Since the early successful colonial enterprises in Brazil’s territory, men and women forcibly transferred from Africa were used as enslaved workers not only on plantations and other agricultural settings, but also in protoindustrial contexts, such as in the sugar mills and the mining trade and metallurgy. Enslaved people were also a fundamental part of the labor force in the urban artisanry, manufacturing, and the early industrial ventures in the 18th century and after Independence in 1822. In the second half of the 19th century, the first drive of industrialization, in places like Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, and São Paulo, was driven by British investments led by slave-owning entrepreneurs and powered by the intensive use of enslaved labor. Foreign workers brought to the country, Brazilian free manual laborers and other poor immigrants, freed, and enslaved people often worked side by side in shipyards, gunpowder factories, mining endeavors, railways constructions, and many other activities.
In Brazil, especially in urban contexts, many enslaved men and women would rent themselves out, or they would be leased out by their masters, to perform a variety of urban activities, including working in the country’s many artisan shops and industries. In doing so, not only were they able to get financial compensation for their work by becoming ganhadores (enslaved wage earners), but, in that capacity, they also experienced situations usually associated with “free” laborers, such as wage negotiation, bargaining, and even strikes. Some of the enslaved ganhadores were able to buy their own freedom and carried their experiences into their lives as free workers. Therefore, both free and unfree laborers of African descent were present in a variety of trades and enterprises, and the multiplicity of their experiences shaped the dynamics of labor relations, identity building, political and labor cultures, and individual and collective action and organization in the long history of the making of Brazilian working classes.
The heterogeneity that defined the Brazilian laboring classes, composed of people of African descent as well as poor White Portuguese settlers and other immigrants, united and divided by race, gender, nationality, legal status, histories, and cultural backgrounds cannot be stressed enough. It is crucial to understand how the institution of slavery impacted the social and economic relations of all workers, free and unfree, in Brazil even after slavery was abolished in 1888: its legacy of oppression, but also diversity, is expressed in the conflicts and collaborations that marked workers’ collective experience and impacted the transformations that the working classes underwent in post-emancipation Brazil.