Brazil Slavery and Bondage

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Until the latter part of the 19th century, Brazil had an extensive slavery system. Slavery was used in both nations to fill labor demands for emerging plantation economies. Sugar was the chief crop in colonial Brazil. In 1532 sugar plantations (fazendas) were established by the first permanent settlers. Six years later, Africans were imported from Angola to replace Indians as slave laborers.

There were about 100,000 slaves in Brazil in 1600 and about 600,000 in 1700. From the official census of 1798, 33.7 percent of the population was white, 14 percent was free black, and 52.8 percent was slaves. Black slaves remained the majority of the Brazilian population throughout the colonial period (prior to 1822).

From 1550 to 1690 most Brazilian slaves resided on sugar plantations in the northeast provinces of Maranhão, Pernambuco, and Bahia and in the southern province of Rio de Janeiro. They worked sugar cane, cotton, and provisions. The typical estates comprised the plantation owner (fazendeiro), his family, 15 to 20 Portuguese overseers and technicians, and about 100 slaves.

In the 1820s coffee replaced sugar as Brazil’s dominant export. This led to a shift from the northeast of Brazil to the south, primarily to São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Rio de Janeiro. After trans-Atlantic slave trade to Brazil was outlawed in 1850, peddlers brought large numbers of slaves from the northeast to the south and sold them there for exaggerated prices. By 1874 one-third of Brazil’s slaves were still in the northeast, while over one-half were in the three coffee-growing provinces.

Important dates concerning slavery in Brazil include the following:

1538 The importation of black slaves to Brazil began.

1761 Slaves were liberated in Portugal but not in Brazil.

1850The Queiroz law prohibited the importation of African slaves to Brazil.

1867 Freedom was promised to slaves who would fight in the war.

1871 The Law of Free Birth gave freedom to all children born of slave parents.

1885All slaves 65 years old or older were freed.

1888Slavery was prohibited in Brazil by the Golden Law.

1890 The government ordered the destruction of many slave records.

Brazil was the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to officially abolish slavery.

Church records of births, marriages, and deaths included records of slaves, usually in separate books. These records have been filmed by the Family History Library (see "Church Records" section of this outline). Sometimes records of sales of slaves can be found with the civil records, as in the civil records of the towns of Pasira, Flôres, and Altinho in the state of Pernambuco, Brazil.

Sources that discuss the historical background of and social conditions for slaves in Brazil can be obtained through local university and public libraries. The Family History Library has sources with information about the social history, including:

  • Taylor, Quintard. "African Families: Black and White." World Conference on Records: Preserving our Heritage. Vol. 11, pt. 16. Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President, c1980. (FHL book 929.1 W893 1980; fiche 6085857) This book gives information about slave marriages and families.
  • Pang, Eul-Soo. "Modernization and Slavocracy in Nineteenth-century Brazil." The Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Vol. IX, no. 4, pp. 667–688. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979. (FHL book 981 Al no. 16)
  • Escravidão (Slavery). São Paulo: Ed. ANPUH/Marco Zero, 1988. (FHL book 981 H6e)
  • Dalla Vecchia, Agostinho Mário. Os filhos da escravidão: memórias de descendentes de escravos da região meridional do Rio Grande do Sul (The sons of slaves: concerning the descendants of slaves in the surrounding region of Rio Grande do Sul). Pelotas: Editora Univesitária da UFPEL, c1994. (FHL book 981.65 H6)

A very important bibliography for sources on slavery was produced by the National Archives of Brazil:

  • Guia brasileiro de fontes para a história da África, da escravidão negra e do negro na sociedade atual: fontes arquivistas (Brazilian guide to sources for the history of Africa, enslaved Negroes, and the Negroes in contemporary society: archival sources). 2 vols. Rio de Janeiro: O Arquivo, 1988. (FHL book 981 A3g)

A helpful genealogical guide that discusses techniques and strategies for tracing black ancestry is:

  • Nielsen, Lawrence James. "The special problem of research and documentation of slave families in Brazil." World Conference on Records: Preserving our Heritage. Vol. 9, pt. 14. Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President, c1980. (FHL book 929.1 W893 1980; fiche 6085821)