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Brazil's African Legacy

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John Geipel on how the enforced diaspora of the slave trade shaped South America’s largest nation.

Map of Brazil in the 16th centuryIt was the seventeenth-century Jesuit preacher and missionary, Frei Antonio Vieira, who said that Brazil had ‘the body of America and the soul of Africa’ and this description continues, to some extent, to hold true. In Vieira’s day, Africans and their offspring – black and mulatto, slave and free – far outnumbered Europeans in Portugal’s South American colony.

Three centuries on, although the African element in the population is much diluted, Brazil’s economic, demographic, genetic and cultural debt to Africa remains inestimable. From the colony’s very infancy in the early sixteenth century, the contribution of Africa to the population and development of Brazil has been prodigious and pervasive and few aspects of Brazilian society and civilisation have remained untouched by its influence.

Over the four centuries of Portuguese involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, an estimated 10 to 15 million Africans were transported to the European colonies in the Americas. Of these, over 3.5 million were taken to Brazil, many arriving after the growth of the coffee industry in the mid-nineteenth century. Even after the Atlantic slave trade to Brazil was declared illegal in 1850, contraband ‘Black Gold’ continued to be smuggled across the ocean.

The first Africans were herded ashore in north-east Brazil in the year 1538. The decision to exploit imported and unpaid black labour had been prompted partly in response to a Papal Bull of 1537, which forbade the enslavement of the indigenous ‘Indians’ (though this was soon to be totally disregarded), and partly because the African’s more robust constitution, greater immunity to the white man’s diseases and conditioning to hard, physical work in a tropical environment made him more suitable than the native as potential slave material. Besides, the Portuguese were long familiar with the African in the role of chattel.

The slave trade and the consequent miscegenation between Portuguese and black Africans had begun in Europe over half a century before Cabral’s discovery of Brazil in 1500. Indeed, the mingling of the two peoples had begun centuries earlier – with the Carthaginians, the Romans and the Moors, all of whom brought large contingents of slaves, servants and mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa to the Iberian peninsula. Systematic exploitation of an unpaid African labour force by the Portuguese, however, began in earnest in the mid-fifteenth century, when slaves from Guinea were transported to the Alentejo and the Algarve and to the sugar mills of Madeira. This traffic reached such a scale that, by the turn of the sixteenth century, one in ten of the inhabitants of such towns as Évora was of African descent, while Lisbon, was one of several cities with an African quarter.

The bulk importation of African slaves to Brazil thus perpetuated a tradition already deeply rooted in Portugal. The blood of Africa ran in the veins of many Portuguese colonial dynasties. As Gilberto Freyre (the sociologist who, writing in the 1930s and 40s, did so much to reconstruct the relationship between master and slave in colonial Brazil) suggests, the affection displayed by many Brazilian planters to their black chattels may be attributed to an ingrained respect for ‘Gente de Cor’ (People of Colour) dating back to the time of the Moors.

Compared with the Visigoths who had preceded them as overlords of Iberia, the Moors – themselves of hybrid Afro-Asiatic stock – were racially colourblind and did not discriminate against other monotheists (‘People of the Book’, meaning Christians and Jews) on the basis of ethnic origin or pigmentation. Moreover, as a consequence of five centuries of Arab occupation of their former homeland, the Portuguese in Brazil were long familiar with the Islamic religion practised by many of their African slaves.

From the 1580s, the importation of Africans to Brazil increased dramatically. After the initial expansion of the sugar industry, blacks soon constituted over two-thirds of the population of the north-east. A century later, the discovery of gold in Minas Gerais further increased the demand for slave labour. Meanwhile, in the sertao (hinterland) of the north-east, Pretos (blacks), Pardos (mulattos) and Cafuzos (Afro-Indian halfbreeds) formed the majority population of what would become the state of Piauí, where the traditional ranching skills of such West African pastoralists as the Fulani played a prominent role in the development of the region’s nascent cattle industry.

