From coast to coast

Image: Rubem Grilo (Jornal de Resenhas)


Commentary on the book by historian Jaime Rodrigues.

Continuing with the project of re-editing fundamental books of Brazilian historiography belonging to its catalog – the sun and the shadow (Laura de Mello e Souza), blacks from the earth (John Monteiro) and The life is a party (João José Reis) to mention some of the reprinted titles – Companhia das Letras brings to the specialized public, or not, the new edition of the book From coast to coast. Slaves, sailors and intermediaries in the slave trade from Angola to Rio de Janeiro (1780-1860) by professor and historian Jaime Rodrigues.

Originally presented as a doctoral thesis defended at Unicamp in 2000 under the guidance of Professor Silvia Hunold Lara, the work had its first edition published in 2005, since then the work has emerged as a mandatory reference for studies related to the transatlantic slave trade, daily life in vessels and the dynamics surrounding the painful oceanic crossing of these souls.

The new edition does not present any changes in relation to the first, except for the presentation written by the author, which reiterates the fact that the book reached bookstores again at a time when Brazilian society was still healing the wounds experienced during the pandemic and throughout the mismanagement that “ took over” the country until the end of 2022, for Jaime Rodrigues the “association between the trafficking of enslaved people and the horrors of the present time has never been so current and sensitive”. According to Jaime Rodrigues, despite the “temptation brought by a second edition to review and build a dialogue with the current production”, not a single change was made, as the work “is sustained in the way it was originally conceived”.

Throughout the new presentation, the author seeks to weave – even if briefly, after all the space and the proposal was not to carry out a bibliographical review – comments on some outstanding works in the approach of themes such as the slave trade, the strategies in search of freedom and forms of resistance after the release of the first edition. Among the works cited by the historian, we highlight the fundamental Free Africans. The abolition of the slave trade in Brazil, by historian Beatriz Mamigonian. Adopting a broad time frame, the historian sought to analyze in her work the issue of the right to freedom and the strategies – successful or not – used by thousands of enslaved people victimized by smuggling.

Using the period between 1780 and 1860 as a time frame, Jaime Rodrigues offers the reader the opportunity to carry out this oceanic crossing in two different situations, that is, throughout the reading it will be possible to have contact with the dynamics of legal and illegal trafficking, since that the same is prohibited from 1831. Thus, throughout the publication, the author seeks to verify how the trade of enslaved Africans between Angola and Rio de Janeiro was organized, especially at a time of strong demand and carried out under the umbrella of the protection laws, which will be confronted by Jaime Rodrigues when trafficking is considered illegal, even generating conflicts with England, especially when vessels engaged in trafficking were seized.

Jaime Rodrigues also recalls that this moment of transition between legal and illegal trafficking, marked by “peaks of the introduction of enslaved Africans”, sought to compensate for the “possible end of transatlantic trafficking”, which was looming on the horizon. Thus, with the growing demand for enslaved people in the south-central region, traffickers faced the risks of the undertaking, because despite the loss if the vessel was seized, such activity still represented great profit for these investors in the case of success.

Starting from a vision of history led by those “from below”, the author addresses the complexity of the Atlantic slave trade, seeking to focus his approach on these men and women who involuntarily underwent this long sea crossing. It is also important to point out to the reader that, despite the commented work being the result of a research marked methodologically and theoretically by the bases of social history, Jaime Rodrigues does not give up the dialogue with the production of authors such as Paul Lovejoy, Joseph Miller, David Eltis, Joseph Inikori and Robert Conrad, references in the topics addressed and authors such as Roger Chartier, Robert Darnton, Natalie Zemon Davis and EP Thompson, thus building a solid theoretical framework.

According to historian Maria Cristina Wissenbach, preface to the work, with an accurate ability to deal with sources and bibliography, Jaime Rodrigues is able to analyze “a linear and unambiguous event”, transforming it “into a process marked by characteristics and variations of its own throughout of time".

The book is divided into three parts, which can give the reader the feeling of an ocean crossing with stopovers. The first part entitled, “Negotiation and conflict in Angola”, discusses the dynamics surrounding the Portuguese presence on the West African coast. A presence that was not only marked by the domination of the metropolis, but also by negotiation, tensions and conflicts in these regions, mainly in areas where local leaders still held autonomy or in locations where foreign harassment was constant.

In this way, the reader will discover that in areas such as Ambriz and Cabinda, the Portuguese domain was tenuous, since those who actually governed were the local leaders, while in Luanda and Benguela several groups intersected representing the most varied interests, Portuguese or not, and finally, in the regions of Loango and Molembo, the sovereignty of the metropolis was seen as indisputable. In view of the above, we agree with Maria Cristina Wissenbach, when she states that the “historian accompanies the vicissitudes of living and negotiating in Africa” with mastery, showing the connections established between the agents of the three continents.

The second part of the work, “Ships and men at sea”, can be seen as the innovative point of the book, as it is in this part where we have the approach dispensed by the author to the ocean crossing itself. In addition to the social relations established from the preparation of the trip, until the vessel is launched into the sea, the author also presents the reader with the dynamics of the vessels (hierarchical relations between crew members, food on the high seas and, finally, issues related to health ) and the painful crossing.

