Slavery in Brazil

Black slave bittenSlavery is the condition in which an individual is deprived of his/her freedom and becomes exploitable by another person as if he/she were a tangible property.

Evidence about slavery has been found in Egyptian carvings dating back to 8000 years B.C, but it looks like it began to proliferate only after the invention of farming (it does not appear that hunter-gatherers kept any slaves).

Slavery cannot be associated with a single country or agenda; it still exists today in most countries of the world (despite its abolition). Different types of slavery can be found today, depending on the countries or the social classes.

Its traditional form (an individual becomes the property of another person and can be sold/bought along with his/her children) is an integral part of the history of Capoeira, particularly that of Afro-Brazilians and the Brazilian native people. To understand this history also means understanding Capoeira and its people, who never received the justice they deserved.

Brazil is the biggest and most populated country in Latin America. It’s also the fifth largest country in the world, with respect to its area and population: Brazil covers half the territory of South America and holds more than half its inhabitants. It shares borders with all the countries of South America except for Chili and Ecuador.
The first humans arrived in Brazil around 60,000 years ago. By the end of the XVth century, the territory was inhabited by semi-nomad tribes (more than 200 ethnicities), who did not lead a life of ownership. The Tupinambas were the most important race.

The Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral ‘discovered’ the Brazilian coast on 22nd April 1500. The Portuguese settlers moved into the coasts and called this land Brazil, after the Brazilian wood that emits a red vermeil dye (Brasil in Portuguese refers to “ember”); the native Indians were first called the Brazils. Native Indians readily accepted cutting wood in exchange for tools, blankets or jewelry.

Eventually, “Brazilian wood” was no longer sufficient to guarantee the economic development of the new territory, and the king Joseph II of Portugal (João II) entrusted the development of the land to his lords (the beneficiaries) who allocated large areas of lands to the settlers, making them in charge of the cultivation of sugar cane.

The first Portuguese settlers therefore ended up enslaving American Indians in order to harvest sugar can and precious wood.


Exploitation of the indigenous

The colonization effort proved to be a difficult undertaking on such a vast continent, and indigenous slave labor was quickly turned to for agricultural workforce needs. Aggressive mission networks of the Portuguese Jesuits were the driving force behind this recruitment, and they successfully mobilized an indigenous labor force to live in colonial villages to work the land. These indigenous enslaving expeditions were known as bandeiras.

These expeditions were composed of Bandeirantes, adventurers who penetrated steadily westward in their search for Indian slaves. These adventurers came from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, including plantation owners, traders, members of the military, as well as people of mixed ancestry and previously captured Indian slaves. In 1629, Antônio Raposo Tavares led a bandeira, composed of 2,000 allied índios, “Indians”, 900 mamelucos, “mestizos” and 69 whites, to find precious metals and stones and to capture Indians for slavery. This expedition alone was responsible for the enslavement of over 60,000 indigenous people.


Ritual Tupinambas - Brazil 16th centuryTupinambas were part of the Tupi people who inhabited almost all of Brazil’s coast when the Portuguese first arrived there. In 1500, the Tupi population was estimated at 1 million people, nearly equal to the population of Portugal at the time. They were divided into tribes, each tribe numbering from 300 to 2,000 people. Some examples of these tribes are: Tupiniquim, Potiguara, Tabajara, Caetés, Temiminó, Tamoios. One of the most important tribe was the Tupinambas who were living on the coast of Brazil from the river rio São Francisco to the Recôncavo Baiano.
These people relied on fishing, harvesting and farming for a living. The Native Indians often painted their skin in a different color, their staple food consisted of cassava, but they also grew corn and tobacco. They invented the hammock and the blowpipe.
The Tupinambas were constantly at war with other tribes and would not hesitate to eat the captured prisoners (they believed that the strength of a brave warrior would get transmitted to them by eating them).

In general, the American Indians, who were not many in numbers, often preferred to hide deep in the lands or to commit suicide rather than be enslaved (if they were enslaved, they would be socially excluded from their tribes). They remained much cheaper during this time than their African counterparts, though they did suffer horrendous death rates from European diseases. Due to the lack of number of the Indigenous people, their high mortality rate and their frailty, it was difficult to keep them as slaves, and the Portuguese were forced to take recourse on black slaves from Africa from the year 1532 onward.

In 1775, slavery of Native Indians was abolished and the reliance on African slaves increased.


Exploitation of the Africans

The first Portuguese excursions in Africa (around the year 1460) were pacifist in nature. There are also stories that weddings between the Portuguese and native women were not rare, and that this practice was allowed by the local authorities. Things however changed quickly and the slave trade was mainly started by Muslim merchants who bought war prisoners from the tribes. Faced with an increasing demand, the slave merchants quickly began to capture the members of the tribes in order to resell them.
Between the years 1450 and 1900, we estimate that more than 11 313 000 individuals were sold in the slave market across the Atlantic network (this number is often considered to be an underestimated value concerning only the individuals that survived the journey across the Atlantic) out of which 5 million were sent to Brazil.

Slavery mainly impacted Western Africa, among which the people of Mandinka, Yoruba and Congo.



The Mandinka

Mandinka are an ethnic group from West Africa and are part of the Mandè ethnicity. They have a common language called Mandinka, common traditions and history. Today there are about 11 million Mandinka scattered in the nations of Sierra Leone, Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Gambia and more states of West Africa. Most of them are of Islamic belief though they kept a huge amount of their old traditions.

Mandinka history begins in the Middle Ages. It is the story of the Manding Empire, or better known as Mali empire which existed from the 13th century till it collapsed at the beginning of the 17th century. It was founded by the magician Sundjata who belonged to a noble Islamic family of West Africa. During its time the empire had a huge influence on culture and traditions in West Africa. It had a high standard of civilization and was one of the most urbanized areas in the world. One of its famous personalities was King Mansa Musa (about 1300 to 1330), who was so rich that the value of gold dropped during the time he and his caravan visited Cairo (on his journey to Mecca, the Hajj).