Despite the importance to Brazil’s economy of African mineworkers, stockmen, stevedores and domestics, by the mid-eighteenth century these groups were vastly outnumbered by the field-hands working the engenhos or sugar mills. At the height of the sugar boom, 40 per cent of Brazil’s slave population was involved in the cultivation of the cane. It was this group, largely composed of Bantu tribesmen obtained in sub-equatorial Africa, which endured the most severe and inhumane conditions – but which also contributed most to the popular culture of Brazil.

By contrast, in the urban centres, a burgeoning class of skilled black and mulatto artisans was well established by the 1750s: tailors, coopers, boilermakers, joiners, shipwrights, caulkers, stonemasons, blacksmiths and bakers. Many of these were ‘forros’ freedmen who had obtained manumission either by purchase (often through mutual-aid societies, some of which were organised on the basis of tribal affiliation), by completion of contract, or by the munificence of a liberal master. Many of these trades had long been practised in Africa, and black craftsmen were able to complement European techniques with those of their own traditions.

By the start of the sixteenth century, Brazil’s population of African birth or descent already topped 20,000, with Africans being imported at a rate of 8,000 per year and making up 70 per cent of the labour force. The Portuguese, in common with the rival Western European slaving nations, did not confine their activities to particular parts of the African continent, but ranged far and wide in their insatiable quest for ‘Ebony Flesh’. By Vieira’s time, the bulk of the slaves destined for Brazil were obtained in the Senegambian region, from where many were ‘processed’ on the Cape Verde archipelago before being shipped across the Atlantic in hulks known mordantly as ‘tumbeiros’ (hearses), for as much as half their human cargo would frequently perish during the ocean crossing.

In the seventeenth century, the supply of slaves came mainly from Angola and the ‘Contra Costa’ (Indian Ocean coast) of Africa, including Madagascar, as far north as Zanzibar, where Portuguese slaving activities overlapped and competed with those of the Arabs. For a century and a half following the Portuguese recovery of Luanda from the Dutch in 1648, Angola provided an inexhaustible reservoir of human merchandise. During the eighteenth century, 70 per cent of the slaves shipped to Brazil were obtained in Angola; indeed, so massive was the human haemorrhage from its shores that large areas of the country remained virtually depopulated for generations.

Unlike the more urbanised Guinea (or ‘Sudanese’) blacks, who were highly valued as house servants, the bulk of the Bantu obtained in Angola and Mozambique were put to work on the fazendas (plantations) of Brazil. It was here that an Angolan Bantu language, Kimbundu, became the lingua franca of the fazendas and missionaries were obliged to learn this language in order to catechise the newly arrived African boçais – an opprobrious name similar in sense to the North American ‘Guineabird’ or ‘Salt-water Nigger’.

The opening up of the diamond deposits in the early eighteenth century increased the demand for blacks skilled in the techniques of prospecting, metallurgy and extraction. Many of these Africans were obtained in the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Dahomey (Benin) region of Guinea; known collectively as ‘Minas’ (from the fort of El Mina from which the majority were shipped out). They were often more familiar with mining methods than their masters and their contribution to the economy of both Portugal and Brazil was incalculable.

At the start of the Brazilian Empire in 1822, a demographic survey revealed that Gente de Cor constituted over two thirds of Brazil’s total population – 20 per cent of which still had slave status. The traffic of slaves was at its most intense between 1825-1850; during the nineteenth century, some 32 per cent of the total number of Africans imported since the start of the trade arrived in Brazil. It was these comparative latecomers who were to leave their indelible imprint on the culture of their new home.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the undiminished demand for unpaid labour, the Slave Coast of Nigeria became the primary source – whence the late survival in Brazil of traditions rooted in the culture of the Yoruba and the Fon (better known in Brazil by their alternative African nicknames, Nagô and Gegê).

Many of the slaves were purchased as war captives from neighbouring tribes – often after they had been deliberately incited by Europeans to fight one another; others were criminals, debtors or outcasts; while many, such as the hereditary caste of slaves of the Yoruba, already had slave status in their native community. The actual purchase was made, not by the negreiros or traders themselves, but by intermediaries, either white ‘degredados’ (exiled criminals) who had ‘gone native’ or half-castes who were themselves the slaves of Portuguese planters. In Angola, after its recovery from the Dutch the Portuguese established a Chartered Colony, which despatched conquistadores to levy feudal dues in the form of slaves for export from the tribal chiefs of the interior.

