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It was preceded by the Rio Branco Law of September 28, 1871 ("the Law of Free Birth"), which freed all children born to slave parents, and by the Saraiva-Cotegipe Law (also known as "the Law of Sexagenarians"), of September 28, 1885, that freed slaves when they reached the age of 60.
The Lei Áurea had only two articles:
- Article 1: From this date, slavery is declared abolished in Brazil.
- Article 2: All dispositions to the contrary are revoked.
The succinctness of the law was intended to make clear that there were no conditions of any kind to the freeing of all slaves. However, it did not provide any support to either freed slaves or their former owners to adjust their lives to their new status: slave owners did not receive any state indemnification, and slaves did not receive any kind of compensation from owners or assistance from the state.
Before the abolition of slavery, slaves were prohibited from owning assets or receiving an education; but after being freed, former slaves were left to make their own way in the world. Without education or political representation, slaves struggled to gain economic and social status in Brazilian society; this explains many of the social inequalities observed in Brazil through to the modern day.
The Lei Áurea was authored by Rodrigo A. da Silva, then Minister of Agriculture (in the Cabinet headed by Prime Minister João Alfredo Correia de Oliveira) and member of the Chamber of Deputies, and, after passing both houses of the National Assembly (Assembléia Geral), it was sanctioned by Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil (1846–1921), who was Regent at the time, while her father, Emperor Dom Pedro II, was in Europe. The Golden Law was signed by the Princess Imperial and countersigned by Rodrigo A. da Silva, in his capacity as Minister of Agriculture. Princess Isabel (who was a staunch supporter of the abolitionist movement) was awarded the "Golden Rose" by Pope Leo XIII and Minister Rodrigo A. da Silva received honors from the Vatican, France and Portugal. In August 1888 Rodrigo A. da Silva went on to be chosen for a lifetime seat in the Senate of the Empire.
Aside from the activities of abolitionists, there were a number of reasons for the signing of the law: slavery was no longer profitable, as the wages of European immigrants, whose working conditions were poor, cost less than the upkeep of slaves, and the decline in the arrival of new slaves – Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery. The Brazilian government was also under pressure from Britain, who sought to end the slave trade in order to expand production in its own colonies. For example, sugar was produced both in Brazil and in the British colonies of the West Indies; the British strove to ensure that the Brazilians would gain no advantage in the world markets by using slaves.
The Lei Áurea had other consequences besides the freeing of all slaves; without slaves and lacking workers, the plantation owners (fazendeiros) had to recruit workers elsewhere and thus organized, in the 1890s, the Sociedade Promotora de Imigração ("Society for the Promotion of Immigration)". Another effect was an uproar among Brazilian slave owners and upper classes, resulting in the toppling of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic in 1889 – indeed, the Lei Áurea is often regarded as the most immediate (but not the only) cause of the fall of monarchy in Brazil.
- Schwartz, Stuart B. (1996). Slaves, Peasants, and Rebels Reconsidering Brazilian Slavery. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-06549-1.
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