After the collapse of the empire, different tribes among the Mandinka did engage in a war with each other. During this war, a lot of people were driven to the Atlantic coast. Some willingly, a lot of them were caught and were enslaved. Today, a lot of the Afroamericans in North America are descendants of the Mandinka, but the slaves were transported not only to North America, but also to South America (especially Brazil).



The Yoruba

The Yoruba are tribes which are loosely linked by geography, language, history, and religion. In Nigeria, Benin and Togo there are about 15 million Yoruba.


There is some archaeological evidence that the area where the Yoruba live is occupied since prehistoric times. Some theories say their primary ancestors, the Odudua, came from Egypt. These are based on the fact that there are similarities between early Egyptian and Yoruban sculptures (though this can also be just an effect of trade or intercultural cross-talk). According to Yoruba myths, the founders of the Yoruba states were the sons of Odudua. The Yoruba still refer to themselves as “the children of Odudua.” Although they had a common origin, a common language and common believes the Yoruba never had one single political organization. They were organized into up to 25 different nations with urban centers for political, economical and cultural life. The Yoruba were the most urbanized Africans in pre-colonial times.
Ile-Ife is universally recognized as the oldest and ritually most important Yoruba city. The founding of Ife is believed to date to about 850 AD. Its biggest rival, the Oyo kingdom just to the northwest of Ife, was founded about 1350 AD. The Oni of Ife and the Alafin of Oyo are still the most highly respected Yoruba kings in Nigeria. Other major kingdoms were Ijesha, Ekiti, Shabe, Ketu, Egbado, Ijebu, Awori, Ondo, Owo, and Itsekiri. By the 18th century numerous wars between Yoruba states did add to the political, economical and demographical challenges of the slave trade. Slaves of Yoruba descent were resettled in Cuba and Brazil, where elements of Yoruba culture and language can still be found.


Yoruba had a very strong influence on belief systems in South-America and the Caribbean. In the religion of the Yoruba there are important beings such as kings, ancestors and deities. There are around 401 Gods, known as Orishas, which are also known to Caribbean and South-African religions like Candomblé.


The Yorubas are famous for their art and craftwork, especially for their wood sculptures extending to carved doors, drums and ritual masks.
The doors are often covered with carved panels of scenes of everyday life, history, or mythology. The masks are facial carvings that represent different types of Yoruban religious entities like the trader, the servant, and the seducer.
Other than wood carvings the Yoruba also have beautiful sculpture work in brass, terracotta, and steel.



The Congo

The Congo people, or Besinkongo or Bakongo, as they refer themselves, are part of the ethnic group known as the Bantu. There is about 10 million Congolese people living today mostly on the African Atlantic coast between Brazzaville and Luanda.


Kongo Map in 1648The word Bantu does refer to over 400 ethnic group in Sub-Saharan Africa and a language diversity similar to the diversity of the Indo-European languages. The Bantu appear to be descendants of a “proto-tribe” which went through a vast expansion phase in the last 5000 years mostly through diffusion of the culture and the language. Around the year 500 BC the Congo reached the area of the Congo River and engaged in iron work and agriculture. During the 2000 years of pre-Colonial Congo there were a number of kingdoms built up by the Congo people, including the Kingdom of Kongo, Ngoyo, and the Loango kingdom. The Kingdom of Kongo played an important role in early phase of Congo history which was presumably founded around the year 1100.

The first contacts between the Portuguese and the Congo Empire in the year 1482 were pacifist with Congolese nobles presented to the European courts. Obviously attempts to Christianize were made and resulted in king “Nzinga a Nkuwu” being baptized as Joao I. in 1491.

When the Kongo people had to defend themselves against the Yaka in the mid of the 16th century, they asked the Portuguese for help, who came and stayed. Congo was officially colonized by 1885. But before that the Congo kingdom had long lost its power and a large number of Congo people were sold as slaves to the Portuguese. The starting point for most Congolese slaves was Luanda, founded by the Portuguese explorer Paulo Dias de Novais in 1575.
Since its foundation till 1836 Luanda was the administrative center of the Portuguese slave trade.


One essential part of Congo religion is the existence of “spirits”, which can be ancestors, but also other spirits, which can inhibit objects. These objects, the ‘minkisi’ (singular: nkisi) can act as enchantments, protecting the person who wears them. Nkisi do also come up in Candomblé. Most of the Congolese traditions in African Diaspora can be found in the Quimbanda (Macumba), an Afro-Brazilian religion.


Congolese art is predominantly focusing on human beings and animals with a lot of sculpture work. Most of the Congo art is wood carvings and pottery.



The Mbundu

The southern neighbors of the Congo people were another ethnic group with a high importance for Portuguese slave trade, the Mbdundu. The Mbundu count around 10 million people and share common traditions as well as the Kimbundu language. Like the Congo people, the Mbundu also have a distinct history which changed drastically upon the arrival of the Portuguese. And like the Congo a lot of Mbundu people were sold as slaves to Brazil and other South American states.


Queen NzingaThe oral tradition of the Mbundu does tell us that the founder of the Mbundu kingdom was a person called Ngola Kiluanje, who emigrated from the Congo and founded the kingdom of Ndongo. The kings of the Ndongo were called N’Gola, thus the modern name of the state of Angola. First records of Ndongo are from the 16th century when missionaries and adventurers did write down oral traditions of the Mbundu. In those times the Ndongo was a tribute state of the Congo Kingdom, although in later times the Ndongo did gain power with the help of the Portuguese. The rest of the history of this kingdom does read like a classical story of the time of Colonialism with the exception of Queen Nzinga. Mbundu society is strongly matrilineal and did have a lot of important female figures in its history. One of them was the Queen Nzinga born 1582 to the Ngola Kiluanji. She got into power and built up a coalition against the Portuguese attempts to gain power in the region. She was able to hold back the Portuguese in a time when those were thirsty for new land and new slaves to be sold to the growing agricultural economy in Brazil. Queen Nzinga, who led the armies against the Portuguese personally, successfully signed a Peace treaty with the Portuguese in 1657. She died peacefully in 1663 but today remains one of the most important figure in Angola history.
The Portuguese submitted the Mbundu in the year of 1671. They stayed under the slave trade and Colonialism till the 20th century.


