Crossroads of Freedom: Slaves and Freed People in Bahia, Brazil, 1870-1910

Crossroads of Freedom: Slaves and Freed People in Bahia, Brazil, 1870-1910

by Walter Fraga, Mary Ann Mahony

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By 1870 the sugar plantations of the Recôncavo region in Bahia, Brazil, held at least seventy thousand slaves, making it one of the largest and most enduring slave societies in the Americas. In this new translation of Crossroads of Freedom—which won the 2011 Clarence H. Haring Prize for the Most Outstanding Book on Latin American History—Walter Fraga charts these slaves' daily lives and recounts their struggle to make a future for themselves following slavery's abolition in 1888. Through painstaking archival research, he illuminates the hopes, difficulties, opportunities, and setbacks of ex-slaves and plantation owners alike as they adjusted to their postabolition environment. Breaking new ground in Brazilian historiography, Fraga does not see an abrupt shift with slavery's abolition; rather, he describes a period of continuous change in which the strategies, customs, and identities that slaves built under slavery allowed them to navigate their newfound freedom. Fraga's analysis of how Recôncavo's residents came to define freedom and slavery more accurately describes this seminal period in Brazilian history, while clarifying how slavery and freedom are understood in the present.   

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822374558
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/15/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 344
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Walter Fraga is Associate Professor in the Department of History of the Federal University of the Bahian Recôncavo in Cachoeira, Bahia, Brazil.
Mary Ann Mahony is Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University.  

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Crossroads of Freedom

Slaves and Freed People in Bahia, Brazil, 1870â"1910

By Walter Fraga, Mary Ann Mahony

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7455-8



The World of the Sugar Plantations

In Portuguese, the word Recôncavo refers to any land circling a bay, but in Brazil it refers to the region bordering the Bay of All Saints, one of only two large bays on the Brazilian coast. The district measures roughly 10,400 square kilometers and boasts significant deposits of the clayed soil that Portuguese colonizers of Brazil learned was excellent for growing sugar.

The Recôncavo was the first region the Portuguese systematically occupied when they began to colonize the land that we now know as Brazil. In 1549, they founded Salvador — the capital of Bahia — as a fortified city to protect settlers of the interior. In the following decades, settlements moved inland, following the rivers that flowed into the bay — the Paraguaçu, the Jaguaripe, the Subaé, and the Sergimirim. In the lowlands along these rivers — especially in those stretches of river accessible to navigation, Portuguese settlers established villages that later became the towns of Cachoeira, São Félix, São Francisco do Conde, Maragojipe, Santo Amaro, Jaguaripe, and Nazaré das Farinhas.

At the time, the Recôncavo was home to numerous indigenous groups. For centuries before Europeans first claimed the territory, Tupinambá Indians had dominated the Paraguaçu River valley and Itaparica Island at the mouth of the Bay of All Saints. As the Portuguese settled the Atlantic coast, they forced the existing indigenous occupants deep into the Recôncavo. Those who resisted colonization and its associated conversion to Christianity soon discovered that the Portuguese would bring indigenous groups from other parts of Brazil to fight them. Those who surrendered to Portuguese occupation found themselves enslaved on the new sugar plantations that the Portuguese established along the coast.

As the Portuguese became disillusioned with indigenous labor, they began to import Africans into Bahia to work as slaves in the construction of Salvador and on the plantations producing sugar. The first Africans who disembarked in Bahia were probably part of the colonizing expeditions that settled Salvador, but as their role in plantation agriculture began to grow in the 1570s, their numbers rose quickly. Over the course of the next three centuries, the Atlantic slave trade would bring some four million Africans to Brazil from culturally diverse parts of the continent. These included West-Central African peoples generically known in Brazil as Congos, Angolas, Cabindas, and Benguelas, as well as West African peoples, particularly groups originating in the hinterlands of the Bight of Benin; Yorubas (called Nagôs in Bahia); Hausas; Nupes (called Tapas in Bahia); and Fon, Mahi, Adja, and other Gbe speakers (called Jejes), as well as other small groups. In the Recôncavo, therefore, as in other parts of Brazil, peoples who would have had little contact in Africa lived and worked side by side, exchanging words, foods, customs, and religious practices. These interactions meant that Africans formed new alliances and established new cultural practices in the Recôncavo and that numerous African ethnicities contributed to the ways in which Africans and their descendants there lived and thought.

