"The Shelter of the Uniform": The Brazilian Army and Runaway Slaves, 1800-1888

Article excerpt

Antonio de Moura's luck ran out at 3:00 pm on 28 November 1863. Three months earlier he had voluntarily enlisted in the Brazilian Army's Eighth Infantry Battalion, then stationed in Salvador, the capital of the province of Bahia. Shortly thereafter, a company captain withdrew Moura from regular duty to serve as his orderly. Unbeknownst to the officer, however, his new batman was a runaway slave. That fateful afternoon, while the two were returning from Fort Sao Pedro to the captain's house, they encountered Jose da Veiga Ornellas who, recognizing Moura, accused the captain of harboring his fugitive slave. The officer later reported: "Upon hearing this, [Moura] responded to the young fellow [Ornellas] that he was mistaken, that he was not and had never been his slave, that this was a plot just like the one he had perpetrated on his sisters when their mother died." Despite this implicit recognition of Ornellas and the accusation that Ornellas had once sought to enslave him, Moura steadfastly denied knowing the man.

To placate Ornellas, the captain explained the proper procedure for reclaiming fugitive slaves from the army. He then questioned his orderly privately about the allegations, going so far as to promise him help in securing his freedom, were he really a slave. Mourn insisted upon his free status and named two former employers who could attest to it. Satisfied with Moura's offer to supply references and convinced that Ornellas's claim had been an error, if not a deliberate falsehood, the captain sent Moura to do his chores. Shortly thereafter, the battalion's adjutant arrived with orders to take Moura back to the barracks because he was being claimed as a slave. Moura overheard this and made good his escape, scrambling over the back wall of the garden, with the officers in pursuit. He threw off his pursuers in the woods on the outskirts of the city; seven weeks later, the authorities captured him. Facing desertion charges and the prospect of a return to slavery, Moura broke out of the barracks lock-up and disappeared in April 1864.(1)

The paper trail on Private Antonio de Moura, allegedly the slave of Jose da Veiga Ornellas, ends here, leaving numerous unanswered questions. Was he really a slave? Or had Ornellas tried to enslave him? If he were a fugitive slave, why did he join the army? In Moura's case, there are no straightforward answers to these questions; at the very least, however, he did not lack company. In nineteenth-century Brazil, slaves routinely ran away to join the army as volunteers while others were impressed, to the dismay of their owners, who were then forced into often long and cumbersome legal and administrative proceedings to reclaim their property. The documents left by 277 of these cases, originating primarily in the northeastern sugar-growing province of Bahia, raise important questions about the nature of military institutions - in this case, the army - in slave societies. Furthermore, the 276 men who moved between the status of slave and soldier (one of them joined the army twice) exemplify a liminal world between slavery and freedom, where the fortunate might escape bondage while the unlucky slid back into it. Analyzing the strategies of slaves in this gray area and, in particular, their artful use of the contradictions in the Brazilian state apparatus is one of the purposes of this article.

The second concern of this paper is the army's policy toward slavery. Here I take issue with a broad scholarly consensus that views the nineteenth-century Brazilian army as a "progressive" institution with strong abolitionist sympathies. Whether attributed to the increasingly middle-class origins of the officer corps or to a fundamental contradiction between a "professionalizing" army and the slave society that surrounded it, army-officer abolitionism is presented as an important contribution to Brazil's ending of slavery in 1888.(2) While it is true that some officers actively campaigned against slavery in the 1880s, in its dealings with runaway slaves the army exhibited far more complex and even contradictory attitudes. …