The belief systems of the Mbundu are based on the interactions, praise and communication with ancestral spirits and nature spirits. Problems and difficulties in life are referred to as problems in the communication with these spirits. To solve these problems, there existed a diviner, the Kimbanda, who had the ability to communicate with the spirits. These diviners are still referred to when Angolans have problems, although Christianity did enter the Mbundu society at the very first contacts with the Portuguese.


Mbundu arts are usually intermixed with the arts of neighboring nations. As the Congo nations the Mbundu do have a lot of artwork with carvings. One specialty seems to be the Mbundu masks worn in rituals.



Other origins

Slavery was not only endured by native Indians or blacks. As the distinction between prisoners of war and slaves was blurred, the enslavement, although at a lesser scale, of captured Europeans also took place. The Dutch were reported to have sold Portuguese, captured in Brazil, as slaves, and of using African slaves in Dutch Brazil. There are also reports of Brazilians enslaved by barbaric pirates while crossing the ocean.

800px-SlaveshipplanAfrican slaves, considered as cheap labor, mainly originated from the African colonies of Portugal. In the beginning, the tribes would sell war prisoners that had been captured. It would sometimes be an entire tribe that had been defeated at war which was captured and sold. Another type of slavery also existed in the form of raiding, i.e. organized kidnapping. They would usually happen early in the morning. The slaves were taken from their place of capture up to the coast, and were given away to the caravan traders who sold them once they reached the coast. The captives would then be turned into a commodity like any other; the price of a healthy young man would be worth twice the cost of an old man. Their worth would also depend on their tribe. Individuals from the Bantos, Benguela and Congo tribes, particularly from Angola and Mozambique, would be sold for their farming skills. With regard to mining work (as their name suggests), the Africans from Mina or Guinea (Central West Africa) were worth more. Evidently, women were also used for domestic work, for harvesting cotton,… and also, as sexual slaves.

Slave ships (also called tumbeiros due to extensive loss of life during the crossings) that were affiliated to a national company would collect the commodities at the dock where the slaves would be stacked. The others would gradually load their cargo, sailing along the coast to collect the slaves. It could take months to collect the required number of slaves.

Some slaves would prefer drowning rather than boarding the ships, thinking that the white men were capturing them as food. This shows just how the slaves would regard the behavior of white men towards them: they were considered and treated like livestock.



Traveling in troubled waters

navire_negrierThe journey from Africa to Brazil was carried out by ship with bunkers at the bottom so that the ship could sail as close as possible to the coasts. These ships were constructed with lower decks so that they could hold a maximum number of slaves. The largest ships could hold up to 650 slaves.
The space in the bunker was confined and it was often impossible to stand up because of the low ceilings. The slaves were therefore piled up for the entire duration of the journey. They would be tied two by two, their movements very restricted, the women and the children were separated from the men and the diseased would be thrown off the ship to avoid contaminating the cargo. The rebels would be thrown off too and were therefore used as examples of how not to behave. They would have a bucket to fulfill their sanitary requirements, which one of the slaves would empty once a day.

The crew of the slave ship consisted of five essential members:

  • The captain: he would command the ship, would negotiate the purchase and sale of slaves, and manage the purchase of tropical products in the Americas.
  • The mate: he would assist the captain, who would trust him entirely.
  • The surgeon: he would have no medical function other than detecting the risks of an epidemic, infections and serious diseases. He would particularly play an important role before the sale of the slaves in the Americas because he would be in charge of making the slaves “presentable” by concealing the defects of the slaves: he would be in charge of whitening the slaves. The slaves were scrubbed with palm oil or with lemon juice to highlight their muscles and their gums discolored by scurvy were scrubbed with chilies.
  • The cooper: He would construct and maintain the barrels that contained the food and the water for the journey.
  • The carpenter: He would construct the lower decks in the tween-decks in Africa, where the slaves would be piled up. Then, in the Americas, he would disassemble the lower decks after the slaves were sold.

All sailors would have a substitute due to the high mortality rate, due to tensions owing to possible revolts and due to the general living conditions on the ships.

traversee-pontThe duration of the journey (the crossing from Luanda (Africa) to Brazil would last around 35 days and it could take up to 75 days to other destinations), the sanitary conditions of the slaves before embarkation, the lack of hygiene, dysentery outbreaks and promiscuity, and sometimes the lack of water and food (or their damage) would result in a mortality rate exceeding 12 %. In case of a revolt, a shipwreck, serious and contagious epidemics, it could exceed 40% and could even reach 100 %. The children were the most fragile and the women the most resistant.

During the journey, the captives would be taken to the upper deck in groups, at around 8:00 in the morning. The crew would begin by examining the shackles and the toilet of the slaves by spraying sea water on them. Twice a week, they would be scrubbed with palm oil. Once every two weeks, their nails would be cut and their heads shaven. Around 9:00 am, they would eat their meal which consisted of dried vegetables, rice, corn, yam, bananas and cassava which were purchased from the African coasts. Everything was boiled, chili and palm oil were added, and sometimes some brandy too. One plate would be used for 10 slaves, and each of them would be given a wooden spoon. In the afternoons, the slaves would be encouraged to keep busy. Dances were organized, which could prove to be quite difficult for the men who were shackled. Around 5:00pm, the slaves would be taken back down to their bunkers where the men would be tied to the walls for the night. Despite these conditions not being ideal, some of the practices described above were only implemented on the best ships. All the journeys were not equal…rugendas-johann-moritz-s

