions of Afro-Brazilians with the abolition of slavery in the late 19th century. Still treated as non-persons under the law, Afro-Brazilians have suffered from economic injustices that continue to this day. This essay will trace the causes and consequences of the Portuguese slave trade in Brazil.

Murder, Torture, Terror and Racism:  The Origins of Portuguese Brazil

In the year 1500 Portuguese explorer Pedro Aevores Cabral arrived in Brazil. Soon after, the first Portuguese settlers, who were driven by avarice to extract gold and farm cash crops, set-up a racist society based on brutal exploitation of labor and barbaric land appropriation. The first victims of the Portuguese arrival were the native Amerindian people who had been living in Brazil for thousands of years. Originally, the Amerindians were supposed to become “Christianized,” not slaves. But, as so often happens in this world, rapacious greed proved more powerful than spiritual enlightenment, and slavery came to be the order of the day. Unfortunately for the Portuguese, these people proved poor slaves and resisted the forced labor. Many of the Amerindians fled into the deep interior of Brazil to escape the atrocities of the Portuguese. Many others died fighting the Portuguese, who slaughtered the natives with their superior weaponry. But, the overwhelming majority of Amerindians died from diseases that the Portuguese brought from Europe.

Faced with a labor problem, the Portuguese began to import African slaves from the Guinea coast and Angola. It is now estimated that over 4 millions African slaves were brought to Brazil, with equal that number dying at sea in an area that came to be known as the “Middle Passage.”

“ Slave vessels transported men and women under conditions so appalling that the ships were called tumbeiros (hearses). Slavers considered it so desirable to pack their ships that up to half of the slaves died before landing, although the decision seems to have made little economic sense.”
(Levine, 1999, pg. 47)                                                    

The descendants of slaves now refer to the “Middle Passage” as the largest graveyard in the history of the world. For the Africans who did survive the nightmare at sea another nightmare was set to begin for them on land, under Portuguese whips and gun barrels in the mines and sugar plantations of Brazil. It was in and around these mines and plantations that what is commonly misunderstood as the “racial democracy” of Brazil began to be developed. The races began to mix by way of Portuguese men raping or inflicting coerced sex upon Amerindian and African women. Not only were these women subject to sexual brutality, their living conditions of semi-starvation and physical stress were so horrific, that many of these raped women died while giving birth to their rapists’ children. This was especially the case in southern Brazil.

Though the Portuguese came to the New World to compete with the Spanish in finding precious metals such as gold and silver, they were soon disappointed. No gold or silver of any significance was to be found until 1690 in Minas Gerais. Because Brazil had such fertile land, the Portuguese decided to grow cash crops such as sugar, cacao, beans and cotton. From the 1550’s to the 1690’s a plantation economy developed. The sugar plantations were to be the most successful of the cash crop enterprises. Brazil quickly became the world’s leader in the sugar trade. As prices in sugar began to fall because of production in the Caribbean and other parts of the world, Brazil’s colonial economy began to slow. This lasted until the discovery of precious minerals in the area that came to be known as: Minas Gerais (The General Mines).

“[W]ith the indigenous population driven into the wilderness and the captives listless and disease ridden, sugar profits in the Northeast had declined substantially, the victim of competition from the Caribbean. Only the discovery of riches in the mountains of Minas Gerais in 1690 and thereafter jolted Brazil’s colonial lethargy. Precious minerals extracted from the central Mantiquera range by slave labor during the seventeenth century amounted to a million kilograms of gold and 2.4 million carats in diamonds, with untold more riches smuggled away in contraband.”
(Levine, 1999, pgs. 19-20)

For Brazil, the gold and diamond boom resulted in a flood of immigration from Portugal and Europe. It also resulted in a huge surge in unwilling immigration, by way of the slave trade from Africa. By 1760, the gold boom declined very quickly and the slave trade fell to approximately 20,000 a year. The next and final cash crop boom was to be that of coffee, which lasted through and beyond the year of slavery’s abolition in Brazil in 1888.

