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This Day in Labor History: May 13, 1888

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Above: Slaves at a coffee yard in a farm. Vale do Paraiba, Sao Paulo, 1882

On May 13, 1888, Brazil abolished slavery. The last nation in the Western Hemisphere to do so, it brought to an end the fundamental labor force of American colonization.

Slavery was central to nearly the entirety of European conquest of the Americas. In the U.S., this has been historically downplayed because of too much attention paid to Puritan New England as the origins of the United States, but New England wasn’t just the exception for the British colonies, it was the exception throughout the Americas. Europeans wanted people of color to work for them and they did everything they could to create forms of forced labor. Indigenous labor could sometimes work, but Indian slavery proved difficult because of the large number of deaths from disease epidemics. So the Europeans turned to Africa. This wasn’t too hard for them. They were already taking small numbers of slaves to Europe in the 15th century. The Portuguese were heavily involved in this trade. And so when they colonized what is today Brazil, African labor soon followed, particularly in the sugar plantations that made up much of the Portuguese New World wealth.

In the early 19th century, at least 1/3 of the Brazilian population of were slaves; some estimates say it was as high as 56 percent in 1825. By that time, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment-fueled American revolutions that had established Brazil as an independent nation in 1822, there was a move to at least ban the African slave trade. The nation passed a somewhat opaquely worded act that some interpreted to end the trade in 1825, but the global boom in coffee led the nation to largely ignore it. It wasn’t until the British Navy began enforcing the end of the slave trade in the 1850s that large-scale importation of Africans to Brazil ended, but of course slave runners continued to try and continue the trade. Between 1808 and 1888, a million Africans were imported to Brazil. Overall, through the whole history of the slave trade, about 4.5 million Africans were sent to Brazil, as opposed to about 450,000 to what became the United States. These plantations were death traps but with sugar fueling such great wealth, planters just didn’t care about their workers dying. They could easily afford to buy new ones.

Brazil had relatively few slave revolts through most of its history, but that finally changed in the 19th century, with several revolts led by recently enslaved Africans in the northeastern sugar region of Bahia, an area known for extreme cruelty on the plantations. In 1835, the Malê Uprising (sometimes called the Muslim Uprising) took place in Salvador, led by the Malês, a group of west African Muslims, where upwards of 600 slaves rose up and killed around 7 Brazilian soldiers before being put down with extreme violence, leading to at 80 dead.

The slave revolts and the fact that chattel slavery was out of fashion in the late 19th century led to growing pressure to free slaves, even as Confederate diehards moved with their slaves to Brazil at the close of the Civil War. But an extreme drought in the 1870s in the northeast led a lot of masters to sell their slaves to southern owners. The growth of slavery in the populous and increasingly industrialized southern regions led to a lot of outrage. By 1872, Brazil had 10 million people and 15 percent of those were slaves. All of this pressure had led to widespread manumissions over the previous decades, but 1.5 million slaves had a different story. Abolitionist groups began developing to end the institution entirely. In 1873, the Brazilian Anti-Slavery Society was founded, headed by Joaquin Nabuco, son of the founder of Brazil’s Liberal Party and one of the richest people in the nation. Slaves also had fought in large numbers in the Brazilian military during the Paraguyan War and having done very well as soldiers, many leading officers now believed there was no way these people should return to chattel slavery. People started manumitting their slaves in large numbers. One single issue of an 1884 newspaper listed the following:

Dona Anna S. José, 16 slaves liberated, and a farm given to them for their own use.

Dona Maria de Caula, 16 slaves liberated, with the condition they serve five years on works of charity in the local Casa de Caridade (Charity House).

Condessa do Rio Novo, 200 slaves liberated by her will and the Cantagallo Plantation given them for a home.

José Eunes Baganha, Portuguese, died in Lisbon and left $100,000 for the liberation of his old slaves.

Barão de Simão Dias,163 slaves liberated, who remain on his plantation as workers.

Barão de Santo Antônio, 168 slaves liberated by his will and two plantations given to them for their own use.

Brazil began adopting gradual emancipation laws in the 1870s. In 1871, the Rio Branco Law freed the children of slaves, setting the institution on a path to closure. Then in 1885, the Saraiva-Cotegipe Law freed all slaves when they reached the age of 60. Full emancipation finally came in 1888 with the Leí Áurea, or Golden Law, signed by Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil in lieu of Emperor Dom Pedro II, who was in Europe at the time. Isabel was opposed to slavery personally. The law was very clear that all slaves were immediately freed, without any payment from the state. But the law also did nothing for the freed slaves. They were free, but many saw very little change in their lives because they didn’t have any resources or capital to build a different life. Slaves in Brazil were not allowed to have private assets or get an education. Now they were free without any assets or education.

Overall of course, this was a very positive law. The fact that Brazil still had chattel slavery in 1888 was obscene. But a big part of the reason for emancipation is that slaves weren’t needed. Because Brazil was receiving the same waves of immigration from southern and eastern Europe as nations such as the United States and Argentina, it had plenty of workers laboring at very low wages, often costing employers less than slaves since they didn’t have to be fed, clothed, or housed. The end of slavery also had a secondary but pretty huge impact on Brazilian history–it was the single most important factor for the overthrow of the emperor the next year, as the outraged rural plantation elite rose up and demanded the establishment of the republic.

In the aftermath of emancipation, Brazil would work very hard to construct an ideology of a nation defined by its racial democracy. This is as much a myth as any other national identity, particularly because, while the nation doesn’t have the strict one-drop racial categories of the United States, it also–shocking!–is dominated by light-skinned people while dark-skinned people, often the descendants of those slaves, are impoverished and subject to all sorts of violence, including from the descendants of slave masters in rural Brazil. However, many Brazilians are very sensitive to anyone questioning this mythology. Interestingly, the 2010 Brazilian census saw a majority of people identifying as black or mixed-race for the first time.

This is the 269th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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