Unlike some of the Spanish-American colonies, such as Cuba and Colombia, where detailed records of the slave trade were preserved, much of the documentary evidence of the Brazilian trade was destroyed in 1891, when the liberal Republican minister and abolitionist from Baía, Rui Barbosa, ordered it to be consigned to the flames. However, statistics for the period 1817-70, made by British consuls in the major ports of Brazil, were retained in the archives of the British Foreign Office. These help to identify the general geographical – if not the specific tribal – origins of the slaves imported throughout much of the nineteenth century; while the investigations conducted earlier this century by the anthropologist, Raimundo Nina Rodrigues and his disciple, Artur Ramos, filled in many details of the African background on the basis of identifiable tribal traditions surviving in Brazilian popular culture.

One of the first to stress the importance of acknowledging and evaluating the African contribution to the economy and civilisation of Brazil was the German naturalist, Karl Friedrich Philipp von Martins, whose prize-winning essay on this hitherto neglected subject was published in 1844. This need was also emphasised by the literary critic, Sílvio Romero, who concluded that: ‘We owe much more to the Negro than to the Indian; he entered into all aspects of our development’, and by such influential commentators as Afonso Celso and the black historian, Manuel Querino, whose many publications stimulated further research into the nation’s African heritage.

The survival of African cultural traditions in Brazil must be attributed both to the direct links with the mother continent, which were maintained until the late nineteenth century, and to the fact that, as mortality was high and fertility low among the slave population, levels of imported Africans remained much higher, and for much longer, than in English-speaking North America. In contrast to Protestant Anglo-America, where slaves of similar tribal origin were deliberately kept apart in order to make communication – and potential insurrection – more difficult, the Catholic colonial countries did not enforce this segregation, policy so that African tribal identities were able to survive relatively intact.

Maintenance of African cultural traditions in Brazil was also made possible by the establishment there of quilombos, communities of maroons or runaway slaves located in the more inaccessible parts of the sertão. The earliest of these were already in existence by the mid-seventeenth century. During the disruptions caused by the thirty years of Dutch occupation of north-east Brazil (1624-54), when the Portuguese struggled to dislodge the interlopers, many more quilombos were founded in the Brazilian interior – this where the frequent occurrence of African place-names testifies to their wide distribution. Some of these ‘Black Republics’ comprised several mocambos or townships, each under the control of an African-style chieftain. The most renowned was Palmares, in the state of Alagoas, the so-called ‘Black Troy’, which held out for over fifty years until its final surrender to the Portuguese in 1697, when the paramount chief, Zumbi, and his followers committed mass suicide rather than succumb to slavery. Palmares was one of the last of the quilombos to succumb to the relentless wars of attrition waged by the colonial authorities against these well organised, well defended and self-sufficient renegade strongholds.

These fugitive communities, although not exclusively black (they also attracted many Cafuzos, dispossessed Indians and disaffected whites and mulattos) employed many of the agricultural techniques and other traditions of Africa, and many were still used as places of refuge for half a century after the fall of Palmares.

Despite the essential Bantu traditions derived from the cultures of sub-equatorial Africa, which predominated in the senzalas (slave quarters) of the plantations and in the quilombos, the influence of other African peoples persisted, on a more local scale, in specific parts of Brazil.

In Baía, for example, the most significant African retentions are those of the Nagô and the Gegê. Many of the dishes associated with Baían cuisine are of Nagô inspiration, such as acarajé (kidney bean paste fried in dendê palm oil), the sweet cakes of maize or rice flour known as aberém and the chicken, shrimp and garlic ragout, xinxim, popularly associated with Oxum, the Yoruba Goddess of Waters. The liturgical language of the syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion, candomblé, was an archaic form of Yoruba, passed down orally by successive generations of babalaôs or priests. (Elsewhere in Brazil, similar cults are known by such Bantu names as quimbanda and macumba.) In the hagiology of candomblê, the gods of Guinea (the orixás) fuse with the Christian saints; Xangô, Thunder God of the Yoruba, is identified with St Jerome, while his brother, Ogun, God of Blacksmiths, is merged with St Anthony.

