Brazil: a society shaped by slavery

Early European visitors to eastern South America described an earthly paradise inhabited by naked cannibals – one soon inundated with African slaves. Lilia M Schwarcz explores the modern legacy of 
past colonisation and exploitation in Brazil. Translated by Rahul Bery

Rags and riches: Enslaved people wash diamonds in Brazil, guarded by armed overseers, in a German engraving of 1828. Diamonds were discovered in Minas Gerais state in the late 17th century. (Picture by Alamy)

Ideas of ‘nature’ and of ‘natives’ have played a major part in the way Europeans have portrayed Brazil throughout the country’s history – or, rather, ever since Portuguese colonisers landed in a territory that was already densely populated by Amerindian people. On the one hand, the natural environment was portrayed as a paradise: an amenable climate, the absence of extreme weather, crystalline rivers, waterfalls set in verdant surroundings, fruit falling from the trees and dolphins leaping from the seas. Because of this, Portuguese America was considered to be an example of the ‘placid tropics’, with only insects interrupting the natural harmony of the landscape.

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But if ‘nature’ was seen through an Edenic lens, the ‘natives’ of this land were viewed with suspicion from the very start. In his letter to King Manuel I of Portugal dated 1 May 1500, explorer Pêro Vaz de Caminha – a knight serving in the first European fleet to land in what’s now Brazil on 22 April 1500 – described how the indigenous people “went about naked… with their private parts on display”, and noted that the ‘natives’ also engaged in polygamy, a habit he judged to be decadent.

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However, what most struck the first travellers was the practice of ‘cannibalism’: this was a people who “ate their peers” in order to sate their hunger. Without ever so much as stepping foot in Brazil, in the late 16th century the engraver Theodor de Bry made a fortune from his images of the country’s natives greedily gnawing on the legs and arms of their enemies. Today we know that this was not ‘cannibalism’ but ‘anthropophagy’ – the people were practising a ritual whereby enemy tribes ate only the prisoners they considered to be worthy and strong. These were people who communicated through war, forming vast networks that quite clearly did not respect the boundaries created by Europeans.

Both Europeans and the indigenous population found the other equally strange. The Portuguese traveller Pêro de Magalhães Gândavo was certain of his claim, made in the 1570s, that the native peoples had “no F, L or R”: no faith, no laws, no king (in Portuguese, Rei). Understood only in terms of what they ‘lacked’, in the majority of cases the Brazilians were thought of as groups of children. In the most negative of visions they were considered ‘degenerates’, and thus the war against them was seen as being a ‘just’ one, as if spreading the Christian faith was something absolutely ‘necessary’.

An American Eden: A coloured engraving from Historia naturalis palm arum, a book based on the 1817–20 travels of German botanist Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius. The fertility of Brazilian soil was believed to have no limits – but needed human labour to work it. (Picture by De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images)
An American Eden: A coloured engraving from Historia naturalis palm arum, a book based on the 1817–20 travels of German botanist Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius. The fertility of Brazilian soil was believed to have no limits – but needed human labour to work it. (Picture by De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images)

Such attitudes had consequences on an immense scale. Estimates of the population 
of the South American lowlands at the time the
first Europeans arrived range between 1 and 8.5 million. As to the magnitude of the catastrophe, the historians are in agreement, although its extent is debated: some claim that between 1493 and 1650 the Americas lost a quarter of their population; others suggest that the population decline was in the order of 95% or 96%. There were a number of factors responsible for this terrible loss of life, including war and unfamiliar diseases such as the common cold, but slavery was also a major cause of death.

Negotiating a name

The name of the new Portuguese colony generated much debate, a discussion also influenced by the question of ‘nature’ and ‘natives’. The church wanted to name its dominion Terra de Santa Cruz (Land of the Holy Cross) in tribute to the place where the first outdoor mass had been held. Merchants argued for Brazil, the name of a tree that grew widely in coastal areas (and which ended up being totally decimated); its wood was used for making furniture, and its red sap was used for dyeing clothes. The market claimed victory in this initial battle just 
a dozen years after the Portuguese first arrived, and this corner of the New World came to be associated with the colour red – the red of the dye from the Brazilwood tree, but also the infernal red of hell, which was how indigenous people and their anthropophagy were represented.

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The fact is that these different portrayals became jumbled together, with Brazil sometimes viewed as a place of biblical promise, at other times as ‘the land of the devil’. For many people this vision would become all too real – above all for 
the enslaved natives, as well as those enslaved people who 
were beginning to arrive from different parts of the European continent. The language of slavery entered the country 
and took its time in leaving. The arrival of the first African 
slaves, who were shipped mostly from Angola and west Africa between Benin and Nigeria, was recorded towards the end 
of the 16th century, when the cultivation of sugar cane 
was introduced.

