Chronology of slavery in colonial and imperial Brazil

Sunday 13 May 1888 dawned sunny in Rio de Janeiro, the capital of the Brazilian Empire. It was a day of celebration.

Slavery came to an end through a law voted in the Senate and signed by Princess Isabel.

Brazil was the last country in the Americas to end slavery. Over the course of more than three centuries, Brazil was the world’s largest destination for trafficked Africans – almost five million people;

Chronology of slavery in Colonial and Imperial Brazil

  1. Portuguese pioneering in navigation and the early years of colonial Brazil
  2. Quilombos and Resistance to Slavery
  3. Alforrias and the Abolition of Slavery

ESCRAVIDÃO NO BRASIL- Quanto Tempo Durou e Como Aconteceu

1. Portuguese pioneering in navigation and the early years of colonial Brazil

It is generally accepted that Portugal was the first European nation to conquer the Atlantic when it undertook voyages of exploration along the African coast in search of alternative routes to the sources of the coveted and lucrative spices, monopolised in the Mediterranean by merchants mainly from the Italic microstates such as Genoa.

By rounding Cape Bojador and making expedition after expedition across the Atlantic, Portugal dispelled the myths about a “dark sea” that had plagued many people’s minds and paved the way for a new era.
Ortelius' Cornerstone Map of Africa "Africae Tabula Nova", Ortelius, Abraham Period: 1570 (dated) Publication: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Este impressionante mapa é um dos mapas fundamentais de África e continuou a ser o mapa padrão de África até ao século XVII. Foi concebido por Ortelius a partir de elementos de mapas contemporâneos de Gastaldi, Mercator e Forlani e utilizou várias fontes recentes: Ramusio em Navigationi et Viaggi (1550), João de Barros em Decadas da Ásia (1552), e Leo Africanus em Historiale description de l'Afrique (1556). A maior parte da nomenclatura é retirada de Gastaldi. O Nilo baseia-se no conceito ptolemaico, com origem em dois grandes lagos a sul do equador. Curiosamente, Ortelius não representou as Montanhas da Lua (uma caraterística proeminente na maioria dos mapas anteriores) e os lagos gémeos não são nomeados. Ortelius introduziu duas alterações importantes na forma do continente neste mapa; o Cabo da Boa Esperança é mais pontiagudo e a extensão do continente para leste foi significativamente reduzida. O mapa está decorado com uma cartela de título em cinta, uma grande batalha marítima (copiada do mapa mural das Américas de Diego Gutierez) e monstros marinhos. A presença do monstro fantasma é pouco visível no mar ao largo da península Arábica. Este belo mapa foi gravado por Frans Hogenberg, que gravou muitos dos mapas para o Theatrum. Este é o segundo estado do mapa com texto latino no verso, publicado em 1579.
Mapa Histórico da Africa de 1570
The passage of Cape Bojador

Cape Bojador, located off the coast of Western Sahara, used to be known as Cape Fear. Sharp-edged reefs dominate the region, making navigation very risky.

25 kilometres off the coast of the cape, in the open sea, the depth is only 2 metres.

The height of the waves, the frequency of storms, the violence of the winds, the lack of knowledge of ocean currents and the permanent fog made navigation extremely dangerous.

Those who passed through never returned. Legends told of more than 12,000 failed attempts.

Some believed that the winds from then on blew southwards, preventing a return to Portugal, heading north.

Others thought that this was the end of the world and that the fog was the result of the evaporation of the waters that boiled when they fell into hell below. Legends told of sea monsters and gigantic, ferocious whirlpools.

The sea boiled in the heat and only certain bizarre creatures could survive in the intense heat and aridity. There were said to be great treasures guarded by ferocious dragons and giants that entered the sea and destroyed the ships.

Fanciful tales of crews giving up and returning fuelled the legends. Cape Bojador was considered insurmountable, that’s where the known world ended.

All historians agree that the commander of Pedro Álvares Cabral’s fleet, when he set sail from the Cape Verde Islands in search of the Cape of Good Hope, strayed too far west from the route that Vasco da Gama had advised him to take, and so, on 22 April 1500, he landed on the Brazilian coast.

A rota da esquadra de Cabral, ida e volta
The route of Cabral’s squadron, round trip

Supporters of the casual discovery of Brazil believe that the captain-major, against his will and unaware of the distance, was swept by the equatorial current to the coast of a land to the west of the Black Continent, the existence of which he was unaware.

