Note from BW of Brazil: With this recent release of the highly anticipated Kasi Lemmons-directed film Harriet, based on the life Harriet Tubman, yet, as what often happens when black movies hit the theaters, another controversy has arisen as many African-Americans have cried foul and vowed to not spend their money watching the film. But even with a parcel of the black community being up in arms over the film, apparently, the debate and rejection didn’t affect the film’s debut at the box office. According to sources, Harriet raked in more than $12 million after its first weekend.
Criticisms as well as disputes over facts in the film include little depiction of the violence black slaves endured at the hands of their masters, the stipulations for which Harriet was supposed to be freed and the fact that the film’s great villain was actually a black man rather than a white slave owner. I’ve grown quite accustomed to this type of Hollywood trickery when dealing with black characters in films.
Whether due to a lack of black figures in films where they should be, the use of makeup and aesthetics so that a white or light-skinned actor can portray a black/darker-skinned character, having a black character being the first to die in a film or portraying a black figure as a bad guy when, historically, such a figure would have probably been white, filmmakers also seem to find a way disappoint viewers when black movies manage to make it to theaters. The latter is one of the strongest criticisms of Harriet. The choosing of the black actor, Omar Dorsey, to portray the slave catcher Bigger Long is one of the biggest objections people have of the film.
Not only does the film divert away from the historically accurate violent behavior of white-skinned slave owners against their slaves, but with the killing of the character portrayed by singer Janelle Monae, it also depicts the most brutal character of the film as a black man. Although many African-Americans have questioned whether such a character actually existed in the story of Harriet Tubman, historian Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, confirms that, while black slave hunters did in fact exist, particularly in northern and border states, they were few and far between.
As such, one must ask, what is the message the film attempts to divulge in portraying a black man in such a manner when it is was much more likely that a white man should have played this role? I could go on with these questions and the agendas that Hollywood always seems to have, but I wanted to discuss the existence of the Bigger Long character in the context of Brazil’s history of slavery.
Although Manisha Sinha is quick to point out that black slave hunters were relatively rare in the United States during the era of slavery, apparently, this wasn’t the case in Brazil, where these slave hunters, known as capitães do mato, were a common position among negro and mulato freedmen. Nowadays, in the organizing of black identity politics, the singular term capitão do mato is applied to black Brazilians who are seen as sell-outs to the black cause and are constantly defined as willing pawns of supremacia branca (white supremacy).
In past posts, I have frequently discussed not only the capitão do mato, but also the vast communities organized by the fugitive slaves known as quilombos. Let’s take a look at the role of the Brazilian “Bigger Longs” in the country’s history.
Who was the capitão do mato and what was his role during slavery period in Brazil?
The role of capitães-do-mato was assigned to the poor and free men who lived to capture escaped slaves. The job was spread throughout Portuguese America, especially from the seventeenth century, in view of the growth of quilombos throughout the territory. The main function of this specialized militia was the hunting and recapture of runaway slaves and the destruction of the Quilombos. After returning them to their masters, the master in return rewarded the delivery with money. The function, therefore, was part of the structure of slave society.
The capitães do mato were mostly free and poor men. The function existed even before the seventeenth century and consisted of some temporary activities and without a certain periodicity. In general, it was mainly exercised by the overseer on the plantations in order to repress and punish this kind of joint agglomeration.
They were feared by the fugitives, but socially lacked much prestige. Normally they were freed slaves, which made them superior to slaves and the free poor, but still in the latter category as a public servant. Because they were of slave origin the captives were very angry with them, and from day one, the capitães belonged to the same social position as them.
It is only from the mid-seventeenth century – with the power of the Quilombo dos Palmares and its reputation of spreading throughout Portuguese America – that the figure of the capitão do mato becomes indispensable for the support of the slave regime. From that moment on, the position gains definite rules with the main objective of preventing escape. The position, therefore, does not exist without slavery and its occurrence has been increasingly linked to the experience of compulsory labor and resistance in quilombos. Initially they suppressed some crimes in the countryside, but after the seventeenth century the practice was spread throughout the colony as a specialized militia.
