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Pedro II and the Brazilian Empire, Slavery

Umbanda, cultural mosaic, Native American customs, Macumba, Princess Isabel

The coffee economy remained the backbone of the Brazilian economy long after rubber production collapsed, and it ran on slave labor. Brazil had imported half a million slaves in the 17th century to work on the sugar plantations of the Northeast. In the 18th century the gold fields of Minas Gerais had absorbed another 1.5 million Africans. In the first half of the 19th century alone, Brazil imported another 1.5 million slaves to fill the demand for labor on the coffee plantations of the southeast. As the abolitionist movement gained strength in England and the United States in the 19th century, British pressure forced Brazil to halt its 300-year-old Atlantic slave trade in 1850.

The 3 to 4 million Africans who entered Brazil as slaves up until 1850 fundamentally shaped the composition of Brazilian society. In 1800 Brazil had the largest slave population in the world (half of its population of 3 million), and this forced migration created a truly African American culture in Brazil. African music, religions, foods, and language patterns blended with the culture of the Portuguese and the Native Americans to produce a cultural mosaic that was a mixture of African, European, and Native American influences. European colonists adopted Native American customs and borrowed words from the indigenous languages, while African slaves blended their own religious rituals with those of Christianity to form such new Afro-Brazilian religions as Umbanda, Macumba, and Candomble.

Although the slave trade was abolished in 1850, slavery remained legal in Brazil. Slavery had been central to the fabric of life in Brazil for so long that dismantling slavery took much longer than in any other society in the Americas. The slave system began to disintegrate in the 1880s with the rise of a vocal abolitionist movement, largely in the cities, and the growing tendency for slaves to flee from their masters. Legislation by conservatives attempted to stretch the process over decades by gradually freeing the children of slaves beginning in 1871 and by emancipating elderly slaves after 1885. By 1888 unrest on plantations, and the refusal of the army to step in and halt the flight of slaves from their masters, brought the system to the brink of chaos. Ruling in place of her father, who was in Europe for medical treatment, Princess Isabel decreed the end of slavery in the “Golden Law” of May 13, 1888. Rather than face the anarchy and upheaval of massive slave unrest and flight, slaveowners grudgingly accepted abolition.

With the supply of new slave labor cut off after 1850 and the slave system in a state of disintegration, coffee planters turned to European immigration to meet their labor needs. Some 2.7 million immigrants—mainly from Italy, Spain, and Portugal—arrived in southeastern and southern Brazil between 1887 and 1914. These immigrants gradually replaced slaves as the labor force in the coffee fields. They turned southern Brazil into an area with a more urban and European culture, strikingly different from the older mining and plantation regions of Minas Gerais and the Northeast, where a more relaxed, rural atmosphere prevailed and where African cultural influences remained strong among the Afro-Brazilian population.

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