History of Slavery in Brazil

Brazil has a long and an unfortunately extensive history of slavery. It was for sometime a part of their culture where the superior power consistently enslaved those beneath them. Brazil’s history of slavery goes back even before Portuguese settlement. Thousands of tribes roam across the country and it was a tradition for some of the tribes to enslave the people of the tribe that they have conquered or defeated. The conquered tribe would be enslaved and be tasked to do all the hard physical labor. By 1500, when the Portuguese ships came in and settled. They enslaved the native population to sustain the sugar mills and maintain the subsistence economy, many were captured through expeditions called “bandeiras.” Brazil’s economy rose exponentially in the span of 50 years and it demanded more and more labor due to the success of the sugar industry and its increased demand by the Europeans. By 1550, the Portuguese realized the indigenous population would not be able to keep up with the increase of demand (alone) due to multiple factors. The first was many were hard to capture as most of the native tribes lived in the jungles as the colonists resided by the coast. The second reason and more importantly, the native population was deteriorating drastically. The indigenous people were very vulnerable when they were exposed to European diseases such as small pox and the flu. Due to these factors, the Portuguese decided to look at other ways to tackle the shortage of labor. The Portuguese at the time also colonized and held expeditions in many Western and Southern African countries. The Portuguese turned to the African population and would soon enslave record numbers of Africans and transport them to Brazil to work in the sugar mills. At one point, African slaves made up almost 40 percent of the population in Rio De Janeiro. The number of slaves that were sent to Brazil reached record heights. It is estimated, that between 1600-1850 almost 4.5 million enslaved Africans were sent to Brazil.


Compared to the rest of the world, even after Brazil declared its independence from Portugal, there have been relatively very small and weak movements to abolish slavery as many countries in the Americas, and European countries began to abolish. One of the reasons to the little resistance, was that Brazil’s economy was highly dependent on the labor the slaves provided and were so accustomed to the presence of it that some could argue that it has become a part of their culture. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that movements soon began to pick up some steam and support to abolish slavery. Many institutions of higher learnings encouraged the people to follow the example of North America in moving past such actions. In 1873, Joaquim Nabuco had a powerful quote that urged the people to take a second look at what freedom and equality really means. He declared that “there is no freedom nor independence in a land with one million, five hundred thousand slaves!” By 1988, the “Golden Law” was passed and it abolished slavery Brazil and made Brazil the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish it.

Even after the abolishment of slavery, the effects were felt in many different aspects. The first was the millions of Africans that arrived to Brazil in the mid 1500’s would soon have a giant footprint on the Brazilian population. In a 2010 Brazil census, it was found that “97 million Brazilians, or 50.7% of the population, now define themselves as black or mixed race…making African-Brazilians the official majority for the first time.” It also left a profound effect on the country with deep class divide and the spread of prostitution in the past two centuries. In a way, it has been become a modern type of slavery. As women would sell their bodies just for survival. The numbers are staggering as seen in this image:



Today, Brazil’s number one priority is to tackle its insanely high poverty line. It is frightening to believe that many Brazilians live in such poor conditions, especially with the rise of the country economically and politically to a world power and one of the biggest developing countries. It must be addressed as it is inhumane to have a large proportion of a population to live in such difficult conditions. It seems while many countries have continued to move forward and beyond past belligerent actions such as enslavement and prostitution. Brazil somehow has kept that tradition alive for centuries. From enslaving each other, to European colonies coming in and enslaving the indigenous people. All the way to today, where people have begun to enslave themselves as a means for survival. It is a cruel and vicious cycle that needs to be put an end to. No country should have this type of issue, let alone one that is considered to be one of the largest economies and possesses the second largest GDP in the Western Hemisphere.


If you are interested in reading more about the role of the sugar economy in slavery here is a link to the one hundred year period between 1540-1640 also known as “The Sugar Boom