Within the Americas, Brazil stands out for the intensity, ubiquity, and longevity of its experience of slavery. The history of slavery and of the enslaved in the Western Hemisphere significantly overlaps, therefore, with the history of slavery in Brazil. In the early 20th century, scholars such as Gilberto Freyre and Frank Tannenbaum turned to Brazilian slavery to explain differences in race relations in the United States and Latin America, creating a narrative of harmonious coexistence between races in Brazil. Endemic racial inequality in the country later encouraged the production of scholarship that challenged any notion of “racial democracy.” Between the 1970s and 1990s, inspired by the centennial of the abolition of slavery in Brazil (1988), scholars recast Brazilian slavery as exploitative, brutal, and racially based. They also recovered stories of slave resistance from runaways and quilombos to black religious associations, to slaves’ tireless pursuit of legal freedom. These studies highlighted ways in which slaves empowered themselves and shaped Brazil’s historical trajectory, despite the oppression and power inequality slavery promoted. Historians of women and gender importantly challenged the long-standing—and still existent—image of the amoral, sexually available black woman, which had helped to support portrayals of Brazilian society as racially mixed, inherently not racist, and inevitably patriarchal. By exploring the intersection of slavery and gender, and engaging the long-neglected gendered violence and racial thinking that remain slavery’s strongest legacy, scholars have rescued the historical relevance of enslaved women and unveiled the discursive and pragmatic tools of domination that supported white male power. More recently, historians of Brazilian slavery have also contributed to the field of African diaspora studies. Concentrating the largest contingent of Africans enslaved through the Atlantic slave trade, Brazil maintained a strong connection to Africa well into the 20th century. Important works have examined the economic, political, and cultural exchanges that occurred between Brazil and Africa in the age of slavery to highlight Africa’s place in Brazilian history and equate it to Europe’s. Historians of abolition have also recently challenged older narratives in the history of Brazilian slavery. From emphasizing the role played by political elites and foreign actors, recent work has recovered the story of black involvement in the abolitionist process and later struggle for citizenship. While the memory of slavery remains a contested terrain, scholarship in the field of Brazilian slavery has enriched historical knowledge about black political engagement in the Americas.
These articles provide an overview of the major themes and topics that frame the study of slavery in Brazil. They also reflect some of the important debates that have emerged in the field in the past half century or more. Early studies focus on the role slavery played in shaping Brazilian culture and society and engendering positive (Freyre 1956) or negative (Degler 1971, Lara 1988) race relations. Moving beyond a static and structural view of slavery, de Queirós Mattoso 1986, Klein and Luna 2010, and Tomich 2015 highlight the changing nature of slavery as a practice of labor exploitation and its employment in diverse economic settings. These works also stress the different experiences slaves themselves faced as increased labor demands, new economic exploits, and the consolidation of the slave system affected the intensity and organization of the slave trade, the physical demands of slave work, and Brazilian society’s treatment of its enslaved population. These works, along with Lara 1988, pay closer attention to slaves as historical actors who strove to exercise some control over the terms and conditions of their enslavement. Schwartz 1992 and Russell-Wood 2002 focus further on questions of resistance and autonomy in their overview of the history of Brazilian slavery. Through a discussion of food production by slaves, runaway slave communities, and acts of rebellion, Schwartz 1992 stresses the many forms of slave resistance. Focused more specifically on former slaves and persons of mixed African and Portuguese descent, Russell-Wood 2002 examines the broader question of black struggle for autonomy and inclusion in a slave society.
Degler, Carl N. Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the Unites States. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
A comparative discussion of race relations in Brazil and the United States that offers an overview of slavery in each country to challenge Frank Tannenbaum’s claim that different practices of slavery and a more benign treatment of slaves in Latin America explain divergent race relations in the two regions.
de Queirós Mattoso, Kátia M. To Be a Slave in Brazil, 1550–1888. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.
Written for a general audience, this overview of slavery in Brazil proposes to understand the experiences and worldview that informed slaves’ everyday and general realities. It discusses the process of enslavement in Africa, adaptation to slave life in Brazil, and slaves’ constant pursuit and hope for freedom.
Freyre, Gilberto. The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization. New York: Knopf, 1956.
First published in 1933, this foundational work of Brazilian scholarship has shaped cultural imaginations about slavery and plantation society by proposing that Brazilian civilization and the Brazilian “man” were the product of a benign genealogical and cultural miscegenation between the Portuguese, Africans, and native Brazilian peoples.
Klein, Herbert, and Francisco Vidal Luna. Slavery in Brazil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
A helpful survey of African slavery in Brazil, from its inception to its abolition (16th–19th century), that focuses on the economic relevance of slave labor to the country’s development while also paying attention to slaves’ experiences with family, community, international migration, freedom, and rebellion.
Lara, Silvia Hunold. Campos da Violência: Escravos e senhores na Capitania do Rio de Janeiro, 1750–1808. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Editora Paz e Terra, 1988.
This study aims to conciliate the violent nature of Brazil’s slave society with slave masters’ claims of paternalism and mild treatment that have survived in the Brazilian imagination. It reveals the complex world of negotiation that nevertheless built a dominating and oppressive social order under slavery.
Russell-Wood, Anthony J. R. Slavery and Freedom in Colonial Brazil. Oxford: Oneworld, 2002.
A comprehensive study of enslaved and free blacks, focused on their experiences with the oppressive nature of Brazil’s slave society and their struggles to wield control over their lives. Of particular relevance is the discussion of black religious brotherhoods and the status and experiences of persons of mixed descent.
Schwartz, Stuart B. Slaves, Peasants, and Rebels: Reconsidering Brazilian Slavery. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Schwartz’s volume of essays engages with some important themes in the scholarship on slave resistance and daily life: the role labor played in defining slaves’ experiences, runaway slave communities, slaves’ limited but existent economic autonomy, and slaves’ efforts to reconstruct kinship.
Tomich, Dale W., ed. New Frontiers of Slavery. New York: State University of New York Press, 2015.
This edited volume views the practice of 19th-century slavery, mainly in Brazil and Cuba, as a response to new economic demands and contingencies within the global economy. The chapters that focus on Brazil highlight the continuous reinvention of slavery in response to the country’s new economic goals and international engagement.
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