As nature adapted to the whims of the market, the soil experienced great cycles 
of monocultural production. Brazil’s north-eastern region, especially Bahia and Pernambuco, was the first area to prosper thanks to the sugar planted there, which guaranteed a steady supply of money until the end of the 18th century. From the 
late 17th century, news of the discovery of gold and diamonds in the region of Minas Gerais sparked a gold rush. This arid, flat shrubland, so unlike the fertile tropics, was given the designation cerrado, denoting a closed or fenced-off zone. Finally, in the 19th century, it was the turn of coffee, referred to as ‘black gold’, that shifted the economic axis to the south-eastern region: first to Rio de Janeiro, then to São Paulo. It was assumed that the soil had no limits, but 
that human arms were needed to extract its resources.

Illustration by Joey Guidone

This is why, in Brazil, the idea of manual labour was intimately linked to the African worker. Portugal controlled some trading posts on the African coast, notably Luanda (now capital city of Angola), and soon realised that the ‘trafficking of souls’ could be as lucrative a trade as the commercialisation of agricultural products. Brazil become the most frequent destination for slaves: according to some estimates, between 38% and 43% of all the Africans forced to leave their continent were received there. In addition, Brazil sent slaves across the whole territory, from north to south, and was the last place in the Americas to abolish the practice of slavery in 1888.

But the tumbeiros – slave ships – transported more than just captives. These vessels, the Portuguese name of which literally means ‘coffin bearers’, also brought the religions, rituals, rhythms, visual cultures, languages and symbols of the people they transported. This process led to Brazil’s Africanisation, as it became populated by various groups of people who made indelible marks on the territory’s social and cultural landscape.

The forced coexistence of indigenous people, Europeans and Africans quickly resulted in a mestiço, or mixed, society, albeit one characterised by the inequality in the different groups’ relationships with one another. Mestiçagem means ‘mixture’, but also ‘separation’ – that is, cultural inclusion accompanied by a great deal of social exclusion.

Black gold: A c1900 advertisement for Brazilian coffee. During the previous century the expanding coffee industry demanded huge amounts of manual labour, fuelling the transatlantic slave trade. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Black gold: A c1900 advertisement for Brazilian coffee. During the previous century the expanding coffee industry demanded huge amounts of manual labour, fuelling the transatlantic slave trade. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Slavery, because it was so widespread, ceased to be the exclusive privilege of the great landowners; priests, soldiers, functionaries, craftsmen, merchants, small farmers and even freed slaves possessed slaves. Therefore it was much more than a mere economic system: it shaped the way people behaved, defined social inequalities, turned race and colour into the traits of fundamental differences between groups of people, structured the etiquettes of obedience, and created a society conditioned by paternalism and strict hierarchy. It was a means of social communication – one that had grave consequences.

Fighting back

Slaves in Brazil fought back in many ways: they killed their masters and plantation owners, fled into the forests, and mounted revolts. Right from the start, they never ceased to negotiate their conditions, fighting for leisure time, the means to support their families, and the right to practise their customs and worship their deities. They also tried to adapt their cultural practices, putting them in mestiço form.

A good example is capoeira. The name comes from vegetation born after virgin forest is destroyed, but it took on other meanings as well. Originally a kind of fight, the practice often became described as a dance – quite the apt metaphor: 
a fighting style disguised as a dance, thus hiding its true intentions. But not every reaction was this subtle, and 
many were violent.

Of course, a system based around the idea that one person can possess another can sustain itself only through violence. Slave masters would consult manuals, which circulated 
back and forth across the Atlantic, that offered advice about how to punish and control slaves. In response, many slaves 
escaped, had abortions, murdered and poisoned their 
masters, or killed themselves.

There were also examples of organised insurrections in which the slaves’ resistance led to the creation of quilombos, places where those who had escaped would come together. 
The term originated on the African continent, specifically in Angola, where it designated a kind of military encampment in which warriors would undergo rites of initiation and embrace military discipline. The proliferation of quilombos across the American landscape between the 16th and 19th centuries was the result of a complex variety of political situations. They were not just transitory, isolated places. They represented an alternative way of life while at the same time forming a part of the slaveholding society that surrounded them, with which they were intimately linked in a variety of ways.

Fight club: Capoeira performers in Salvador, Bahia, eastern Brazil. Originally a fight disguised as a dance, capoeira evolved from practices and rhythms that arrived in Brazil with slaves from Africa. (Picture by Paul Nevin/Getty Images)
Fight club: Capoeira performers in Salvador, Bahia, eastern Brazil. Originally a fight disguised as a dance, capoeira evolved from practices and rhythms that arrived in Brazil with slaves from Africa. (Picture by Paul Nevin/Getty Images)

In the mid-18th century Buraco do Tatu, a quilombo located not far from Salvador, was kept financially afloat through robbery, which it achieved by maintaining a complicit relationship with the community of slaves and freemen in the city. 
In the lower Amazon region, in the far north 
of the country, slave refuges were established 
on the ‘white water’ of the river in a densely forested area near the border with Suriname.

