Although the slave trade to Brazil did not end until 1850, and slavery itself lasted until 1888, the practice of freeing slaves had been common from the time of first colonization by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and the children of freed women were born free. The result was that, by the time of a national census in 1872, there were 4.25 million free blacks and mulattos in the country, accounting for over three quarters of all those of African descent and two fifths of Brazil’s total population.
To understand the willingness of Brazilian slave owners to free so many one must first consider the general nature of Brazil’s social structure and the paradigms that ordered it. For most, society was not thought of as being made up of individuals equally protected in their rights and mobile in relationship to one another, but by castes, ranks, corporations, guilds, and brotherhoods, layered one atop another or arranged side by side. Almost everyone could feel superior to someone else, even if inferior to others. The nuanced distinctions of ranks somewhat restrained the threat to social order that free and freed blacks might otherwise have been thought to pose. “Free-and-equal” was not a phrase heard in Brazil.
There is overwhelming evidence that race was an important variable affecting one’s position, and discrimination against blacks was widespread and constant. The government reinforced the prejudices of white Brazilians, acquiesced in maintaining a hierarchy based on color, and presented obstacles to the ambitions of free African Brazilians. Civil service positions were usually denied to them, regardless of their qualifications. Recruitment for the army was focused on the poor, that is, on African Brazilians.
Yet, it is also true that many individuals found their way around those obstacles and rose to positions of some importance, for skin color was just one of the many characteristics to be considered. There are multiple examples of freeborn mulattos (and some freed and freeborn blacks) who succeeded in 19th-century Brazil. Some became doctors, pharmacists, journalists, and teachers. Others entered politics and rose to positions of real power. A few worked energetically to bring about the end of slavery.
Monica Duarte Dantas
Scholars have long studied the rebellious movements that rattled Brazil after its independence and during the so-called Regency period. The scholarship has mainly focused on understanding the political and economic elites who led the revolts by joining or fighting the rebels, or whose interests were at stake. Comparatively little attention has been paid to those who actually fought in the battles: namely, the impoverished free and freed people who comprised the majority of the country’s population. These women and men took up arms and, occasionally, led the rebellions, notably during the First Reign and the Regency. Historical accounts of such revolts are limited, however, and those that speak to upheavals that occurred from the 1850s on are even scarcer.
In the past decades, new interpretations of popular revolts during the Empire have enabled scholars to reappraise how free and freed poor (of Portuguese, African, or Native American descent) experienced the innovations brought by the country’s independence, and the long process of state-building.
Even if the country’s Charta was given by the first emperor, and not duly written and approved by a legislative body, it followed quite strictly the liberal creed that inspired so many other contemporary constitutions. According to the 1824 Charta, all of the country’s natural born were henceforth made citizens, regardless of whether they were free or freed, with constitutionally guaranteed rights. Although one should never mistake the letter of the law for its actual enforcement, its existence should also not be dismissed.
This is especially important when trying to understand the history of a country whose elites kept on fighting not only over the Constitution’s true meaning, but also over governmental control. Battling for independence and state power meant publicizing mottos about freedom, emancipation, the people’s rights, and the overcoming of oppression across the country—words that were spoken out loud and printed in newspapers and gazettes, reaching as far as the Brazilian backlands.
One must always factor into any historical equation the specifics of a country’s population. By the time Brazil became independent, slaves amounted to roughly 31 percent of the population, where most of the remaining 69 percent were composed of free poor, freed people, and “domesticated” Indians; all of whom became citizens when the 1824 Charta was enforced (with constitutional Rights, according to the law, and even, depending on one’s gender, age, income, and status—as a free or a freed man—to vote and be voted).
Considering all those specifics, this article analyzes the involvement of free and freed peoples in 19th century rebellions, riots, and seditions; movements that broke out all over the country, rattling regions as far as Maranhão and Rio Grande do Sul, from the 1820s to the 1880s. Regarding the role played by popular revolts in 19th century Brazil, one must go beyond the boundaries set by a traditional historiography to understand how the experience of protesting was directly related to the process of state building, and how the lower strata of society learned to fight for their demands as citizens of a representative constitutional monarchy.