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APRIL 18, 2014
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The Free Africans of Brazil: Historical Background

Desmetida Africano

Approximately three-quarter million Africans were swept into the Brazilian branch of the Middle Passage in violation of international agreements that dated from the Congress of Vienna of 1815 and subsequent bilateral, national, colonial, and maritime anti-trafficking laws and codes. A subset of these illegally-trafficked Africans were known as Free Africans [Portuguese: africanos livres; also known as emancipados and "Liberated Africans"], after a legal status elaborated under the various anti-trafficking treaties and laws. These Free Africans are the central protagonists of  The Broken Paths of Freedom project. 

Between 1821, when the slaver Emilia was judged to be in violation of Anglo-Portuguese anti-trafficking conventions, and 1856, when the Mary E. Smith, the last known vessel to land slaves in violation of the Brazilian government's complete ban (issued in 1831 and renewed in 1850), about fourteen thousand illicitly enslaved Africans acquired the africano livre status. A distinguishing experience for the Free Africans of Brazil — similar to the experiences of other illegally enslaved Africans liberated in Freetown, Havana, Luanda, St. Helena, and elsewhere — was rescued by British or Brazilian naval authorities and presentation before tribunals established to judge cases of illegal trafficking.

In the Brazilian context, the principal tribunals established to hear cases of illegal trafficking were the Anglo-Portuguese Mixed Commission (1819-1822; hearing just one case), the Anglo-Brazilian Mixed Commission (1830-1845; hearing forty-six cases), and the Brazilian Auditoria da Marinha, active beginning in late 1850. (A handful of additional cases were heard by local magistrates and provincial governors.) The majority of cases brought before these tribunals involved wind-powered vessels that had been intercepted by British or Brazilian naval authorities on suspicion of transporting enslaved Africans from the various ports of coastal West- and West Central Africa as well as Mozambique. Although the findings of the tribunals were final, the trials were often protracted, as traffickers and their allies mounted various maneuvers to delay or abort judgment. During the lengthy trials, rescued Africans brought to Rio de Janeiro would be quartered aboard the seized vessel, in landside warehouses, or the House of Correction. The threat of death by disease or kidnapping was constant.

In cases in which the tribunal or judge found "good prize," the seized vessel was condemned, forfeited, and put up for auction. Owner, master, and crew faced separate criminal charges, or deportation. The rescued Africans, who had lived in a legal state of indeterminacy between the moment of the original apprehension and final condemnation, were granted certificates of freedom that specified a new status as "free laborer or servant." Brazilian officials conducted a nominal registry, assigning each African a number [matricula] and a Christian or Classical name. The nominal registries and the certificates also noted age, gender, body markings, and other distinguishing characteristics. Occasionally, these registries also made note of kin relations (especially mother-child) as well as mental or physical ailments.

Compelled to remain in Brazil, pending a promised “reexportation,” the Free Africans endured compulsory apprenticeships and state surveillance. Under the tutelage of private concessionaires [Portuguese: concessionários or arremenates; most often called "guardians" or "masters" in the British documentation] and the directors of public establishments, Free Africans were engaged in a number of tasks, notably domestic service, street vending, and public works. Some Africans liberated in Rio were dispatched to the plantations of the expanding coffee frontier of southeastern Brazil or to the mines of Minas Gerais. Others worked in armaments factories, forts, religious institutions, and public schools. Movement between place, between concessionaire, and between labor regimes was a common feature of the Free Africans' life experience.

The Free Africans of Brazil confronted the repressive, racist powers of a Brazilian slaveholding class that flaunted anti-trafficking law and international humanitarian appeal. Abolitionists denounced the tortured fates of liberated Africans. In the monumental 1867 "historical-juridical-social essay" about the slave regime in Brazil, Agostinho Marques Perdigão Malheiro (1824-1881) complained that the Free African suffered a life of endless work, severe punishment, and want. To be a Free African, argued the former superintendent of the emancipados, was the same as to be a slave. [Em resumo, o Africano livre era igualado ao escravo.]

Yet, the Free Africans regime was also in continual tension with Brazilian slave society. Anti-trafficking laws, although violated, reshaped the scope, volume, and practices of the trade. British diplomats, wrapping themselves in the various clauses of anti-trafficking codes, pressed their Brazilian counterparts to meet the obligations of such codes to ensure the well-being of the emancipados. British sailors assigned to the South Atlantic Station to interdict the trade and provide protection to rescued Africans were a constant irritant to the Brazilian merchant and popular classes.

Meanwhile, the absence of an effective scheme of reexportation opened up spaces in which Free Africans of long-term residence gradually became acculturated to Brazilian life. Brazilian jurists and politicians recognized that Free Africans were an especially problematic part of the Brazilian body politic. In a 21 September 1851 address to the senate, the Visconde de Jequitinhona recognized the children of emancipados had a constitutional claim to Brazilian citizenship, being that they were children of foreigners born in Brazilian territory.

By the mid-1840s, there is clear evidence that some Free Africans began direct efforts to seek direct changes to their condition. Africans consigned to the House of Correction in Rio lodged complaints of mistreatment. Others assigned to private concessionaires sought greater control over wages and the rights of marriage. Mothers fought against the illegal enslavement of their freeborn children. In the 1840s, Africans from liberated from the Flor de Luanda accepted the invitation made by British agents to resettle as colonists in the British Caribbean. Other Africans from a variety of ships sought to return to Africa. Between September 1849 and mid-1851, in the context rising diplomatic and naval hostilities between Britain and Brazil, over seven hundred emancipados registered with the British consul Robert Hesketh. Most made some statement about their living conditions and treatment. Some lodged the very complaint that they were treated like a slave.

Late in 1853, Brazilian law liberalized the path to "full freedom" for those Free Africans who had served a fourteen-year apprenticeship to private concessionaires. Petitions for "second emancipation" — typically written with the assistance of scribes, but a select few written in the African’s own hand—began to flow to the ministry of justice, the Curador dos Africanos Livres, and the Juiz de Órfãos. In a handful of cases, Africans sought the assistance of the British Legation in securing their second emancipation. By the early 1860s, hundreds of petitions had been filed with  Brazilian authorities.

Full freedom—autonomy over labor and family relations, often subject to restrictions on place of residence, good conduct, and stable employment—was extended to all surviving Free Africans, regardless of the type and term of apprenticeship, in September 1864. Slightly less than one-fourth of the 10,719 Free Africans originally liberated sometime between 1821 and 1856 counted in a matricula geral completed in March 1868 had won “full freedom.” As a point of comparison, death was the Last Known Fate [ultimo destino] for more than one-third of the Africans counted in the 1868 matricula geral.

By mid-1865, the former Free Africans who survived quickly abandoned the association with the former status. Their collective history, however, was quickly written into recent histories of Anglo-Brazilian relations, notably in William D. Christie's Notes on Brazilian Questions (1865), as well as compendiums of slave law, notably the third volume of Perdigão Malheiro's A escravidão no Brasil: ensaio historico-juridico-social (1866-7).

The Broken Paths of Freedom is an extension of the historical narratives of Christie and Perdigão Malheiro. However, its most important intervention is to  privilege the experiences and voices of the Africans and their relationship to the making of freedom in nineteenth-century Brazilian slave society.


Spatial History