On one of these voyages, Pedro Alvares Cabral accidentally diverted course and discovered a new land to the west of Africa, but these lands, which would come to have various names until they reached their current form, Brazil, did not immediately arouse the interest of the Portuguese Crown, except perhaps for the brazilwood and other so-called spices found in much smaller volume, since financial and material efforts were being spent on the extremely lucrative sea routes that led to what led to the East.

In this sense, from 1500 to 1530 the colonisation of Brazil was hardly stimulated, being limited almost exclusively to coastal exploration missions, which intensified and became more bellicose as pressure from France increased on the region.

In fact, the French took advantage of the Portuguese’s carelessness (or inability) to try to establish a colony.

The most famous case is that of the France Antarctique, set up in the region of Rio de Janeiro, which was to serve as a port of call for French voyages and the starting point for eventual effective colonisation.

Unlike the Portuguese, it is well known that the French were able to achieve a certain level of friendship with indigenous tribes, both in South America and later in the North; it was no different with the Tamoios and the Tupinambás, indigenous peoples considered extremely hostile by the Portuguese who inhabited the region chosen by Villegaignon’s mission.

On 10 November 1555, a conquest expedition under the command of the Knight of Malta Nicolau Durand de Villegaignon entered Guanabara Bay with the aim of founding an empire in this then wild region, which would be called Antarctic France.

The Antarctic France project lasted only five years, from 1555 to 1560, when the invaders were expelled by Portuguese forces commanded by Mem de Sá due to the crown’s concern about losing a territory with enormous potential that had been so little explored.

One of the main setbacks encountered by the French was one that would affect all the colonisers: the lack of labour.
The Indians didn’t show any interest in working.

The Indians did not show the same disposition as the African slaves in carrying out the activities imposed on them: they “[…] were lazy and incompetent; they tired easily and ran away if they were not constantly watched”.

In the first decades of effective colonisation, that is, from 1530, the labour shortage worsened because the natives, who were initially easily seduced with trinkets of all kinds, began to demand goods that the Portuguese were unwilling to give up either because they were expensive, such as more sophisticated clothing, or because they were potentially dangerous to the colonisation process, such as weapons.

Furthermore, Villegaignon, at the beginning of the implementation of Antarctic France, recounts the conditions that were notably adverse to colonisation in a letter dated at the beginning of the second half of the 16th century addressed to his friend John Calvin, one of the leaders of the Reformation:

This country was all vastness and abandonment.

There were no houses, no roofs and no crops or grain. The people of the place live from one day to the next, without bothering to cultivate the land.

So we didn’t find food stores gathered in one place, but had to go further and further afield to look for them and gather them together.

From the 1540s onwards, the creation of plantations, especially of sugar cane, made it necessary to apply the Portuguese experience on the Atlantic islands of using black slave labour.

The proximity of Portugal and its African colonies to the Brazilian coast in relation to the other European nations and their colonies facilitated trade between the three parties, generating an exchange of goods.

Slavery in Brazil began with the arrival of the first waves of slaves from Africa. This happened around 1549, when the first contingent landed in São Vicente. King João III granted authorisation for each settler to import up to 120 Africans for their estates. Many of these settlers, however, protested against the limit set by the king, as they wanted to import a much larger number.

To summarise, the logistics of the slave trade were:

  1. at one end, Portuguese ships left Portuguese ports with goods, such as cloth and food, to be sold to their colonists in America;
  2. in Brazilian ports, in turn, they were loaded mainly with tobacco, and later cachaça, to be exchanged for slaves in Africa, although currency was also used;
  3. Now with slaves, the ships headed back to Brazil, where labour shortages had always been a problem;
  4. Finally, from Brazilian ports the ships headed to Portugal mainly with sugar, the main product produced in these lands until the discovery of the gold mines.

This commercial logic entangled producers and distributors, buyers and sellers, dominators and subjugated, in an intricate game led by the European powers.

But this commercial logic essentially depended on the existence of slavers willing to exchange the manufactured products transported by merchants from Europe – firearms, rum, cotton fabrics from Asia, iron, low-value jewellery, among others – for their own compatriots, blacks who would be enslaved in America, where they would in turn be exchanged for sugar, tobacco, coins or gold and silver bars.

Negreiros are individuals who trafficked blacks on the African continent.

Brazil had a high need for slaves, as there was not enough labour available.

Quantidade de pessoas escravizadas que desembarcaram no Brasil
Number of enslaved people who landed in Brazil
Number of enslaved people who landed in Brazil.

In 1831, Brazil banned the slave trade. Anticipating this, slave traders transported a record number of people in 1829. Shortly after the law was passed, trafficking fell, but rose again and was only definitively banned in 1850.