Usually they did not work alone, they formed groups that varied according to the number of fugitive slaves, they still worked together with the colony’s military forces. Their job was to prevent the slaves from escaping and to capture those who could escape, frightening the captives so that they would not have the courage to flee.
Free men, of color or not, volunteered to play the role of capitão do mato in exchange for prizes or for their sustenance. Most were free and poor men, including whites but also pretos and pardos (blacks and browns), many of them former slaves. The activity was not regular, but spread throughout all areas of the slave economy. In the US, corresponding activity was carried out by slave patrols, or patrollers, formed by whites.
The post was one of the lowest in the state apparatus and consequently the least prestigious. Some freedmen participated in this institutionalized repression and were strategic because they knew the region and the escape tactics. There is a common sense that attributes the exercise of the task to the freedmen, but it can be said that the function was performed mainly by poor and free men, and not being the unique characteristic of these men. There was, therefore, an ethnic diversity in the post, which was not restricted to freed blacks alone. Certainly, freed men generated more distrust of the authorities.
There were situations where they suspected that the capitães kidnapped the slaves who had not fled and after the masters labeled them as fugitives, the capitães returned them in exchange for a reward, thus circumventing the rule of trust between masters and capitães. The police forces were the main ones to suspect them. In some of these cases there were denunciations, which caused trust between the masters and capitães to be shaken, as some of them acted in bad faith. Sometimes capitães would kill captives in order not to be discovered, and this ended up causing great damage to slave owners.
One of the main ways of exercising the function was through the state and its bureaucratic apparatus. For nomination it was necessary for the candidate to send a letter of recommendation, ensuring his reliability. Thus the “good men” recommended to the authorities were those who could exercise such a position. In addition, rules and limits of the authority of their functions regulated the activities of capitães-do-mato. For such functions these men received weapons, money, men and other resources, especially in times of great combat, such as the persecution of Quilombo dos Palmares.
But the capitães performed in a short period of time: a year or so. This is because there was a lot of suspicion of poor and free men, armed and in the service of the slave-driving order. The concern, therefore, was constant. These men were closely watched by regional authorities and throughout society.
In this way the masters lived in a state of tension all the time: they depended on the actions of the capitães-do-mato to ensure the continuity of the slave regime, but at the same time they were afraid of their proximity to these men and also that they might contribute to the quilombolas.
The role of the capitão-do-mato guaranteed not only the survival of poor men but also a certain prestige and social distinction. Thus, the position brought these men closer to the masters than to the enslaved and thus guaranteed power and a community experience.
These figures were so important for the maintenance of the slave system that even Santo Antônio de Pádua, one of the most revered saints in both the Crown and the colony, is granted the rank of Capitão-do-Mato.
According to a master captain of the colony, an official of the Portuguese Crown, the capitão do mato was necessary “to the internal security of the Peoples and to the dominion of the Masters over the slaves and evildoers, otherwise all [the slaves] would flee”. His actions would also serve so that the slaves would not rise “against the country itself […] due to this Corps [of capitães-do-mato] the security and internal tranquility of the entire country of America, and of its subsistence.”
Their importance to history
Because his role was essential at the time, the capitão do mato was of great importance in society, for it was because of him that slaves remained in the colonies. He ensured stability in the colony by intimidating the captives. They were taken as a means of ensuring that the Masters remained in power and the slaves did not attempt to flee or rebel against their masters.
Without the capitão do mato, history would probably have taken a different course, since the escapes of the slaves would be much greater in number and frequency, which would probably mean that slavery had no continuity at that time.
It can be observed that one of the most striking features of this era was violence, as this was the most used by the capitão to achieve his goals.
With info from Revista de História and Estudo Kids