Slavery in Brazil
Slavery in Brazil began long before the first Portuguese settlement was established in 1532, as members of one tribe would enslave captured members of another. Later, colonists were heavily dependent on indigenous labor during the initial phases of settlement to maintain the subsistence economy, and natives were often captured by expeditions called bandeiras, originating in São Paulo. The importation of African slaves began midway through the 16th century, but the enslavement of indigenous peoples continued well into the 17th and 18th centuries.
During the Atlantic slave trade era, Brazil imported more African slaves than any other country. An estimated 4.9 million slaves from Africa came to Brazil during the period from 1501 to 1866. Until the early 1850s, most enslaved Africans who arrived on Brazilian shores were forced to embark at West Central African ports, especially in Luanda (present-day Angola). Today, with the exception of Nigeria, the largest population of people of African descent is in Brazil.
Slave labor was the driving force behind the growth of the sugar economy in Brazil, and sugar was the primary export of the colony from 1600–1650. Gold and diamond deposits were discovered in Brazil in 1690, which sparked an increase in the importation of African slaves to power this newly profitable market. Transportation systems were developed for the mining infrastructure, and population boomed from immigrants seeking to take part in gold and diamond mining.
Demand for African slaves did not wane after the decline of the mining industry in the second half of the 18th century. Cattle ranching and foodstuff production proliferated after the population growth, both of which relied heavily on slave labor. 1.7 million slaves were imported to Brazil from Africa from 1700 to 1800, and the rise of coffee in the 1830s further enticed expansion of the slave trade.
Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery. By the time it was abolished, in 1888, an estimated four million slaves had been imported from Africa to Brazil, 40% of the total number of slaves brought to the Americas.
- 1 History
- 2 Slave identities
- 3 Gender divides
- 4 Modern era
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
The Portuguese became involved with the African slave trade first during the Reconquista ("reconquest") of the Iberian Peninsula mainly through the mediation of the Alfaqueque: the person tasked with the rescue of Portuguese captives, slaves and prisoners of war; and then later in 1441, long before the colonization of Brazil, but now as slave traders. Slaves exported from Africa during this initial period of the Portuguese slave trade primarily came from Mauritania, and later the Upper Guinea coast. Scholars estimate that as many as 156,000 slaves were exported from 1441 to 1521 to Iberia and the Atlantic islands from the African coast. The trade made the shift from Europe to the Americas as a primary destination for slaves around 1518. Prior to this time, slaves were required to pass through Portugal to be taxed before making their way to the Americas.
Slavery begins in Portuguese Brazil
The Portuguese first traveled to Brazil in 1500 under the expedition of Pedro Álvares Cabral, though the first Portuguese settlement was not established until 1532. Long before Europeans came to Brazil and began colonization, indigenous groups such as the Papanases, the Guaianases, the Tupinambás, or the Cadiueus enslaved captured members of other tribes. The captured lived and worked with their new communities as trophies to the tribe’s martial prowess. Some enslaved would eventually escape but could never re-attain their previous status in their own tribe because of the strong social stigma against slavery and rival tribes. During their time in the new tribe, enslaved indigenous would even marry as a sign of acceptance and servitude. For the enslaved of cannibalistic tribes, execution for devouring purposes (cannibalistic ceremonies) could happen at any moment. While other tribes did not consume human flesh, their enslaved were still put to work, imprisoned, used as hostages, and killed mercilessly.
The colonization effort proved to be a difficult undertaking on such a vast continent, and indigenous slave labor was quickly turned to for agricultural workforce needs. Aggressive mission networks of the Portuguese Jesuits were the driving force behind this recruitment, and they successfully mobilized an indigenous labor force to live in colonial villages to work the land. These indigenous enslaving expeditions were known as bandeiras.
These expeditions were composed of Bandeirantes, adventurers who penetrated steadily westward in their search for Indian slaves. These adventurers came from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, including plantation owners, traders, members of the military, as well as people of mixed ancestry and previously captured Indian slaves. In 1629, Antônio Raposo Tavares led a bandeira, composed of 2,000 allied índios, "Indians", 900 mamelucos, "mestizos" and 69 whites, to find precious metals and stones and to capture Indians for slavery. This expedition alone was responsible for the enslavement of over 60,000 indigenous people.