There are records that more than fifteen slave revolts had been successful. In the best of outcomes, only some of the slaves would survive the rebellion, and in the worst of cases, the ship would disappear. Most often, a revolt would spring up close to the African coasts or almost on reaching the American coasts because the chances of survival in the high seas were very dim particularly on account of the lack of knowledge of maritime navigation by the slaves. One out of ten journeys would experience an insurgency, and most of them would be subdued.
To be used as examples, the punishments inflicted on the insurgents would be brutal, even barbaric in nature: to scare the other captives, they would be publicly beaten and hanged, sometimes their hands would be cut off or they would be beheaded and their corpses would be hoisted on the mast for display.



leilao-de-escravos-s-refBefore docking on American lands, he ship would be placed in quarantine: nobody had the right to either get on or get off the ship before checking for an epidemic. During the quarantine period, the slave traders would attend to their goods; they would wash them, comb them, dress them up. The surgeon would perform his work and would hide the defects of the slaves.

The slaves were usually sold on land but this could also take place on the ships. The sale would be announced in a public place, by the town criers or by sticking flyers in the town walls. The slave traders would sell the captives in batches in order to dispose of them faster and more easily: a slave specimen (a strong and young man in good health), a woman in good health and low value captives (older men and women, young girls or young boys. Slaves from the same tribe or families were separated to prevent rebellions within the properties. Special orders were also made by certain owners.

African managers or commanders would accompany the plantation owner to help determine the ethnicity of the slaves. Captives were selected in parts, based on the reputation of the ethnic origins of the slaves. The buyers would also carefully examine the bodies of the slaves to make sure that they were in good condition and in good health.
The batches would be paid in cash or in kind (sugar, tobacco, cotton or indigo). The payment would either be made immediately or on credit. The richest planters would be given priority on selecting the slaves.

The captain would have to sell his cargo of captives within approximately a week to a month, depending on the quality, the offer and the demand. When it was time to return, the carpenter would disassemble the lower decks and the captain would buy tropical products to sell them in Europe: cotton balls, barrels of sugar, coffee and indigo sacks.
This trade would contribute to the prosperity of great European ports.


Forced labor

Once bought, the slaves would be re-baptized by their master (they would carry his family name) and they would work in the plantations which were large mono-crop tropical product farms (sugar cane, coffee, cotton, indigo …) requiring a large number of workers, or they would work in mines. They could also become domestic servants.



1000wThe sugar revolution would actually begin in Brazil in the 1600s, but the mass arrival of these new slaves would lead to sugar cane farmers reducing their purchase price; on the other hand, it would further the production and reduce the price of sugar in the global market making it possible for a larger extent of the population to discover it. In return, this stimulus in demand would lead to the extensive development of the sugar industry economy and the trafficking of slaves. It’s because of this sugar industry revolution and its profits that the trafficking reached such a great extent. It is said that about 2,000,000 Africans were shipped to Brazil to work in the sugar plantations only.

Harvesting sugar cane was only a part of the plantations. The producers would also harvest coffee, cacao, sugar, cotton, rice, tobacco, indigo… These products would grow well but required a tropical climate. The slave countries would say that the Blacks could bear this type of climate.

There were two types of slaves in the plantations:

  • The slaves in the field would be woken up before dawn at the crack of the whip by the commander. The responsibility of the commander would be to monitor the slaves. During the day, they would be granted two hours of break, not to rest but to prepare the meal for their family. The slaves would cut sugar cane with machetes before transporting it in bullock carts to the mills. They would work until nighttime.
  • The slaves at the mill would carry out an exhausting and dangerous work. They would put the sugar cane bundles in cylinders that would grind them, and then in the boilers that they would have to stir constantly. A lot of slaves, due to exhaustion and lack of sleep, would get their arms crushed in the grinders or they would get burns from the boilers. They would also have to collect grass twice a day for the cattle that would work the mills. This was also tiring because the grass would be located far from the plantations; they would collect it at nighttime when no one would work.

A typical plantation would have an area of 375 hectares, would include 120 slaves, 40 buffaloes, a big house, service quarters and huts for the slaves.
At the end of the XVIIIth century, the harvesting of coffee would develop.



Discovery of the first gold rush in the 1690s, gold discoveries were made in streams not far from present day city of Belo Horizonte. Over half a million African slaves were shipped to work in the gold mines.


Domestic Servants

There would also be domestic servants that would consist of domestics that worked in the plantations, manservant cooks, or woman servants. They would be considered to be the most pampered. It is said that they were better nourished, would wear better clothes and were treated better because they did not have a commander leading them, they would work at the service of their master.
The kitchen was very appreciated in the casa grande (big house). Dishes of African origin such as vatapá and caruru, common on the patriarchal table in the northeast, captured European and Brazilian tastes. The kitchen was in an annex of the house, separated from the main rooms by storage or internal rooms.



  • Some slaves would possess certain specific skills. They would work in town with the artisans and merchants, and would also carry out the same type of work as the free people in the towns.
  • Escravos de ganho (vendor slaves) were slaves who had permission to sell or provide services on the street. In exchange, the slave had to give a percentage of profits to his/her owner.


Routine of the slaves

senzala-s-refThe slaves would wake up each morning at around 4 or 5 am to work from sunrise until around 9 pm. They would get one meal per day which often consisted of black beans with parts of the pig that the master didn’t like (the tongue, the tail, the feet and the ears). That’s how “feijoada” was born. Depending on the master, the slaves would have a break of 3 to 4 hours on Sundays (during mass hours) or have a day off (either Saturday or Sunday). Whatever little free time they would have, they would harvest crops for themselves (the harvest could be sold by the slave) or they would busy themselves with other activities. Also on Sundays, the slaves from Kongo (Angola and Congo) would organize the “congada”, a feast in honor of their once upon a time monarch in Africa; the “congada” would be the origin of the Carnival of Rio.
The slaves would sleep at the Senzala (living space without any comfort or hygiene, in the surroundings of the proprietor’s bungalow) on cassava straw mattresses. Senzala is a word of African origin and it means “house” or “habitat”, it’s a utopian word nothing like the reality of their living space.
When night would fall, the sound of drumming and dance moves would dominate the slave quarters. Festivals and other cultural events were tolerated because most of the masters believed it diminished the chances of revolt.Capitao-mato
Foremen would make rounds at night to make sure that the slaves would not run away or make preparations for a rebellion. The slaves who succeeded in running away would be branded with an iron rod if they were ever caught back and sometimes they would be whipped, tortured or amputated to be set as examples.

