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Brazil's African Legacy

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

Map of Brazil in the 16th century
Map of Brazil in the 16th century

It 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.

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