May 13: A Big Royal Rubberstamp

Why did one straw break the camel’s back?
Here’s the secret: the million other straws underneath it
– mighty mos def

Unlike abolitionist movements in other countries of the Western hemisphere like Haiti and the United States, the Brazilian drive to end slavery was successful without a large, bloody war. In 1888, Princesa Isabel signed into law the Golden Law, and with that, slavery in Brazil officially ended.

But was it really so simple and bloodless?

Unlike other major slaveholding nations of the New World, Brazil was a relatively peaceful, stable and prosperous country, with few major internal disputes that would allow abolitionists a chance to undermine the status quo of slavery.

Andrew George Reid, in his book “Afro-Latin America” shows us that the end of slavery in Brazil was actually a result of prolonged, small struggles over decades and across the country. Abolitionists and slaves worked within the system - suing slaveholders, defending their liberties and demanding equality in the Brazilian court system – as well as against it.

By the time May 13, 1888 rolled around and Princesa Isabel finally picked up her feather pen, slavery “had already collapsed in most of the country” due to the efforts of many brave men and women who hungered for justice.

(It’s a long excerpt, but worth reading!)
Only in Brazil did war not play a major role in slave liberation. The first step in that process was the ending of the African slave trade to Brazil in 1850. The elimination of the slave trade set off a chain of consequences. With no new Africans entering the country, the slave population declined at a rate of 1 to 2 percent per year between 1850 and the late 1880s. Its numbers were still substantial – 1.5 million in the 1872, the year of the first national census – but no longer sufficient to fill the ever-growing demand for workers on the nation’s plantations, farms, and ranches in its towns and cities… this meant the transfer of slaves from urban areas to the plantation zones; and as coffee cultivation in the southeastern provinces continued to expand while sugar production in the northeast stagnated, slaves were also sold southward in a vigorous interprovincial trade.

.. Slaves accustomed to the freer, more open conditions of urban slavery were now forced into the harsh conditions of plantation labor, and slaves who had grown up in the north and northeast were ripped out of familiar surroundings and sold away from their families and friends. Not surprisingly, slaves responded to the violence with violence of their own.

At the same time, slave resistance in the 1860s and 1870s showed clear differences from such resistance earlier in the century. By 1872 the national slave population was over 90 percent Brazilian-born, and even the relatively few Africans had lived in the country for 20 years or more. Those slaves were familiar with Brazilian law, culture, and politics, especially laws and procedures governing slavery. They were more likely to appeal to the law in defense of their rights, and even to obtain freedom. As hundreds were able to do in São Paulo during the 1860s and 1870s when they proved they had been brought to Brazil illegally – in violation of the country’s anti-slaving treaties with Great Britain – from African decades before.

Changes in the law, and Creole slaves’ greater ability to learn about and take advantage of those changes produced some surprising new developments in slave criminality. Earlier in the century, when slaves had attacked masters or overseers, they invariably fled into the forests in an effort to escape. Now, the governor of São Paulo observed in 1878, slaves who had attacked their masters “neither hide nor try to conceal the proofs of their crime – placidly and tranquilly they seek out the authorities and offer themselves up to the vengeance of the law,” convinced, as one such group of slaves argued in an 1861 murder case, “that justice is one our side.”

.. a committee of São Paulo planters, in 1871… Gathered to consider a case in which a slave had murdered his master and then sought to justify his act by saying that, “he did not know why he had to work hard all his life for the exclusive benefit of a man who was his equal,”…

.. the Brazilian Parliament finally passed its own Free Womb Act in 1871. As elsewhere in Latin America, this law spelled the eventual extinction of slavery. But unlike the rest of Latin America, peace and political stability continued in Brazil, greatly reducing opportunities for slaves to further undermine the institution by fleeing to join rebel armies or guerilla bands. In the absence of such pressures, it was conceivable that Brazilians might continue to hold slaves in significant numbers through the 1920s and 1930s and that slavery might not disappear from the country until the 1950s and 1960s.

Faced with the impossibility of achieving final emancipation through parliamentary means, abolitionists now moved completely outside the political and legal system, engaging in open civil disobedience and defiance of the laws governing slavery. In the northeastern state of Ceará, black portworkers under the leadership of former slaves Francisco do Nascimento and José Napoleão organized work stoppages and refused to load slaves on cargo ships headed for the southeastern coffee zones. In response to their campaign, slavery was abolished in the province in 1884. Meanwhile, radical abolitionists… organized networks of activists and agitators to circulate through the countryside, urging slaves to flee the plantations. Here, finally was the opening that slaves had been waiting for, and they immediately seized on it. By the end of 1887 some 10,000 runaways had made their way from the coffee plantations of São Paulo to the gigantic quilombo Jabaquara, outside of the port city of Santos. Others took refuge in the state capital or in smaller quilombos scattered around the province. During the early months of 1888, mass flights spread to Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and Paraná, and Bahia.

By May 13, 1888, when Parliament approved and Princess Regent Isabel signed the Golden Law finally extinguishing Brazilian slavery, the institution had already collapsed in most of the country. “Slavery ended because the slave didn’t wish to be a slave any longer, because the slave rebelled against his master and the law that enslaved him,” observed the São Paulo newspaper Rebate ten years after the event in 1898. “

The May 13th law was no more than the legal sanctioning, so that public authority wouldn’t be discredited, of an act that had already been consummated by the mass revolt of slaves.”

Just as in Spanish America, slavery was overthrown in large part by the slaves themselves. But while correctly pointing to “the mass revolt of slaves,” Rebate glossed over the fact that such revolts had occurred regularly throughout Brazilian history, and with much greater intensity during the early 1800s, for example than during the 1880s…

A cross-racial, cross-class alliance of this sort, bringing together blacks and whites, free people and slaves could hardly have been predicted from the centuries-long history of Brazilian slavery. Yet it happened.
There you have it. The historical proof of what so many capoeira songs insist: the Golden Law was just a big royal rubber stamp to save face in light of the demise of slavery. Was it just easier to say that slavery ended on May 13th? Did it take up less room in the history books than actually explaining really what happened?

Take it upon yourself to learn everything that your high school textbooks left out when telling the histories of the Americas. You can check out other posts on this date, here and here.

Again, this whole book is worth reading. It gives a concise yet thorough understanding of the history of the African Diaspora in Latin America.

“Afro-Latin America” is available in the FICA-DC library thanks to the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

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