The Capitão do mato referred to the person in charge of suppressing minor infractions in the premises. He would often be of a lower social class himself, and could also be a slave or an ex-slave who would accept to carry out this task in order to improve his social status. The main role of the Capitão do mato during the slavery period would be to capture the slaves who tried to escape.

When a slave would break a rule, he/she would be whipped until he/she would have open and deep wounds. In more serious cases, sanctions could include mutilation, castration or amputation of a part of the body.

Conclusao-do-grupoIt was rare to see white women present in a colony where violence reigned. The masters therefore had many wives or mistresses, black and indigenous, and hence, it was not uncommon to subsequently have mixed-race masters. The children of the slaves and masters could also become slaves or free like the servants, artisans or small farmers. White and black children played together until 5 or 6 years of age. They had the same games, based on fantasy characters of African folklore. But at age 7, the black child would be faced with his/her condition and would need to start working.
White mistresses would, on the other hand, often prostitute their slaves. If the Roman Catholic Church encouraged the slavery of black people for a long time, it however, condemned slavery of the Indigenous people.

The average life expectancy of a slave (from the time he would begin to work) was between 5 years to 8 years and at 35 years old, he would already have white hair and no more teeth. Due to the high mortality rate of newcomers, the high mortality rate of children, the diseases and the bad hygiene conditions at the time, the overall mortality rate would be higher than that of births. In addition to the high mortality rate owing to the difficulties in adapting to the hard conditions at the plantations, various diseases would kill the slaves: scurvy, tuberculosis, dysenteries, smallpox, leprosy, African typanosomiase (sleeping sickness from Africa).
The high rate of mortality urged the Portuguese to carry out a mass import of African slaves but also to change how they would be treated.

resitencia-escravos-brasilescola1Slaves have never been passive with regard to their condition and would always contrive some sort of resistance against the system of slavery. They would often organize acts of sabotage, break the tools or burn the buildings and the plantations to impede the production in the fazenda.
They would also rebel by ambushing and trying to kill the supervisors and the planters. There would be many slave revolts: almost one per year.

Resistance would also sometimes be expressed in the form of suicide or by eating dangerous plants that would make them so sick that the slaves could no longer work. Similarly, pregnant women would sometimes try to abort by eating dangerous plants in order not to give birth to a child that would end up a slave or that would be a bastard of the owner.

Cultural manifestations were part of the resistance manifestations. The association of gods with catholic saints, the food, organized fights (particularly of chicken) and musical activities were other means of maintaining their original African connections and customs. Over time, various elements of the black culture were cemented in the cultural formation of the Brazilian people.


Cultural expressions

Whereas all cultural expressions were condemned at the beginning of the slavery period and the slaves were systematically being converted to Christianity, some cultural practices flourished (sometimes in a clandestine manner) and continue to live on until today. The owners would soon understand that allowing the slaves to practice certain things from their culture would reduce the risks of revolt and suicide. And so, dances and music was allowed, which would allow the slaves to practice their religion in hiding, and also develop their combating skills; they would mix the elements or hide certain elements. Since the slaves came from different backgrounds, there would be inevitable exchanges and blends that would strongly influence each other. This mixture is what inspires, in major parts, today’s Brazilian music and culture.




220px-negro_fandango_sceneJongo, also known as caxambu or tabu, originated from the dances performed by slaves who worked at coffee plantations in the Paraíba Valley, between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and also at farms in some areas of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo. Jongo is a member of a larger group of Afro-Brazilian dances, such as batuque, tambor de crioula, and zambê, which feature many elements in common, including the use of fire-tuned drums, the call-and-response form of group singing, the poetical language used in the songs, and the umbigada, a distinctive step whereby two dancers hit their bellies .
Jongos usually took place during a nightlong party in which several people would dance in pairs or in a circle, to the sound of two or more drums, while a soloist would sing short phrases answered by the group. The drums, built from hollow tree trunks covered with animal hide in one of the extremities and tuned by the heat of a bonfire, are called caxambu or tambu (the bigger one) and candongueiro (the smaller one). On the coffee plantations during the nineteenth century, jongos occupied an intermediate position between religious ceremony and secular diversion. Performed on weekends or on the eve of holidays, it was an opportunity to perform forbidden African religious rites, even if disguised as profane dances. The use of African terms, combined with a rich metaphorical language, made jongo songs obscure to the white masters, thus providing a means for the expression of social criticism and cryptic messages from one slave to the others.
Jongo is one of the parents of Samba.



Batuque performance is led by a character, whose dance consists of moving the body, so that his hips move while the dancer snaps his fingers and smacks his lips followed by a grieving singing, at the same time, other participants around him repeat in a synchronous chorus: this was called the semba de roda or umbigada. Batuque originated in Capa Verde and is one of the parents of Samba.



Samba is born of a mix of dance such as Batuque and Jongo and its origins are traced back to the Recôncavo region of Bahia during the 17th century, and the informal dancing following a candomblé ceremony.

The dances performed by the slaves are also the origins of the tambor de crioula and zambê.



Candomblé, Umbanda, Batuque, Xango, and Tambor de Mina, were originally brought by slaves shipped from Africa to Brazil. They would summon their gods, called Orixas, Voduns or Inkices with chants and dances. These cults were persecuted throughout most of the Brazilian history, largely because they were believed to be pagan or even satanic.
They were developed in Brazil, influenced by the knowledge of enslaved African priests who continued to teach their mythology, their culture, and language.


