The Making of History: Historiography, Institutionalization, and the Trajectory of Punishment in Brazilian Slavery Studies

An Interview with Sidney Chalhoub

In: Journal of Global Slavery
Sidney Chalhoub University of Campinas Brazil Campinas
Harvard University USA Cambridge, MA

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Christian G. De Vito University of Bonn Germany Bonn

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Viola Franziska Müller University of Bonn Germany Bonn

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Sidney Chalhoub was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and studied history in the 1980s at the Fluminense Federal University (Rio de Janeiro) and at the University of Campinas. He taught history at the University of Campinas for thirty years before moving to Harvard University in 2015, where he is now David and Peggy Rockefeller Professor of History and of African and African American Studies. Chalhoub has published extensively in Portuguese and English, especially on the social history of slavery, race, and the working class in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil. His work includes Trabalho, lar e botequim [Work, Home, and Tavern] (1986), Visões da liberdade [Visions of Freedom] (1990), Cidade febril [Feverish City] (1996), and A força da escravidão: ilegalidade e costume no Brasil oitocentista [The Force of Slavery: Illegality and Custom in Nineteenth-Century Brazil] (2012). Among countless academic engagements, Chalhoub was a founder of the Centro de Pesquisa em História Social da Cultura [Center of Research on the Social History of Culture] at the University of Campinas.

In March 2021, Chalhoub attended the online workshop “Punishing the Enslaved,” organized by Christian De Vito and Viola Müller, where he shared his expertise as a social and labor historian. This interview, to which he kindly agreed, reflects his personal experiences as one of the leading historians of Brazilian slavery, his perspective on the field of Atlantic slavery, and the connection to the topic of this special issue.1

1 The Trajectory of the New Brazilian Historiography on Slavery

De Vito and Müller: Looking back at its trajectory from the 1970s onwards, our impression is that you and other colleagues have moved Brazilian historiography on slavery from a “structuralist” approach to one centered on the experiences of the enslaved themselves. How did this new approach emerge, and what have been the main steps in its development?

Chalhoub: Towards the end of the 1970s, Brazil was beginning to emerge from a military dictatorship that had begun in 1964 and would not formally end until 1985. Several scholars were in exile during that period, and those who had remained in the country experienced persecution, arrest, torture. Historical research had been brought to a virtual halt. The situation began to change in 1979, when an amnesty law made it possible for people in exile to return to the country. The following decade saw the creation of several graduate programs in history and the structuring of historical research in Brazilian universities. For those of us in our formative years, these were exciting times. Politically, the waning of the dictatorship seemed to open endless possibilities for the future—both on professional and personal levels—and the flourishing social movements and newly-created political parties indicated that power was definitively shifting away from the generals to organized civil society.

The crushing of liberty during the dictatorship may have helped to make Marxist authors iconic figures for teachers and the youth in general—at least among those interested in the humanities and the social sciences. Florestan Fernandes, a sociologist and professor at the University of São Paulo, was a key student of the legacy of slavery and of racism in Brazilian society, discrediting for good, at least among scholars, the myth of Brazilian racial democracy usually associated with the work of Gilberto Freyre.2 Fernandes’ major book, The Negro in Brazilian Society (published originally in 1965), examined how the legacy of slavery made it difficult for Black people to “integrate” into an emerging class society.3 Emphasizing the violence of slavery and its consequences for Black families and communities after emancipation, he concluded that former slaves faced great disadvantages in competing with Whites, especially recently-arrived European immigrants, in the labor market in São Paulo. With the hardening of the military regime in 1968, Fernandes was expelled from the University of São Paulo and went into exile.

Two other quite different Marxist authors were also influential in the 1980s. First, there was Caio Prado Junior, who had been publishing interpretations of the “formation” and “evolution” of Brazilian society since the 1930s, motivated by the idea of articulating a Marxist interpretation of the country’s history. Prado Junior’s argument about nineteenth-century Brazilian society as essentially backward and out of step with the development of capitalism, insistent upon a monarchical regime and the defense of slavery and latifundia, became the standard historical understanding while the generals ruled the country. Brazil had had an imperfect bourgeois revolution. Regarding slavery, Caio Prado Junior centered his analysis on class struggle and class consciousness, which in his view meant excluding slaves from defining historical moments. The free and poor, however rebellious at times, lacked a proper understanding of their condition and so could not be effective agents of social change. Prado Junior was not admitted as a professor at the University of São Paulo for political reasons (he tried twice), was arrested in 1970—because of an interview in which he allegedly defended armed struggle against the dictatorship—, submitted to a trial, condemned, and kept in jail for almost two years.

