Slavery In Brazil

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Slavery In Brazil

Brazil had the largest slave population in the world, substantially larger than the United States. The Portuguese who settled Brazil needed labor to work the large estates and mines in their new Brazilian colony. They turned to slavery which became central to the colonial economy. It was particularly important in the mining and sugar cane sectors. Slavery was also the mainstay in the Caribbean islands with economies centered on sugar. Estimates suggest that about 35 percent of captured Africans involved in the Atlantic slave trade were transported to Brazil. Estimates suggest that more than 3 million Africans reached Brazil, although precise numbers do not exist. Brazil had begun to turn to slavery in the 15th century as explorers began moving along the coast of Africa. With the discovery of the Americas, the Portuguese attempted to enslave the Native American population as well. This did not prove successful. The Native Americans died in large numbers, both because of slave trading, mistreatment, and the lack of resistance to European diseases. The Portuguese found captured Africans to be a valuable trading commodity as Europeans began to settle the Caribbean islands. They also began transporting Africans to their Brazilian colony. Portuguese Prime Minister Marquês de Pombal abolished slavery in Portugal (February 12, 1761). This action, however, did not address slavery in the colonies. Slaver ownership within Portugal’s colonies was still widely practiced. Brazilians of all classes owned slaves. Slaves were not only owned by upper and middle class Brazilians, but also by lower class Brazilians. There were even slaves who owned other slaves. Slavery had a huge impact on Brazil. It affected both the economy and the ethnic make-up of the Brazilian population. The importation of such a large number of Africans into a colony with such a small number of Portuguese, profoundly affected the ethnic balance. Such high levels of African imports also meant that unlike North America, African culture was not largely wiped out and thus had a significant impact on Brazilian culture (food, music, dance and religious practices). This is especially the case in Rio and the northwest where many of the slaves were concentrated.

Escaped slaves in the United States did not establish run-away or Maroon communities to the same degree as they did in Brazil; Florida being the one exception in the US. Escaped slaves in America often attempted to cross the Ohio River and reach the northern free states or Canada. In the Caribbean and South America maroon communities played important roles in places like Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Suriname. They were also important in Brazil where they were called 'quilombos'. Groups like the Muslim Sudanese were viewed as some of the most civilized and became the leaders of rebellious groups. Run-away groups varied substantially in organization and sophistication.

The Great Bahian Slave Rebellion (1835)

The most important slave rebellion in Brazil occurred in the northeast--Bahia (1835). Quilombos (autonomous communities of runaway slaves) existed deep in the interior where it was difficult and expensive for colonial authorities to suppress. There were also occasional riots and uprisings in urban areas of Bahia. A variety of factors, including ethnicity and religion were motivating factors for the slaves. The Yoruba were at the center of the rebellion. There were both Muslim and non-Muslim (Yoruba) and related ethnicities. One source suggests that the city of Bahia in the 19th century was surging with slave resistance. The rebellion is often referred to as the Malês Revolt. This refers to the ancient Mali Kingdom. It is from this area that most of the Yoruba came. In Yoruba 'imale' was a term for Yoruban Muslims, which originally meant a Malian in general. The rebels were primarily Malês. It was not a jihad or Islamic uprising although the ring leaders were inspired by Muslim teachings. Both Malês and non-Malês participated. A group of African slaves and freedmen in Bahia during Ramadan launched a rebellion against the Government (January 1835). Many wore charms containing texts from the Koran and necklaces with the image of the Haitian leader President Dessalines. Haiti served as a major motivation as they had recently freed themselves through armed slave rebellion in 1801. The rebels failed in achieving their major objective of securing needed arms. Extensive fighting took place in the streets before the rebels were suppressed. The rebellion did however change the history of slavery in Brazil. It substantially increased fears of African rebellion. As a result freed slaves were deported to Africa and those remaining in Brazil were subjected to a more ruthless slave system. [Reis] 

Ending the Slave Trade

Brazil did, however, begin to cooperate with the British in ending the African slave trade. Brazil signed a treaty with Britain to abolish its slave trade in 3 years (1826). Before the treaty came into effect, Brazil committed to following the terms of the treaty. Brazil decided to move forcefully against those engaged in the slave trade by assessing fines and inflicting corporal punishment on those found in violation. They also declared that slave trading vessels arriving in Brazil would be confiscated (1831). Brazil ordered ships to be searched on their arrival to Rio to enforce the 1831 Decree (1832). [Despite all these measures slavery was still permitted within the country and was thoroughly intact.] It would take several decades before Brazil would finally ban the practice of slavery within the country. In fact, Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. It was also the country with the largest slave population. Because of these factors, developments in Brazil regarding slavery were vital if slavery was to remain abolished throughout the rest of Latin America. The country finally closed its slave depots south of Rio de Janeiro (1851). Next the emperor issued a decree emancipating slaves after 14 years’ of service (1854). Even still these changes allowed for the existence of slavery in some form. The Portuguese had already taken measures against slavery but had not outright forbid it. Efforts to abolish slavery were met with fierce opposition from landowners and the military, whose leadership was drawn from the landed elite. Finally in 1888 the decree was made to abolish slavery within Brazil. This essentially did away with the last bastion of slavery in the Americas. Although forced labor continued for some time in the western hemisphere, Brazil’s abolition of slavery marked an ending of its legal existence in the Americas.


Graham, Maria. Journal of a Voyage to Brazil, and Residence there, during part of the Years 1821, 1822, 1823 (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown).

Reis, Joao Jose. Arthur Brakel (trans). Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia. This was one of the Johns Hopkins Studies in Atlantic History and Culture.

Taunay, Carlos Augusto. Manual do agricultor brasileiro (São Paulo : Companhia das Letras, 2001). 

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