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An Insight into the History of Slavery in Brazil From Past to Present

Slaves Being Brought to Brazil in a Portuguese Caravel

Slaves Being Brought to Brazil in a Portuguese Caravel.

Anyone who steps foot into Brazil will see an amazing culture and a captivating natural beauty that is breathtaking; will look at Brazilians and see happiness; and will see a people with a genuine love for their culture. But behind this joyful and vibrant personality there’s a darker past that’s one can only see with a bit of history lesson.

Discovered in the year 1500, the Portuguese found in Brazil more land than they could manage themselves; that in itself, set the beginning of slavery in Brazil. The indigenous population was the first to go under the slash of the whip, and they started to die quickly under the hands of their new cruel masters and European diseases for which they had no immunological resistance. Fortunately, some of the natives in Brazil were able to flee inland and escape the Portuguese wrath.

With the indigenous population being rapidly reduced, it didn’t take long for the Portuguese to look for a way to replenish their workforce, and for that, they turned to Africa. More than four million people were forcefully brought from there, mostly from Angola, to work in Brazilian gold mines and sugar cane plantations.

The African people became the most valuable resource for Brazilian plantation owners. The work that had to be done was extremely arduous, and the Portuguese didn’t expect the slaves to live more than 1 to 3 years working for them, and for that reason, they need a constant flow of new slaves being brought from abroad. Nearly 35 percent of all slaves captured in the world during that time of history were shipped off to Brazil.

In Brazil, slaves were not limited only to the upper class like in the United States. They were owned by families in the upper, middle and even lower classes. In Brazil, the slaves were a majority, the Portuguese quickly became outnumbered, and it was out of this mixed reality that Brazilian culture was born. You’ll find a significant amount of African culture in the food, the dances, the music and the religious practice of Brazil.

The Brazilian Industry During Slavery Times

The sugar industry soared because of slavery in Brazil, during their best moment they reached a production 2,500 tons per year, rendering Portugal the richest country of Europe. That started a trend, and other European powers started to look to the potential of America and the slave trade. Sugar cane became an extremely popular crop all over the world and to this day one of the most produced types of sugar.

But sugar was not all that Brazil had to offer, a couple of centuries after its discovery, the Portuguese struck gold, and many other valuable minerals, in the state of Minas Gerais. Sadly that created a high demand for slaves, many were transferred from the flourishing sugar plantations to mine for gold, many more were brought from Africa.

Slaves Working on Brazilian Sugar Cane Plantation

Slaves Working in a Brazilian Sugar Cane Plantation.

The gold mines were eventually depleted and they faced a strong economic decline which lasted well into the mid-nineteenth century. But that was not the end of it, and once more the Portuguese found another way to explore the work of even more slaves, working at the plantations of cotton, but that, fortunately, didn’t last long. Brazilian cotton exports quickly fell out of place in the market in the early 1800s.

It was only in the early years of the nineteenth century that coffee became an important economy booster for Brazil, and that actually was much richer in value than both sugar and gold together. It was during this time that slavery started to be questioned all over Europe, Portugal was pressured to abolish slavery over all of its colonies, and many decrees were introduced to drastically cut down the availability of slaves in Brazilian plantations.

While slavery in Portugal has ceased in 1761, the Portuguese continued their abuse in Brazil until it was finally abolished in 1888. By 1891, the coffee industry grew drastically to reach up over 60 percent of Brazil’s economy, and to this day, Brazil is the largest producer of coffee, making up 25 percent of the world’s supply, with an outstanding thirty million tons produced each year and two thirds of that being exported to other countries.

African Influence in the Brazilian Culture

The Brazilian culture is one of the most diverse cultures in the world, the worldwide recognized Brazilian Carnival is a testimony to that, but there are many other local celebrations such as Bumba Meu Boi where you’ll find a wide variety of African influence. Brazilian dances, one of the most well-known called frevo, is an electrifying and fast dance that often uses umbrellas, and a series of movements of arms and legs, such as you will see in many traditional African dances.

Brazilian Carnival Girls

Brazilian Women in the Brazilian Carnival in Rio.

The Brazilian Portuguese vocabulary is filled with words you’ll not find in the original Portuguese dialect, still in use in Portugal. Mostly because of the African influence, such as “Acarajé”, a fried cake made out of beans typical of Salvador; and “Cachaça”, a distilled alcoholic beverage made out of sugar cane and used to prepare “Caipirinha”, a traditional Brazilian cocktail.

Samba is the most popular genre of music played in Brazil, which includes rhythms that were brought over by the African slaves, together with Batuque and Maracatu, and they are all based around big choirs and large percussive groups. But the Portuguese were also able to leave a big mark in their previous colony music style with choro, traditionally called “chorinho” which means “little cry”, a Brazilian music genre direct descendant of the traditional Portuguese Fado. Choro was the first style of popular music in Brazil.

Sad Past, Questionable Present, but a Bright Future

Slavery in Brazil was a cruel and inhumane part of the human history, many innocent lives were lost under the rule of Portuguese masters and it left a big scar in Brazilian society. Even today, Brazilians of African descent have very little active participation in the society their ancestors build with their own sweat and blood.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, Brazilians have an unique ability to forgive and forget, that puts Brazil in a privileged position to become a truly prejudice-free society. I hope to live enough to see the day when Brazil teaches the world a lesson about respect.


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