The Long Struggle for Liberation: Reflections on the Abolition of Slavery in Brazil

By Camargo, Oswaldo de | UNESCO Courier, June 1988 | Go to article overview

The Long Struggle for Liberation: Reflections on the Abolition of Slavery in Brazil


Camargo, Oswaldo de, UNESCO Courier


THE LONG STRUGGLE FOR LIBERATION

THE abolition of slavery in Brazil, which was enshrined in the Lei Aurea ("Golden Law") of 13 May 1888, was the outcome of a long struggle punctuated by defeats as well as victories. The decree that became law on that Sunday in May was couched in simple, unembroidered language: "Article 1: With effect from the date of the present law, slavery is declared to be abolished in Brazil. Article 2: All provisions to the contrary are hereby repealed. (Signed) Isabel, Imperial Princess Regent."

In spite of the brevity and terseness of its language, this document, which had actually been drafted six days before, on 7 May 1888, revealed the extent to which the struggle against slavery in Brazil had intensified.

It was the culmination of a long story in which African slaves--black Brazilians--were treated as chattels. Their fate was decided as if they were pawns in a game of chance.

The black slaves who, according to "official" records, were present in Brazil from as early as 1550, became a key element in the country's development. "Without the Blacks, Brazil would not exist," claimed the Portuguese historian Oliveira Martins. There would have been no sugar or coffee or tobacco, and stock-raising and mining would not have been developed. None of the wealth that fuelled Brazilian prosperity in the late nineteenth century would have been generated. It is easy to grasp the importance of the interests that opposed the emancipation of the slaves.

It can be argued that the Brazilian economy would have collapsed without the black slaves. Hence, before the long process of liberation could begin, the circumstances that had prompted the European countries to impose slavery in the Americas had to change.

After abolishing the slave trade, Britain began to exert pressure on other nations to follow suit so that the products of her colonies would continue to be competitive. Brazil came under this pressure after achieving independence in 1822, and probably as a result of it Emperor Pedro I signed a convention in November 1826 (ratified the following year) whereby "any trade in slaves conducted in the three years subsequent to this date shall be deemed to constitute piracy".

The Emperor had spoken, but how much weight did his wishes have compared with those of the powerful interests involved in the Brazilian slave trade? This was only the beginning of a long and gradual process during which many decrees were promulgated, some of them tinged with bitter irony, such as the law in respect of "sixty-year-olds", which freed Blacks who had reached sixty years of age.

After the slave trade had been officially abolished in 1850 under the law sponsored by Euzebio de Queiros and as a result of the vigorous steps taken by the authorities, no more "ships laden with ebony" would ever again set sail from Africa for Brazil. And, some thirty-eight years later, Princess Isabel would sign the celebrated Aurea law.

What is a slave but an empty shell, utterly devoid of speech? "Servus non habet personam"--slaves have no personality; they have no bodies, no past, no names, no property. For white people, slaves, as bodies without the attributes of personality, were by definition the incarnation of a social void.

Indeed, the most harrowing and dramatic consequence of slavery in Brazil was the slaves' loss of their identity. And it is that identity which black Brazilians have been seeking since the beginning of the century through paths that have been fraught with difficulty.

White Brazilians were among the first to praise the abolition of slavery. One of them was Luis Murat, whose "Redemption Hymn" was set to music by Abdom Milanez: How fortunate you are, my native land. Your explorers see you emerge as beautiful as the dawn. Tell the slaves that masters no longer exist and that now they are free the world over.

However, this is not the tone adopted by most black Brazilians when they think about 13 May.

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