Latin American Civilization: History and Society, 1492 to the Present

By Benjamin Keen | Go to book overview

13
MASTERS AND SLAVES

RACE MIXTURE played a decisive role in the formation of the Brazilian people. The scarcity of white women in the colony, the freedom of the Portuguese from puritanical attitudes, and the despotic power of the great planters over their Indian and Black slave women all gave impetus to miscegenation. Color lines were drawn, but less sharply than in the Spanish Indies, and in colonial Brazil the possession of wealth more easily expunged the "taint" of Black skin.

Slavery played as important a role in the social organization of colonial Brazil as did race mixture in its ethnic make-up. The social consequences of the system were entirely negative. Slavery corrupted both master and slave, fostered harmful attitudes with respect to the dignity of labor, and retarded the economic development of Brazil. The virtual monopolization of labor by slaves sharply limited the number of socially acceptable occupations in which whites or free mixed bloods could engage. This gave rise to a large class of vagrants, beggars, "poor whites," and other degraded or disorderly elements who would not or could not compete with slaves in agriculture and industry.

The nucleus of Brazilian social as well as economic organization was the large estate; this centered about the Big House and constituted a patriarchal community that included the owner and his family, his chaplain and overseers, his slaves, and his agregados, or retainers -- freemen of low social status who received the landowner's protection and assistance in return for a variety of services. In the sugar-growing northeast the great planters became a distinct aristocratic class, possessed of family traditions and pride in their name and blood.

By contrast with the decisive importance of the fazenda, or large estate, most of the colonial towns were mere appendages of the countryside, dominated politically and socially by the rural magnates. But in a few large cities, such as Baía and Rio de Janeiro, other social groups that disputed or shared power with the great landowners existed: high officials of the colonial administration; dignitaries of the Church; wealthy professional men, especially

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