Fighting and defense arts


RugendasrodaEven if we understand the context and know some of the origins of Capoeira, its beginning is still a matter of debate. It is evident that Capoeira was born from a combination of various elements and that its martial side helped it stand the test of time.
One of the foundations of Capoeira would be N’Golo practiced during the efundula (celebration during which a girl becomes ready for marriage and giving birth). This “zebra dance” would allow the victor to choose a wife among the initiated, without having to pay a dowry.
There could be many reasons why Capoeira continued to persist and develop up to today as opposed to other African arts. The proprietors evidently wouldn’t allow any form of martial art practice in order to prevent the slaves from having any type of upper hand. It’s fathomable that the music part of it and the dance impressions may have allowed Capoeira to survive and to also incorporate other techniques.
Fights among slaves must have been frequent. We have to understand that they were all from different origins, different languages and different cultural backgrounds. They may have had to share their space with a member from a rival tribe. It’s therefore possible that Capoeira rodas may have been a means to settle accounts and to test oneself.

Charles Ribeyrolles, a French writer and journalist, received an order in 1858 to write a book about Brazil with litho illustrations based on pictures taken by Victor Frond. He left for Brazil where he would publish the first of three volumes of the book Picturesque Brazil in 1859, an in-quarto two columned book, with French on the left and the Portuguese translation on the right.
He would describe the interiors of the province of Rio and the Fazenda (farms) in general. In one chapter, Ribeyrolles takes interest on the habits and customs of the slaves, and in that chapter, he mentions Capoeira:

“On Saturday evening, after finishing up the work for the week, and on holidays which are rest days, the blacks have an hour or two to let go and dance. They come together in their terreiros, they call on each other, unite, tease each other and the demonstrations begin. In one area, they play Capoeira, a kind of Pyrrhic dance, incorporating bold fighting moves, maintained by the beat of a Congo drum; in another place, they practice Batuque, incorporating striking poses and lustful moves controlled by the accelerated or contained rhythms of the Urucungo thin chords viol; further on, they dance in a crazy frenzy, where the gazes, the breasts and the hips are used in a provoking manner, it’s an intoxicated seizure dance called Lundú.”

There is no proof that Capoeira was used as a way to flee the fazenda, but it was definitely used as an art of resistance within and as a form of defense and fight, outside.



Maculele is another Afro-Brazilian dance as well as martial art similar to Batuque & Capoeira. It integrates dance as well as martial art elements and is played in a circle called a “roda.”. Two individuals enter the circle and hit the sticks that they hold in their hands against the other’s sticks. It’s played at the beat of drums.
Like in Capoeira, the origins of Maculélé are obscure and a theory suggests that it was started in the sugar cane plantations as an expression of frustration by the slaves.



quilombo-1Despite the fear of reprimand on those who were caught, the living conditions were such that a large number of slaves would still try to escape. Fleeing either alone or in groups would be the most common form of resistance.
There was an expression that the slaves would become “brown”. Those who succeeded in fleeing would unite together in tropical areas and they would create brownery colonies called “Quilombos” in Brazil. This word is of Kimbundo origin and it meant a type of war society which followed a very strict military discipline.
These Quilombos would receive black people from all races, but also Indians and white outlaws. The Quilombo was a free territory, created deep in the jungles, which were not easily accessible. They survived for decades in secrecy and they developed specific community relations.
planta_do_quilombo_chamado_o_buraco_do_tatu_m__0The citizens of the Quilombos would be called quilombolas. They would unite by nation according to their language or origin. Life would get organized, they would work on the lands and they would grow staple foods like cassava, beans and sweet potatoes. They would also keep chicken and pigs. The old slaves would restart their religious practices and African gods would be at the heart of the cults.
Thousands of Quilombos were thus created in all of Brazil. Some resisted an attack, others managed to integrate within the regional social and economic context.

In the XVIIIth century, slaves who worked in the sugar cane plantations of Pernambuco would rebel and escape to the mountains. They founded an independent territory, i.e. the Quilombo of Palmares. This rebellion, which lasted for close to a century, would be the longest slave uprising in history. It got its name because of the many palm groves in the area.



The most famous quilombo was Palmares, an independent, self-sustaining republic near Recife, established in about 1600. From its simple beginnings (a village of shacks) in the Serra do Macaco (the monkey’s mountain) Palmares turned massive and consisted of several settlements with a combined population of over 30,000 citizens, mostly blacks.

Palmares was the only quilombo to survive almost an entire century, with the second longest-standing quilombo at Mato Grosso lasting only 25 years. Part of the reason for the massive size of the quilombo at Palmares was because of its location in Brazil, which was at the median point between the Atlantic Ocean and Guinea, an important area of the African slave trade. Quilombo dos Palmares was a self-sustaining republic of escaped slaves from the Portuguese settlements in Brazil, “a region perhaps the size of Portugal in the hinterland of Bahia”. Forced to defend against repeated attacks by Portuguese colonists, the warriors of Palmares were experts in Capoeira.

The name of the first regent of Palamares was Hombé. When he passed away, the people elected Ganga Zumba (which means grand chief in the Kimbundo language) to head the Quilombo. This king, of Bantu origins, would organize the first military resistance against the Portuguese and Dutch attacks. He would erect walls to protect his town. In 1678, he ruled over 1500 households, he led a life of a monarch in a “palace” with 3 wives, his own guard, ministers and devoted subjects.


In 1678, Pedro de Almeida, the governor of the region of Pernambuco, would give Ganga Zumba the option to surrender. In exchange, he would be granted a pardon and the Quilombolas would have to be relocated to the valley of Cucaú. Ganga Zumba accepted the treaty. Zumbi (the nephew of Gunga Zumba), would revolt against this idea because this treaty would only free the Quilombolas and not all the slaves of the region. He would lead a rebellion against this uncle. Ganga Zumba would die poisoned by a member of his family, and Zumbi became Great General of the quilombo of Palmares. The partisans of Gunga Zumba that had moved to the valley of Cucaú, would be captured by the Portuguese and turned into slaves once again.

