History of Slavery in Brazil

Slavery in Brazil began long before the first Portuguese settlement was established in 1532.[1] Colonists were heavily dependent on indigenous labor during these initial phases to maintain the subsistence economy, and natives were primarily captured by Portuguese Jesuit expeditions called bandeiras. The importation of African slaves began midway through the 16th century, but the enslavement of indigenous peoples continued well into the 17th and 18th centuries.

Slave labor was the driving force behind the growth of the sugar economy in Brazil, and sugar was the primary export of the colony from 1600–1650. Gold and diamond deposits were discovered in Brazil in 1690, which sparked an increase in the importation of African slaves to power this newly profitable market. Transportation systems were developed for the mining infrastructure, and population boomed from immigrants seeking to take part in gold and diamond mining.

Demand for African slaves did not wane after the decline of the mining industry in the second half of the 18th century. Cattle ranching and foodstuff production proliferated after the population growth, both of which relied heavily on slave labor. 1.7 million slaves were imported to Brazil from Africa from 1700–1800, and the rise of coffee in the 1830s further enticed expansion of the slave trade.

Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery. By the time it was abolished, in 1888, an estimated four million slaves had been imported from Africa to Brazil, 40% of the total number of slaves brought to the Americas.



The Portuguese became involved with the African slave trade first during the Reconquista ("reconquest") of the Iberian Peninsula mainly through the mediation of the Alfaqueque who was the person who had the task of dealing with the rescue of Portuguese captives, slaves and prisoners of war[2][3] and then later in 1441, long before the discovery or colonization of Brazil but now as slave traders. Slaves exported from Africa during this initial period of the Portuguese slave trade primarily came from Mauritania, and later the Upper Guinea coast. Scholars estimate that as many as 156,000 slaves were exported from 1441–1521 to Iberia and the Atlantic islands from the African coast. The trade made the shift from Europe to the Americas as a primary destination for slaves around 1518. Prior to this time, slaves were required to pass through Portugal to be taxed before making their way to the Americas.[4]

Slavery begins in Brazil

The Portuguese first discovered Brazil in 1500 under the expedition of Pedro Alvares Cabral, though the first Portuguese settlement was not established until 1532.[5] Slavery began long before the first Portuguese settlement was established. Tribes such as the Papanases, the Guaianases, or the Cadiueus enslaved captured members of other tribes [1][6]

The colonization effort proved to be a difficult undertaking on such a vast continent, and indigenous slave labor was quickly turned to for agricultural workforce needs. Aggressive mission networks of the Portuguese Jesuits were the driving force behind this recruitment, and they successfully mobilized an indigenous labor force to live in colonial villages to work the land. These indigenous enslaving expeditions were known as bandeiras.[7]

These expeditions were composed of Bandeirantes, adventurers who penetrated steadily westward in their search for Indian slaves. These adventurers came from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, including plantation owners, traders, members of the military, as well as people of mixed ancestry and previously captured Indian slaves.[7] In 1629, Antônio Raposo Tavares led a bandeira, composed of 2,000 allied índios, "Indians", 900 mamelucos, "mestizos" and 69 whites, to find precious metals and stones and to capture Indians for slavery. This expedition alone was responsible for the enslavement of over 60,000 indigenous people.[8][9][10][11][12]

African slavery became more common in Brazil during the mid 16th century, though the enslavement of indigenous people continued into the 17th and even the 18th century in the backlands of Brazil. Indigenous slaves remained much cheaper during this time than their African counterparts, though they did suffer horrendous death rates from European diseases.[7]

Slavery was not only endured by native Indians or blacks. As the distinction between prisoners of war and slaves was blurred, the enslavement, although at a lesser scale, of captured Europeans also took place. The Duch were reported to have sold Portuguese, captured in Brazil, as slaves,[13] and of using African slaves in Dutch Brazil[14] The Indians also enslaved Europeans,[15] many times with the final intent of practicing canibalism.There are also reports of Brazilians enslaved by barbary pirates while crossing the ocean.[16]

In the subsequent centuries, many freed slaves and descendent of slaves became slave owners.[17] Eduardo França Paiva estimates that about one third of slave owners were either freed slaves or descendent of slaves.[18]

Confrarias and Compadrio

The Confrarias, religious brotherhoods,[19][20] that included slaves, Indians and Africans, and non slaves were frequently a doorway to freedom, as was the "compadrio",co-godparenthood a part of the kinship network.[21]

