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When Brazil was the largest slave market in the world

by Valeria Tovarci

In this paper, I would like to focus on the history of slavery in Brazil. I am aware, that this topic was not really covered in the lectures. But the role of slavery in the history of Brazil is one of the darkest chapters of the largest Latin American country. Slavery shaped ownership and the system of power, human relations and religious expression, nation building and Brazilian identity. In short, the entire history and present of the country. For me, these facts turn out to be utterly important to write about.
Before I go into more detail about the history of slavery in Brazil, there are a few more introductory words to the history of Suriname. After having skimmed an overview of the points discussed in the lectures on suriname slavery, I continue with the description of trafficking in Brazil at that time. Subsequently I will show an example that describes the personal experience of an enslaved man in Brazil who wrote down his traumatic experiences. Finally, I mention the importance of the memorial in Rio , as it was a major theme during last year’s Olympic Games.


Photo of two women in Salvador, Bahia, in 1869 (left) and 1880

Slavery in Suriname
As already discussed in our lectures, 1499 sailed a Spanish expedition along the Lesser Antilles and also reached the later Dutch Guiana, today’s Suriname. About 100 years later, merchants and soldiers from the Netherlands came to this region, which had taken on a
growing share of goods transport between the European countries and the Portuguese Brazil in the trade war with Spain.
The Dutch made Suriname a lucrative colony within a triangular trade between Europe, Africa and South America. The Indians were mostly expelled. Sugar, coffee, cocoa, cotton and wood plantations produced profitable export goods. Slaves from the west coast of
Africa served as cheap labor, forming the majority of the population until the middle of the 19th century. The enslaved people were not only treated as pets, but were also brutally abused and used as working machines. This form of trade ended when, in 1863, slavery
was abolished in Suriname. Suriname is bordered to the south by Brazil. The economy of Brazil, which was a Portuguese colony since 1500, was based on the labor of slaves for centuries. The number of Africans deported to Brazil is mixed according to the literature. They range from more than 3 million up to 4 million.


Main slave traffic routes between Africa and Brazil

Slavery in Brazil lasted until 1888
For a long time, trafficking was downplayed and Brazil was portrayed as an example of socalled racial democracy. Thus, the slavery of Brazil was described as a humane counterpart to that in the US southern states. It is estimated that of the approximately 12 million Africans who were raped between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries and were brutally escorted to the New World plantations, one-third were taken to the Portuguese colony of Brazil. As mentioned in the lectures, slaves were in a system in which they were not able to get out of it. After
independence in 1822, it was not until 1888 that slavery was abolished. For a long time, it was not practiced in any country in America. Brazil has long been the largest slave market in the world.


The story of Mahommah Baquaqua
An outstanding testimony of Brazilian slavery is the biography of Mahommah Baquaqua. He was abducted in West Africa in 1845 and sold as a slave to a baker in Brazil. The story of his escape to freedom now appears for the first time as a book in Portuguese. These are the first such memoirs on personal experiences of slavery in Brazil. Baquaqua had dictated his memories in faulty English in 1854. According to his own information, he was born around 1824 as the son of a merchant family in today’s Benin in West Africa. He worked as a messenger and assistant to a tribal chief when he was captured in 1845 and taken by boat to a beach near Recife in Brazil. A baker bought the young man. Baquaqua was routinely beaten by his slave-owner, even in the church during the service.The baker sold the slave later in Rio de Janeiro on to the captain of a merchant ship. He went to New York in 1847, where there was no slavery.
I find it remarkable that this human being was able to transcribe and publicize his painful and traumatic experiences during his time as a captive slave. He thereby confirms his inner strength and hope for a better future. It is incredibly important for us to confront people of today with such experiences, since I believe that the issue of global trafficking and slavery has not been dealt with deeply enough within the framework of education for a long time. Such autobiographical writings open the eyes towards the real history of slavery and break stereotypical notions of it. One of the stereotypical examples can be found in the racist philosophical writings of writers from the past. Voltaire, Emanuel Kant or David Hume were once respected philosophers who had certain notions of black people. One of the stereotypical examples can be found in the racist philosophical writings of writers from the past. Voltaire, Emanuel Kant or David Hume were once respected philosophers who had certain notions of dark-skinned people. They categorized people according to their facial features and considered them to be inferior animals that were not worth half as much as “white” humans. These ideas are pervading into the present. Therefore, it is even more important to break through these stereotypical ideas by thematizing and discussing examples as from Mahommah Baquaquas life.


Slaves at a coffee yard in a farm. Vale do Paraiba, Sao Paulo, 1882. (Marc Ferrez/Moreira Salles Institute Archive.)

Last but not least, the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics have finally brought the memory of this dark chapter of history to the fore. Thus, only this year, a truth commission was set up by the state to deal with the 350-year period of slavery. For tourists visiting the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, a new memorial path is set up. The trail leads past historic sites, including a mass grave for slaves who died on the crossing from Africa.



Ana Lucia Araujo,  African heritage and memories of slavery in Brazil and the South Atlantic world,  Amherst: Cambria Press, 2015.

Rafael de Bivar Marquese, ‘The dynamics of slavery in Brazil: Resistance, the slave trade and manumission in the 17th to 19th centuries’. 2018.’ Click here

Karla Mendes, ‘Brazil’s fight against slavery seen at risk with new labor rules’, October 19 2017. Click here

[Dit is deel 8 in de reeks papers Side Wings of Slavery & Colonialism; zie ook deel 1,  2 , 3, 4, 56 en 7.]

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