African slavery became more common in Brazil during the mid 16th century, though the enslavement of indigenous people continued into the 17th and even the 18th century in the backlands of Brazil. Indigenous slaves remained much cheaper during this time than their African counterparts, though they did suffer horrendous death rates from European diseases. Although the average African slave lived to only be twenty-three years old due to terrible work conditions, this was still about four years longer than Indigenous slaves, which was a big contribution to high price of African slaves. Even though prices for indigenous slaves were cheaper, there was never a focus on maintaining slave families. Because enslaved peoples were always so available, either through conquest or buying them through the market, the economic incentive to keep families together never manifested itself.
Slavery was not only endured by native Indians or blacks. As the distinction between prisoners of war and slaves was blurred, the enslavement, although at a lesser scale, of captured Europeans also took place. The Dutch were reported to have sold Portuguese, captured in Brazil, as slaves, and of using African slaves in Dutch Brazil There are also reports of Brazilians enslaved by barbary pirates while crossing the ocean.
In the subsequent centuries, many freed slaves and descendants of slaves became slave owners. Eduardo França Paiva estimates that about one third of slave owners were either freed slaves or descendent of slaves.
Confrarias and Compadrio
The Confrarias, religious brotherhoods, that included slaves, Indians and Africans, and non slaves were frequently a doorway to freedom, as was the "compadrio", co-godparenthood, a part of the kinship network.
Brazil was the world’s leading sugar exporter during the 17th century. From 1600 to 1650, sugar accounted for 95 percent of Brazil’s exports, and slave labor was relied heavily upon to provide the workforce to maintain these export earnings. It is estimated that 560,000 Central African slaves arrived in Brazil during the 17th century in addition to the indigenous slave labor that was provided by the bandeiras.
The appearance of slavery in Brazil dramatically changed with the discovery of gold and diamond deposits in the mountains of Minas Gerais in the 1690s Slaves started being imported from Central Africa and the Mina coast to mining camps in enormous numbers. Over the next century the population boomed from immigration and Rio de Janeiro exploded as a global export center. Urban slavery in new city centers like Rio and Salvador also heightened demand for slaves. Transportation systems for moving wealth were developed, and cattle ranching and foodstuff production expanded after the decline of the mining industries in the second half of the 18th century. Between 1700 and 1800, 1.7 million slaves were brought to Brazil from Africa to make this sweeping growth possible.
19th century and the rise of Abolitionism
By 1819 the population of Brazil was 3.6 million, and at least one third were African slaves. By 1825 the figure may have been as high as 56%. In 1826 the first article of a convention drawn in Rio de Janeiro stated it should not be “lawful for the subjects of the Emperor of Brazil to be concerned in the carrying on of the African slave trade, under any pretext or in any manner whatever, and the carrying on of such after that period, by any person, subject of His Imperial Majesty, shall [should] be deemed and treated as piracy.” The announcement of this treaty caused great excitement in Brazil, for many believed it meant immediate suspension of the slave trade. However, when coffee production exploded in the 1830s in Rio de Janeiro as the crop that would fuel the export economy for the next 140 years, this new demand on the trade was not quelled by the treaty. The British forcibly halted the trade with Africa by the 1850s, and the country then became dependent on an internal slave labor force as well as Spanish and Italian immigrant workers. Nonetheless, despite laws banning their importation, between 1808 and 1888 more than a million new slaves were forcibly shipped to Brazil.
The slaves who were freed and returned to Africa, the Agudás, continued to be seen as slaves by the African indigenous population. As they had left Africa as slaves, when they returned although now as free people, they were not accepted in the local society who saw them as slaves. In Africa they also took part in the slave trade now as slave merchants.