17th Century

Brazil was the world’s leading sugar exporter during the 17th century. From 1600–1650, sugar accounted for 95 percent of Brazil’s exports, and slave labor was relied heavily upon to provide the workforce to maintain these export earnings. It is estimated that 560,000 Central African slaves arrived in Brazil during the 17th century in addition to the indigenous slave labor that was provided by the bandeiras.[4]

The appearance of slavery in Brazil dramatically changed with the discovery of gold and diamond deposits in the mountains of Minas Gerais in the 1690s[5] Slaves started being imported from Central Africa and the Mina coast to mining camps in enormous numbers.[4] Over the next century the population boomed from immigration and Rio de Janiero exploded as a global export center. Urban slavery in new city centers like Rio and Salvador also heightened demand for slaves. Transportation systems for moving wealth were developed, and cattle ranching and foodstuff production expanded after the decline of the mining industries in the second half of the 18th century. Between 1700 and 1800, 1.7 million slaves were brought to Brazil from Africa[5] to make this sweeping growth possible.

19th century and the rise of Abolitionism

By 1819 the population of Brazil was 3.6 million, and at least one third were African slaves. By 1825 the figure may have been as high as 56%.[22] In 1826 the first article of a convention drawn in Rio de Janeiro stated it should not be “lawful for the subjects of the Emperor of Brazil to be concerned in the carrying on of the African slave trade, under any pretext or in any manner whatever, and the carrying on of such after that period, by any person, subject of His Imperial Majesty, shall [should] be deemed and treated as piracy.”[23] The announcement of this treaty caused great excitement in Brazil, for many believed it meant immediate suspension of the slave trade. However, when coffee production exploded in the 1830s in Rio de Janeiro as the crop that would fuel the export economy for the next 140 years, this new demand on the trade was not quelled by the treaty.[7] The British forcibly halted the trade with Africa by the 1850s, and the country then became dependent on an internal slave labor force as well as Spanish and Italian immigrant workers.[5] Nonetheless, despite laws banning their importation, between 1808 and 1888 more than a million new slaves were forcibly shipped to Brazil.[22]

The slaves who would ended up being freed and returned to Africa, the Agudás, kept on being seen as slaves by the African autochthonous population. As they had left Africa as slaves, when they returned although now as free people, they were not accepted in the local society who saw them as slaves.[24] In Africa they also took part in the slave trade now as slave merchants.[25]


There were relatively few large revolts in Brazilian slavery for much of the 16th through 18th centuries, most likely because running away into the expansive interior presented an attractive alternative to the dangers of revolt.[5] However, in the years after the Haitian Revolution, Brazil increased its importation of Africans to gear up for the enormous increases in sugar prices after the fall of the French in Haiti. These new slaves were extensively concentrated in the northeastern region of Bahia, an area known for its many sugar plantations. Simultaneous to this influx was a surge of slave revolts in Bahia, which occurred twelve times during this time period from 1807 to 1835 with violence never seen before by slave revolts in the area.[26]

The Muslim Uprising of 1835
Main article: Malê Revolt

The largest and most significant of these uprisings occurred in 1835 in Salvador, called the Muslim Uprising of 1835. It was planned by an African-born Muslim ethnic group of slaves, the Malês, as a revolt that would free all of the slaves in Bahia. While organized by the Malês, all of the African ethnic groups were represented in the participants, both Muslim and non-Muslim.[5] However, there is a conspicuous absence of Brazilian-born slaves who participated in the rebellion. An estimated 300 rebels were arrested, of which nearly 250 were African slaves and freedmen.[27] Brazilian-born slaves and ex-slaves represented 40% of the population of Bahia, but a total of two mulattos and three Brazilian-born blacks were arrested during the revolt.[26] What's more, the uprising was efficiently quelled by mulatto troops by the following day of its instigation.

