Astonishing Pics of Brazilian Slavery at Exhibition in Sao Paulo


NPR Reported the other day on this exhibition in Sao Paulo that reunites an impressive array of images and photographies about slavery in Brazil.

Here is NPR’s website, which reproduces some of the images with a very high degree of quality:

This one, showing a coffee fazenda in 1882 is a well known one:

“Slaves at a coffee yard in a farm. Vale do Paraiba, Sao Paulo, 1882,” from NPR’s website


Upcoming Events in my Classes !


Three announcements for approaching events at the classes of Afro-Latin America and Race in the History of Brazil. Two are next week, the third one on December 3rd.

1) Live samba ! UNCC instructors Xanda Lemos and Oscar de la Torre will play and introduce a few sambas for the students and all those who want to join. This will happen twice on Tuesday, November 19th: at the Afro-Latin America class, (11 am, room Friday 122), and at the Race in the History of Brazil class (3:30 pm, Denny 120).

2) Skype conversation with anthropologist and book author John Burdick about his recent book The Color of Sound: Race, Religion, and Music in Brazil (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), a path-breaking study of how music in the rapidly growing evangelical churches is introducing new elements in Brazilian debates about race. More information on the book can be found here: More information on John Burdick can be found here:,_John/ The conversation will be on Thursday, November 21st, at the Race in the History of Brazil class (3:30 pm, Denny 120).

3) Skype conversation with Jurema Werneck, member and coordinator of Criola, a black feminist organization from Rio de Janeiro. The conversation will deal with race and racism in Brazil, affirmative action, public health and race, black movements in Brazil, and many other subjects. The conversation will be on Thursday, December 3rd, at the Race in the History of Brazil class (3:30 pm, Denny 120).

NOTE: given the limited space, RSVP to Oscar de la Torre ( asap.

The Slaves’ Internal Economy in Paraense plantations, c.1850-1888


Research Update, March 2011

During the last year or so I have been analyzing the internal economy of Paraense slaves in sugar and cacao plantations. This consists of the economic activities the slaves did for their own profit, like cultivating their own grounds and orchards, or working for wages. This study is part of my dissertation, where I am analyzing how Paraense slaves and maroons transited from slavery to freedom, and how they defended their autonomy as peasants in the decades after abolition. In this short entry I will enunciate some of my findings so far.
In the first place, because the produce of Paraense plantations was remarkably varied, the slaves engaged in the production and collections of multiple items, both manufactured and not. In the aftermath of the Cabanagem revolt plantations using slave labor were one of the few agents capable of satisfying the multiple needs of the regional economy. This is what the structure of exports in the first two decades after Cabanagem shows: plantation produce, like cacao, rice, sugar, cotton, and manioc flour played an important role in the economic recovery of the region after the turmoil of the revolutionary years. Therefore, the slaves practiced multiple economic activities, a very useful lesson for those who had the project of eventually becoming free.
In the second place, through the analysis of travel accounts and post-mortem inventories, a methodology suggested in the past by historians like Ciro Cardoso and Barbara Weinstein, I have shown how Paraense slaves had the opportunity of cultivating manioc grounds, occasionally engaging in wage labor, hunting nearby forests, and surprisingly, extracting rubber. This activity requires taping hevea trees scattered in the forest for long periods of time, which does not sound as an activity characterized by close supervision. These are activities that speak of a high degree of autonomy, and indeed this is the big picture emerging from the study of Paraense slavery in the second half of the 1800s.

“Manufacture of india rubber shoes,” from Sketches of Residence and Travels in Brazil (1845). The man sitting on the bench
is intended to be an acculturated Indian, the one standing on his left a black slave, and the one tapping
a tree, a white colonist.

Finally, two historical forces eroded the institution of slavery in Pará. On the one hand, the slaves’ bid for freedom as expressed in the development of their internal economy and other elements. It is clear that the slaves’ social and economic life resembled that of peasants well before abolition, sometimes almost leading them to enjoy a de facto freedom. On the other hand, the gradual process of emancipation spreading across Brazil eventually arrived to this Northern state, although chattel slavery did not collapse here as easily as one might have foreseen based on the quantitative importance of this institution. Paraense masters stubbornly clung to their slaves until approximately 1885, and new slaves may have entered the state between 1871 (when the Free Womb Law was promulgated) and that year. In sum, the internal economy of the slaves played a significant role in wearing down the basis of the slaveholding regime.

Ira Berlin’s Generations of Captivity


In 2003 Ira Berlin synthesized the enormous bibliography on American slavery in a superb, well written, and analytically sound work. It covers three centuries of chattel slavery and frames them around four different generations of African American slaves: charter generations, plantation generations, revolutionary generations, and migration generations. A fifth one, whose experience was shaped by freedom, is also discussed briefly in the epilogue.