In the mid-nineteenth century, groups of so-called ‘Agudas’ (Brazilian slaves, largely of the Muslim faith) were ‘repatriated’ to Yorubaland, where they were rapidly assimilated. This Transatlantic connection has been maintained up to our own time by such institutions as the Centro de Cultura Afro-Brasileira and the University of Baía, the only faculty in the Americas which has a chair in Yoruba. It is also significant that one of Brazil’s most widely acclaimed touring music groups bears the Yoruba name of Oludun.

Specific Nagô sects, often commemorating places in Nigeria, such as Ifé, legendary cradle of the Yoruba, continued to survive in Brazil. Membership of these so-called ‘nations’ was by no means confined to those who claimed Nagô descent, but also attracted many adherents of other ethnic background, including whites. The multi-racial membership of these sects further emphasised the contrast between race relations in Brazilian society and those of Protestant Anglo-America.

Other distinctive African stocks were recognised during and long after the colonial period in Brazil. These included the Mandinga (from Mali and Senegambia), whose name is synonymous with witchcraft in much of Ibero-America, and the Fula, whose name is applied in Brazil to a light-skinned ‘Cabra’ or mulatto as a reminder of the fair complexions of the West African Fulani. Other African peoples continued to be remembered in the names of such black batallions of the Brazilian army as the Minas (from Ghana) and the Ardras (from Benin).

It was, however, the Islamicised blacks, known collectively in Brazil by the Yoruba name, Malê, who, while numerically inferior to the largely Bantu and Nagô masses, were to have the greatest impact on the ultimate destiny of Brazil’s slave population: for it was they who spearheaded the insurrections which punctuated the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and accelerated the end of bondage.

Outstanding and most influential among the various peoples classed as Malê were the Hausa of northern Nigeria, a highly urbanised nation whose so-called ‘holy war’ against the white oppressor was a continuation of the jihad against the infidel which was part of Islamic tradition. In Brazil, many of these Malê, despite having obtained their freedom, remained unassimilated and aloof from white society. Besides the Hausa, the Mandinga and the Fula were solidly Muslim, while many of the Nagô had converted to Islam long before their arrival in Brazil.

The Hausa, esteemed as house slaves for their imposing bearing and courteous manners, were frequently superior, in both intellect and erudition, to their masters and many, notably the alufás (imams), were literate in the Ajami (Arabic) script and well versed in the Koran.

The most spectacular of the slave insurrections, such as the 1835 ‘Malê Uprising’, were fomented and organised by these highly motivated people whose primary objective – alongside casting off the yoke of slavery – was to prosyletise their fellow Africans, many of whom had either adopted Catholicism or continued to observe their atavistic forms of worship. The crusading spirit of Islam was thus a dominant and unifying factor in the slave revolts that spread terror through a white population for whom the Haitian revolution of 1791 was still a fresh memory. When the uprising was finally put down, its ringleaders were either executed or exiled to Africa. Although many of these uprisings were well organised, the sheer size of the country meant that they could not be co-ordinated as they had been in the compact geographical setting of Haiti. Threatening though they were on a local scale, the Brazilian slave insurrections were much easier to isolate, contain and extinguish than their successful Haitian exemplar. Moreover, they could not boast a charismatic, supra-regional leader of the stature of Toussaint L’Ouverture or of Antonio Maceo, the mulatto general who waged guerrilla war against the Spanish in Cuba in the 1870s.

In 1850, fifteen years after the Malê Uprising, the slave trade was officially abolished in Brazil, one of the last former European colonies in the Americas to do so. Pressure to emancipate their slave population had been exerted on the Brazilians by both the British and the French since the early days of the empire, and in 1831 Dom Pedro had agreed to declare that all Africans entering the ports of Brazil were free.