There were relatively few large revolts in Brazil for much of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, most likely because running away into the expansive interior presented an attractive alternative to the dangers of revolt. In the years after the Haitian Revolution, ideals of liberty and freedom had spread to even Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro in 1805, "soldiers of African descent wore medallion portraits of the emperor Dessalines."  Jean-Jacques Dessalines was one of the African leaders of the Haitian Revolution that inspired blacks throughout the world to fight for their rights as humans to live and die free. After the defeat of the French in Haiti, demand for sugar continued to increase and without the consistent production of sugar in Haiti the world turned to Brazil as the next largest exporter  African slaves continued to be imported and were concentrated in the northeastern region of Bahia, a region infamous for cruel, yet prolific, sugar plantations. African slaves recently brought to Brazil were less likely to accept their condition and eventually were able to create coalitions with the purpose of overthrowing their masters. From 1807 to 1835, these groups instigated numerous slave revolts in Bahia with a violence and terror that were previously unknown.
The Muslim Uprising of 1835
The largest and most significant of these uprisings occurred in 1835 in Salvador, called the Muslim Uprising of 1835. It was planned by an African-born Muslim ethnic group of slaves, the Malês, as a revolt that would free all of the slaves in Bahia. While organized by the Malês, all of the African ethnic groups were represented in the participants, both Muslim and non-Muslim. However, there is a conspicuous absence of Brazilian-born slaves who participated in the rebellion. An estimated 300 rebels were arrested, of which nearly 250 were African slaves and freedmen. Brazilian-born slaves and ex-slaves represented 40% of the population of Bahia, but a total of two mulattoes and three Brazilian-born blacks were arrested during the revolt. What's more, the uprising was efficiently quelled by mulatto troops by the day after its instigation.
The fact that Africans were not joined in the 1835 revolt by mulattoes was far from unusual; in fact, no Brazilian blacks had participated in the 20 previous revolts in Bahia during that time period. Masters played a large role in creating tense relations between Africans and Afro-Brazilians, for they generally favored mulattoes and native Brazilian slaves, who consequently experienced better manumission rates. Masters were aware of the importance of tension between groups to maintain the repressive status quo, as stated by Luis dos Santos Vilhema, circa 1798, "...if African slaves are treacherous, and mulattoes are even more so; and if not for the rivalry between the former and the latter, all the political power and social order would crumble before a servile revolt..." The master class was able to put mulatto troops to use controlling slaves with little backlash, thus, the freed black and mulatto population was considered as much an enemy to slaves as the white population.
Not only was a unified rebellion effort against the oppressive regime of slavery prevented in Bahia by the tensions between Africans and Brazilian-born African descendants, but ethnic tensions within the African-born slave population itself prevented formation of a common slave identity.
Quilombo (runaway slaves)
Escaped slaves formed Maroon communities which played an important role in the histories of other countries such as Suriname, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica. In Brazil the Maroon villages were called quilombos and the most famous was Quilombo dos Palmares. Here escaped slaves, army deserters, mulattos, and indigenous flocked to participate in this underground society. Quilombos reflected the people’s will and soon the governing and social bodies of Palamares mirrored Central African political models. From 1605 to 1694 Palmares grew and attracted thousands from across Brazil. Though Palmares was eventually defeated and its inhabitants dispersed among the country, the formative period allowed for continuation of African traditions and helped create a distinct African culture in Brazil.
Steps towards freedom
Brazil achieved independence from Portugal in 1822. However, the complete collapse of colonial government took place from 1821–1824. José Bonifácio de Andrade e Silva is credited as the "Father of Brazilian Independence". Around 1822, Representação to the Constituent Assembly was published arguing for an end to the slave trade and for the gradual emancipation of existing slaves.
Brazil's 1877-78 Grande Seca (Great Drought) in the cotton-growing northeast, led to major turmoil, starvation, poverty and internal migration. As wealthy plantation holders rushed to sell their slaves in the south, popular resistance and resentment grew, inspiring numerous emancipation societies. They succeeded in banning slavery altogether in the province of Ceará by 1884.