The third influential author of those times was Jacob Gorender, like Prado Junior a long-time member of the communist party. He was arrested and tortured. While in prison, according to legend, he worked on a book that engaged with the then-common debate among leftists about the best way to define the colonial past in Brazil: had it been feudalism or capitalism? He proposed that it was neither, arguing that the colonial period should be understood as a particular mode of production in which slavery was the structuring element, not yet theorized in the literature, and set out to define its characteristics and modes of operation.

Although these three authors were very different from each other, they all offered important insights and shared what a new generation of historians perceived as a basic weakness. Florestan Fernandes revolutionized the understanding of slavery in Brazil, emphasizing the need to reckon with the violence of the regime and its consequences. Caio Prado Junior analyzed the formation of the long-term reactionary commitment of Brazilian social and economic elites, firmly wedded to slavery and latifundia, which began in colonial times and continued into the national period. Jacob Gorender suggested that slave labor was a world in itself, worth studying closely in its internal characteristics, instead of being seen just as a chapter in the history of capitalism—the main dynamics of which happened entirely elsewhere.

For young historians interested in slavery in the early 1980s, sharing in the excitement of the struggles against a violent, deteriorating dictatorship, it soon became clear that what was lacking in these authors was due attention to the experiences and views of enslaved people themselves.

2 The Process of Institutionalization within Brazil

De Vito and Müller: It seems to us that the impact of the new Brazilian historiography on slavery, i.e. centering the experiences of enslaved people in social history, has been favored by a long-term process of “institutionalization.” How did this take hold within Brazil and among Brazilian scholars in the “diaspora”?

Chalhoub: When you speak of a process of “institutionalization,” I do not know if you realize how profound that process was. The dictatorship had basically dismantled the places where historical research was done. When it emerged again, and this is the case regarding slavery studies, it did so at universities that had not had a tradition in the field. At the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF), in the city of Niterói, across the bay from Rio, a group of former exiles recently returned to the country, together with some foreign, especially US visiting or permanent professors, started a field sometimes called “agrarian history,” or “regional history.” Maria Yedda Linhares, another scholar who had been arrested by the military and gone abroad, had taught in France for several years and became an inspiring presence in her fondness for the Annales school of history and in her urging apprentice historians to dig into local archives. Among the US historians, Robert Slenes had completed a long, detailed dissertation about slavery in nineteenth-century Brazil at Stanford University. He knew sources available in Brazilian notarial archives about slavery better than anyone else—post-mortem inventories, last wills and testaments, deeds of sale, letters of manumission, civil and criminal trial records, etc. Soon a group of students had formed around these two professors, including myself, and we shared the intense excitement of unearthing documents that had never been tapped before. Everything at UFF was somewhat precarious. We did not really have a library and there were no fellowships. However, Rio de Janeiro, where most graduate students lived, was then and remains to this day an incredible place for historians. Besides the National Archive and the National Library, the city boasts a wealth of archives and old specialized libraries (medical, literary, judicial) to be explored.

In the mid-1980s, the Department of History at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) decided to build a strong field in the history of slavery. Over the next few years, first under the leadership of Peter Eisenberg, a historian trained at Columbia University who had written a foundational study of slavery and emancipation in the northeastern province of Pernambuco, soon to be joined by Robert Slenes, young historians and graduate students arrived in batches. Among the professors, besides myself, Leila Algranti, Celia Azevedo, and Silvia Lara joined the department and published first books on slavery in the 1980s and the early 1990s, solidifying the field in the graduate program and turning it into a magnet for talented graduate students coming from all over the country. With an expanding federal and state public university system in the following decades, most of our graduates obtained jobs in major Brazilian research universities.

