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.
Richard Lee Turits
In the past, scholars of Latin America often assumed that Spanish colonists abandoned the Caribbean for the bullion riches of Mexico and Peru almost immediately after their conquest, while many Caribbeanists have imagined that Barbados, colonized by the British in the mid-1600s, was the “first black slave society.” Yet, in fact, more than a century earlier in the colony of Santo Domingo (then officially known as la Isla Española or simply la Española), European colonists built the first major American plantation economy and society made up mostly of enslaved people. Those held in chains on the island reached into the tens of thousands by the mid-1500s, and Santo Domingo became a pivotal crossroads in the early modern Atlantic. At first the enslaved population included thousands of people the Spanish called “Indians,” taken from other parts of the Caribbean and the Americas, and even an occasional enslaved person of European (Orthodox Christian or Muslim) descent. But after the mid-1500s slavery in Santo Domingo became isolated to people of African descent. This contrasted with the preexisting demography of slavery in southern Europe, where the enslaved were of more diverse geographic origins. Santo Domingo thus initiated a trajectory of racial and plantation slavery whose contours would shape the course of history in the Americas overall. Santo Domingo’s slave-based economy would also, though, be the first to collapse, at the end of the 16th century, partly because of sustained resistance by the enslaved—their continual escape and rebellion—that was costly for planters. The enslaved had composed most of society in the prior century. Now the majority were escaped and, to a lesser extent, freed slaves, living with substantial autonomy as independent peasants dispersed across the countryside. These themes are illuminated through an exploration of one of the earliest freedom suits in the Americas. This suit was won on appeal in Santo Domingo in 1531 through remarkable transatlantic collaboration by family members and sailors as well as through the evident power of notarized documents in the Spanish Empire.