Though in the beginning the Portuguese didn’t seem too keen to develop their New World colonies, that partly changed when they saw the potential in Brazil for agricultural purposes, especially in the growing of sugar, the cash crop of the 16th century. Sugar cane grew extremely well in the tropical climate of northeastern Brazil. The colony’s new capital at Salvador was soon the hub of the hundreds of square miles of sugar plantations that surrounded it.
The problem was that land doesn’t just work itself; in order to prepare the sugar for sale and export, the Portuguese needed people to do the grueling field work that was required to harvest and cut the sugar cane. The Portuguese themselves, either because they were too lazy or thought that such work was beneath them, weren’t going to lift a finger in the fields, and the indigenous populations who they originally coerced to do the work either died or disease or ran away.
In order to solve the labor problem, the Portuguese began bringing over slaves from West Africa, much like the English colonists did in North America. Brazil soon became the center of a slave trade triangle: guns and supplies were brought from Portugal to Africa, which were then traded with kingdoms, tribes and merchants in Africa for slaves to be brought back to Brazil to work on the plantations that would produce the sugar, eventually transporting it from Brazil back to Europe. Buying and selling slaves was a business that generated enormous profits for the slave traders, European merchants and financiers who engaged in it. In colonial Brazil, cities such as Salvador and Olinda profited tremendously off this type of trade and many of their residents (the ones who were not slaves, of course) became ridiculously wealthy.
The Portuguese were the pioneers in developing the trans-Atlantic slave trade and were followed by the Dutch in the 17th century and the French and the British in the 18th. The trade functioned in the following way: the African captives who were brought to the New World were generally first captured and enslaved in their native regions in western Africa by enemy tribes who then sold them to merchants who put them in chains and forced them to march hundreds of miles to the African coast. This march often took weeks or even months, at the end of which the slaves were held in the dungeon-like warehouses filled with filth and deprived of adequate food and water. Those that survived and were deemed fit for the trek across the Atlantic were put into slave ships where they were cramped in the cargo hold like animals in the most horrid of conditions. Many of these ships carried up to 400 slaves at a time. Those who reached the Brazilian coast (about 25% were expected to die during the voyage), were given a short period of time to recuperate, not because of any mercy showed by the slavers, but so their market value would go up before being sold to plantation and mine owners.
The torment of the slaves didn’t just end with their voyage. In fact, for many, their suffering became even more protracted once they were sold to their new masters. For over three hundred years, the predominantly African slaves worked as field hands on sugar and coffee plantations as well as ranchers and miners. They worked as skilled laborers, artisans, house servants, coach drivers, field hands and even in the military. Instead of animals, many slaves were even required to carry heavy carts and loads that were “enough to kill both mules and horses.” 1 Often times both adult slaves and their children were made to carry enormous tubs on their heads that were filled with garbage and human excrement that was collected from the homes of the wealth to be taken to garbage dumps on the beach and outside the city. Overall, slavery in Brazil, despite some historians’ claim that it was more benign than in other parts of the world, especially North America, was extremely brutal. Slave owners enforced discipline in many cruel, often sadistic ways. Beatings for what was deemed misbehavior were common, and for more serious crimes, such as attempting to run away, theft or striking a superior, could be punishable by whippings, being chained to logs, or even death, all of which were not uncommon. Though there were some laws on the books protecting slaves from abuse, slave masters, in the rare event that a case of abuse were brought to trial, were almost never convicted and punished.
Slavery lasted in Brazil for approximately 350 years, longer than in any other country in the Americas. Slavery was abolished in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico and much of Latin America more or less by the 1850s. Though declared illegal in Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slavery ended throughout all of the United States in 1865 with the defeat of the Confederacy and an end to the Civil War. It is strange then that this cruel and inhumane institution did not end sooner in Latin America’s largest country. For whatever reason, the debates regarding the ethics and morality of slavery that went on in Europe and the Americas fell largely on deaf ears in Brazil. It was not until May 13, 1888 that Brazil became the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery.
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