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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.

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More than 98 percent of the Brazilian population descend from people who arrived in the country, willingly or forced, during the last five centuries. French and Dutch Calvinists established colonies during the 1500s and 1600s. The Portuguese, including Jewish conversos, expelled these imperial rivals and, unlike in Portuguese India, managed to forge the Luso-Brazilian culture to which later arrivals would eventually assimilate. Close to four-tenths of the eleven million slaves trafficked across the Atlantic landed in Brazil, giving the country the largest Afro-descendant population in the world outside Nigeria. The large numbers, the traffic’s long temporal span, and the country’s close connection to Portuguese Africa infused Brazil with distinctively intense and varied African ethnic cultures that shaped both the slaves’ strategies of adaptation and resistance and the national ethos. Brazil also received over five million immigrants after its independence in 1822, most of them between the 1880s and the 1920s. Latin Europe accounted for four-fifths of the arrivals (1.8 million Portuguese, 1.5 million Italians, and 700,000 Spaniards). Others came from elsewhere in Europe and beyond, giving Brazil the largest population of Japanese descendants in the world outside Japan, the largest of Lebanese descendants outside Lebanon, and the second largest of German descendants outside Germany (after the United States). This engendered a strikingly multicultural society. Yet over a few generations, Brazil absorbed these new populations in a manner that resembles the experience of the rest of the New World. Economically, immigrants turned southern Brazil from a colonial backwater into the richest region of the country, but, in the process, they also brought racially embedded regional inequalities to the forefront.