Berlin’s use of different generations of slaves as a template for his chronological narrative is a very telling choice. It indicates that he is very concerned with the slaves’ agency as a historical force shaping slavery. Indeed this is the central idea throughout the book: slaves shaped the nature of slavery in an ongoing struggle and negotiation with the masters under different conditions and in different time periods. From the autonomy and the Atlantic cosmopolitanism enjoyed by some slaves and by freedmen during the seventeenth-century Charter generations to the subjection to harsh labor regimes in tobacco, rice, or cotton plantations in later periods, African American slaves always attempted to improve their working and living conditions in negotiations that ranged from the most apparently trivial aspect of daily life to the en masse enrollment in Northern armies during the Civil War.

Another argument emerges clearly throughout the book: slavery had many different faces across the centuries, so perhaps we could talk of many “slaveries” instead of a single “slavery.” While seventeenth-century slaves living in Atlantic port cities lived in urban environments, were often born in Africa or in Europe, and had a vigorous collective life and cultural institutions, nineteenth-century slaves living in Deep South cotton plantations had a substantially different experience. And the same goes for slaves employed in the Upper South mixed farming at the beginning of the nineteenth century – their experiences were different from the former two groups. One could add that, overall, there was a global trend towards becoming “provincials, linked to place, land, and kin,” (p.202) at the same time that the American economy developed and the nation spread Westwards, especially in the South.

Meanwhile, despite the abolitionist wave that arrived during the revolutionary era to the Northern states, especially to New England, Berlin argues that the North “acquiesced” with the expansion and maintenance of slavery up to the 1800s. There were a few exceptions, however, like black northern communities, which “developed an internal coherence in ideology, leadership, and institutions that stood in opposition to the plantation society from which these communities drew many of their members” (232). Even in freedom, the descendants of African American slaves fought against the peculiar institution.

In the end, slavery collapsed with the Civil War due not only to the action of federal troops from the outside, but also to the pressure that the slaves themselves exerted from the inside at every step of the process (259). As shown in the Epilogue, after emancipation the freedom generations projected their struggle for autonomy, family, religion, and education into the future, but some of the contended issues between slaves and masters now continued to be present in terms of struggles over labor. This is how the epilogue deftly connects the book’s central argument to the main issues discussed in the literature about post-emancipation in the Americas. Specialists in American slavery and African American history will probably find some points of contention, but from my point of view this book is excellent.




The ‘Peasant Breach’ and my Own Research


Research update, late August 2009

The ‘peasant breach’ is the historical process by which Brazilian slaves managed to spend part of their time working as peasants, cultivating their own provision grounds. They permanently bargained for more time and more rights to decide what, when, and where to cultivate their plots within the limits of the plantations, thus creating a ‘breach’ in the slave system.

According to Ciro Cardoso, however, this does not mean that the process weakened significantly the power of the slave system. He argues that the metaphor of the split in the wall shattering the whole building is invalid to express the relation between the ‘peasant breach’ and the broader slave system. While he concurs with Nigel Bolland in this sense, other authors such as Reid Andrews state that the struggles for the right to work at the provisions grounds anticipated post-colonial disputes over land.

In any case, during the next two months I am going to show how the ‘peasant breach’ took much relevance in Pará, where several crews of slaves took control of the land in old sugar engenhos once the master fled to richer areas or simply died. This control, however, hardly received legal sanction, being instead a ‘de facto’ situation. In the decades after the end of slavery, several landowners would try to break this balance between autonomy and legal right to landownership, thus generating responses by the descendants of the slaves.

Afro-Brazilian Woman Selling Different Crops

Afro-Brazilian Woman Selling Different Crops

Research Update, June 2009


Finally, I’m back in Barcelona. I have just finished doing research in Brazil on maroon communities after slavery, analyzing how they entered land and labor markets. I should say that “maroon communities” includes both groups that descend from maroons and groups that descend from communities formed in plantations and cattle ranches.

My first task is going to be the study of slave life and family in the engenhos of the Guajarine area between approximately 1850 and 1888. This study is necessary because we need to clarify the origins of the communities that rose from the ashes of slavery in the Guajarine area, once the estates with slaves entered a crisis caused –it seems –by the emergence of rubber as the main export product in the last decades of 1800. Using post-mortem inventories and the state governor’s annual reports, I will discuss how the interplay between the characteristics of the sugar engines and the slaves’ bid for autonomy and community generated the formation of black rural communities.

There aren’t many studies on slavery in this region, so I cannot wait to start.

Closed for Research


I’ll be back June 15