Slavery: In a period of 350 years, 4.8 million Africans were enslaved in Brazil, ten times more than in the US; history full of torture, revolts and violence


Note from BW of Brazil: As descendants of Africans enslaved in the United States, we African-Americans grow up learning about the horrors inflicted upon us. Over the course of 12 years of schooling and then 4 or more for those of us who go to college, we learn very little about this period in our history. As little as we are taught about this history in United States, imagine this history in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 96% of enslaved Africans ended up going. What we do learn about what happened to our ancestors is what we usually learn on our own, through books, documentaries or activists in the community. 

When I began investigating the situation in Brazil back in the year 2000, I began to wonder, why is it that we don’t know about this? How is it that Brazil was on the receiving end of about 10-12 times more enslaved Africans than the United States and no one told me this? Well, the truth is that, there’s a lot of information behind the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, who was really behind it, who got rich from it and how this business in turn financed other businesses. Some of this information has been distorted and covered up with mythologies being created along the way. 

I know that most people would rather just dismiss this period in history as a thing of the past that has little importance to today’s world, but the truth is that the situation is far more complicated that people know or like to admit. Here it is around a century and half (and even less in Brazil) later and the effects of this dehumanizing institution can still seen in most black communities throughout the African Diaspora. Another thing that needs to be discussed is how those who most benefitted from this practice have conveniently allowed us to believe that it was another group who were mostly responsible for it. This clearly influences social relations today as we continue to deal with the aftermath of the master/slave relationship and the vast inequalities between those who have very little and other groups that have almost everything.

It is a conversation that needs to had beyond the mythology and lies we’ve all been taught. 

A libertação dos escravos no Ceará

Slavery in Brazil

Slavery in Brazil was responsible for the enslavement of millions of Indians and Africans and existed for over 300 years.

By Daniel Neves

Slavery in Brazil began around the 1530s, when the Portuguese laid the groundwork for the colonization of Portuguese America, to meet, more specifically, the Portuguese demand for labor to work in the fields. This process took place, first, with the enslavement of the indigenous people, and, throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, they were being replaced by the enslavement of Africans, brought in through the slave trade.

Slavery in Brazil, but not only here, proved to be a perverse and cruel institution, and its consequences are still felt today, more than 132 years after the Lei Áurea, the Golden Law, abolished this practice in the country. The violence and discrimination that blacks currently suffer are a direct reflection of a country that was built through the normalization of prejudice and violence towards this group. Nevertheless, it is always important to remember that, in addition to Africans, the Indians were also enslaved, by the millions, by the Portuguese, and that their enslavement also perpetuated prejudices and violence against them.

How it started

Slavery in Brazil has its starting point, the 1530s, a period in which the Portuguese began the colonization process. Until then, their action had been based on the exploitation of pau-brasil, or brazilwood, and the work of the indigenous people was done through barter. Thus, the interested Indians cut down the trees, took them to the coast and then were paid with objects offered by the Portuguese.

In 1534, however, Portugal implemented the hereditary captaincy system in Portuguese America and began to encourage the development of sugar production devices. This was a more complex activity that required a large number of workers. As the Portuguese considered manual labor to be an inferior activity, the solution found was to enslave the only labor available at that time: the indigenous people.

Enslavement of indigenous people

The Indians were the main labor force of the Portuguese until the middle of the 17th century, when, in fact, African slaves began to become the majority of this type of worker in Brazil. The enslavement of the indigenous people, although cheaper, was, in the view of the Portuguese, troubled and problematic.

Historian Stuart Schwartz states that the indigenous people were reluctant to carry out continuous work in the fields because, in their view, it was a “woman’s job” |1|, in addition to the fact that the indigenous culture did not have the concept of continuous work. Another factor that made the enslavement of indigenous people complicated for many was the conflicts between colonizers and the Jesuits. This happened because the Jesuits were against the enslavement of the indigenous people, because they saw them as a group to be catechized.

Thus, colonists who enslaved indigenous people could suffer legal problems due to the actions of the Jesuits. The pressure carried out by the latter, so that the enslavement of the indigenous peoples was stopped, led the Portuguese Crown to decree the prohibition of this enslavement. Despite the law, the enslavement of indigenous people continued, especially in places where there were not a large number of African slaves, such as São Paulo, Paraná and Maranhão.

The enslavement of indigenous people also encountered obstacles due to the high mortality rate of this group due to the Portuguese presence in America. This high mortality was due to biological issues, wars fought between indigenous groups and motivated by the Portuguese, as well as wars against slavery itself and those who enslaved them, etc.

The indigenous people were known by the Portuguese as “negros da terra” (blacks of the land), and the price of the indigenous slave, in relation to the African, was, on average, three times lower. In the 1570s, an Indian slave cost about seven milreis, while an African slave had the general cost of 20 milreis.|2|

Finally, it is important to mention that, despite the arrival of African slaves in Brazil, around the 1550s, the Indians continued to be the main labor force in the sugar economy installed here until the middle of the 17th century. In the 1590s, for example, about 2/3 of slaves in Brazil were indigenous.|3| It was the prosperity of the sugar economy that made some places, such as Bahia and Pernambuco, have a large number of African slaves.

Por meio do tráfico negreiro, 4,8 milhões de africanos foram enviados para o Brasil como escravos.
Through the slave trade, 4.8 million Africans were sent to Brazil as slaves.

Enslavement of Africans

The first Africans began to arrive in Brazil around the 1550s, initially, through the overseas traffic, also known as the tráfico negreiro meaning slave trade. The Portuguese, since the 15th century, owned factories on the African coast, maintained relations with African peoples and purchased these individuals to enslave them, for example, on Madeira Island.