The year of 1988, the centenary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil, proved decisive. The prevailing interpretations of the history of slavery that I mentioned in my previous answer continued to inform most scholars, activists, and the public at large. The 1988 commemorations allowed for a large-scale conversation about slavery and its legacy, providing opportunities for historians to present their new findings on the subject. The events happened while the country was drafting its new constitution, to be promulgated in October and expressing the new democratic and social justice hopes of the nation after a quarter century of dictatorial, right-wing rule. Conference rooms at public universities everywhere were packed with scholars, students, and activists willing to listen to and question the new research being done on slavery. It was exhilarating. Furthermore, federal and state funding agencies provided the financial resources to make possible the invitation of international scholars. Our conference about slavery and emancipation at the University of Campinas, an institution that was about two decades old only in 1988, brought to campus Barbara Fields, Emilia Viotti da Costa, Eric Foner, Eric Hobsbawm, Frederick Cooper, George Reid Andrews, Ira Berlin, Seymour Drescher, and Thomas Holt, among others. The conference allowed for the establishing of networks and collaborations that lasted for decades, including the translation and publication of the work of several of these colleagues in Brazil.

3 Brazilian Historiography on Slavery and “Atlantic Slavery Studies”

De Vito and Müller: How do you see the relationship between the trajectory of Brazilian historiography on slavery and the broader scholarship on “Atlantic slavery?” Which have been the main centers of influence and how has this exchange taken place?

What do you see as the main differences in themes, theoretical and methodological approaches, etc., especially to the anglophone/North American strands in that scholarship? For example, how do you view the concept of the “second slavery”?4

Chalhoub: Perhaps because historical research was starting anew in the 1980s, thus depending so much on exiles returning to the country and on the coming of international—especially US—scholars willing to work at Brazilian universities, a place like the University of Campinas felt quite connected internationally from the beginning of the formation of the group on slavery studies there. Or perhaps this was the condition of being a historian in the periphery of Western academia at that time. We were open to reading everything we could put our hands on (although such impulses were checked somewhat by the precarity of our libraries …). Rebecca J. Scott, who had just published her first book on slave emancipation in Cuba, was a visiting professor at the history department in 1986. She arrived with a bag full of books and articles that we photocopied avidly. Her seminar became an important meeting point for professors and graduate students, and an opportunity to discuss the recent updated bibliography on slavery then appearing in the United States.

Of course, we were very aware of the Atlantic dimensions of slavery, and we understood the connections between the historical research we were engaged in and the wider scope of historiographical debates on the subject. But we were not initially focused on the Atlantic connections of Brazilian slavery—not nearly in the way this aspect has become important today. The reason was simple: we knew next to nothing about social relations pertaining to slavery, what it was like on the ground for the people involved. We were interested in reading the international historiography, to gain ideas about questions that could guide our research and about where to look for relevant sources.

There is a good example of this that originated in Rebecca’s seminar. She extensively explored legal aspects of slavery and emancipation in Cuba and elsewhere, and in ways that were inspiring to us. Not only did she analyze pieces of legislation as a process—that is, focusing on the debates and conflicts in the making of the law—but she pushed us to investigate the application of the law, how it was enforced at local and at national levels, how it was appropriated by people in their daily conflicts. In her book she analyzed petitions for freedom, i.e. enslaved people going to court alleging that they had been held in bondage illegally for a variety of reasons.5 The next question was whether there were similar sources available for Brazil. I had written a book using homicide trial records to study working-class culture in Rio de Janeiro in the early twentieth century, and I was reading homicide trial records searching for enslaved people at that very moment, but it had never occurred to me to look for enslaved people litigating for freedom in Brazilian courts. Such records are everywhere in Brazilian archives, and in the past few decades several fine studies have appeared exploring them.