The biggest community of escaped slaves, however – and possibly the one that survived the longest in Portuguese America – was Palmares. This quilombo’s original nucleus comprised around 
40 slaves who had escaped from a mill in the state of Pernambuco in 1597. They ascended the Barriga mountain range, in the present-day state of Alagoas south-east of Pernambuco, arriving at an uninhabited place where the mountains acted as ramparts. The region’s palm trees provided a living and sustenance: their leaves were woven together to create animal traps, items of clothing and roofs for rudimentary dwellings, and they also gave the settlement its name.

Palmares was not just a refuge for the enslaved, but also 
an extensive confederation of different communities capable 
of conducting their own business and of choosing their own leaders. At its peak, 20,000 people found shelter there – 
a population far bigger than that of Rio de Janeiro at the time, which had only 7,000 inhabitants in 1600.

A new religion

The slaves also bargained with their masters for the right to play music, dance and sing, in accordance with their rituals. This gave birth to candomblé, a name given to a set of reconstructed religious practices that, from the 19th century onwards, took the traditions of Africa’s Yoruba people, together with some other west African influences, as its base. In this new environment, candomblé was responsible for mediating the differing realities of the Africans, mestiços and indigenous peoples. It’s no coincidence that, to 
this day, the version in Bahia – the state most strongly identified with Afro-Brazilians – called candomblé de caboclo venerates the spirits of indigenous ancestors.

Portrait of an African man, c1530. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Over time, quilombos and differing cultural traditions blended together. Brazil today is still marked by this unequal, hierarchical mixing of so many African and Amerindian nations, and of the European and East Asian immigrants 
who arrived at the end of the 19th century.

The country still suffers from a democratic deficit. Patrimonial and clientelistic practices, inherited from the 
era of slavery and recreated in the present, cling on in the political system and in public institutions. The electoral base may have been expanded, but an ethical agenda capable of transforming the electoral system and the behaviour of the political parties has been found lacking; there is a serious risk of corruption, associated as much with the mistreatment of public funds as with the lack of control over governmental politics, becoming endemic.

The challenges continue

Many problems that characterised the past have persisted to the present day. Poverty continues to ravage a significant chunk of the population, and various indicators place the country among the global champions of social inequality. In many places, women earn less than their male counterparts despite carrying out exactly the same tasks, and ‘crimes of passion’ – 
a euphemism used to define the violent practices that characterise gender differences in the country – are still commonplace. While newer familial arrangements based around sexual and gender diversity are defended in public, many Brazilian citizens continue to be victims of sexist practices rooted in an intolerance towards difference.

Rainbow nation: A Brazilian woman of African descent in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval, a Catholic festival celebrated with African-influenced samba music. (Photo by Getty Images)
Rainbow nation: A Brazilian woman of African descent in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval, a Catholic festival celebrated with African-influenced samba music. (Photo by Getty Images)

Despite the politics of affirmative action, descendants of African slaves still inhabit the reality of a well-documented system of racial discrimination that affects how they enter 
the job market, their birth rates, rates of criminalisation and even how they spend their free time. There is still inequality of opportunity, along with daily displays of racism in both private and public. And, though torture has not been state policy since the 1980s, it continues to be widespread, used in a concealed way by police officers in some poor neighbourhoods where rampant violence primarily affects young black men.

Problems are environmental as well as social. Abundant cultivation without crop rotation has led to the deterioration 
of once-productive areas such as the old sugar-growing region of the Bahian Recôncavo, and the Paraíba Valley in Rio and São Paulo states. Both have been victims of the frenzy for immediate profit – as, too, has the Amazon, where rivers are still being polluted and the misdeeds of humans have created veritable deserts.

These problems indicate the extent to which Brazil’s 
present rings with echoes from its past. Brazil today is in 
crisis. But every crisis has its positive side: on the one hand it 
is exposing the fallacies of Brazilian democracy and the way 
in which the nation uses its natural resources; in another sense, it invites the country’s citizens to respond and react. 
It’s possible, indeed, that 
such challenges represent the beginning of a new chapter 
in Brazilian history.

Lilia M Schwarcz is professor of an thropology at the University of São Paulo, and co-author (with Heloisa 
M Starling) of Brazil (Allen Lane, 2018).

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This article was first published in the August/September 2018 issue of BBC World Histories magazine