With the development of colonization in Brazil, the continuous need for manual workers opened up this trade to the settlers installed here. The reason for the practice of the slave trade was the aforementioned continuing need in the colony for slave workers and the high profits that this activity yielded for those involved.

The migration towards the use of African slaves happened because, according to Stuart Schwartz, “only the African slave trade provided a large and relatively stable international supply of labor, which ended up making enslaved Africans the preferred victims.”|4| Thus, through the slave trade and over more than 300 years, about 4.8 million Africans were landed in Brazil.|5|

The work of Africans, concentrated in the sugar economy, was extremely tough and based on violence. The working day could extend up to 20 hours of daily work, and historians Lilia Schwarcz and Heloísa Starling claim that the craft at the mill was much more exhausting and dangerous than that performed in the fields.|6|

In mills, it was common for slaves to lose their hands or arms, and in furnaces and boilers, burns were common. In this last stage, the work was so heavy that the slaves used in it were generally the most rebellious. It was common for large engenhos, or mills, to have around 100 slaves, remembering that African slaves only became the majority in the mid-17th century.

Senzala utilizada com os escravos - Foto de Fazenda Santa Maria
Senzalas were the slaves quarters of enslaved Africans in Brazil

At the end of the day, the slaves were gathered in the senzala (slave quarters) and monitored there so that they didn’t run away (the indigenous people slept in ocas, or hollows/teepees, rather than in the senzalas). They had a very poor and insufficient diet, and part of their survival depended on the small subsistence plantation they had, but they only had Sunday to be able to take care of that plantation.

Indians slept in ocas

There were slaves who worked in the fields, in homes and in the cities. Those in the countryside were extremely poorly dressed, and many had no direct contact with their master, only with the overseer. Escravos domésticos, or house slaves, had better clothes and had direct contact with the master and his family. Urban slaves worked in different trades.

Violence was routine in the lives of slaves, and the violent treatment dedicated to them was intended to instill in them fear of their masters. This fear was aimed at keeping them compliant with their enslavement and preventing escapes and revolts. A very common punishment applied to them was the “quebra-negro”, which taught them to always look down in the presence of their masters.

slavery tools
The máscara de flandres and other tools were used during Brazil’s slavery era

In addition, many slaves could be chained, to prevent them from escaping, and use a máscara de ferro (iron mask), known as máscara de flandres (in mining regions), placed on them to prevent them from swallowing diamonds (in mining regions), getting drunk, or even committing suicide by eating land.

Rebels and runaway slaves could also be chained to the whipping post and whipped (some until their death). The violence suffered by the slaves was numerous, and the historian Keila Grinberg lists the different forms of execution for which a slave could be condemned: by poisoning, by the use of iron tools, burned, on a noose, in the pillory, etc.|7|

Enslaved Africans were also hanged by the forca

Over 300 years of slavery, African slaves carried out countless acts of resistance

Slaves, in turn, did not passively accept slavery and daily violence. The history of African enslavement in Brazil was marked by different forms of resistance that included disobedience, individual and collective escapes, revolts, the formation of quilombos (maroon societies), etc.

The end of slavery

Brazil ended up being the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, and this happened through the Lei Áurea, meaning Golden Law, which was approved by the Senate and signed by the regent of Brazil, Princess Isabel. The end of slavery in the country, however, was not an act of benevolence by the monarchy, but a result of pressure and the engagement of the Brazilian population.

The abolitionist movement gained strength in society in the 1870s, with the end of the Paraguayan War, but issues related to abolition have been debated, even if timidly, since Brazilian independence, although its starting point is the decree of the Eusébio de Queirós, who banned the slave trade in 1850.

Ao longo dos 300 anos de escravidão, os escravos africanos realizaram inúmeras ações de resistência.
Throughout three and a half centuries of slavery, Africans carried out numerous revolts and acts of resistance

As the abolitionist movement gained strength, several associations in defense of the cause began to emerge in the country, and their ways of fighting slavery were varied. Lawyers began to defend slaves against their masters in courts, newspapers began to publish articles in defense of abolition, and ordinary people began to shelter slaves who had fled.

Slaves also played an essential role in the destabilization of slavery in Brazil and resisted by making mass escapes, organizing revolts against their masters (some of which led to the death of slave masters), forming quilombos (especially around Rio de Janeiro and Santos) etc.

The force of popular pressure, through the abolitionist movement, and the constant revolts of the slaves created the climate that forced the Empire to abolish slave labor on May 13, 1888, with the aforementioned Lei Áurea. The abolition of slave labor was received with a feast by the Brazilian population. The freed slaves, however, continued to suffer from prejudice and lack of opportunities.


| 1 | SCHWARTZ, Stuart B. Escravidão indígena e o início da escravidão africana. In.: SCHWARCZ, Lilia Moritz e GOMES, Flávio (orgs.). Dicionário da escravidão e liberdade. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2018, p. 216.
| 2 | Idem, p. 219.
| 3 | Idem, p. 218.
| 4 | Idem, p. 222.
| 5 | ALENCASTRO, Felipe. África, números do tráfico atlântico. In.: SCHWARCZ, Lilia Moritz e GOMES, Flávio (orgs.). Dicionário da escravidão e liberdade. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2018, p. 216.
| 6 | SCHWARCZ, Lilia Moritz and STARLING, Heloísa Murgel. Brasil: uma biografia. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2015, p. 93.
| 7 | GRINBERG, Keila. Castigos físicos e legislação. In.: SCHWARCZ, Lilia Moritz e GOMES, Flávio (orgs.). Dicionário da escravidão e liberdade. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2018, p. 145.

Source: Brasil Escola

About Marques Travae 3441 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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