Judicial cases of enslaved people litigating for freedom proved an important window to understanding aspects of the structuring of relations between masters and slaves: how they were lived in people’s daily interactions. Slavery in Brazil was characterized by a heavy dependence on the slave trade, high mortality rates, and relatively high manumission rates. It soon became clear to us that manumission was a key aspect of the control of the enslaved here, in a sharp contrast to slave societies, such as the US South, where obtaining freedom by a master’s consent, self-purchase, or by legal means seemed virtually impossible. The main legal principle upheld in every case in Brazil was the idea of the inviolability of seigneurial will. Letters of manumission affirmed this principle in their wording unequivocally: “I Domingos Sodré, am the Master and owner of a Crioulo boy by the name of Theodoro, aged nine, and due to the affection [developed during his] upbringing, I hereby grant him his freedom on the express condition that he accompany me, serve me and respect me during my lifetime.”6 Anchored in paternalist ideology, freedom invariably originated in a master’s will to grant it, not in a slave’s initiative to obtain it. However, in freedom suit after freedom suit, what happened was that enslaved people would go to court alleging that a promise of freedom had been unfulfilled, that heirs had disrespected the will of a former master, that they had been abandoned, that they had fulfilled the requirements of a conditional freedom but remained enslaved, that they had originally been illegally enslaved, etc. The reasons alleged did not question the general principle of the inviolability of seigneurial will, but they did show how enslaved people could occasionally hold their masters to their own words. The excerpt from the letter of manumission cited above also reveals that the freedom granted was conditional (“on the express condition that he accompany me, serve me …”)—that is, it could be revoked if the master considered that the freed person had not followed the stipulations laid down in the letter. The situation suggests that, however frequently manumission could be obtained, it came very often with a degree of insecurity or precariousness, a theme investigated more systematically by Brazilian historiography on slavery in the past decade or so.

By the early 1990s, a small army of students at several postgraduate programs on history across the country dug into local archives. Their focus was on the social and economic history of Brazilian slavery, especially concerning enslaved people’s views of slavery. Robert Slenes started to push for a different perspective on slave culture and modes of resistance. As we learned more about the demographics of the slave trade and about the composition of the slave labor force in different plantation areas and in cities, Slenes suggested that the highly Africanized nature of Brazilian slavery required that research take that into full consideration.7 In the coffee plantation areas of the southeast by the middle of the nineteenth century, when the slave trade was about to stop, it was common to find properties in which 80 percent or more of enslaved workers had been born in Africa, especially West Central Africa. In Rio de Janeiro, the capital of the Brazilian Empire, with a population of about 260,000, there were about 110,000 slaves, 60 percent of them born in Africa. Therefore, one of the more interesting and original trends of Brazilian historiography in the past few years has been the exploration of the connections between slave culture in Brazil and African cultures in the regions from where people were captured to be enslaved in the Americas. Besides the several detailed studies by Slenes regarding religion and the politics and culture of slave resistance, the subject has also been explored through the study of biographies of enslaved people, as is the case in several recent studies by João José Reis, who focuses on the relations between Bahia and West Africa.

As for the “second slavery,” I think it is an important contribution in the sense that it helps to understand a period in the history of slavery which, although concomitant with processes of emancipation in other areas, is characterized by the actual strengthening of slavery in the Americas—especially in the US South, Cuba, and Brazil. The renewed emphasis on the British Empire is understandable, given the larger analytical framework, but it is regrettable that Africa is again largely excluded from the general picture. In addition, understanding slavery in its Atlantic connections should not deflect attention from local and national contexts. In all, I think the concept of “second slavery” has the potential of bringing about a better balance, in Brazilian historiography, between the larger framework of Atlantic slavery and the social history of slavery. The latter continues to warrant new and exciting avenues of research, as is the case, for example, in recent studies exploring the connections between the enslavement of Africans and Indigenous peoples, a kind of investigation that depends on the painstaking effort of combing through massive amounts of manuscripts housed in regional and/or local archives.

4 Brazilian Historiography on Slavery and Labor History beyond Brazil

De Vito and Müller: Arguably, the network of global labor history has played an important role in disseminating the contents and perspectives of the new Brazilian historiography on slavery beyond Brazil. At the same time, we observe a persistent critical standpoint among Brazilian labor historians vis-à-vis the proposal of global labor history (and possibly global history in general). If you agree with this assessment, what then would you consider the key divergences?

And to take one step back, which networks of labor historians would you consider the most important in this conversation?

Chalhoub: The conversation between historians of slavery and labor historians for us started domestically, at the University of Campinas. By the middle of the 1990s we were under the same institutional umbrella that we called “social history of labor.” This conflation made sense not only for the obvious reason that we conceived of slavery, as well as other forms of unfree labor, as part of labor history generally, but also because we shared a research agenda under the label of “social history.” And social history for us meant first and foremost reading E.P. Thompson in depth, not because we had much interest in the island just north of Europe that he wrote about, but because we were fascinated by his historical concepts, modes of explanation, political engagement, prose, everything. We set out to appropriate Thompson freely for our own purposes and historical problems.

