Note: This article was written for the occasion of Black Awareness Day in Brazil.
Officially, slavery in Brazil, the last independent American country which still had this institution at the time, was abolished on May 13, 1888. However, it wouldn’t be a law signed by the aristocracy that would solve the problems of the black people, who, for centuries, had their labor and dignity stolen. The environment had been prepared and shaped for 40 years, so that abolition could proceed as smoothly as possible — for the slave owners.
Submitting to pressure from England, Brazil had been moving in the direction of abolition a long time. The most famous and ineffectual of the so-called “laws for the English to see” (an expression that still designates completely empty, but nice sounding pieces of legislation in the country) was the Feijo Law, enacted in 1832, giving nominal freedom to slaves who worked Brazil’s land, but it wasn’t until 1850 that the Eusebio de Queiros Law banned slave trafficking. The end of slavery appeared near, but several steps were taken to extend its life.
In 1871, the so-called “Law of Free Birth” was approved, “liberating” the children of slaves — who would be “cared for” by their masters or by the state until their 21st birthday, in a de facto condition of slavery. In 1885, the Law of Sexagenarians “freed” slaves over 65 years old — actually giving their owners a license to discard them. Finally, “abolition” occurred with the approval of the Golden Law.
It should be expected that measures such as the above would preserve white privilege, but none came close to the inhumanity perpetuated to our days by the less well known Law of Lands.
Sanctioned only two weeks after the Eusebio de Queirós Law, law number 601 from September 18, 1850, established the end of the free homestead: No land could become property by occupation and transformation through labor, but would have to be bought from the state. Land already occupied would be subjected to certain requirements of use or would revert to the state, and would be sold at its discretion.
Not only did this law prevent former slaves from being able own land through their labor, it stipulated government subsidies for foreign colonization of the country, bringing in foreign labor and further devaluing black people’s labor.
When abolition occurred, black people were abandoned to their luck, getting no compensation, reparation or land — even though no value could compensate for the injustice of entire lives of forced labor. They would not be allowed to work the land and they had no money to buy land directly from the state (which, in any case, had the power to determine who the new landowners would be, and black individuals did not figure at the top of the list). The only option the black population had was to flee to the cities to live in tenements and, precariously, sell their labor for slave-like wages.
The zeitgeist at the time already demanded the end of chattel slavery, but Brazil put every brake possible on the abolitionist movement. These brakes shaped what opportunities black people would have and perpetuated white privilege.
When we look around on Black Consciousness Day, we notice that the skin color of the poor, marginalized and exploited in our society is different from that of elites. This did not happen by chance: It was the result of a series of measures designed to keep the black population in submission.
In his autobiography, great abolitionist and libertarian Joaquim Nabuco stated, in 1900: “Slavery will stay for a long time as the national characteristic of Brazil.” Exactly.
Translated by Erick Vasconcelos.
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