Black Women of Brazil

The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent

Slave struggles and the end of slavery in Brazil: How revolts, organized resistance and fugitive slave communities contributed to the end of slavery in Brazil


Lutas dos escravos - A Balaiada e a insurreição de escravos no Maranhão

Portrait of the A Balaiada, a slave revolt in the state of Maranhão between 1838 and 1841

Note from BW of Brazil: It is often said that history is always told from the perspective of the winners and in my own experience of investigating and “un-learning” generally accepted history as told in school history classes, textbooks, and more popular books, I have found this to be true time and time again. Whether the topic is the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, the 1964 Coup that deposed Brazilian President João Goulart or the 1963 assassination of American President John F. Kennedy, there are often important pieces of the story that are completely left out or ignored, or the causes of the events are told only half way. When we’re dealing with the history of Africa and its descendants this also the case. And for several decades, Afro-Brazilians organizations, students and scholars have been challenging popular narratives about the situations that led to the eventual ending of the slavery regime in Brazil, the last country in the Western hemisphere to do so in 1888.

In the sanitized portrayal of the abolition of slavery, the kind-hearted Princess Isabel, the daughter of the second and last emperor of Brazil, Pedro II, signed the Golden Law in 1888 and slavery was officially abolished. But there is so much more to the story. The article below by no means reveals the whole story behind the scenes, but it is another small piece of the puzzle that positions African descendants as protagonists in the history. 

Slave struggles and the end of slavery in Brazil

By Tales Pinto

The end of slavery in Brazil for many years was presented as an action of the Brazilian State, pressured by England, through various legislations, culminating in the signing of the Lei Áurea (Golden Law) by Princesa Isabel in 1888. It was also presented as a result of the interest of the elites which saw wage labor more profitable than the enslaved labor force.

However, little is said about the role played by the struggles of the slaves as the main form of pressure for the end of slavery. Considering that slavery was the main support of Brazilian colonial and imperial society, the struggles of slaves represented a trend of internal rupture in this relationship, which at the end of the nineteenth century could no longer be sustained.

These struggles have existed since the beginning of slavery. The most notorious case during the colonial period was the formation of Quilombo dos Palmares, in Serra da Barriga, where the state of Alagoas is now located. Quite a few other quilombos were formed, not so great, of course, but they showed their importance since from the escape of the plantations, the slaves intended to create a rupture with slavery, seeking freedom.

But the escapes didn’t occur only in cases of rupture with slavery. For the most part, they occurred as a search for improvements within slavery. It was the case of the fugitive demands, which sought to demand better working conditions on the plantation. An example of this was the escape of slaves from Engenho Santana, in the region of Ilhéus, Bahia. In 1789, a group of slaves fled the mill and formed a quilombo in the vicinity of the plantation. They presented to their master a treaty, in which they demanded better conditions of work, election of other masters and the right to “play, enjoy, and sing at any time we want without beginning and without permission.” Such an event demonstrated that the struggle of the slaves was for changes in daily life within the workplace.

Another form of struggle carried out by the slaves was rebellion. In Bahia of the early nineteenth century, about 30 slave rebellions occurred or were plotted, being prevented by police action. Most notable of these was the Revolta dos Malês (Revolt of the Malês) in 1835. Taking into account the Independence of Haiti, which at the beginning of the century was violently led by slaves and resulted in the end of slavery, the uprisings of enslaved Africans created the fear of the repetition of a similar event in Brazil that could literally cost the farmers’ heads.

The constitution of quilombos in the near cities also contributed to undermining the Brazilian slave system. The creation of networks of solidarity close to the quilombos, with inhabitants of the cities (freed slaves, relatives or even whites), allowed the realization of small commercial transactions that allowed the material reproduction of their lives in a regime of freedom. In addition, there was the approximation with free people, creating a sense of anti-slavery.

The abolitionist legislation also resulted in the intensification of social conflicts between escravos e senhores (slaves and masters). The intensification of internal trafficking after the Eusébio de Queirós Law in 1850 led to the south-central farm slaves who were considered “undisciplined” and who imposed the conditions of “fair captivity” with rhythms and jobs and what jobs they should perform decided by the slaves.

The contact resulted in mass riots and breakouts in the decades before abolition. The Lei do Ventre Livre (Law of the Free Womb) of 1871 also led the slaves to contest the situation of slavery in which they found themselves. In 1885, 120 slaves from the Cantagalo farm, located in the city of Campinas, in the interior of São Paulo, rebelled and fled en masse from the plantation to the city, chanting “Viva a Liberdade! (long live freedom)” along the way.

All these actions created a climate conducive to a social upheaval if it were to become larger-scale actions, putting at risk the economic and political power of the Brazilian elite. In this sense, but not negating the other factors, the slave struggles against slavery, conducted autonomously by the slaves, created an internal rupture in the slave system, pressing for its end in 1888.

[1] Note: AMARAL, Sharyse Piroupo do. História do negro no Brasil. Brasília: Ministry of Education. Secretary of Continuing Education, Literacy and Diversity; Salvador: Centro de Estudos Afro Orientais, 2011.

SourceHistória do Mundo

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