Historians of slavery and of the labor movement in Brazil shared a common problem in the 1980s and the early 1990s, which was confronting a historiographic “paradigm of absence”—an example of appropriating Thompson. The history of the labor movement in Brazil seemed plagued by a particular view of the legacy of slavery. Slavery had allegedly annihilated those in its grasp along with their culture, leaving only shreds in a vacuum, as inexorable domination was thought to do. Such a legacy appeared to be especially relevant for the contrast it presented to the supposed model of European historical development, in which workers were deemed heirs of a strong artisan tradition, seen as decisive for the emergence of the political critique and modes of action of the labor movement in its early years.

Thus the question of the slaves’ views of slavery, their understanding of their situation and political ways to deal with it, became decisive. E.P. Thompson’s The Making, despite its somewhat teleological narrative culminating with the fully-formed labor movement, but especially his articles later gathered in Customs in Common, served as a repertory of initial questions allowing us to explore the forms of political struggles pertaining to the enslaved in their own terms, not according to a linear concept of class consciousness. Once we started understanding in more detail the shared experiences that shaped the daily lives of enslaved people—basically, being subject to physical punishment, dealing with the constant possibility of being bought and sold, and hoping to achieve freedom, however difficult—we were able to observe how political cultures and worldviews were articulated from the ground up, or through the multiple strategies enslaved people came up with to deal with the labor exploitation and violence exercised by the slaveholding class. For instance, and drawing on my own research, reading homicide trial records from nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro, I saw that often conflicts between masters and the enslaved originated in a master’s insistence upon selling workers to owners or locations that they did not want to go to, or where they would labor in tasks that they did not want to perform. The story that opens my book, Visões da Liberdade (Visions of Freedom, 1990), is about a dozen enslaved individuals who, not wanting to be sold from Rio to a coffee plantation county, decided to collectively beat the slave dealer and run to the police station to be arrested. This was a story among many in which the enslaved not only made clear that there were limits to their willingness to submit to routine practices pertaining to slavery, but they also showed that they understood that resorting to the police—that is, state authority—was a way of confronting the private power of the slaveholding class.

By the late 1990s, the research center that we had created at the University of Campinas had secured steady funding from federal and state agencies.8 Not only graduate and undergraduate students had adequate funding, but we also hosted several post-docs, organized many conferences and workshops with the participation of colleagues from abroad, and ran a book series with the university press that has published almost fifty monographs and edited volumes so far. Most of this is now defunded and under threat of extinction because of the political and economic crisis culminating in the current right-wing government, but I will not dwell on this part. The international collaborations established in the last twenty-five years are many, mainly with US universities (there is a dual doctorate program with Rice University), but also with Europe (Portugal, France, England, Germany, Netherlands), Latin America (Argentina, Mexico), and India. Research about African history has been flourishing.

Seen from a distance, it seems to me that the most interesting aspect of these collaborations is to understand and situate modern slavery as part of a much larger history of forced labor within capitalism. Not only did we have the opportunity of learning about how labor contracts, for example, whenever they appeared in Europe, in the US, and elsewhere, had little to do with “free” labor and were actually connected to the history of incarceration, but we were able to explore and compare workers’ strategies and struggles in different times and places. I guess I can only speak for myself here, but what I benefit from the most when reading the work of other labor historians is that it enriches the repertoire of questions that can be then used to analyze one’s own research material.

Of course, I also appreciate all the connections made possible by research centers and conferences organized around the agenda of global labor history. I don’t know if there is an articulate critique of global history by Brazilian labor historians, or even if there is the intention of doing so. Sometimes there are curious, thought-provoking political disconnects. For two decades, I attended one conference after another in which labor historians from Europe and the US started with the assumption that the labor movement was in a deep crisis worldwide. However, in Brazil, it was the opposite. The labor movement was extremely strong in the 1980s and 1990s, and from 2002 until the parliamentary coup of 2016, a party originating in the labor movement (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or the Workers’ Party) actually governed the country. Perhaps this is a reason why Brazilian labor historians continued to be interested in social history and its classical problems—agency, experience, resistance, class struggle, ideology, and increasingly race and gender—while historians in other places turned toward larger economic frameworks, commodity chains, “second slavery,” etc. Now the crisis that my fellow labor historians were speaking of has finally hit us hard in Brazil. It seems that lately we have had to spend much of our time engaged in the actual business of resistance, instead of writing historical studies about it.