By 1822, Brazil had become independent from Portugal, and the Recôncavo had become the most important center of sugar production in Bahia, and one of the most important in Brazil. Approximately 90 percent of Bahia's sugar plantations lay in the rural parishes near Salvador and the Recôncavo towns of São Francisco do Conde, Santo Amaro, and Cachoeira. Sugar estates dominated these districts, and land was concentrated in few hands: in Iguape, just outside of Salvador, for example, twelve property owners controlled 80 percent of the available land in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Recôncavo planters grew more than sugarcane: a diversity of soil types on their properties allowed them to cultivate tobacco, manioc, beans, corn, and other crops in addition to sugar. Slaves and freed people also grew subsistence crops on land allowed them by the planters. The resulting harvests supplied the plantations' slaves as well as the free and enslaved urban populations of the rural towns and Salvador.

Throughout the colonial period and for most of the nineteenth century, the Recôncavo was the most important economic region in Bahia, and sugar was its premier crop. But both the sugar industry and the region entered an economic decline in the 1870s from which they would not begin to recover until the end of the century. The problems originated in a deterioration of international prices for sugar, brought on, in part, by competition from beet sugar. To aggravate the situation, labor costs increased significantly. Sugar planters relied entirely upon enslaved labor to the final days of Brazilian slavery in 1888, despite the close of the African slave trade to Brazil in 1850, and the emancipatory laws passed by the Brazilian government in 1871 and 1885. Total abolition in 1888, therefore, hit them particularly hard. All of these problems eventually brought about a precipitous drop in Bahian sugar exports and the associated revenue stream.

During this time the Recôncavo was also the most densely populated region of Bahia, and the area where the largest number of slaves were concentrated. According to the 1872 census, the region contained 35.7 percent of the provincial population. At the time, 165,403 slaves lived in Bahia, representing 12.8 percent of the provincial population as a whole. In 1887, the province's enslaved population had declined to 76,838, and nearly half of that decline (42 percent) had taken place in the previous three years. Despite the drop in population, Bahia remained the fourth-largest slaveholding province in Brazil.Most of those slaves continued to live in the Recôncavo because sugar planters simply refused to let go of their last captives.

The demographics of the enslaved population changed over time. After 1850, when Brazilian law definitively abolished the African slave trade, the ethnic composition of the black communities on the sugar plantations changed rapidly. Prior to the close of the slave trade, most Recôncavo plantation slaves had been born in Africa, but by the 1870s, most were Brazilian born. While the Atlantic trade continued, men outnumbered women on sugar plantations by as much as two to one. By the last decades of Brazilian slavery, however, there were some properties with more enslaved women than enslaved men. According to Stuart Schwartz, Pitinga and Conde were two such plantations: on the former there were 60 enslaved men and 67 enslaved women; while on the latter there were 45 men and 60 women.

These demographics are reflected in a sample of 798 enslaved laborers on Recôncavo sugar plantations, constructed from the slave lists in the postmortem estate inventories of ten planters who died between 1870 and 1887 and summarized in table 1.1. The sample includes 446 men and 352 women, indicating that male laborers were more numerous than female workers on most plantations at the time, but the gender disparity seems to have been much smaller than it had been at the beginning of the century. Strikingly, only 10.2 percent of the captives in the sample had been born in Africa. Crioulos, as Brazilian-born Africans were known, dominated the group numerically, totaling 65.3 percent of the labor force on the plantations studied. Pardos and cabras — in other words, slaves of mixed African and European ancestry — together made up another 24.5 percent of enslaved workers. Combining the groups of slaves categorized as mixed race with the group labeled crioulo reveals that nearly 90 percent of the workers in the sample had been born in Brazil. In other words, in the last decades of slavery, the enslaved population on Recôncavo sugar plantations was overwhelmingly Brazilian born.

By the 1870s, many of the enslaved workers on Recôncavo plantations belonged to family groups extending back generations. In our sample 35.6 percent of the slaves worked alongside at least one relative and lived and worked with two or three generations of their family. That means that some enslaved men and women had formed families and maintained stable relationships across generations, something once thought to have been impossible.