Resistance And Rebellion

Though African slaves suffered greatly for hundreds of years in Brazil on the plantations and in the mines, there was also a great and long tradition of resistance and rebellion to their slave masters. Resistance took many forms: from sabotage to work slowdowns and stoppages to physical resistance and uprisings to violence and sometimes even murder of their slave masters and their families. Some even took the very personal and extreme form of resistance of suicide or infanticide, to prevent a loved one born into the next generation from the horrors of slavery. Perhaps the most common form of resistance was that of flight. Many slaves escaped from the plantations and the mines by fleeing inland or other uninhabited parts of the country. In fact, there was such a great amount of flights to freedom that a whole new profession of slave hunters sprung up around the country.

What was to prove to be a greater threat to the slave-owning elites in Brazil were the many forms of organized resistance that slaves and fugitive slaves began to set up all over the country.

 “In Brazil, the most dramatic examples of collective action were a number of slave revolts that took place in Bahia in the early nineteenth century, but actions like the Male rebellion of 1835 were truly extraordinary events. By far, the most common form of slave resistance in colonial Brazil was flight, and a characteristic problem of the Brazilian slave regime was the continual and widespread existence of fugitive communities called variously ‘mocambos’, ‘ladeiras’, ‘magotes’, or ‘quilombos’.”
(Schwartz, 1992, pg 103)

Many of the fugitive slave communities were seen to be egalitarian communities of people who simply wanted to enjoy their freedom and rekindle their African spirituality and to practice their rituals and customs. Other quilombos or mocambos were seen as a threat to public order and the ruling slave-owning elites. Some of these groups of fugitives went about the country robbing and killing slave-owners. Some translated the fight against injustice into the obvious racial dimension, as did the Urubu Quilombo, whose call to arms for their1826 uprising was “Death to Whites! Long Live Blacks!”. Perhaps the most significant uprising against the slave-owners was an African-Muslim rebellion on the streets of Salvador, the capital of the province of Bahia on January 24, 1835.

“For more than three hours they confronted soldiers and armed civilians. The rebellion’s organizers were identified as ‘Males’, as Muslim Africans were called in nineteenth-century Bahia.
Even though it was short-lived, this was the most effective urban slave rebellion ever to occur on the American continent. Hundreds of Africans took part. Nearly seventy were killed. And more than five hundred, according to a conservative estimate, were sentenced to death, prison, whipping or deportation……..[T]he rebellion had nationwide repercussions. In Rio de Janeiro the news most likely reached the public newspapers that published the report by Salvador’s chief of police. Fearing that the Bahian example might be followed, the authorities in Rio began to watch blacks carefully. The Bahian rebels rekindled debate on slavery and slave trade in Brazilian government.”
(Reis, 1993, pg xiii)

Ongoing Legacy Of Racial Inequality

With the advent of slavery’s abolition in Brazil in 1888, the plight of millions of former slaves and their descendants has, in many ways, never been addressed. When slaves were finally set free they were left to wander landless, homeless, illiterate and directionless. Many, to this day, are still uneducated squatters living in cardboard and tin shacks made from garbage and refuse. This is especially the case in northeastern Brazil. Many have followed the various industrial and urban booms to the big cities of Rio and Sao Paolo to inhabit the infamous sprawling favelas, which are plagued with acute poverty and riddled with crime. Because freed slaves were treated as “non-persons” by society and the government for decades after abolition, they were never given a chance for a decent existence. Though there has been some legal progress in recent years, lack of education, healthcare and job training for blacks in Brazil has kept them at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, as they were when enslaved. The result has been that Brazil is one of the most unequal societies in the world and the descendants of slaves are some of the poorest people on the planet. Many of them (millions) are still landless and homeless, wandering into a future illiterate and hungry, unable to write their own names and wondering if life is worth little more than the garbage of which their temporary domiciles are constructed.


Robert M. Levine, The History of Brazil (Palgrave MacMillan, 1999)
Stuart B. Schwartz, Slaves, Peasants and Rebels (University of Illinois Press, 1992)
Joao Jose Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil  (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993)
The Economist, Brazil’s Unfinished Battle For Racial Democracy, (April 20, 2000)



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