5 “Punishing the Enslaved”

De Vito and Müller: This special issue focuses on the ways enslaved people were punished, and on the social relations that surrounded them. How has this specific question been addressed by Brazilian scholars? What are the prospects and challenges of this perspective? What are the available scholarly works on this question? Are there two or three publications that would you consider benchmarks in this field, and why?

One important issue that emerges when addressing the question of the punishment of the enslaved lies in the definition of “punishment” and, especially, in the way punitive practices and acts of social control entangled and diverged in various contexts. How does your own work contribute to this debate?

Chalhoub: The question of slave punishment appeared at the center of our preoccupations from the beginning because it was the theme of the groundbreaking book by Silvia Lara, Campos da Violência [Fields of Violence: Slaves and Masters in the Captaincy of Rio de Janeiro, 1750–1808], published in 1988.9 The book engages with the question of violence as the core component in the social control of enslaved people, but it seeks to approach the issue in ways that go beyond a narrative of victimization and denunciation, which were prevalent at the time. Drawing on a massive number of notarial documents, Silvia offers an analysis of the “moral economy” of domestic punishment in rural slavery. She identifies the motives alleged for physical punishment and its intensity, and she focuses especially on slaves’ views on fair and justifiable punishment, their concepts of justice. Although punishment, especially in distant rural contexts, was privatized to an extreme degree, her study shows the risk that masters incurred when they purported to ignore enslaved people’s ideas of what constituted acceptable correction and abusive behavior by slaveholders and overseers.

My own work and Leila Algranti’s dealt with the theme of slave discipline and punishment as well, though in the context of urban slavery in Rio de Janeiro. In nineteenth-century Brazil, a significant number of enslaved people toiled in cities, especially coastal ones such as Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Recife. Because slave labor in urban environments hinged in large part on the spatial mobility of workers, slave discipline there combined masters’ prerogatives with active police vigilance. Surviving records of the daily arrests made by Rio’s police from the 1830s to the 1870s show that assisting the control of masters over their slaves was one of the main functions of the institution. Slaves were arrested for a variety of reasons, but the main one was “suspected of being a fugitive.” Also, local authorities assisted slave owners in meting out physical punishment. Masters often sent workers to the calabouço, the slave prison, accompanied by handwritten notes in which they established the number of lashes that the enslaved person should receive. In any case, the role of the police was more nuanced and ambiguous than it seems. Enslaved people did resort to the police to obtain protection against abusive masters quite frequently. One tactic they employed was called apadrinhar-se com o Chefe de Polícia, meaning that they asked the chief of police to act as a godparent, seeking to prevent their being abused by proprietors.

The first Brazilian criminal code, enacted in 1830, enforced the slaveholders’ prerogative to punish their enslaved workers. One of the ways in which it did so was by restricting drastically the situations in which masters could be held responsible for acts committed against their human property. Except for assassination and punishments deemed barbarous or abusive (sevícias), masters were not liable for whatever they did to their property, including, as court decisions attest, raping the enslaved. In the 1830s, because of major slave rebellions in the provinces of Minas Gerais and Bahia, the Brazilian government changed the criminal code to make it easier to apply the death penalty to enslaved people accused of attempting attacks against the lives of masters, their families, and overseers. After some years in which the law seemed to have been applied with rigor, speeding up and trivializing executions, Emperor Pedro II began to interfere, halting the application of capital punishment and commuting death sentences to forced labor in prisons. The death penalty against slaves became a fraught issue, nurturing the dissatisfaction of planters with the monarchical regime, which would be toppled in the year following the abolition of slavery. Ricardo Pirola wrote the finest study available about slavery and the death penalty in nineteenth-century Brazil.10

