Note from BW of Brazil: Still today, whenever the discussion is the situation of Brazil’s black population, people will still argue that ‘slavery was a long time ago, their situation today is their own fault.’ But what people don’t seem to realize is that during and even after the abolition of slavery in 1888, Brazil being the last country in the Americas to end the institution of human bondage, black people remained at the mercy of a society and job market that excluded them from earning a living or exploited their labor for wages that kept them in work and salary conditions that maintained them in a situation similar to when they were enslaved. After having been able to slowly attain their freedom from slavery in conditions similar to enslavement, later, after official abolition they faced discrimination from a job market that preferred the European immigrants that were pouring into the country with government subsidies. In the brief report below, an historian from Brazil’s top university explains how the master/slave relationship was maintained even after blacks were able to secure their freedom.
Freedmen, blacks were still exploited as slaves
By Igor Truz
Even free, everyday blacks faced conditions that perpetuated slave relations
In the 19th century, between the years 1830 and 1888, the slaves bought the right to freedom with their own labor, which made the entry of blacks into the world of the free men precarious, and would make the dominance of the master last. Unable to pay to the masters the indemnity required for freedom, slaves took out debts with third parties, and paid them through lease contracts. These contracts meant, in many cases, an extension of the exploitation of labor, since the freedmen were still subjected to conditions similar to slavery.
Historian Marília Ariza analyzed registered service lease contracts between the years 1830 and 1888, in the First Notary Public of São Paulo, and in the First Notary Public of Notes of Campinas – between 1830 and 1888 – and its relationship with the struggle of the slaves in the process of manumission. The masters dissertation “O ofício da liberdade: contratos de locação de serviços e trabalhadores libertandos em São Paulo e Campinas (1830 – 1888)” shows the complexity of the final period of slavery in Brazil, when being a free man didn’t always mean having access to freedom.
According to the historian, the possibility of buying manumission for the slaves existed before the contracts of leasing of services. However, these slaves depended on the accumulation of pecúlio, a savings obtained with extra work, to add the value demanded by the senhores (masters) for liberation. Although accumulation of pecúlio was a recurring practice, incorporated by the slaves as a right, the masters often had no interest in reducing the number of their slaves, and did not allow any other kind of activity that would enable them to earn money and pay for their freedom. Even if they could put together funds in other ways, the high value of manumission could also hinder freedom in the short run.
As an alternative to this scenario, many slaves resorted to the payment of manumission through their own services. The subject contracted a loan with third parties to buy his manumission. Since he had no other resources to shoulder the debt amount, he made service lease contracts with his lender.
The services and working conditions, however, changed very little. The contracts obliged them to carry out a daily life similar to the old slave condition. Both the duration of the contract, which could be a few years, as well as the work activities, and even the penalties for those who did not comply with any contract clause, were the result of negotiations between liberated and the creditors. The conditions of this negotiation, however, could be very unequal and unfavorable for the nrecently liberated.
The main objective of the service lease contracts was the agency of free workers at a low cost. Free and poor people also rented out their work. However, in the case of the liberated, the cost of hired labor was even lower. The desire to abandon slavery made these workers agree, at least formally, with disadvantageous working conditions. In contrast, they often contested these contracts in court and refused to comply with them, denouncing the excessive dominance of their creditors.
However, the state’s intervention in labor relations was very little until the final decades of the 19th century. The leasing contracts ended up functioning as a sort of accommodation of conflicts generated by the slave system. They seemed to be a concrete possibility for slaves to achieve freedom. But, in fact, they perpetuated the power relations of the slave-owning society.
Freedom: a set of experiences
For Marília, to become free through a payment, forced these people to enter the world of freedom completely poor, and still subject to exploitation. If in theory, freedom means having the autonomy to move from one place to another and make one’s own decisions, these people were not yet completely free.
According to the historian, all this history of difficulties and conditions of sub-citizenship offered to the liberated has reflexes in our current social reality. For her, the recent discussion about racial quotas in universities, for example, is very important because it is related to the reparation of inequalities inherited partly from slavery and the life experiences of these recently freedmen.
“Freedom must be understood as a set of lived experiences,” she reflects. “Even for those who became formally free, their universe of expectations and rights was very unequal when compared to other sectors of the population,” says the historian. And she concludes: “Quotas can be a great tool for social justice. The struggle today concerns the widening of citizenship rights for blacks, and the unfair distribution of these rights has historical roots in slavery.”