Jean-Baptiste Debret, a French painter who was active in Brazil in the first decades of the 19th century, started out by painting portraits of members of the Brazilian Imperial Family, but soon became concerned with the slavery of both blacks and the indigenous inhabitants. During the fifteen years Debret spent in Brazil, he concentrated not only on court rituals but the everyday life of slaves as well. His paintings (one of which appears on this page) helped draw attention to the subject in both Europe and Brazil itself.
The Clapham Sect, although their religious and political influence was more active in Spanish Latin America, were a group of evangelical reformers that campaigned during much of the 19th century for the United Kingdom to use its influence and power to stop the traffic of slaves to Brazil. Besides moral qualms, the low cost of slave-produced Brazilian sugar meant that British colonies in the West Indies were unable to match the market prices of Brazilian sugar, and each Briton was consuming 16 pounds (7 kg) of sugar a year by the 19th century. This combination led to intensive pressure from the British government for Brazil to end this practice, which it did by steps over three decades.
The end of slavery
In 1872, the population of Brazil was 10 million, and 15% were slaves. As a result of widespread manumission (easier in Brazil than in North America), by this time approximately three quarters of blacks and mulattoes in Brazil were free. Slavery was not legally ended nationwide until 1888 by the Lei Áurea ("Golden Act"), a legal act promulgated on May 13 by Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil. In fact, it was an institution in decline by this time (since the 1880s the country began to attract European immigrant labor instead). Brazil was the last nation in the Western world to abolish slavery, and by abolition had imported an estimated total of four million slaves from Africa. This was 40% of all slaves shipped to the Americas.
In colonial Brazil, identity became a complex combination of race, skin color, and socioeconomic status because of the extensive diversity of both the slave and free population. For example, in 1872 43% of the population was free mulattoes and blacks. There are four broad categories that show the general divisions among the identities of the slave and ex-slave populations: African-born slaves, African-born ex-slaves, Brazilian-born slaves, and Brazilian-born ex-slaves.
A slave’s identity was stripped when sold into the slave trade, and they were assigned a new identity that was to be immediately adopted in stride. This new identity often came in the form of a new name, created by a Christian or Portuguese first name randomly issued by the baptizing priest, and followed by the label of an African nation. In Brazil, these "labels" were predominantly Angola, Congo, Yoruba, Ashanti, Rebolo, Anjico, Gabon, and Mozambique. Often these names served as a way for Europeans to divide Africans in a familiar manner, disregarding ethnicity or origin. Anthropologist Jack Goody stated, "Such new names served to cut the individuals off from their kinfolk, their society, from humanity itself and at the same time emphasized their servile status".
A critical part of the initiation of any sort of collective identity for African-born slaves began with relationships formed on slave ships crossing the middle passage. Shipmates called each other malungos, and this relationship was considered as important and valuable as the relationship with their wives and children. Malungos were often ethnically related as well, for slaves shipped on the same boat were usually from similar geographical regions of Africa.
One of the most important markers of the freedom of a slave was the adoption of a last name upon being freed. These names would often be the family names of their ex-owners, either in part or in full. Since many slaves had the same or similar Christian name assigned from their baptism, it was common for a slave to be called both their Portuguese or Christian name as well as the name of their master. "Maria, for example, became known as Sr. Santana's Maria". Thus, it was mostly a matter of convenience when a slave was freed for him or her to adopt the surname of their ex-owner for assimilation into the community as a free person.
Obtaining freedom was not a guarantee of escape from poverty or from many aspects of slave life. Frequently legal freedom did not come with a change in occupation for the ex-slave. However, there was increased opportunity for both sexes to become involved in wage earning. Women ex-slaves largely dominated market places selling food and goods in urban areas like Salvador, while a significant percent of African-born men freed from slavery became employed as skilled artisans, including work as sculptors, carpenters, and jewelers.
Another area of income important to African-born ex-slaves was their own work as slavers upon being granted their freedom. In fact, purchase of slaves was a standard practice for ex-slaves who could afford it. This is evidence of the lack of a common identity among those born in Africa and shipped to Brazil, for it was much more common for ex-slaves to engage in the slave trade themselves than to take up any cause related to abolition or resistance to slavery.