These biological and fictive ties were solidified through baptisms, marriages, burials, and festivals held in plantation chapels or village parish churches. One study of slave baptisms in Recôncavo sugar parishes showed that when enslaved men and women chose godparents for their children, they often looked to captives enslaved on other plantations.This interaction across properties was possible because the sugar plantations were fairly close to one another, in some cases sharing borders and owners. Over time, these biological and fictive ties allowed Africans and their descendants in the Recôncavo to devise collective strategies that would contribute to their material and cultural survival after abolition.

Table 1.2 makes clear that between 1870 and 1887, more than half (52.4 percent) of the labor force was between eleven and forty years of age. In other words, despite the end of the slave trade and the Brazilian legislature's gradual emancipation laws, a large contingent of enslaved workers of productive age still labored on the sugar plantations in the last two decades of slavery. Removing the children and those with no profession listed from the sample reveals that, as shown in table 1.3, 82.3 percent of the slaves on the plantations were field hands. In other words, the large majority of captives labored in the cane, the sector that traditionally employed the largest number of captives. At the same time, the plantations employed a large number of enslaved artisans — shoemakers, stonemasons, joiners, and blacksmiths. Many captives listed as field hands may also have had some artisanal skills. As we will see, after abolition, such artisanal skills allowed some ex-slaves to support themselves when they left the plantations.

The availability of such enslaved laborers explains why the plantations could operate without making major adjustments to the labor force as the nineteenth century progressed. Perhaps this was why the planters resisted abolition almost until May 13, 1888. In the 1880s, it seems that there were good reasons why Bahian abolitionists considered Recôncavo sugar planters the most intransigent slaveholders in the province.

Although Recôncavo sugar planters retained large numbers of enslaved laborers and opposed abolition, whether they liked it or not, the end of the Atlantic slave trade, deaths, individual manumissions, flights, and gradual emancipation all combined to reduce the number of slaves available to them. Therefore, in the last two decades of slavery in Brazil, they had no choice but to find ways to cope with the shrinking captive population on their properties. The documents indicate that planters turned to a number of alternatives to cope with the increasing difficulties of obtaining enslaved laborers, including some involving master-slave relations themselves. Planters with multiple properties sometimes moved captives around, concentrating laborers on their most profitable estates. Alternatively, they hired slaves from neighboring planters to supplement their own labor force, or rented out their own slaves when demands on their plantation allowed.

During the 1882 harvest, for example, the administrator of the Lagoa Plantation in Santo Amaro noted that he paid "some slaves" belonging to the property with a combination of cash and food to work on Sundays, normally a day of rest for slaves. He also hired free workers either by the day or by the task, paying them in food or cash as well. Among these free laborers were a number of skilled workers (machinists, carpenters, blacksmiths, and cauldron makers), as well as fifteen cane cutters, eight "hoe and sickle workers," and fourteen firewood carriers. The cane cutters included two women — probably freedwomen — who worked alongside the slaves. The manager also indicated that he had paid "some slaves" belonging to the plantation in cash and food to work on Sundays.

Many planters engaged free laborers to supplement enslaved workers as abolition approached, but according to Barickman, they lacked a dependable supply of free workers. He found that, at the time, members of Recôncavo's free and freed population, most of which was black or mixed race, did not need to work in the sugarcane industry to support themselves. This was why, as a wealthy planter from the Recôncavo reported in 1871, "those free people" could not be convinced to weed the plantation cane fields. They would only work in the plantation sugar mills, packing and hauling processed sugar. Clearing fields was the only agricultural work they would perform on the plantations. As a result, the plantations hired migrant laborers from quite distant corners of Bahia to work the plantations, especially during the dry season. Planters considered these workers unreliable, however, because there was no way to force them to remain on the plantations once the seasonal rains began. This scarcity of free labor helps to explain why the planters depended upon slavery right up until the eve of abolition.

Surviving on the Plantations

In the last three decades of slavery, relationships between masters and slaves on large Recôncavo sugar plantations were complex. Many documents offer glimpses of these relations, but the account book of Francisco Moreira de Carvalho, the Count of Subaé (1825–1888), who owned three sugar plantations in Santo Amaro (Benfica, Água Boa, and Roçado), provides extraordinarily detailed information about activities — both the day-to-day and seasonal — involved in producing sugar.