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 added further impetus to the movement in Brazil and in 1871 a ‘Lei do Ventre Livre’ (Law of the Free Womb) was passed, granting freedom at birth to every child born of a slave. A Brazilian Anti-Slavery Society was founded under the presidency of Joaquim Nabuco in 1880, with the backing of the Emperor and such black abolitionists as Luis Gonzaga Pinto da Gama, José do Patrocínio (author of an influential anti-slavery novel, Motto Moqueiro) and Antônio Bento, editor of the journal, Redemption, and organiser of an ‘underground railroad’, a network of escape routes which enabled slaves to flee from servitude into the mountain and jungle depths of the interior.

In contrast to the prominent role of Afro-Brazilians in the emancipation movement, mulattos were conspicuously under-represented. Indeed, many Creoles (Brazilian-born blacks) and mulattos were themselves slaveowners who stood to lose a great deal from abolition, and black leaders such as André Robouças expressed deep regret at the disinterest and lack of involvement of their racial half-brothers, especially as many of the earlier insurrections, such as the Baía uprising of 1798 (again inspired by the Haitian Revolution) had been led by mulatto intellectuals, craftsmen and artisans. In 1885, a step closer to full emancipation was taken, with the proclamation of a law freeing all slaves aged sixty and above, and in 1888 the Aurea Decree liberated all 1.5 million still in bondage.

Today, 109 years after the end of slavery in Brazil, and despite the immigration of other, chiefly European and Asian, ethnic groups, an estimated 30-40 per cent of the Brazilian population (ie: upwards of 70 million souls) is still of direct or partial African descent. In the state of Baía alone, the landfall of the majority of Africans in the north-east, the percentage of blacks and mulattos remains, even today, as high as 70 per cent, much as it was in the eighteenth century at the height of the sugar boom.

The demographic pattern, however, is dynamic rather than static; the Afro-Brazilian population is far from uniform and its density continues to vary greatly between regions.

While only 5 per cent or less of the country’s ‘coloured’ population is estimated to be of unbroken African descent, the African element in Brazil’s ethnic composition is still visible, as is the indelible African influence on popular culture, from the decorative arts to folklore, cuisine, herbal medicine, music and dance – including the all-pervasive samba, whose Bantu name means ‘belly button’ and which began life, as did so many other traditional Brazilian dances, on the sugar and coffee fazendas. The African influence manifests itself in spectacular form in such institutions as the Congadas and Maracatus – dance re-enactments of African regal processions – which have become such an integral part of the country’s carnival parades.

In candomblé, macumba and other Afro-Brazilian religious cults – despite the influence of European Spiritualism and the Catholic veneer – the ancestral gods of Guinea live on, in dual Afro-Catholic guise, while the African influence on the variety of Portuguese spoken in Brazil is demonstrable. This consists not only of a compendious vocabulary derived mainly from Kimbundu and (notably in Baía) Yoruba, but also of details of syntax and word usage and in the soft and sensuous pronunciation of what is often referred to as ‘Portuguese with Sugar’.

While it may no longer be possible, as it was in Nina Rodrigues’ day, to attribute individual aspects of Brazilian civilisation to specific sources in Africa, it is this deep and ineradicable influence, the legacy of five centuries of intimate and almost continuous contact with the mother continent, which has given Brazilian popular culture so much of its unique identity.

John Geipel is the author of several books, including a chapter on the Gypsies of Spain in Languages and Jargons, edited by Roy Porter and Peter Burke, (Polity Press, 1996)

Further reading: 
  • Gilberto Freyre, The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization (University of California Press, 1986)
  • Vincent Bakpetu Thompson, The Making of the African Diaspora in the Americas, 1441-1900 (Longman, 1987)
  • Roger Bastide, African Religions of Brazil (University of Baltimore Press, 1978)
  • José Honório Rodigues, Brazil and Africa (University of Berkeley Press, 1965)
  • Leslie Bethell (ed) Colonial Brazil (University of Cambridge Press, 1991)
  • Joseph E. Holloway (ed) Africanisms in American Culture (University of Indiana Press, 1990)

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