Brazilian-born slaves and ex-slaves
A Brazilian-born slave was born into slavery, meaning their identity was based on very different factors than those of the African-born who had once known legal freedom. Skin color was a significant factor in determining the status of African descendants born in Brazil: lighter-skinned slaves had both higher chances of manumission as well as better social mobility if they were granted freedom, making it important in the identity of both Brazilian-born slaves and ex-slaves.
The term crioulo was primarily used in the early 19th century, and meant Brazilian-born and black. Mulatto was used to refer to lighter-skinned Brazilian-born Africans, who often were children of both African and European descent. As compared to their African-born counterparts, manumission for long-term good behavior or obedience upon the owner’s death was much more likely. Thus, unpaid manumission was a much more likely path to freedom for Brazilian-born slaves than for Africans, as well as manumission in general. Mulattoes also had a higher incidence of manumission, most likely because of the likelihood that they were the children of a slave and an owner.
These color divides reinforced racial barriers between African and Brazilian slaves, and often created animosity between them. These differences were heightened after freedom was granted, for lighter skin correlated with social mobility and the greater chance an ex-slave could distance his or herself from their former slave life. Thus, mulattoes and lighter-skinned ex-slaves had larger opportunity to improve their socioeconomic status within the confines of the colonial Brazilian social structure. As a consequence, self-segregation was common, as mulattoes preferred to separate their identity as much as possible from blacks. One way this is visible is from data on church marriages during the 19th century. Church marriage was an expensive affair, and one only the more successful ex-slaves were able to afford, and these marriages were also almost always endogamous. The fact that skin color largely dictated possible partners in marriage promoted racial distinctions as well. Interracial marriage was a rarity, and was almost always a case of a union between a white man and a mulatto woman.
The invisibility of women in Brazilian slavery as well as in slavery in general has only been recently recognized as an important void in history. Historian Mary Helen Washington wrote, "the life of the male slave has come to be representative even though the female experience in slavery was sometimes radically different." In Brazil, the sectors of slavery and wage-labor for ex-slaves were indeed distinct by gender.
Labor performed by both slave and freed women was largely divided between domestic work and the market scene, which was much larger in urban cities like Salvador and Rio de Janeiro. The domestic work women performed for owners was traditional, consisting of cooking, cleaning, laundry, fetching water, and childcare. In the 1870s, 87-90% of slave women in Rio worked as domestic servants, and an estimated 34,000 slave and free women labored as domestics. Thus, Brazilian women in urban centers often blurred the lines that separated the work and lives of the slave and the free.
In urban settings, African slave markets provided an additional source of income for both slave and ex-slave women, who typically monopolized sales. This trend of the marketplace being predominantly the realm of women has its origins in African customs. Wilhelm Muller, a German minister, observed in his travels to the Gold Coast, "Apart from the peasants who bring palm-wine and sugarcane to the market everyday, there are no men who stand in public markets to trade, only women." The women sold tropical fruits and vegetables, cooked African dishes, candies, cakes, meat, and fish.
Prostitution was almost exclusively a trade performed by slave women, many of whom were forced into it to benefit their owners socially and financially. Slave women were also used by freed men as concubines or common-law wives and often worked for them in addition as household labor, wet nurses, cooks, and peddlers.
Enslaved women on plantations were often given the same work as men. Slaveholders often put slave women to work alongside men in the grueling atmosphere of the fields but were aware of ways to exploit them with regards to their gender as well. Choosing between the two was regularly a matter of expediency for the owners. In both small and large estates women were heavily involved in fieldwork, and the chance to be exempted in favor of domestic work was a privilege. Their roles in reproduction were still emphasized by owners, but often childbirth only meant that the physical demands of the field were forced to coexist with the emotional and physical pull of parenthood.
The dual-sphere nature of women’s work, in household domestic labor, and in the marketplace, allowed for both additional opportunities at financial resources as well as a larger social circle than their male counterparts. This gave women greater resources both as slaves and as ex-slaves, though their mobility was hindered by gender constraints. However, women often fared better in manumission possibilities. Among Brazilian-born adult ex-slaves in Salvador in the 18th century, 60% were women.