According to the count's records, slaves received supplies both as a regular practice and as a reward. Plantation management distributed food — normally meat and manioc flour — throughout the year, but most intensively in August and September, when the harvest and grinding of cane began. At the beginning and end of the harvest, the slaves received cloth or ready-made clothing. On September 26, 1864, the planter noted: "I gave pants and a shirt to all the pretos [black slaves] at Palmeira and Alambique ..., I gave clothing to the preta [black] slave women at Palmeira; homespun, cotton and cloth from the coast of Africa." On October 14, 1872, he noted the distribution of twelve pairs of pants and twelve shirts to the "pretos at the still." He also provided cloth for children's clothes, because on April 5 of that year he recorded the purchase of cotton yardage for the moleques, a term specifically referring to enslaved boys. Sometimes he seems to have rewarded individual slaves, perhaps for practicing some specialized craft, following a seignorial logic: for example, on September 1872 the count noted: "I gave pants and a shirt to Pedro Jeje."

According to the count's records, planters sometimes rewarded enslaved laborers with money. For example, on January 30, 1870, the count paid Rs.30,000 to the preto João Nicolau. He also paid a few slaves to work on Sundays and holy days according to the records. This practice reflected the growth in the opportunities for paid work in the sugar districts, as the number of slaves on the plantations began to fall in the last two to three decades of slavery. According to historian Robert Slenes, slaves valued this wage labor very highly.

Some slaves participated in the sugar sector as small farmers who supplied cane for processing to the sugar mills on the plantations. In 1882, among the farmers who supplied the Lagoa Plantation sugar mill with cane were ten slaves. In payment, they received a share of the sugar that the mill produced, just as the free farmers did. On the other hand, they did not receive any of the cane syrup [mel]. As Lagoa's owner commented that year, free farmers received fourteen of the 70 barrels of cane syrup produced that year, but the rest remained with him, because "the slaves don't get cane syrup."

Recôncavo slaves found ways to earn money other than working on the sugar plantations, as was the case in other parts of the Americas. We know that many slaves raised animals, especially oxen, pigs, and chickens, for their own consumption or for sale. They primarily did so in a sharecropping relationship with their owners or neighboring planters. Among such slaves was Daniel, an enslaved African agricultural worker on the São Pedro Plantation in São Francisco who was accidentally shot in a cane field, as he made his way back from another plantation where he raised pigs in "partnership" with a woman named Virginia. To get the time off to make the trip, he had claimed to be sick so that he might be excused from work. On the plantations near the bay, slaves gathered shellfish to supplement their diets and to sell. When slavery ended, many of them relied on these activities for support to avoid the cane fields.


Excerpted from Crossroads of Freedom by Walter Fraga, Mary Ann Mahony. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

A Note on Currency and Orthography  vii

Introduction to the English-Langauge Edition / Mary Ann Mahony  xi

Foreword to the Brazilian Edition / Robert W. Slenes  xxiii

Acknowledgments  xxvii

Introduction  1

1. Slaves and Masters on Sugar Plantations in the Last Decades of Slavery  9

2. Tension and Conflict on a Recôncavo Sugar Plantation  29

3. Crossroads of Slavery and Freedom, 1880–1888  56

4. May 13, 1888 and Its Immediate Aftermath  74

5. Heads Spinning with Freedom  103

6. After Abolition: Tension and Conflict on Recôncavo Sugar Plantations  139

7. Trajectories of Slaves and Freed People on Recôncavo Sugar Plantations  161

8. Community and Family Life among Freed People  190

9. Other Post-emancipation Itineraries  211

Epilogue. In the Centuries to Come: Projections of Slavery and Freedom  236

Notes  245

Glossary  283

Bibliography  285

Index  301

What People are Saying About This

Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina - Stuart B. Schwartz

"Drawing on outstanding research into the notarial, parish, and judicial records from the heart of the old sugar plantation area of Bahia, Walter Fraga recaptures many of the individual stories that illuminate the process of slavery's end and the adjustments of masters and slaves to that process. Featuring fascinating stories with a strong human dimension, Crossroads of Freedom makes a wonderful contribution to an already-rich historiography."

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