Brazil was the last Western country to abolish slavery, which it did in 1888. As a colonial institution, slavery was present in all regions and in almost all free and freed strata of the population. Emancipation only became an issue in the political sphere when it was raised by the imperial government in the second half of the decade of the 1860s, after the defeat of the Confederacy in the US Civil War and during the war against Paraguay. In 1871, new legislation, despite the initial opposition from slave owners and their political representatives, set up a process of gradual emancipation. By the end of the century, slavery would have disappeared, or would have become residual, without major disruptions to the economy or the land property regime. By the end of the 1870s, however, popular opposition to slavery, demanding its immediate abolition without any kind of compensation to former slave owners, grew in parliament and as a mass movement. Abolitionist organizations spread across the country during the first half of the 1880s. Stimulated by the direct actions of some of these abolitionist organizations, resistance to slavery intensified and became increasingly a struggle against slavery itself and not only for individual or collective freedom. Incapable of controlling the situation, the imperial government finally passed a law in parliament granting immediate and unconditional abolition on May 13, 1888.
Hebe Mattos and Wlamyra Albuquerque
What happened after slavery in the first slave society of the Americas? How did the abolition process shape post-abolition Brazilian society? On September 28, 1871 the Lei do Ventre Livre (Free Womb Law) signaled the end for slavery in Brazil. It created, for the effects of the compensation of slave owners, a general registration of the last slaves, which shows that Brazil officially recognized around a million and a half of them in 1872. How did these last enslaved workers live and politically influence the legal process that resulted in their freedom? Certainly they did so, since between flights, negotiations, and conflicts, the number of slaves fell by half over the following years. In this process, conditional manumission letters became almost like labor contracts, the results of negotiations between slaves and slave owners which gave expectations of freedom to some and prolonged the exploitation of the labor of others. In 1887, abolition seemed inescapable. En masse flights of the last slaves made it a fact, recognized by law on May 13, 1888. How could social relations be reinvented after the collapse of the institution which had structured the country, in all its aspects, since colonization? This dismantling would have consequences that were not only economic but would also redesign the logic of power and the architecture of a society willing to maintain distinct types of citizenship. Old experiences of racism and citizenship were redefined in the process. Former slave owners fought for compensation for their lost property until Rui Barbosa, an old abolitionist and minister of finance of the first republican government, decided to burn the registration documentation in 1889, thereby preventing any compensation proposal for around seven hundred thirty thousand slaves freed by the abolition law. With the Republic (1889), a new racialized rhetoric narrated abolition as the product of the republican action of the “emancipating race,” which guaranteed freedom without conflict to the “emancipated race.” It thus made invisible not only the fundamental action of the last slaves, but also the demographically majoritarian status of the free Afro-descendants in the Brazilian population, evident in the action of numerous black abolitionists. For Afro-Brazilians, the struggle remained to define their place and rights in society. More recently, the political action of the Brazilian black movement in the commemorations of the centenary of abolition (1988) established the idea of incomplete abolition, defining May 13 as the date of the struggle against racial inequality in the country and consolidating the post-abolition period as a field of historiographic research.
The Scandinavian countries established overseas settlements in Africa and the Americas, starting in the 17th century. In Africa, trading stations were initially established with the consent of local rulers. The Danish trading stations on the Gold Coast developed in time into a more formal colony. In the Americas, Scandinavian settlements were of various natures, including the short-lived settlement colony of New Sweden and slavery-based plantation societies in the Caribbean. The Caribbean colonies would bear resemblance to many other Caribbean plantation economies of the time. The Scandinavian countries also participated in the transatlantic slave trade: while these countries might have been responsible for a quite small share of the total transatlantic slave trade, the trade was large compared to the size of the domestic population in these countries. The formal abolition of the slave trade, and later of slavery, in the Scandinavian colonies made the colonial possessions unimportant or even burdens for the Scandinavian states, so that the colonies eventually were sold to other European nations.
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.
The second law banning the African slave trade to Brazil came into force in 1850, and became known as the Eusébio de Queirós Law (de Queirós was then Minister of Justice of the Brazilian Empire). A previous attempt made in 1831 failed and the slave trade continued in the form of smuggling from that date until 1850, although until the mid-1850s there were several illegal landings and, then, traffic to the ports of the Brazil was definitely closed. There were many themes in the political debate before the African slave trade ended, from the end of the 18th century until 1850. During this period, the state, the slaveholders and their representatives in the legislative branch and in the courts of justice maintained pro-slavery arguments but changed the way they were used, under the strong British pressure to end slave trade with diplomatic and military actions since 1807. During the first half of the 19th century and, above all, after the proclamation of Brazilian Independence in 1822, the end of the slave trade became a political question in connection with other important themes regarding the formation of the Brazilian state and nation: the need of a labor force for agriculture, the fear of slave actions, national sovereignty in relation to foreign pressure, the supposed corruption of customs due to slavery, and the formation of a Brazilian people based on the work of slaves, freed people, and the poor. All of these themes would be discussed in public settings, such as Parliament, the press, and books on the defense and propaganda of slavery, for example.