Brazil's African Legacy

By Geipel, John | History Today, August 1997 | Go to article overview

Brazil's African Legacy


Geipel, John, History Today


It was the seventeenth-century Jesuit preacher and missionary. Frei Antonio Vieira, who said that Brazil had `the body of America and the soul of Africa' and this description continues, to some extent, to hold true. In Vieira's day, Africans and their offspring -- black and mulatto, slave and free -- far outnumbered Europeans in Portugal's South American colony.

Three centuries on, although the African element in the population is much diluted, Brazil's economic, demographic, genetic and cultural debt to Africa remains inestimable. From the colony's very infancy in the early sixteenth century, the contribution of Africa to the population and development of Brazil has been prodigious and pervasive and few aspects of Brazilian society and civilisation have remained untouched by its influence.

Over the four centuries of Portuguese involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, an estimated 10 to 15 million Africans were transported to the European colonies in the Americas. Of these, over 3.5 million were taken to Brazil, many arriving after the growth of the coffee industry in the mid-nineteenth century. Even after the Atlantic slave trade to Brazil was declared illegal in 1850, contraband `Black Gold' continued to be smuggled across the ocean.

The first Africans were herded ashore in north-east Brazil in the year 1538. The decision to exploit imported and unpaid black labour had been prompted partly in response to a Papal Bull of 1537, which forbade the enslavement of the indigenous `Indians' (though this was soon to be totally disregarded), and partly because the African's more robust constitution, greater immunity to the white man's diseases and conditioning to hard, physical work n a tropical environment made him more suitable than the native as potential slave material. Besides, the Portuguese were long familiar with the African in the role of chattel.

The slave trade and the consequent miscegenation between Portuguese and black Africans had begun in Europe over half a century before Cabral's discovery of Brazil in 1500. Indeed, the mingling of the two peoples had begun centuries earlier -- with the Carthaginians, the Romans and the Moors, all of whom brought large contingents of slaves, servants and mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa to the Iberian peninsula. Systematic exploitation of an unpaid African labour force by the Portuguese, however, began in earnest in the mid-fifteenth century, when slaves from Guinea were transported to the Alentejo and the Algarve and to the sugar mills of Madeira. This traffic reached such a scale that, by the turn of the sixteenth century, one in ten of the inhabitants of such towns as Evora was of African descent, while Lisbon, was one of several cities with an African quarter.

The bulk importation of African slaves to Brazil thus perpetuated a tradition already deeply rooted in Portugal. The blood of Africa ran in the veins of many Portuguese colonial dynasties. As Gilberto Freyre (the sociologist who, writing in the 1930s and 40s, did so much to reconstruct the relationship between master and slave in colonial Brazil) suggests, the affection displayed by many Brazilian planters to their black chattels may be attributed to an ingrained respect for `Gente de Cor' (People of Colour) dating back to the time of the Moors.

Compared with the Visigoths who had preceded them as overlords of Iberia, the Moors -- themselves of hybrid Afro-Asiatic stock -- were racially colourblind and did not discriminate against other monotheists (`People of the Book', meaning Christians and Jews) on the basis of ethnic origin or pigmentation. Moreover, as a consequence of five centuries of Arab occupation of their former homeland, the Portuguese in Brazil were long familiar with the Islamic religion practised by many of their African slaves.

From the 1580s, the importation of Africans to Brazil increased dramatically. After the initial expansion of the sugar industry, blacks soon constituted over two-thirds of the population of the north-east. …

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