It is estimated that in 1630, there were already between 50,000 and 60,000 black slaves in Brazil, with a further 10,000 landing that year alone.

The slave trade involved only Portugal, but other European countries such as England, Spain, Holland and France.

Escravos em terreiro de uma fazenda de café. Vale do Paraíba - 1882
Slaves in the yard of a coffee plantation. Paraíba Valley – 1882

2. Quilombos and Resistance to Slavery

The consolidation of a bipolar Atlantic system linking Africa to Brazilian ports, ensured by the reconquest of Angola in 1648, guaranteed a continuous flow of slaves and made the sugar economy viable in a very adverse international climate.

The Portuguese situation was marked by competition in the sugar market with the Antilles, the collapse of the eastern “Pepper Empire” (Portuguese trade in India at the beginning of the 17th century), expenses for the war against Spain in favour of independence and heavy taxation to cover the costs of diplomacy and defence of the Kingdom.

Negra com seu filho, 1884 - Salvador, Bahia
Black woman with her son, 1884 – Salvador, Bahia

During this turbulent period, there was an increase in the number of “alforrias” (freedom granted to slaves by their masters).

The resistance of slaves to slavery accompanied the entire process of Portuguese colonisation, but was more expressive at times of social fragility.

This fragility could be found during the Dutch invasion and the conflicts that followed against the Portuguese-Brazilian settlers, opening up good opportunities for slave resistance.

As the greatest symbol of this resistance, the Quilombos appeared as early as the 16th century as an attempt to reconstitute African ways of life and, as such, should not be idealised as “territories free from slavery” as has often been done.

The name “quilombo” meant nothing more than “village”, different from the connotation “den of escaped blacks” invented by the slavers.

Quilombos were hiding places for runaway slaves, usually in bushland areas.

In this context, the Quilombo dos Palmares, a federation of eleven quilombos located in the Zona da Mata, between Alagoas and Pernambuco, reached its peak.

The Quilombo dos Palmares resisted for more than a century, becoming a modern symbol of African resistance to slavery.

The quilombo population survived by hunting, fishing, gathering fruit and farming. Surpluses were traded with neighbouring populations, so much so that settlers even rented land for planting and traded food for ammunition with the quilombolas.

With the expulsion of the Dutch from north-eastern Brazil, there was an acute shortage of labour to restart production in the region’s sugar mills.

The quilombola Antônio Soares was captured and promised his release in exchange for revealing his hiding place.

The leader of the Quilombo dos Palmares, Zumbi was cornered and killed in an ambush on 20 November 1695.

Mechanisms of Torture and Punishment of Slaves
O castigo de um escravo - Rio de janeiro 1825 -1826
The punishment of a slave – Rio de Janeiro 1825-1826
Castigando um escravo - Eduard Hildebrandt - 1846-1849
Punishing a slave – Eduard Hildebrandt – 1846-1849

In the images, enslaved people are flogged in public places, walked through the streets wearing so-called tin masks – a flexible metal mask usually with three holes (two for the eyes and one for the nose), locked behind the head by a padlock – chains and neck straps. These are just a few examples of the punishments that were meted out to the enslaved.

The records show the cruelty and naturalisation of the punishments, a practice adopted throughout the slavery period and which was part of everyday life in Brazil.

In the Dictionary of Black Slavery in Brazil, Clóvis Moura and Soraya Silva Moura describe some of this violence in the entry “Deformations of the body”: “A constant during slavery in Brazil was the equating of the captive’s body with that of beasts, of animals.

As a result, mutilation was constantly used, sometimes as punishment, with a red-hot iron or by cutting off the runaway’s ear, sometimes as a symbol of ownership.

In addition, one cannot forget the marks of instruments of torture, such as the little angel and the trunk, the whip marks, the signs of burns.

Rarely did a slave not bear one of the marks of rape on his body (…).

The relationship of escaped slaves with marks of torture and punishment spans the entire period of slavery and was a mechanism of the landlord class to keep the captive in a state of absolute subjection and obedience, without which slave labour could not be maintained for long.”

Legal torture of slaves

Unlike Spain and France, which had specific legislation on the enslaved people of their colonies, in the colonial period, the crimes committed by captives in Brazil had their penalties decided by the Portuguese legal code, Book V of the Philippine Ordinances.

Under this code, penalties were defined not only by the quality of the offence but also by the judgement of the person who committed it. In the case of enslaved people, the responsibility for the punishment defined by the sentence lay with the master.

At the end of the 17th century, the guardianship of punishment began to change. A charter prohibited slave masters from using iron instruments in their punishments and from condemning enslaved people to private imprisonment.