Sometimes the issue of punishment becomes blurred, its contours rather hard to define vis-à-vis social relations in general. For example, as mentioned, in Brazilian slavery, manumission was relatively common and it remained at the core of the slaveholders’ strategies to control their enslaved laborers. It was usual, for example, for masters to agree to grant freedom through self-purchase. This practice remained customary until the law of September 28, 1871. Because it was not a formal legal disposition, a master could deny manumission to an enslaved person who offered to pay for her or his liberty. Normally, a master’s denial in such a situation would be framed as a punishment to the enslaved person, who had behaved perhaps in ways that the master deemed disrespectful or unfaithful. Eventually, because enslaved people perceived such agreements about manumission as part of their “customs in common,” there were risks for masters in refusing to oblige. The event could trigger individual or even collective acts of rebellion. That is to say, enslaved people themselves could conceive of the situation as one of undeserved punishment, politicizing the usually routine notion, upheld legally, that masters should always have the final word concerning manumission. In sum, it seems to me that any definition of punishment should be flexible enough to encompass situations that are particular to certain slave societies or historical contexts.

6 The Legacy of Slavery in Brazil

De Vito and Müller: Finally, it seems to us that there is an increasing public interest in the slavery past. In the US, dissemination initiatives such as The 1619 Project have captured the attention of historians as well as wider society.11 We also see increasing public engagement in terms of museums, exhibitions, and newspaper coverage in Europe, as well as newly established research centers and study programs.

What kind of interests and questions drive the societal debates around the legacies of slavery in Brazil?

Chalhoub: The first aspect to bear in mind regarding the question of the legacies of slavery in Brazil is a matter of scale. Brazil received more than 40 percent of all Africans who were kidnapped in their continent to be enslaved in the Americas. Today the country has the largest population of African descent outside of Africa, and it is second only to Nigeria worldwide. Of Brazil’s approximate 210 million inhabitants, 54 percent self-identify as Afro-descendants.

There were enormous changes in the past quarter century. The Constitution of 1988 opened the possibility for quilombola communities—that is, communities originated in gatherings of enslaved people who had run away—to seek recognition of their culture and to have access to collective land titles. In the 1990s, the Brazilian government recognized the existence of racism in the country, officially moving away from the myth of racial democracy. In 2003, a federal law made it mandatory to include the teaching of Afro-Brazilian and African history and culture at Brazilian schools on all educational levels. As a result of this law, history departments in the whole country had the opportunity to hire professors and to build upon resources to make it possible to train history teachers to cover African history in their classes. Beginning in the early 2000s, some state governments started to adopt affirmative action policies—quotas—to increase the number of Afro-descendant students at Brazilian universities. In 2012, the federal government enacted a law establishing aggressive social and racial affirmative action policies in the admissions process to the country’s huge federal public university system. The federal law came just a few months after the Brazilian Supreme Court had ruled unanimously, in a landmark decision, that affirmative action policies are constitutional.

These measures, taken together, and obtained in the context of constant pressure from a strong Black movement, have been changing the way slavery and race are spoken about in public discourse. More than two decades of sustained government policies have increased the presence of Afro-descendants in public universities to proportions that are compatible with their demographic weight in the population. There is now a noticeable presence of Black professionals gaining space in areas such as journalism, academia, politics, science. If I’m allowed one last personal recollection, the meetings of the Associação Nacional de História (ANPUH), the national association of historians, were elitist and overwhelmingly White a quarter century ago. At present, ANPUH is a massive organization, and people of African descent have a significant presence in every aspect of the profession.

We have come a long way, as a society, to reckon with the legacies of slavery. And we have barely started dealing with the problem. Back to the matter of scale, the challenge is huge. Structural racism is everywhere, social and economic inequalities are glaring, and gang and police violence take a heavy toll in Black lives and cause enormous pain among Black families and communities. However, the country seemed to be on track to a better future until the political crisis that brought about the parliamentary coup d’ état of 2016 and, subsequently, the necropolitical right-wing government now in power. It is a tragic backlash, although coherent with what Caio Prado Júnior had explained long ago, concerning Brazilian social and economic elites being wedded to inequality and reactionary politics (Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery, in 1888). Nonetheless, we are not back to where we were three or four decades ago. This is an unfortunate hiatus, but there is an uncompromising resistance to it—in which Black public figures have been essential—and it will pass sooner rather than later.