The fact that Africans were not joined in the 1835 revolt by mulattos was far from unusual, in fact, no Brazilian blacks had participated in the 20 previous revolts in Bahia during that time period. Masters played a large role in creating tense relations between Africans and Afro-Brazilians, for they generally favored mulattos and native Brazilian slaves, who consequently experienced better manumission rates. Masters were aware of the importance of tension between groups to maintain the repressive status quo, as stated by Luis dos Santos Vilhema, circa 1798, "...if African slaves are treacherous, and mulattos are even more so; and if not for the rivalry between the former and the latter, all the political power and social order would crumble before a servile revolt..." The master class was able to put mulatto troops to use controlling slaves with little backlash, thus, the freed black and mulatto population was considered as much an enemy to slaves as the white population.[26]

Not only was a unified rebellion effort against the oppressive regime of slavery prevented in Bahia by the tensions between Africans and Brazilian-born African descendants, but ethnic tensions between the African-born slave population itself even prevented formation of a common slave identity.[26]

Quilombo (runaway slaves)
Main article: Quilombo

Escaped slaves formed Maroon[28] communities which played an important role in the histories of other countries such as Suriname, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica. In Brazil the Maroon villages were called quilombos and the most famous was Quilombo dos Palmares.

Steps towards freedom

Brazil achieved independence from Portugal in 1822. However, the complete collapse of colonial government took place from 1821–1824.[29] José Bonifácio de Andrade e Silva is credited as the "Father of Brazilian Independence". Around 1822, Representação to the Constituent Assembly was published arguing for an end to the slave trade and for the gradual emancipation of existing slaves.[30]

Brazil's 1877-78 Grande Seca (Great Drought) in the cotton-growing northeast, led to major turmoil, starvation, poverty and internal migration. As wealthy plantation holders rushed to sell their slaves in the south, popular resistance and resentment grew, inspiring numerous emancipation societies. They succeeded in banning slavery altogether in the province of Ceará by 1884.[31]


Jean-Baptiste Debret, a French painter who was active in Brazil in the first decades of the 19th Century, started out with painting portraits of members of the Brazilian Imperial Family, but soon became concerned with the slavery of both blacks and the indigenous inhabitants. During the fifteen years Debret spent in Brazil, he not only concentrated on court rituals but the everyday life of slaves as well. His paintings on the subject (one of which appears on this page) helped draw attention to the subject in both Europe and Brazil itself.

The Clapham Sect, although their religious and political influence was more active in Spanish Latin America, were a group of evangelical reformers that campaigned during much of the 19th century for the United Kingdom to use its influence and power to stop the traffic of slaves to Brazil. Besides moral qualms, the low cost of slave-produced Brazilian sugar meant that British colonies in the West Indies were unable to match the market prices of Brazilian sugar, and each Briton was consuming 16 pounds (7 kg) of sugar a year by the 19th century. This combination led to intensive pressure from the British government for Brazil to end this practice, which it did by steps over three decades.[32]

The end of slavery

In 1872, the population of Brazil was 10 million, and 15% were slaves. As a result of widespread manumission (easier in Brazil than in North America), by this time approximately three quarters of blacks and mulattos in Brazil were free.[22] Slavery was not legally ended nationwide until 1888 by the Lei Áurea ("Golden Law"), a legal act promulgated on May 13 by Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil. In fact, it was an institution in decline by this time (since the 1880s the country began to attract European immigrant labor instead). Brazil was the last nation in the Western world to abolish slavery, and by abolition had imported an estimated total of four million slaves from Africa. This was 40% of all slaves shipped to the Americas.[5]

Slave identities

In colonial Brazil, identity became a complex combination of race, skin color, and socioeconomic status because of the extensive diversity of the both the slave and free population. For example, in 1872 43% of the population was free mulattos and blacks. The fact that slavery was not synonymous with a particular skin color, as was the case in the United States at the same time, had important implications towards this complexity. There are four broad categories that show the general divisions among the identities of the slave and ex-slave populations: African-born slaves, African-born ex-slaves, Brazilian-born slaves, and Brazilian-born ex-slaves.