The Portuguese crown was concerned not only with social stability – very severe punishments could cause uprisings – but also with controlling the slave system, limiting the masters’ authority to royal power.

After Independence, the Constitution of 1824 guaranteed the extinction of physical punishment in Article 179. “Flogging, torture, branding with a hot iron and all other cruel punishments are hereby abolished.”

But in 1830, with the promulgation of the Brazilian Criminal Code, article 60 stated that “If the defendant is a slave and incurs a penalty other than capital punishment or gales, he shall be sentenced to flogging, and after suffering it, he shall be handed over to his master, who shall be obliged to bring him with an iron for the time and in the manner that the judge shall appoint, the number of floggings shall be fixed in the judgement and the slave may not receive more than 50 per day”.

In other words, specific punishments for enslaved people – based on torture – were consolidated and became a matter for the state, no longer for the master.

“Many jurists, politicians and masters defended the maintenance of specific penalties for slaves, arguing that the country’s “cultural level” and “social evolution” were incompatible with the classical principles of equality between human beings,” Keila Grinberg points out in the text Physical punishment and legislation.

Sapataria - Thierry Frères - 1835
Sapataria – Thierry Frères – 1835
Feitores que corrigem os negros - Thierry Frères - 1835
Black correctors – Thierry Frères – 1835

Two forms of punishment for slaves were more common:

  1. public flogging, for those who had been tried and convicted
  2. the whipping in the dungeon, which replaced private punishment

Lords had to pay for the service of punishing slaves – not only for the floggings and subsequent medical treatment, but also for accommodation and food.

In the beginning, they could request many hundreds of lashes, and there are records that some officials tried to limit the load of lashes or spread the punishment over days, with a maximum of lashes per day.

Not a few slaves died in prison as a result of their injuries, and many probably died after leaving the Calabouço.

Some masters used the prison as a way of getting rid of unwanted slaves who were difficult to sell: they would hand them over to the institution and simply stop paying.

After repeated threats, the state tried to find a way to sell the slaves on its own.

It wasn’t until October 1886, two years before the Abolition of Slavery, that the Brazilian parliament passed a law abolishing the use of flogging on enslaved people.

But the practice took a long time to disappear. The slave was publicly flogged, humiliated and tortured.

Then, weeks later, when he had recovered (from the flogging), the slave would go back to work.

So torture was legal in Brazil until 1888, but only for slaves.

Ir para a Casa de Correção - Eduard Hildebrandt - 1846-1849
Going to the House of Correction – Eduard Hildebrandt – 1846-1849

3. Freedoms and the Abolition of Slavery

At the party, Isabel was exalted by the people. But the abolition of slavery was not a benevolent action by the princess and the Senate. Nor did it stem solely from the exhaustion of the economic model based on slave labour, which needed to be replaced by free labour.

The end of slavery in Brazil was driven by several factors, including significant popular participation. More and more slaves, free blacks and whites joined the abolitionist movement. Especially in the 1880s.

The main tactics were meeting in different abolitionist associations, organising artistic events to raise support, filing lawsuits and even supporting slave revolts and escapes;

Letter of Alforria

A letter of release was a type of formal and legally valid document through which a slave owner legally granted freedom to an enslaved person.

The carta de alforria was used during the period of slavery in Brazil (1500-1888). Enslaved people could obtain their freedom by granting it free of charge, by buying it or by granting it conditional on a service.

  • Many letters of release established various obligations for the freedman, such as providing services to the former master’s family.
  • Although it happened infrequently, letters of release could be reversed at any time by the slave’s former owner.
  • There were various types of letters of release, such as free releases, which depended on the will of the master, or paid releases, when the slave or a third party bought their freedom.
  • Part of the letters of release provided for the slave’s freedom only after the master’s death.
  • During the Paraguayan War, the Brazilian state bought the freedom of slaves so that they could fight in the conflict.
  • The Golden Law is considered to be the ultimate letter of freedom, as it made all the country’s slaves free.
Escravos na Fazenda de Quititi - 1865 - Jacarepaguá - Rio de Janeiro
Escravos na Fazenda de Quititi – 1865 – Jacarepaguá – Rio de Janeiro

In the second half of the 1880s, abolitionism set Brazil abuzz.

The states of Ceará, Amazonas and a few isolated towns had already declared themselves free of slavery. Slave escapes and revolts were becoming more and more frequent.

After escaping, they tried to reach quilombos and territories that had already been freed. The police were called in to suppress them, but they also began to rebel.

