The state of Bahia and its capital, Salvador, are the original loci of European colonization in the territory that later became Brazil. Together with other cities in the Northeast and along the Brazilian coast, they witnessed the imposition of mercantile capitalism and slave labor as forms of production of a new state and society. In the 21st century, Bahia is a state marked by racial inequality, the poverty of a large part of the population, and state violence, paradoxically associated with the strong presence of traditions of African origin and a rich and dense popular cultural life, as in other parts of the African diaspora. This combination implies certain contradictions experienced in different fields, in the present social structure and in the cultural and political history of the region. This can be seen in the trajectory of carnival, the most important popular festival in the city, and in its successive moments of identity reinvention as well as in the constitution of the city’s landscape, marked by black and African presence in symbolic and material ways. It can also be seen in the historical formation of candomblé, the cult of Yoruban gods in Bahia, developed amid persecutions and disputes. All these dimensions are structured in the expressive cultural forms of a black culture, which has been made and remade by generations of Afro-descendants in this environment marked by inequality, but also by creativity, joy, and aesthetic power.
For most of the 20th century, a narrow coastal strip of the Brazilian state of Bahia was the largest producer of Theobroma cacao in the Americas and the second largest in the world. Cacao arrived in the region from the Amazon in the first half of the 18th century, and its cultivation expanded rapidly in the 19th century due to several factors, including a favorable climate, available land, labor too limited for growing sugar, and a developing international market. Initially grown by members of the rural poor, including mission Indians, slaves and ex-slaves, by the 20th century cacao had turned southern Bahia into a plantation region dominated by large estates and exploited workers. This economic expansion came at the expense of the region’s flora and fauna, as well as of the small holders who had initiated the sector. The problems associated with this form of development became clear when the cacao disease known as Witch’s Broom arrived in the region in 1989 and cacao production collapsed. Southern Bahian planters attempting to avoid bankruptcy laid off hundreds of thousands of illiterate rural workers and sold off surviving tropical hardwoods. Historians know the region primarily through the writings of cacao-area native and Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado, but the region’s history goes much beyond the topics he covered and offers numerous opportunities for research.
Monica Duarte Dantas and Roberto Saba
The Sabinada took place between November 1837 and March 1838 in the city of Salvador, province of Bahia, Empire of Brazil. It was a separatist rebellion organized by men of federalist and republican ideals who opposed the conservative turn of the Regency government, which ruled Brazil from the abdication of Dom Pedro I until 1840, when Dom Pedro II—three and a half years before the legal age of 18—was crowned Emperor. The Sabinada, however, was more than a separatist movement organized by a rogue political group. It brought together a myriad of social tensions that had been brewing in Salvador since colonial times. Members of the military, who had seen their standing in Brazilian society rapidly deteriorate since the war of independence, found in the Sabinada an opportunity to reclaim a leading position. Middling sectors of Salvador’s society joined in, with hopes that the movement would give them some voice in a political system otherwise dominated by wealthy planters and merchants. The free poor nurtured similar political hopes and, more importantly, rebelled against a highly unequal economic system that left them in dire straits, facing the constant threat of homelessness and starvation. The slaves did not hesitate to jump into the fray, running away from their masters to join the rebel forces and forcing its leaders to break their initial promise that slavery would not be jeopardized. People of color—slave and free—embraced the Sabinada to exterminate some blatant racial inequality existing in 19th-century Bahia. Brazilians of all colors and social ranks took advantage of the situation to carry out vengeance against foreign nationals, especially the Portuguese, who controlled retail commerce in Salvador. Rebel leaders had to deal with all these different demands at once, and they did so with much improvisation and unexpected turns. Simultaneously, they had to fend off a brutal repression from loyalist authorities and combatants. When the Sabinada exploded, the powerful and rich fled Salvador to Bahia’s sugar-producing region, known as the Recôncavo. There, they received reinforcements from the National Guard and Army battalions from other provinces. Salvador was under siege for most of the rebellion. The rebels had a hard time acquiring the necessary means to wage war and nearly starved to death. When the loyalists finally attacked, they made sure to shed as much rebel blood as possible to make an example. The loyalists killed indiscriminately, burned buildings, suspended civil rights, executed prisoners, and deported rebels. Through this bloodbath, they succeeded in reestablishing the unequal political and social order that had existed in Salvador before.
Thomas D. Rogers
The Portuguese took sugarcane from their Atlantic island holdings to Brazil in the first decades of the 16th century, using their model of extensive agriculture and coerced labor to turn their new colony into the world’s largest producer of sugar. From the middle of the 17th century through the 20th century, Brazil faced increasing competition from Caribbean producers. With access to abundant land and forest resources, Brazilian producers generally pursued an extensive production model that made sugarcane’s footprint a large one. Compared to competitors elsewhere, Brazilian farmers were often late in adopting innovations (such as manuring in the 18th century, steam power in the 19th, and synthetic fertilizers in the 20th). With coffee’s growth in the center-south of the country during the middle of the 19th century, sugarcane farming shifted gradually away from enslaved African labor. Labor and production methods shifted at the end of the century with slavery’s abolition and the rise of large new mills, called usinas. The model of steam-powered production, both for railroads carrying cane and for mills grinding it, and a work force largely resident on plantations persisted into the mid-20th century. Rural worker unions were legalized in the 1960s, at the same time that sugar production increased as a result of the Cuban Revolution. A large-scale sugarcane ethanol program in the 1970s also brought upheaval, and growth, to the industry.