African-born slaves

A slave’s identity was not only stripped when sold into the slave trade, but they were assigned a new identity that was to be immediately adopted in stride. This new identity often came in the form of a new name, created by a Christian or Portuguese first name randomly issued by the baptizing priest, and followed by the label of an African nation. In Brazil, these ‘labels’ were predominantly Angola, Congo, Yoruba, Rebolo, Anjico, Gabon, and Mozambique.[33] Often these names were not assigned with regards to ethnicity or origin, but only served as a way for Europeans to divide Africans in a familiar manner. Anthropologist Jack Goody stated, "Such new names served to cut the individuals off from their kinfolk, their society, from humanity itself and at the same time emphasized their servile status".[33]

A critical part of the initiation of any sort of collective identity for African-born slaves began with relationships formed on slave ships crossing the middle passage. Shipmates called each other malungos, and this relationship was considered as important and valuable as the relationship with their wives and children. Malungos were often ethnically related as well, for slaves shipped on the same boat were usually from similar geographical regions of Africa.[33]

African-born ex-slaves

One of the most important markers of the freedom of a slave was the adoption of a last name upon being freed. These names would often be the family names of their ex-owners, either in part or in full. Since many slaves had the same or similar Christian name assigned from their baptism, it was common for a slave to be called both their Portuguese or Christian name as well as the name of their master. "Maria, for example, became known as Sr. Santana's Maria". Thus, it was mostly a matter of convenience when a slave was freed for him or her to adopt the surname of their ex-owner for assimilation into the community as a free person.[33]

Obtaining freedom was not a guarantee of escape from poverty or from many aspects of slave life. Frequently legal freedom did not come with a change in occupation for the ex-slave. However, there was increased opportunity for both sexes to become involved in wage earning. Women ex-slaves largely dominated market places selling food and goods in urban areas like Salvador, while a significant percent of African-born men freed from slavery became employed as skilled artisans, including work as sculptors, carpenters, and jewelers.[33]

Another area of income important to African-born ex-slaves was their own work as slavers upon being granted their freedom. In fact, purchase of slaves was a standard practice for ex-slaves who could afford it. This is evidence of the lack of a common identity among those born in Africa and shipped to Brazil, for it was much more common for ex-slaves to engage in the slave trade themselves than to take up any cause related to abolition or resistance to slavery.[33]

Brazilian-born slaves and ex-slaves

A Brazilian-born slave was born into slavery, meaning their identity was based on very different factors than those of the African-born who had once known legal freedom. Skin color was a significant factor in determining the status of African descendants born in Brazil: lighter-skinned slaves had both higher chances of manumission as well as better social mobility if they were granted freedom, making it important in the identity of both Brazilian-born slaves and ex-slaves.[33]

The term crioulo was primarily used in the early 19th century, and meant Brazilian-born and black. Mulatto was used to refer to lighter-skinned Brazilian-born Africans, who often were children of both African and European descent. As compared to their African-born counterparts, manumission for long-term good behavior or obedience upon the owner’s death was much more likely. Thus, unpaid manumission was a much more likely path to freedom for Brazilian-born slaves than for Africans, as well as manumission in general.[34] Mulattos also had a higher incidence of manumission, most likely because of the likelihood that they were the children of a slave and an owner.[33]

Race relations

These color divides reinforced racial barriers between African and Brazilian slaves, and often created animosity between them. These differences were heightened after freedom was granted, for lighter skin correlated with social mobility and the greater chance an ex-slave could distance his or herself from their former slave life. Thus, mulattos and lighter-skinned ex-slaves had larger opportunity to improve their socioeconomic status within the confines of the colonial Brazilian social structure. As a consequence, self-segregation was common, as mulattos preferred to separate their identity as much as possible from blacks. One way this is visible is from data on church marriages during the 19th century. Church marriage was an expensive affair, and one only the more successful ex-slaves were able to afford, and these marriages were also almost always endogamous. The fact that skin color largely dictated possible partners in marriage promoted racial distinctions as well. Interracial marriage was a rarity, and was almost always a case of a union between a white man and a mulatto woman.[33]

Gender divides

The invisibility of women in Brazilian slavery as well as in slavery in general has only been recently recognized as an important void in history. Historian Mary Helen Washington wrote, "the life of the male slave has come to be representative even though the female experience in slavery was sometimes radically different."[35] In Brazil, the sectors of slavery and wage-labor for ex-slaves were indeed distinct by gender.



