History of Slavery in Brazil

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Brazil has a longer history with slavery than any other nation in the Western Hemisphere. In this lesson, we'll examine the history of slavery in Brazil, and see how this continues to impact the nation today.

Slavery in Brazil

Here in the United States, we're pretty aware of the history of slavery. Our country relied on slavery, then fought a civil war and abolished it. That's a pretty basic overview, but what we don't always recognize is that slavery wasn't limited to the United States. The United States isn't even where slavery was most prominent. That falls to Brazil, the largest nation of South America. Brazil imported more slaves than any other nation in the Western Hemisphere, and held on to the practice of slavery the longest. So, slavery plays a major role in Brazilian history, and the legacies of this are something the nation has to deal with to this day.

Slavery is a major part of Brazilian history

The Portuguese Come to Brazil

In 1492, Christopher Columbus bumped into the Caribbean while sailing under the Spanish flag and launched a wave of European exploration. In 1494, the Pope granted Spain complete control of the New World, with exception of one piece of land jutting into the Atlantic which had been spotted by Portuguese sailors. In 1530, the Portuguese would begin the process of colonizing that land, which we now know as Brazil.

So, what were the Portuguese doing in Brazil? The Spanish colonies in the Caribbean had become tremendously wealthy, largely based on cash crops like sugar cane. So, the Portuguese were coming to Brazil with a similar goal of setting up agricultural plantations, something they had successfully done on Madeira, an island off of Northern Africa. Spain's Caribbean colonies were largely worked using slave labor of Amerindians from those islands, but the Portuguese quickly realized that this was impractical in the jungles of Brazil, where Amerindian warriors were quick to declare war and European diseases quickly tore through Amerindian populations.

The Introduction of Slavery

So, what would the Portuguese do for labor? Well, the reason that Spain was trying to reach China by going west is that Portugal had already taken control of exploration to the south. Portuguese sailors had worked down the coast of Africa, and set up trade forts to exchange good with lucrative African trade routes that brought gold and ivory to the coasts, as well as one other thing: slaves.

So, the Portuguese began importing slaves from Africa to Brazil, a practice soon copied by other European empires. Brazil had the most trade networks in Africa, and Brazil is closer to Africa than the Caribbean or North America, so Portuguese slave trading took off at an unbelievable rate. By 1570, slave ships were constantly arriving in Brazil, carrying thousands of slaves each, many of which did not survive the extremely harsh voyage. All in all, an estimated 4.5 million slaves were transported from Africa to Brazil, more than any other nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Slavery in Brazil

With such astounding numbers, slaves quickly became the largest segment of Brazilian society, and the absolute center of the Brazilian economy. Brazil grew quickly as a colony, thanks mostly to the labor of slaves. Slaves were visible, prominent, and a definitive part of colonial society. After Brazil declared independence in 1822, slavery was maintained almost without question. Brazil was not founded as a republic, but as an empire, which may be one reason that the pro-freedom attitude of other American nations was not as prominent there.

Slaves became a dominant part of Brazilian society

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