Today in Latin America, Brazil Abolishes Slavery

Recreation of slavery in Brazil

Recreation of slavery in Brazil

Today in 1888 (121 years ago) Brazil officially abolished its slave trade – the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to do so.

Slavery and the slave trade dealt exclusively with Africa and persisted for nearly 400 years. Brazil lasted longer than any other Western Hemispheric nation, although the US South had the highest concentration of slaves that the world has ever seen – 6 million on the eve of the Civil War in 1860. Brazil never reached those heights, but it used slaves in the same fashion as white southerners did. Not only was slavery economically essential to parts of Brazil, but it also created castes of human beings that persist today.

Brazil, like the US, has to deal with a lot of racial strife – positive and negative – over the course of the century since official the end of the slave trade. Let it not be confused – the end of the slave trade did not signal emancipation. Brazil officially began its emancipation of slaves in 1822 when it became an independent nation – but progress was slow. As Douglas Blackmon’s literally revolutionary work Slavery By Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II (which just deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize) shows, emancipation did not equate to freedom in the South as forces of oppression in the forms of sheriffs, corrupt judges, systems of debt peonage and forced bondage and imprisonment were implemented to craft Southern entrepreneurs dreams of industrialization.

To Blackmon, these systems of oppression ended in the 1950s as the civil rights movement began to grow and would be hard to fathom these literal and tangible acts happening today in America – despite race and racism still being a major factor in our daily lives. In Brazil, debt peonage and modern slavery – like the forms taken in Blackmon’s narrative – exist today. Just last year, and going back decades, thousands of workers (4,634 in 2008) have been released from slavery and slave-like conditions. In 2004, the government of Brazil said 25,000 citizens work in conditions “analogous to slavery.”In 2007, 1,000 workers at a sugar cane plantation were freed.

It is clear that slavery is still a problem, especially when the mechanisms of racial subjugation remain in place. The US South is still dealing with this, just as Brazil is. It is never enough to ignore “our Negroes,” as white southerners insidiously called blacks, or dismiss the noise from poor people in the favelas across Brazil. We must continue centuries old conversations so that this anniversary is truly a disgusting prick upon the flesh of human history.


~ by Daniel on May 13, 2009.

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