Labor performed by both slave and freed women was largely divided into the domestic sphere within the house of an owner or ex-owner and the market scene, which was much larger in urban cities like Salvador and Rio de Janiero. The domestic work women performed for owners was traditional, consisting of cooking, cleaning, laundry, fetching water, and childcare. In the 1870s, 87-90% of slave women in Rio worked as domestic servants, and an estimated 34,000 slave and free women labored as domestics. Thus, Brazilian women in urban centers often blurred the lines that separated the work and lives of the slave and the free.[36]

In urban settings, African slave markets provided an additional source of income for both slave and ex-slave women, who typically monopolized sales. This trend of the marketplace being predominantly the realm of women has its origins in African customs. Wilhelm Muller, a German minister, observed in his travels to the Gold Coast, "Apart from the peasants who bring palm-wine and sugarcane to the market everyday, there are no men who stand in public markets to trade, only women."[37] The women sold tropical fruits and vegetables, cooked African dishes, candies, cakes, meat, and fish.[33]

Prostitution was almost exclusively a trade performed by slave women, many of whom were forced into it to benefit their owners socially and financially. Slave women were also used by freed men as concubines or common-law wives and often worked for them in addition as household labor, wet nurses, cooks, and peddlers.[38]

Enslaved women on plantations were often given the same work as men. Slaveholders often put slave women to work alongside men in the grueling atmosphere of the fields, but were aware of ways to exploit them with regards to their gender as well. Choosing between the two was regularly a matter of expediency for the owners.[39] In both small and large estates women were heavily involved in fieldwork, and the chance to be exempted in favor of domestic work was a privilege. Their roles in reproduction were still emphasized by owners, but often childbirth only meant that the physical demands of the field were forced to coexist with the emotional and physical pull of parenthood.[37]


The dual-sphere nature of women’s work, in household domestic labor and in the market place, allowed for both additional opportunities at financial resources as well as a larger social circle than their male counterparts. This gave women greater resources both as slaves and as ex-slaves, though their mobility was hindered by gender constraints. However, women often fared better in manumission possibilities. Among Brazilian-born adult ex-slaves in Salvador in the 18th century, 60% were women.[33]

There are many reasons that could explain why women were disproportionately represented in manumitted Brazilian slaves. Women who worked in the home were able to form more intimate relationships with the owner and the family, increasing their chances of unpaid manumission for reasons of "good behavior" or "obedience"[33] Additionally, male slaves were economically seen as more useful especially by landowners, making their manumission more costly to the owner and therefore for the slave himself.



The work of male slaves was a much more formal affair, especially in urban settings as compared to the experience of slave women. Often, male work groups were divided by ethnicity to work as porters and transporters in gangs, transporting furniture and agricultural products by water or from ships to the marketplace. It was also the role of slave men to bring new slaves from ships to auction. Men also were used as fishermen, canoeists, oarsmen, sailors, and artisans. Up to one-fourth of slaves from 1811–1888 were employed as artisans, and many were men who worked as carpenters, painters, sculptors, and jewelers.[33]

Males also did certain kinds of domestic work in cities like Rio and Salvador, including starching, ironing, fetching water, and dumping waste.[36] On plantations outside of urban areas however, men were primarily involved in fieldwork with women. Their roles on larger estates also included working in boiling houses and tending cattle.[37]

Modern era and quasi-slavery

In 1995, 288 farmworkers were freed from what was officially described as slavery, a total which rose to 583 in 2000. In 2001, however, the Brazilian government freed more than 1,400 slave laborers. Some believe that most cases probably go undetected. A national survey conducted in 2000 by the Pastoral Land Commission, a Roman Catholic church group, estimated that there were more than 25,000 forced workers and slaves in Brazil.[40] In 2004 the Brazilian government acknowledged to the United Nations that 25,000-40,000 Brazilians work under work conditions "analogous to slavery." The top anti-slavery official in Brasília, nation's capital, estimates the number of modern slaves at 50,000.[41]

More than 1,000 slave-like laborers were freed from a sugar cane plantation in 2007 by the Brazilian Government.[42] In 2008, the Brazilian government freed 4,634 slaves in 133 separate criminal cases at 255 different locations. Freed slaves received a total compensation of £2.4 million (equal to $4.8 million).[43]

In March 2012, European consumer protection organizations published a study about slavery and cruelty to animals involved when producing leather shoes. A Danish organisation was contracted to visit farms, slaughterhouses and tanneries in Brasil and India. The conditions of humans found were catastrophic, as well the treatment of the animals was found cruel. None of the 16 companies surveyed was able to track the used products down to the end producers. Timberland did not participate, but was found the winner as it showed at least some signs of transparency on its website.[44]

See also


Further reading

  • Klein, Herbert S. Klein and Francisco Vidal Luna, Slavery in Brazil (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

External links

  • Brazilian slavery
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