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date: 04 March 2021

Slavery, Race, and the Construction of the Imperial Orderlocked

  • Hebe MattosHebe MattosDepartment of History, Universidade Federal Fluminense

Summary

Despite moral criticism of the institution of slavery from the second half of the 18th century, slavery, racism, and liberalism would be mutually defined throughout the 19th century. The slave economy in the Americas grew in the 19th century as a result of the expansion of the world market, sustained by constitutional states, including two national ones: the Brazilian Empire, a constitutional monarchy, and the United States, a republic. In these national states, representative systems would shape the legitimacy of the institution of slavery, relating the adoption of citizenship rights to processes of racialization.

In Brazil’s late colonial period, more than one-half of the free population was defined as “black” or “brown,” and manumission rates were as high as 1 percent per year. Under Portuguese colonial rule, this population of color was denied access to public offices and ecclesiastical positions, but allowed to own slaves. The rallying cry of “equality for people of all colors” served as a cornerstone of popular nationalism in the liberal uprisings of the late Brazilian colonial period. Popular liberalism also called for the passage of laws that would recognize the Brazilian-born sons and daughters of enslaved people as free persons.

After independence, the Brazilian Empire experienced more than twenty years of political struggles and localized civil wars around the construction of representative political institutions. The Brazilian coffee production boom inaugurated in 1830, allowed the consolidation of the monarchical order in Brazil with the rise to power of a conservative party, the Party of Order, in 1837. From 1837 to 1853, this conservative party consolidated a slave-based national identity. During these years of conservative pro-slavery leadership, political strategies to legitimate the continuation of the Atlantic slave trade were developed and illegal enslavement was tolerated and even encouraged.

Liberalism, race, and slavery shaped the history of the Atlantic world in a very interconnected way. Despite the non-race-based legitimation of slavery in a Catholic and constitutional monarchy, race was a central issue in 19th-century monarchical Brazil. Slavery was legitimated as a historical institution in the Brazilian Constitution of 1824 in the right to own property. The same constitution guaranteed civil rights to the freedmen born in the country and their descendants, denying, however, Brazilian citizenship for free Africans and political citizenship to former slaves born in Brazil. Eventually, after the end of the transatlantic slave trade in 1850, the state bureaucracy adopted a norm of racial silence for the free population, racializing slave experience and reinforcing the precariousness of freedom of the Brazilian citizens of African descent. These practices shaped crucial aspects of structural racism still present in 21st-century Brazilian society.

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