Posts Tagged ‘Brazil’

Abolishing the transatlantic slave trade

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Portraits of Amistad former captives

Portraits of Amistad former captives

It took all of twenty indefatiguable years for William Wilberforce to succeed in his battle to convince the British Parliament to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

While Wilberforce, the best known of the British anti-slavery campaigners, offered his first motion in May 1787, it is only on 23 March 1807 that the Parliament finally passed An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The Act entered the statute books on 25 March, and it is the bicentennial of that later date which was commemorated three years ago. The 2006 movie Amazing Grace tells the story of the long fight to abolition.

The Act made the capture, transport, and trade of slaves illegal, but slavery remained legal. It would be another 15 years before slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire, with the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.

Other countries however were participating in the transatlantic slave trade. Brazil, then a colony of Portugal, was the first to bring slaves from Africa to the New World, around 1550. The Spanish colonies followed suit. Relying heavily on slaves to work in the sugar cane plantations, and then in the gold, diamond and silver mines of Minas Gerais, Brazil was also the last country to ban the Atlantic slave trade, in 1831.

Amistad, 1839
Amistad, 1839

In spite of the ban, slaves continued being trafficked as illustrated by the famous Amistad mutiny. In 1839, a Portuguese slave ship, the Tecora left West Africa for Havana, Cuba. Onboard were 500 kidnapped Africans. Some of these men were then transported from Cuba to Puerto Rico, on the Amistad, a ship on which were no slave quarters. The captives managed to free themselves, killed the captain and seized the ship. The Amistad was later captured off the coast of Long Island by the United States Revenue Cutter Service. Ensued a long court case, the court having to decide to either return the captured men as slaves to Cuba or to Africa as free men. The case was finally referred on appeal to the Supreme Court which ruled in favour of a return to Africa.

Abolition of slavery in the United States came as the result of a long civil war: it was enacted by the 13th amendment to the Constitution in December 1865. In Portugal, the Marques de Pombal abolished slavery on the mainland in 1761, but it is in 1888, more than sixty years after Brazil became independent, that slavery was finally abolished by Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil. 

On gold, toothpullers and attempted revolutions

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010
 

Inconfidência Museum, Ouro Preto

Inconfidência Museum, Ouro Preto

 While a number of people will know that July 1789 marked the beginning of the French revolution, fewer may be aware of the Inconfidência Mineira (the Minas Gerais conspiracy), a rebellious movement which attempted to proclaim a Brazilian republic in February, that same year. 

Following the landing of Pedro Alvares Cabral at Porto Seguro in April 1500, Brazil became a Portuguese colony. Sugar rapidly ranked first of the colony’s exports, but once gold was discovered in Minas Gerais some time around 1693, gold mining soon replaced sugar as the main economic activity. A number of towns were built around this activity, such as Vila Rica, known today as Ouro Preto.

The extraction of gold was totally controlled by the Portuguese Crown. It was allowed on the condition that a payment of one fifth (the quinto) would be made to the colonial government. To ensure better control over the gold production, goldsmiths were driven out of the region, and foundries where established where the gold was cast into bars, and marked with the royal seal. Gold could only circulate in that form. As happened in other parts of the world, the heavy control and taxation eventually led to rebellious movements, such as those we have seen in the case of tea or salt.

A first rebellion took place in 1720: the Levante de Vila Rica (the Vila Rica uprising) demanded the relaxing of the drastic measures. The movement was fiercely repressed by the Governor, who ordered the arrest of the leader, Felipe dos Santos, and the burning of hundreds of houses in Ouro Podre where he owned many houses. The hamlet is now called Morro da Queimada. Dos Santos was eventually sentenced to death, hanged and his body quartered.

Tiradentes, proto-martyr

Tiradentes, proto-martyr

More than sixty years later, inspired by the 1776 American independence from yet another colonial power, as well as by the French philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, the Inconfidência Mineira took place in 1789, also in Vila Rica. While books and other publications were being banned in the colony, the Inconfidência Museum in Ouro Preto displays clandestine editions of forbidden books, including a Recueil des loix constitutives des Etats-Unis, 1788, which is known in Brazil as Tiradentes’ book.

As gold mining was decreasing in the Minas Gerais captaincy, the Crown had asked for an additional tax on gold, the derrama. The plan was to start the rebellion on the day the derrama was to be instituted. The movement brought together a number of liberal thinkers who wanted to create a Republic, open harbours to stimulate trade with other nations, create a university.

Tiradentes, Brasilia

Tiradentes, Brasilia

The movement lacked cohesion however, with some of the members being republicans, while others were monarchists. Members of the conspiracy eventually denounced the proposed uprising. A long trial ensued in Rio de Janeiro. Joaquim José da Silva Xavier decided to assume responsibility of leader of the movement.

Here was his head..., Ouro Preto

Here was his head..., Ouro Preto

A dentist, he was given the nickname of Tiradentes (toothpuller) during the trial. While 11 of the conspirators, including famous Brazilian poet, Tomás Antônio Gonzaga, were banned to Mozambique and other Portuguese colonies in Africa, Tiradentes was sentenced to death. He was hanged in Rio de Janeiro in 1792, and his body, like Felipe dos Santos, quartered. To ensure proper publicity to the strong reaction of the Portuguese Crown to any rebellion, Tiradentes’ body parts were displayed in several towns. His head was placed in Vila Rica, while his house was torn down and salted.

Praca Tiradentes, Belo Horizonte

Praca Tiradentes, Belo Horizonte

Minas Gerais State flag, Tiradentes' house, Ouro Preto

Minas Gerais State flag, Tiradentes' house, Ouro Preto

Tiradentes has survived his execution to become a symbol of the struggle for Brazilian independence. The anniversary of his death is a national holiday and many Brazilian cities, including Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, or Ouro Preto have named a square after him, or display his statue.

The members of the Inconfidência Mineira had planned for a whole new way of life after independence, and had even designed a flag, which has since been adopted by the State of Minas Gerais. The motto reads: Libertas Quae Sera Tamen (Freedom, even if it be late).