There are many reasons that could explain why women were disproportionately represented in manumitted Brazilian slaves. Women who worked in the home were able to form more intimate relationships with the owner and the family, increasing their chances of unpaid manumission for reasons of "good behavior" or "obedience" Additionally, male slaves were economically seen as more useful especially by landowners, making their manumission more costly to the owner and therefore for the slave himself.
The work of male slaves was a much more formal affair, especially in urban settings as compared to the experience of slave women. Often, male work groups were divided by ethnicity to work as porters and transporters in gangs, transporting furniture and agricultural products by water or from ships to the marketplace. It was also the role of slave men to bring new slaves from ships to auction. Men also were used as fishermen, canoeists, oarsmen, sailors, and artisans. Up to one-fourth of slaves from 1811–1888 were employed as artisans, and many were men who worked as carpenters, painters, sculptors, and jewelers.
Males also did certain kinds of domestic work in cities like Rio and Salvador, including starching, ironing, fetching water, and dumping waste. On plantations outside of urban areas however, men were primarily involved in fieldwork with women. Their roles on larger estates also included working in boiling houses and tending cattle.
In 1995, 288 farmworkers were freed from what was officially described as a contemporary forced labor situation. This number eventually rose to 583 in 2000. In 2001, however, the Brazilian government freed more than 1,400 slave laborers from many different forced labor institutions varying throughout the country. The majority of forced labor, whether coerced through debt, violence, or through another manner, is often unreported. The danger that these individuals face in their day-to-day life often make it extremely difficult to turn to authorities and report what is going on. A national survey conducted in 2000 by the Pastoral Land Commission, a Roman Catholic church group, estimated that there were more than 25,000 forced workers and slaves in Brazil. In 2007, in an admission to the United Nations, the Brazilian government declared that at least 25,000-40,000 Brazilians work under work conditions "analogous to slavery." The top anti-slavery official in Brasília, Brazil's capital, estimates the number of modern enslaved at 50,000.
Every year it seems as new evidence is found that modern slavery is occurring. In 2007, the Brazilian Government freed more than 1,000 forced laborers from a sugar plantation. In 2008, the Brazilian government freed 4,634 slaves in 133 separate criminal cases at 255 different locations. Freed slaves received a total compensation of £2.4 million (equal to $4.8 million). Though they received monetary compensation for their government's inability to protect them, the emotional cost for former enslaved will forever remain with the individual.
In March 2012, European consumer protection organizations published a study about slavery and cruelty to animals involved when producing leather shoes. A Danish organization was contracted to visit farms, slaughterhouses and tanneries in Brazil and India. The conditions of humans found were catastrophic, as well the treatment of the animals was found cruel. None of the 16 companies surveyed were able to track the used products down to the final producers. Timberland did not participate, but was found the winner as it showed at least some signs of transparency on its website.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor's Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor in Brazil reported that children in this country are mostly "engaged in child labor in agriculture and domestic work."
In 2014, the Bureau of International Labor Affairs issued a List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor where Brazil was classified as one of the 74 countries still involved in child labor and forced labor practices.
A yearly celebration that allows insight into race relations, Carnival is a weeklong festival celebrated all around the world. In Brazil it is associated with numerous facets of Brazilian culture: soccer, samba, music, performances, and costumes. The Brazilian Carnival is unlike any other national festival in the world. Schools are on holiday, workers have the week off, and a general sense of jubilee fills the streets, where musicians parade around to huge crowds of cheering fans.
It was during Brazil’s military dictatorship, defined by many as Brazil’s darkest period, when a group called Ilê Aiyê came together to protest black exclusion within the majority black state of Bahia. There had been a series of protests at the beginning of the 1970s that raised awareness for back unification but they were met with severe suppression. Prior to 1974, Afro-Bahians would leave their houses with only religious figurines to celebrate Carnival. Though under increased scrutiny attributed to the military dictatorship, Ilê Aiyê succeeded in created a black only bloco (Carnaval parade group) that manifested the ideals of the Brazilian Black Movement. Their purpose was to unite the Afro-Brazilians affected by the oppressive government and politically organize so that there could be lasting change among their community.