In 1685, the King of Portugal, Dom Pedro II would propose a new agreement to put an end to the Quilombo of Palmares. Zumbi would however not accept the proposition. This was the proposition made by the Portuguese sovereign:

“Eu, El-Rei faço saber a vós Capitão Zumbi dos Palmares que hei por bem perdoar-vos de todos os excessos que haveis praticado assim contra minha Real Fazenda como contra os povos de Pernambuco, e que assim o faço por entender que vossa rebeldia teve razão nas maldades praticadas por alguns maus senhores em desobediência às minhas reais ordens. Convido-vos a assistir em qualquer estância que vos convier, vossa mulher e vossos filhos, e todos os vossos capitães, livres de qualquer cativeiro ou sujeição, como meus fiéis e leais súditos, sob minha real proteção, do que fica ciente meu governador que vai para o governo dessa capitania.”

Palmares after a history of conflict finally fell to the last Portuguese artillery assault against the Quilombo in 1694. Portuguese soldiers sometimes stated it took more than one dragoon to capture a quilombo warrior, since they would defend themselves with a strangely moving fighting technique. The governor from that province declared “it is harder to defeat a quilombo than the Dutch invaders”.

In Brazil, Gunga Zumbi & Zumbi are now honored as heroes and symbols of black pride, freedom and democracy. Zumbi’s execution date (as his birthday is unknown), November 20, is observed as Dia da Consciência Negra or “Black Awareness Day” in the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and his image has appeared on postage stamps, banknotes and coins.


The Malê Uprising

At the beginning of the XIXth century, half of Bahia’s population consisted of either slave or liberated Africans originating from different ethnic groups, among which, Africans who followed the religion of Islam, such as the Hausas and the Nagos. They would organize rebellions, known as the “Malê” uprising; “Malês” would refer to the black Muslims who knew how to read and write Arabic. This uprising would target the institution of slavery as well as the imposition of the Catholic religion; it would take place in Salvador on 25th January 1835.
The ‘escravos de ganho’ played a key role in the rebellion because they had more liberties than the slaves in the fazendas and they were therefore able to move around town more freely, even though they were treated with disdain and violence. Their actions would help organize the uprising.
The outlaws collected some money in order to buy some weapons and communicated their plans in Arabic, but a black woman exposed them by reporting to the Justice of the Peace and hence, they had to execute their actions earlier than intended. They succeeded in attacking the post office which controlled the town, but, because of their inadequacies, they were crushed by the troops of the National Guard, by the police and by the armed civilians. During the confrontations, seven members of the official troops lost their lives while 70 men from the rebel camp died; more than 500 insurgents were sent back to Africa and Central America to serve a life sentence, most of the others were executed, tortured or condemned to forced labor. At present, the descendants of the deported slaves, who settled in the area of Porto-Novo in Benin, are sometimes called “Brazilians” or “Agudas”. They have retained the dress codes and architecture of Bahia this entire time.

Many consider this rebellion to be the turning point of slavery in Brazil. While slavery existed for more than fifty years following the Malê Revolt, the slave trade was abolished in 1851. Slaves continued to pour into Brazil immediately following the rebellion, which caused fear and unrest among the people of Brazil. They feared that bringing in more slaves would just fuel another rebel army.

In the beginning of the 17th century, the treaty of the Indigenous People in Brazil would be prohibited by the Marquis of Pombal. It would take up to the next century for the abolition of slavery to be declared. However, it didn’t take until the 19th century for the matter of abolition of slavery to be raised. In fact, many nations and religious communities fought against it at a very early stage, in order to condemn this practice. Unfortunately, Brazil would consider the abolition quite late, and not without any resistance.

Slavery began to decline in 1850 with the end of the slave trade (after Responsibility Law of Eusebio de Queirós came into force). The European working immigrant class would gradually replace the slaves in the job market. But it’s only after the beginning of the War of Paraguay that the abolitionist movement began to mushroom. Thousands of old slaves who returned victorious from the war, and decorated for the feats, ran the risk of returning to their old living conditions under the pressure of their old masters. The social problem had become a political issue for the ruling elite of the Second Empire.


The War of Paraguay

curuzu-1866It began in 1865 and lasted five years. At the time, Paraguay was the only country in Latin America that could be considered independent, and it found itself in full industrial development, with weapons and gunpowder factories. Unproductive land was being transformed into state plantations, generating employment for the whole population.
Impeding the process of Paraguay was a big challenge for England, because Paraguay became a big competitor in productivity. Brazil and Argentina, on the other hand, were interested in taking possession of parts of Paraguayan land.
The spark that initiated the war occurred on November 24, 1864, when Paraguayan president Solano López cut ties with Brazil, captured the Brazilian ship Marques de Olinda, and invaded the state of Mato Grosso (which, together with Paraná, are the only states that border Paraguay).
At the end of all the battles, the Paraguayans took the worst casualties. 75% of the country’s population was killed; of 800,000 inhabitants, only 194,000 were left. With this victory, England once again returned to economic domination of the region, and Brazil and Argentina managed to take 140,000 kilometers of the land they wanted.
In order to make use as the slave mass instead of anything else, the Brazilian government made a law stating that slaves who entered the war and returned alive would win their liberty. What was not anticipated is that the majority of the slaves returned. They were useful in the battlefield, mainly in the bayonet assaults and had a real advantage as winning depended more on hand-to-hand fighting than on weapons. Some say Capoeira is what helped the slaves to win the war.


