Black Women of Brazil

The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent

The history of freedom in Brazil was written by slaves that achieved their liberation; one reason for decline of slavery was what slaves did to achieve freedom


Note from BW of Brazil: As most of us know, or at should know, history is always told from the perspective of the winners. As such, we often, if not always learn a very distorted view of the way historical events went down. The era of slavery in the Americas is a great example of this. In the United States, we often learn that slavery ended simply because of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. As it turns out, must more than slavery was at the root of the American Civil War, although this is the general understanding many of get in the middle and high school history books. This is also the case in Brazil, in which the abolition of slavery is most often associated with the good deed of Princess Isabel. As it turns out, the vast majority of black Brazilians had already earned their freedom and these same former slaves played a HUGE part in the eventual complete dismantling of the slavery regime. As more and more black scholars continue to get involved in the debate, the way that history is told will continue to evolve.

A princesa Isabel aclamada pela multidão na sacada do Paço Imperial, no Rio de Janeiro, após a assinatura da Lei Áurea, em 13 de maio de 1888 (foto - Antonio Luiz Ferre

Princesa Isabel acclaimed on the balcony of the Imperial Palace, in Rio de Janeiro, after signing the Golden Law, on 13 May 1888. (Photo: Antonio Luiz Ferreira)

Slaves made an essential contribution to abolition in Brazil

On 13 May 1888, Princesa Isabel (1846-1921) signed the document that officially ended with the regime of slavery that lasted for 300 years in Brazil. The Lei Áurea (Golden Law) entered history and went on to be recognized by Brazilians as responsible for the liberation of the slave population of the country. This is still the version taught in most schools and universities, but revisions and studies conducted in recent years have revealed that a national movement, gradually, and with great contribution from the state of Minas Gerais, anticipated and even forced the collapse of official slavery in Brazil.

One of the important points for the understanding of the scenes of Brazilian society during the Empire is the understanding of the representation of the slaves within the population of Brazil at the time. In the first half of the 18th century, the total number of people enslaved corresponded to 50% of the inhabitants. At the beginning of 1888, when the Lei Áurea was signed by Princess Isabel, this same population didn’t represent more than 10% of the enslaved people in Brazil.

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The laws of the Ventre Livre (free womb), enacted in 1871 to ensure the freedom of the children of women enslaved from that moment, and of Sexagenários, instituted in 1885 to liberate enslaved with more than 65 years of age, had timid contributions in this process. The first, due to the short period that separated it from May 13th, 1888. The other, in practice also had little impact on the reduction in the number of slaves for the fact that few reached that age.

Historian Eduardo França, professor at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG), devoted part of his academic life studying the pre-abolition period. The result of his work shows that the history of freedom in Brazil was, in fact, written by slaves that achieved their liberation. Being freed, for the majority of the blacks, was an arduous conquest and not a gift. “This process of liberation is long, rich and complex,” he says.

1887 traje regente isabel henry klumb 41 anos

The image above, authored by Henry Klumb shows Princess Isabel in 1887, at 41 years of age

In it, according to the historian, the state of Minas Gerais was fundamental. “In addition to having the largest population in general, the largest slave population and the largest population of the freed, it was a society that urbanized itself very deeply in the 18 century”, explains França. In 1780, there were around 310 thousand inhabitants in Minas Gerais, being 110 thousand slaves, another 100 thousand former slaves, and 100 thousand born free, between white and non-white. In other words, two thirds of the population was formed by slaves and ex-slaves.


Approximately 10% of the Brazilian population was composed of slaves at the date of the signing of the Golden Law.

And it was in this urban scenario of the villages and camps of Minas Gerais that men and women slaves entered the economy and began the history of freedom of generations, long before the gesture of Princess Isabel officialized the end of the regime. “They developed several activities, from the petty trade, to the mining of gold in powder, to cleaning services, to prostitution. With this, they accumulated earnings. All this was reverted into goods with which they paid the manumissions”, details the historian.

Credit of manumission

The forms of payment to the owners of slaves were also varied. Besides the accuracy in money or gold in powder, the liberation agreements involved the delivery of animals. The negotiations also included a system that resembles a freedom credit, with installment payments. “Usually, people don’t even dream that it existed, but this credit of manumission was very frequent. The payment was made in an installment, which was called quartação,” explains França.

The studies conducted by historian shows that the abolition of slavery in Brazil, in fact, ended with a regime that was losing strength for years and was completely deteriorating. And one of the reasons for the decline was precisely the way that the slaves developed to achieve freedom.

Feminine Power

Throughout this process of pre-Golden Law transformation, women were fundamental in the process of freedom from the slave system. According to a study conducted by the historian of the UFMG, within the slave population in Imperial Brazil the proportion was two to three men for each woman. Among the freed persons, it was the reverse. “This indicates how these ex-slave women, be they African, daughters of Africans born in Brazil, mulatas or pardas (mixed race/brown), were important in the initial process of freedom,” explains França.

The feminine prominence in the liberated population of that era is attributed to the forms developed by mulheres negras (black women) to insert themselves into the economy. “They dominated, for example, the small trade in food on the street. With the accumulated earnings of these activities, they paid for manumission,” says the historian. According to him, it was common, even for alforriadas (freed) women to buy the freedom of their husbands.

SourceConheça Minas

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This entry was posted on June 4, 2018 by in slavery, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .
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