The head of the army even wrote to the princess extolling freedom and saying that he would no longer hunt down escaped slaves.

Princess Isabel
Princess Isabel

In Parliament, the debates for abolition were raging. In the courts, there was an increasing number of lawsuits demanding freedom.

In the cities, artistic shows were followed by mass liberations of slaves – at the end, flowers were often thrown on stage and the audience left shouting “Long live freedom, long live abolition”.

The law signed by the princess – and nicknamed the Golden Law – came late. All the countries in America had already abolished slavery.

The first was Haiti, 95 years earlier, in 1793. Most countries were slow to follow the pioneer, abolishing slavery between 1830 and 1860.

The United States, in 1865. Cuba, the penultimate country to abolish slavery, did so two years before Brazil.

In no other country, however, was slavery as widespread as in Brazil.

While 389,000 Africans landed in the United States, there were 4.9 million in Brazil – 45 per cent of the entire population that left Africa as slaves.

Along the way, around 670,000 slaves died. The gigantic nature of slavery in Brazil made it difficult to put an end to it – it was ingrained in national life.

Quantidade de pessoas escravizadas que desembarcaram no Brasil de 1829 até 1856
Number of enslaved people who landed in Brazil from 1829 to 1856

The first ban on trafficking dates back to 1831. It came about as a result of Brazil’s arm wrestling with England, which was trying to force an end to the slave trade.

But the law was not very effective. In the first two years, the trade in Africans fell. Then it rose again and continued as if nothing had happened. It wasn’t until 1850 that the trade was definitively banned.


Cronologia do escravismo no Brasil até a independência do Brasil
Chronology of slavery in Brazil until Brazil’s independence

Chronology of slavery in Colonial and Imperial Brazil

  • 1559 – The Portuguese crown allows black slaves to enter Brazil.
  • 1693 – The Palmares quilombo (the main concentration of escaped slaves in the country) is destroyed after having resisted 17 expeditions organised by landowners. Its leader, Zumbi, is killed two years later.
  • 1807 – England declares the slave trade illegal.
  • 1830 – In order to get England to recognise Brazil as an independent nation, Pedro I makes a commitment to abolish the slave trade in the country.
  • 1831 – Feijó government law declares all slaves from outside the Empire free.
  • 1835 – Stipulates penalties for slaves who commit crimes.
  • 1850 – The Eusébio de Queirós law is passed, banning the trafficking of blacks to Brazil.
  • 1860 – The Institute of Lawyers considers slave labour to be illegitimate under natural law. The idea of slavery comes to be seen as incompatible with industrial development.
  • 1864 – Slaves are considered objects of mortgages and pledges.
  • 1866 – Dom Pedro II signs several letters of freedom (documents that gave slaves their freedom).
  • 1871 – The Free Womb Law is passed. The law establishes that the children of black women born from the date of its enactment would no longer be slaves, but would be freed after the age of eight through compensation from the government to the owners.

The Law of the Free Womb was one of the precursors to the Golden Law, which determined that, from 28 September 1871 onwards, enslaved women would only give birth to free babies. According to the law, no more enslaved people would be born on Brazilian soil.

The deputies approved the Free Womb Bill in three and a half months. The senators followed in just three weeks. The law was immediately sanctioned by Princess Isabel, who was in charge of the Empire due to Dom Pedro II’s trip abroad.

As well as freeing the children of slave mothers born from then on, the Free Womb Law allowed slaves to save money and buy their freedom.

The liberation of children, however, faced more problems. There are reports that birth records were tampered with to pretend that the children had been born before the law and were therefore slaves.

In other cases, the mothers’ owners continued to exploit child labour;

The original version of the Lei do Ventre Livre, signed by Princess Isabel
The original version of the Lei do Ventre Livre, signed by Princess Isabel
  • 1885 – The Saraiva-Cotejipe (Sexagenarians) law declares slaves over 65 free, subject to compensation.
  • 1888 – Princess Isabel sanctions the Golden Law, which establishes the immediate and unconditional extinction of slavery;
A princesa Isabel surge num dos balcões do Paço da Cidade e é aplaudida pela multidão logo depois de sancionar a Lei Áurea
Princess Isabel appears on one of the balconies of the Paço da Cidade and is applauded by the crowd shortly after sanctioning the Golden Law
missa realizada em 17 de maio de 1888, no campo de São Cristóvão, no Rio de Janeiro, para celebrar o fim da escravidão no Brasil.
Mass held on 17 May 1888 in the São Cristóvão field in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate the end of slavery in Brazil. Princess Isabel can be seen in the picture. To her left, a little below, is Machado de Assis.

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