Open Access of this interview has been made possible by the generous support of the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies (BCDSS).


The interview was conducted via e-mail. The prompts and answers have been copy-edited, with references added to ground some of the issues discussed.


“Racial democracy” expresses the understanding that racism has been overcome by Brazilian society and that racial discrimination is not a significant issue anymore. The scholar mentioned is the sociologist Gilberto Freyre, who wrote The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), originally published as Casa-Grande & Senzala (Rio de Janeiro: Maia e Schmidt Ltda, 1933).


The book was originally published in Portuguese as A integração do negro na sociedade de classes (São Paulo: Editôra da Universidade de São Paulo / Dominus Editôra, 1965).


“Second slavery” refers to the emerging slavery “powerhouses” of the nineteenth-century, Brazil, Cuba, and the US South. In this model, during the “first slavery,” colonialism and slavery were interdependent and the latter only took place at the margins of the empire. Now it moved to the core of society. The concept, developed by Dale Tomich, aims to analyze the compatibility of slavery with industrial production, and its increasing integration into global capitalist markets. Dale W. Tomich, Through the Prism of Slavery. Labor, Capital, and World Economy (Lantham: Bowman & Littlefield, 2004); “The Second Slavery and World Capitalism: A Perspective for Historical Inquiry,” International Review of Social History 63, no. 3 (2018): 477–501.


Rebecca J. Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba. The Transition to Free Labor, 1860–1899 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985).


In João José Reis, Divining Slavery and Freedom: The Story of Domingos Sodré, an African Priest in Nineteenth-Century Brazil (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2015), 314.


In nineteenth-century Brazil, there were many more enslaved people who had been born on the African continent than, for instance, in the US South. Of the estimated 10,5 million Africans disembarked in the Americas during the slave trade, 4,8 million arrived in Brazil, 388 thousand in the USA. In the first half of the nineteenth century alone, more than 2 million Africans arrived in Brazil. These figures are derived from


Centro de Pesquisa em História Social da Cultura,


Silvia Lara, Campos da violência: escravos e senhores na capitania do Rio de Janeiro, 1750–1808 (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1988).


Ricardo Pirola, Escravos e rebeldes nos tribunais do Império: Uma história social da lei de 10 de junho de 1835 (Rio de Janeiro: Arquivo Nacional, 2015).


The 1619 Project by the New York Times “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

Works Cited

  • Chalhoub, Sidney. A força da escravidão: ilegalidade e costume no Brasil oitocentista (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2012).

  • Chalhoub, Sidney. Cidade febril: Cortiços e epidemias na Corte imperial (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1996).

  • Chalhoub, Sidney. Trabalho, lar e botequim: O cotidiano dos trabalhadores no Rio de Janeiro da belle époque (Campinas: Editora da Unicamp, 1986).

  • Chalhoub, Sidney. Visões da Liberdade: Uma história das últimas décadas da escravidão na Corte (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1990).

  • Freyre, Gilberto. The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946).

  • Fernandes, Florestan. The Negro in Brazilian Society (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1969).

  • Lara, Silvia. Campos da violência: escravos e senhores na capitania do Rio de Janeiro, 1750–1808 (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1988).

  • Pirola, Ricardo. Escravos e rebeldes nos tribunais do Império: Uma história social da lei de 10 de junho de 1835 (Rio de Janeiro: Arquivo Nacional, 2015).

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  • Reis, João José. Divining Slavery and Freedom: The Story of Domingos Sodré, an African Priest in Nineteenth-Century Brazil (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2015).

  • Scott, Rebecca J. Slave Emancipation in Cuba. The Transition to Free Labor, 1860–1899 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985).

  • Thompson, E.P. Customs in Common (London: Merlin Press, 1991).

  • Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class (London: Victor Gollancz, 1963).

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  • Tomich, Dale W. “The Second Slavery and World Capitalism: A Perspective for Historical Inquiry.” International Review of Social History 63 (3) (2018), 477–501.

  • Tomich, Dale W. Through the Prism of Slavery. Labor, Capital, and World Economy (Lantham: Bowman & Littlefield, 2004).

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