Towards a promised liberation

The abolition of the slave trade, the various outbreaks of malaria, the multiple escapes of slaves, their low rate of reproduction, and the liberation of various slaves, including those that fought in the war of Paraguay… contributed in a big way to the reduction in the number of slaves in Brazil before its abolition.
The Brazilian empire tried to mitigate these problems by implementing laws such as the law of ‘Sexagenarios’ or the law of the ‘Free Stomach’, but these only delayed the inevitable recognition of the official end of slavery, which was declared by the law ‘Aurea’ on 13th May 1888 implemented by the parliament and signed by the Princess Isabel.

Little by little the slaves would be liberated and would be left on their own, without any compensation, the majority of whom would no longer have any place to live or to work. They had been degraded by the society and had been marginalized. Some of them would find work with their old master, but, the majority had to rely on hard physical labor for work, since most of the payroll would come from Europe and would monopolize the access to job offers.

carta-lei-aureaThe activists of the current Black Movement in Brazil actually regard the abolition of slavery and 13th May 1888 as a “white maneuver” aiming at stopping the progress of the black population, which were an oppressed minority at the time.
José Murilo de Carvalho has said the following about the notion of slavery being so engraved in the Brazilian society:

“It was a society in which slavery was largely accepted not only as a practice but also as a value. The slave owners were not only sugar and coffee barons. The small farmers of Minas Gerais, the small vendors and the employees of the towns and the secular and regular clergies would also own slaves. What’s more: even liberated slaves would own slaves. Blacks and mulattos who had just been released from slavery would buy their own slaves if they had the required means. The slave mentality would go even further: cases have been recorded in which slaves would own slaves. This mentality had therefore been imprinted on the minds of the slaves themselves. Of course, nobody in Brazil wanted to be a slave, but it is true that many had accepted the idea of owning a slave.

Furthermore, the same author writes about the “prejudices which structure our society, block mobility and prevent the creation of a democratic nation”:

“The battle against the abolition of slavery, as seen by certain abolitionists, was a national battle. This fight continues until today and it’s a national mission. The struggle of the blacks, the most direct victims of slavery, to attain full citizenship, must be considered as one of the most important struggles. Presently, like in the XIXth century, there is no way of escaping the system. There are no quilombos, not even at a cultural level. The struggle is a struggle that involves everyone, and it is fought within the monster.”

Slavery and systematic inequality and disadvantage still exist within Brazil. Though much progress has been made since the abolition, unequal representation in all levels of society perpetuates ongoing racial prejudice. Most obvious are the stark contrasts between the white and black Brazilians in media, government, and private businesses. Brazil continues to grow and succeed economically, yet its poorest regions and neighborhood slums (favelas), occupied by majority Afro-Brazilians, are shunned and forgotten.
Since the 1990s, despite the increasing public attention given to slavery through national and international initiatives like UNESCO’s Slave Route Project, Brazil has mounted very few initiatives commemorating and memorializing slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. However, in the last decade Brazil has begun engaging in several initiatives underscoring its slave past and the importance of African heritage. Gradually, all over the country statues celebrating Zumbi were unveiled. Capital cities like Rio de Janeiro and even Porto Alegre created permanent markers commemorating heritage sites of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. Among the most recent and probably the most famous initiatives of this kind is the Valong Wharf slave memorial in Rio de Janeiro (the site where almost one million enslaved Africans disembarked).


Ilê Aiyê

It was during Brazil’s military dictatorship when a group called Ilê Aiyê came together to protest black exclusion within the majority black state of Bahia. There had been a series of protests at the beginning of the 1970s that raised awareness for black unification but they were met with severe suppression. Prior to 1974, Afro-Bahians would leave their houses with only religious figurines to celebrate the Carnival. Though under increased scrutiny attributed to the military dictatorship, Ilê Aiyê succeeded in creating a black only bloco (Carnaval parade group) that manifested the ideals of the Brazilian Black Movement. Their purpose was to unite the Afro-Brazilians affected by the oppressive government and politically organize so that there could be lasting change among their community.
Ilê Aiyê’s success has continued ever since and their numbers have grown into the thousands. Even today, the black only bloco continues to exclude others because of their skin color. They do this by advertising exclusive parties and benefits for members, as well as physically shunning and pushing you away if you try to include yourself. Though the media has called it ‘racist’, to a large degree the black-only bloco has become one of the most interesting aspects of Salvador’s Carnaval and is continuously accepted as a way of life. Combined with the influence of Olodum in Salvador, musical protest and representation as a product of slavery and black consciousness has slowly grown into a more powerful force. Musical representation of problems and issues have long been part of Brazil’s history, and Ilê Aiyê and Olodum both produce creative ways to remain relevant and popular.


Recognition of Quilombos

Since 2003, a presidential decree drafted by Lula has allowed the descendents of Quilombos to recover the property of territories that were earlier occupied by their ancestors “as a means of historic redress and recognition to the contribution of 4 million African slaves and their descendents in the construction of Brazil”.
The Cultural Foundation of Palmares has officially recognized the Quilombos listing 3524 of them in the entire country (some sources say that there were more than 5000 Quilombos).
This is how the community of Alto Alegre was recognized as a Quilombo territory on 15th February 2012 by the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA).
It is still difficult for the other Quilombos to be recognized and people are still fighting for it.


Affirmative Action Law

In 2012, Brazil passed an affirmative action law in an attempt to directly fight the legacy of slavery. Through it Brazilian policy makers have forced state universities, regarded very highly because it is free and of high quality, to have a certain quota of Afro-Brazilians. Due to the percentage of Afro-Brazilians to be admitted, as high as 30% in some states, cause great social discontent that some argue furthers racial tensions. It is argued that these high quotas are needed because of the unequal opportunities available to Afro-Brazilians. Brazil’s Supreme Court unanimously held the law constitutional. However, in sectors like education, political representation, and overall quality of life, opportunities and capabilities for Afro-Brazilians will continue to increase. Brazil’s government will continue to provide for all of its people as it sees fit, but the issue of slavery and its legacy may forever be felt in all facets of Brazilian life.