Ilê Aiyê's success has continued ever since and their numbers have grown into the thousands. Even today, the black only bloco continues to exclude others because of their skin color. They do this by advertising exclusive parties and benefits for members, as well as physically shunning and pushing you away if you try to include yourself. Though the media has called it ‘racist’, to a large degree the black-only bloco has become one of the most interesting aspects of Salvador’s Carnaval and is continuously accepted as a way of life. Combined with the influence of Olodum in Salvador, musical protest and representation as a product of slavery and black consciousness has slowly grown into a more powerful force. Musical representation of problems and issues have long been part of Brazil's history, and Ilê Aiyê and Olodum both produce creative ways to remain relevant and popular.
Legacy of slavery
Slavery as an institution in Brazil was unrivaled in all of the Americas. The sheer number of African slaves brought to Brazil and moved around South America greatly influenced the entirety of the Americas. Indigenous groups, Portuguese colonists, and African slaves all contributed to the melting pot that has created Brazil. The mixture of African religions that survived throughout slavery and Catholicism, Candomblé, has created some of the most interesting and diverse cultural aspects. In Bahia, statues of African gods called Orishas pay homage to the unique African presence in the nation’s largest Afro-Brazilian state. Not only are these Orishas direct links to their past ancestry, but also reminders to the cultures the Brazilian people come from. Condomblé and the Orishas serve as an ever present reminder that African slaves were brought to Brazil. Though their lives were different in Brazil, their culture has been preserved at least to some degree.
Since the 1990s, despite the increasing public attention given to slavery through national and international initiatives like UNESCO’s Slave Route Project, Brazil has mounted very few initiatives commemorating and memorializing slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. However, in the last decade Brazil has begun engaging in several initiatives underscoring its slave past and the importance of African heritage. Gradually, all over the country statues celebrating Zumbi, the leader of Palmares, Brazilian long-lasting quilombo (runaway slave community) were unveiled. Capital cities like Rio de Janeiro and even Porto Alegre created permanent markers commemorating heritage sites of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. Among the most recent and probably the most famous initiatives of this kind is the Valong Wharf slave memorial in Rio de Janeiro (the site where almost one million enslaved Africans disembarked).
Slavery and systematic inequality and disadvantage still exist within Brazil. Though much progress has been made since abolition, unequal representation in all levels of society perpetuates ongoing racial prejudice. Most obvious are the stark contrasts between white and black Brazilians in media, government, and private business. Brazil continues to grow and succeed economically, yet its poorest regions and neighborhood slums (favelas), occupied by majority Afro-Brazilians, are shunned and forgotten. Large developments within cities displace poor Afro-Brazilians and the government relocates them conveniently to the periphery of the city. It has been argued that most Afro-Brazilians live as second-class citizens, working in service industries that perpetuate their relative poorness while their white counterparts are afforded opportunities through education and work because of their skin color. Advocation for equal rights in Brazil are hard to understand because of how mixed Brazil's population is. However, there is no doubt that the number of visible Afro-Brazilian leaders in business, politics, and media are disproportionate to their white counterpart.
In 2012, Brazil passed an affirmative action law in an attempt to directly fight the legacy of slavery. Through it Brazilian policy makers have forced state universities, regarded very highly because it is free and of high quality, to have a certain quota of Afro-Brazilians. Due to the percentage of Afro-Brazilians to be admitted, as high as 30% in some states, cause great social discontent that some argue furthers racial tensions. It is argued that these high quotas are needed because of the unequal opportunities available to Afro-Brazilians. In 2012 Brazil’s Supreme Court unanimously held the law constitutional. However, in sectors like education, political representation, and overall quality of life, opportunities and capabilities for Afro-Brazilians will continue to increase. Brazil's government will continue to provide for all of its people as it sees fit, but the issue of slavery and its legacy may forever be felt in all facets of Brazilian life.
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