Sugar, coffee, cotton, rice and tobacco, silver and gold, but also tea, salt and diamonds, and today cocoa.
For many of us, all of these commodities are part of our regular daily life. The early history of their production is however a somber one. To extract, grow, or harvest each of these products, slave labour has been and sometimes continue being used.
In 1926, the Slavery Convention (article 1.1) defined slavery as “…the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised….” In 1930, the definition was expanded to include forced or compulsory labour.
The main reason for the Transatlantic Slave Trade was the need for a cheap labour force that could be put to work in the sugar cane, rice, cotton or tobacco plantations, or in the diamond, silver or gold mines.
Conditions in the plantations of the new world were harsh, and a tight control was exercised over the slaves. Attempts to rebel or escape were severely punished. And punishment had to be public in order to serve as an example that would discourage any such attempt. The most frequent punishment for re-captured slaves was public flogging and branding. To this day, evidence of this harsh treatment has survived and is being displayed in museums and other institutions commemorating the history of slavery.
In Brazil, in addition to the sugar cane plantations that required a high number of slaves endured to hardship, slaves also were put to work to extract precious metals from the mines. Minas Gerais started playing a central role in the economy of the Portuguese colony after gold, silver and diamonds had been discovered there.
Traces of the slave presence can still be found in various parts of Brazil. To bear testimony to this phase of the national history, Mariana, one of Minas Gerais colonial cities, decided to restore its pelourinho, the pillory where slaves were punished. In most cities, including in Salvador and its famous Pelourinho neighborhood, this somber reminder has been removed.
On one of Mariana’s most picturesque squares, flanked by two churches of competing orders, stands the pelourinho. At the base of the pillory, under a scale and a sword symbolizing justice and force, the chains to which slaves were attached while receiving punishment can still be seen.
There were a number of reasons for a slave to be punished. In some cases, in the mines, slaves would hide small flakes of gold in their hair. If found, the punishment would be certain. A few churches in Minas Gerais and other parts of Brazil were built by slaves with the gold they were able to bring out for themselves. These churches, far less decorated than the rich churches open to the upper strata of society, were places where they could worship, as they were not allowed in the other churches in this heavily structured and segregated society.
Some of the Brazilian slaves were able to claim their freedom. Chico Rei is one of them. According to the tradition, around 1740, Congolese tribal leader Galanda was captured with many other members of his tribe. The authority he had over his fellow tribesmen awarded him the nickname of Chico Rei (small king). Working in the Minas Gerais gold mines, he managed to hide enough flakes of gold to buy his son’s freedom and then his own. In Ouro Preto (then Vila Rica), he bought a gold mine the profits of which were used to buy other slaves’ freedom.