Although the slave trade to Brazil did not end until 1850, and slavery itself lasted until 1888, the practice of freeing slaves had been common from the time of first colonization by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and the children of freed women were born free. The result was that, by the time of a national census in 1872, there were 4.25 million free blacks and mulattos in the country, accounting for over three quarters of all those of African descent and two fifths of Brazil’s total population.
To understand the willingness of Brazilian slave owners to free so many one must first consider the general nature of Brazil’s social structure and the paradigms that ordered it. For most, society was not thought of as being made up of individuals equally protected in their rights and mobile in relationship to one another, but by castes, ranks, corporations, guilds, and brotherhoods, layered one atop another or arranged side by side. Almost everyone could feel superior to someone else, even if inferior to others. The nuanced distinctions of ranks somewhat restrained the threat to social order that free and freed blacks might otherwise have been thought to pose. “Free-and-equal” was not a phrase heard in Brazil.
There is overwhelming evidence that race was an important variable affecting one’s position, and discrimination against blacks was widespread and constant. The government reinforced the prejudices of white Brazilians, acquiesced in maintaining a hierarchy based on color, and presented obstacles to the ambitions of free African Brazilians. Civil service positions were usually denied to them, regardless of their qualifications. Recruitment for the army was focused on the poor, that is, on African Brazilians.
Yet, it is also true that many individuals found their way around those obstacles and rose to positions of some importance, for skin color was just one of the many characteristics to be considered. There are multiple examples of freeborn mulattos (and some freed and freeborn blacks) who succeeded in 19th-century Brazil. Some became doctors, pharmacists, journalists, and teachers. Others entered politics and rose to positions of real power. A few worked energetically to bring about the end of slavery.
Martha Abreu and Eric Brasil
Carnival is one of the most powerful images of Brazil in the contemporary world, a party marketed by tourism agencies as a unique spectacle, filled with rhythm, humor, fun, and free spirits that brings the entire population together, marked by infectious joy, sensuality, and irresistible samba. This perception of the party, however, is far from its history since colonial times. While Carnival has always been present in large cities and small towns from one end of Brazil to the other, it has taken many forms and included many sounds, meanings, traditions, and social subjects. To understand the history of Carnival in Brazil, one must take another approach: the celebration of Carnival as an expression of many differences, a variety of forms, and numerous conflicts.
For many years, interpretations viewed Carnival as a space in which Brazilians come together to celebrate commonly held cultural traditions or as an effective escape valve allowing common people to forget the woes of everyday life. More recently, historians and anthropologists have studied Carnival celebrations as windows that offer a glimpse of the tensions, rivalries, and alliances of an entire year, brought to the fore, magnified and played out in public on the festival days. Whether through masks, costumes, and individual hijinks or through Carnival associations, various social groups have taken advantage of Carnival in various historical contexts of Brazilian society to assert their identity and take action on various political projects that aim to transform (or subvert) current reality and debate the very history of Brazil.
The study of the history of Brazilian Carnival, or rather Carnivals, thus provides an innovative and original epistemological approach to understanding social transformations and the meanings of Carnival revelers’ political actions at various times in history, whether they be members of the economic and intellectual elite or urban workers, enslaved people, freed people, and free people.
The article prioritizes the period between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, when Carnivals came to more closely resemble their modern form through intense disputes between those who sought to civilize the festivities and revelers who sought to act out their traditions and customs. The history of Carnival the article intends to tell engages in intense dialogue with struggles for black people’s citizenship before and after the abolition of slavery, stretching into the second half of the 20th century, when Samba Schools emerged as one of the principal features of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and, by extension, throughout Brazil.