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Colonialism and Slavery in Brazil

June 19, 2013 - Ben Klein
Mass protests have swept across Brazil, Latin America's largest country, over the past week from Rio de Janeiro, to Sao Paulo and the capital Brasilia. Demonstrations are expected across the country "in more than 70 smaller cities" on Thursday, according to Reuters.

If you're looking to understand the B in BRIC, you'll have to go back to the beginning. So I've posted an essay I wrote on Colonialism and Slavery in Brazil, which I wrote in 2007 shortly after returning from a month long trip to the country. I believe I received a B on the paper and any statistics or population figures have not been adjusted.

"At the lower end of the economic strata, racism, endemic poverty, social health and education are still major issues for Brazilian society...If these trends are going to be curbed, it will take the cooperation of both the government and the people to implement social, health, and economic policies to relieve the scars of colonialism."

Colonialism and Slavery in Brazil

Before Brazil's population exploded to 185 million, and before it became the worlds 12th largest economy, it was a colonial possession of Portugal. When Pedro Alvores Cabral discovered the territory by "accident" in 1500, the main interest was to establish trading posts for Brazil wood, which was considered the only worthwhile commodity at the time. Only thirty years after discovery, the Portuguese began the use of African slavery in 1530 and lasted until the 1850's. Over three hundred years of slavery would see some five million Africans ripped from their homeland and brought to the Portuguese colony to work slave labor. As a direct result of this use of slave labor Brazil contains the largest number of Africans outside of Africa, with 47% of the population being African. The use of Africans for no wage labor in the country would have drastic impacts for both the African continent and the Brazilian state.

Trading posts, known as "Feitorias" were the beginnings of an extensive colonial system run from Portugal that would see the mass importation of African's to work as slaves on plantations for emerging commodities such as sugar cane, coffee, and rubber.

The colonial hierarchy was a rigid system consisting of the Portuguese Crown in Lisbon at the top. Directly below it was the overseas council, which had the duty of policy planning. Beneath the council were the established captaincies which were ruled by "Denotarios", wealthy merchants and nobles who had come to the new Portuguese territory. Then the Catholic Church, which answered to the Portuguese Monarchs in Brazil, was set in place to create a close church-state alliance. Regional judgeships known were then implemented and city councils known as "Municipios" were then created below this, which in turn established huge tracts of land known as "Fazendas".

It should be noted that at the time of Brazil's discovery in April of 1500 that there were an estimated 500,000 to 2 million Native Indians in the territory. Brazilian history all too often over looks this fact as most ignore the Indian population all together and begin Brazilian history in 1500 the year of discovery. Large numbers of natives died as a result of European disease, and today natives account for 0.2 % of the population.

The Brazilian social order in 1530 contained captains/governors at the top, these were wealthy, white nobles who were born in Portugal. Below them were "Brancos" or whites who made up the general population. The "Crioulos" were a subset of the "Brancos", they were white as well, but were considered second class citizens because they were born in the Americas. Next on the social ladder where the "Mesticos", they were a biracial combination of both white and native ancestry. Considered lower on the social ladder were "Zambos" or the biracial combination of African and Native ancestry. The natives with the biracial combination of European and African ancestry made up the "Mulato" social class. At the very bottom of the social system were the free blacks, and finally the black slaves.

While the social system was rigidly defined, there were those who did exist outside of it. Runaway slaves could find a life in maroons or "Quilombos". Such maroons as Palmores in the state of Algoas existed for over 100 years outside of the Portuguese authority. But for those who could not escape the system of slavery and the social hierarchy put in place to contain it, life was hard work and abysmal conditions as slaves were considered less than second class citizens, they were merely a means to an end to benefit the Portuguese crown in Lisbon.

Before the Portuguese turned to African slavery in Brazil, the Indian population was targeted. The Jesuit missionaries would become the defender of the Indians even though they required them to work on Portuguese land. Forced to convert to Catholicism and hardly paid at all, the Indian population was exploited. This would change when Father Jose de Anchieto de Sao Paulo defended the Indians from enslavement. His ability to convince the Portuguese to no longer enslave the Indian population by 1530 would have a drastic impact in Africa. From then on, African slavery was introduced as an acceptable alternative for labor.

The Treaty of Madrid in 1750 resulted in the Spanish formally recognizing Brazil as a colony. This enabled the early colonial economy dependent on exporting Brazil wood to include cash crops such as sugar, cotton, tobacco and coffee. In addition the exportation of key minerals such as diamonds, gold, and silver would all bring in English, French, American and Dutch merchants.

In exchange these merchants brought with them items not yet available in Brazil, such as olives, wine, flower, cod fish, butter, cheese and salt. The more luxurious items were brought as well including, furniture, clothing and books. What would remain the most imperative import for the Portuguese were slaves from Africa, which they readily traded for with English, French, American and Dutch merchants.

While trade began to boom in the colony, most of the wealth never stayed in the colony or in Lisbon, rather it ended up in London or Amsterdam. With the money saved from enforcing slave labor in the colony, the Portuguese were able to pay of loans provided by England. The use of slave labor in the colony was essential to the success of the Portuguese colonial economy. The transatlantic slave trade was also a systemic expansion of the Portuguese power and empire. While the Portuguese were efficient in running and maintaining a colony, they could not curtail the inevitable upheaval of colony against the crown back in Lisbon.

The transatlantic slave trade was essential to the colonial economy, without the entire colony would have been derelict. The transatlantic slave route consisted of four distinct phases. The first phase was the interior enslavement of Africans. There was multiple ways that Africans could be condemned to slavery.

These include being found guilty of adultery or stealing within the interior African Kingdoms. If the condemned was a man, he was able to substitute multiple members of his family in his place. Also, when African Kingdoms were at war, prisoners could be sold into slavery as well. And of course, there was the possibility of being captured by "backlanders" who traveled the interior regions looking to trade goods for slaves. These "backlanders" would travel for months at a time, stopping at fortresses and Kingdoms to trade glass beads, rum, guns and gun powder, in exchange for slaves.

Once the transaction was complete the slaves were bound together with iron shackles and chains. Next they were all branded with the backlanders hot iron marker to identify them if they tried to escape. Then the men and children were separated, and forced to march onto the next stop.

In this process the captured Africans were forced to carry sacks of rations on their backs. These rations consisted of flour and unsalted food. Coupled with the little water provided, malnourishment claimed the lives of many.

Upon arriving on the Afican coast, anytime between 1530 and 1852, the second phase would begin. Here the slaves were again traded for goods and branded according to king and nation. They were then placed in warehouse like buildings above ground with little or no exposure to sunlight. Here were the slaves were treated like cattle. About one half died before departure to Brazil.

The next phase, the Transatlantic voyage was far worse than the over land voyage. The conditions for the 200-300 men, women, and children crammed into the bottom of the ship were unbearable. Little or no exposure to sunlight meant bad air quality down below. Little or no food for days at a time and rampant disease left many dead before the voyage ended.

Upon arrival in Brazil, the final phase began. Here, where those who hadn't died were sick or dying. Regardless, they were removed, separated from their families and sold at auction. After being sold, the slave received a third branding by their private master on their left breast or arm. The life of a slave from would now consist of the harshest conditions. Sixteen hour workdays, very little food, separation from family and home, whippings and beatings were all part of their daily life.

As a result of being considered a commodity the treatment of slaves was inhumane and resulted in very low birth rates and very high infant mortality rates among slaves. Many diseases due to lack of medical treatment and a poor diet contributed toward a sexual imbalance in favor of men. A high abortion rate was prevalent was women preferred abortion to the slave system for their children. Suicide was rampant among the slave society; this was especially true on the transatlantic ships. Physical brutality such as whippings contributed to the overall inhumane treatment of slaves in the colony as well. As a result, the slave population declined at a rate of five percent a year.

African slaves in the colony who were able to survive brought with them their African heritage and would have a lasting impact on the society of the country to this day. The African cultural background that could not be stripped from them included African social structures, such as the relationship between man and women, and adults and children. Plants and animals, diseases and microorganisms survived and had a lasting impact as well.

The unpaid labor entailed was both skilled and unskilled. African slaves were forced to work as skilled ironworkers and carpenters with the natural resources of the colony. Soldiering would become important in neighboring wars with Paraguay and Argentina. Domestic servants, concubines, cattle ranching, ship builders, extracting mineral wealth, and working cash crop fields were all jobs done by slaves.

The current day characteristics of the Afro-Brazilian heritage are a direct result of the colonies mass importation of African slaves. To this day a society influenced by African culture is highly prevalent. African diet and cuisine are still staples in Brazil. Afro-Brazilian religious orders such as Candomble and Terreiro de Umbanda continue to thrive in the Northeastern region of the country. Brazilian folklore continues with Bumba Meu Bo, a carnavalesque dance for African deities. Language was affected with more than 10,000 words spoken in Brazil due to African dialects.

African's in Brazil have had a major social impact reaching to the current day. At the lower end of the economic strata, racism, endemic poverty, social health and education are still major issues for Brazilian society. Africa has suffered the same fate as well where many of the same socio-political problems continue to plague the country. If these trends are going to be curbed, it will take the cooperation of both the government and the people to implement social, health, and economic policies to relieve the scars of colonialism.


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