It should be noted that, throughout the chapters of this part of the book, we also have the description of the various types of vessels - we highlight here the intense dialogue with the historian José Roberto do Amaral Lapa and his classic work, Bahia and India's career – used in trafficking, and a consistent approach to the social universe of the ship and the relationships established between the crew. It is worth highlighting the significant presence of enslaved and free Africans among the sailors, these characters played an important role in intermediating the crew as a whole with the captives during the voyage.

Along the way, the author will also address the daily life of these men who embarked on the sea crossing facing the difficulties of life on board, including the constant threat of disease and a fierce discipline, such themes would continue to be a constant in the historian's intellectual production, as can be verified in the book At sea and on land: History and culture of slave and free workers, launched in 2016.

Finally, the third part, “Sailors and Africans in action”, shows the reader that the transported enslaved were far from being seen as passive victims within this cruel process. Whether explicitly, as in some revolts that took place on ships or in barracks in Africa or Portuguese America, the resistance of these men and women was perceptible.

The author brings as an example the account of the traveler Maria Graham, used to show how resistance, which was not always explicit, ended up being interpreted as submission, let us see: “While she was in Bahia convalescing aboard the ship that was transporting her to Brazil, the Englishwoman Maria Graham saw, through the hatch, a disembarkation of slaves in the port of Salvador. She commented with sadness and a certain strangeness on the behavior of the Africans, who “are singing one of the songs of their land in a strange country”, while being unloaded under the orders of a foreman”. According to Rodrigues, the lack of knowledge of the language of the new arrivals made the Englishwoman see alienation or submission, when in reality, survival after a troubled crossing where death was always around them.

In this sense, we can also highlight the chapter dedicated to the Valongo market, a space seen by Jaime Rodrigues as a place where the enslaved lived their first experiences of sociability at the end of the sea crossing, for the author, “certainly the experience of disembarking a slave ship it was not the same for all the Africans who arrived in Brazil”. Even with the strenuous journey and the illnesses that killed hundreds of enslaved people along the crossing, “arrival at a market in a large city involved possibilities of reunion that a clandestine landing did not offer”.

Regarding the set of sources used, Jaime Rodrigues presents throughout the work a substantive set of information taken from official correspondence, letters of orders and administrative reports, found mainly in the Overseas Historical Archive. The sources complete the lawsuits against vessels seized for smuggling enslaved people, in addition to the reports of travelers and memoirists. About the use of sources, the author himself points out some difficulties and solutions faced throughout the work: “Dwelling on a theme for which sources are scarce requires extra care”.

The option for the adopted time frame is part of these precautions, as by covering a period crossed by both legal and illegal trafficking, it allows better management of sources. Regarding the period of illegal trafficking, Rodrigues recalls that “there is no perfect crime, and illegal trafficking was the object of a wide repression that left important evidence, which I tried to analyze using a method that combines imagination, invention and assumption”, a method inspired by the work of the aforementioned Natalie Zemon Davis.

Historian Silvia Lara, author of the book's ear, states that in addition to being innovative, Jaime Rodrigues' work presents a different look at a classic theme in the history of Brazil, whereas for Wissenbach, despite the density of information, the author's writing provides the reader a fluent reading. We can still attribute the work of Jaime Rodrigues to a pioneering nature, especially when we look at the exercise undertaken to center his analysis on the experience of that immensity of exiled subjects, mainly enslaved ones, who were separated from their families and the entire social structure that had ended up forging their lives. identity and also, to a certain extent, the crew of the vessels, which, when launched into the sea, made the vessels their place.

Agreeing with both, we can say that reading the book will offer the reader subsidies to understand the dynamics of the transatlantic crossing throughout the XNUMXth century and how the various actors involved faced this tortuous journey. It should be highlighted for those who wish to go through the historiography about the trafficking of enslaved people, that at first the emphasis of the works was given to economic and demographic issues, here I remember exponents such as Maurício Goulart, Herbert Klein and Eulália Lobo, the work of Rodrigues does not give up such perspectives, but also embraces new perspectives, such as those brought by researchers such as Sidney Chalhoub, Robert Slenes and Silvia Hunold Lara producing a reference work, which after almost twenty years of its release remains mandatory for those who are interested in the topics addressed.

Returning to the presentation of the work, it is there where the author will leave clues for those who wish to follow new paths, according to Jaime Rodrigues, “the network action, the dialogue with African historians and the availability of sources in digital format – with emphasis on the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database – can pave the way to be trodden in the coming years in the problematization of trafficking as a question of Global History, of the Atlantic, of the Americas, of Africa, of Europe and of the world of work”, contributing to provide new approaches when dealing with both the experience of enslaved, as well as the conditions in which such situations occurred, however, “again, enslaved Africans have been covered by the mantle of invisibility”, with From coast to coast, the author contributes not only to delaying this process, but also to uncovering new perspectives for approaches and reflections on the subject.

* Daniel Costa graduated in history from UNIFESP.


Jaime Rodrigues. From coast to coast. Slaves, sailors and intermediaries in the slave trade from Angola to Rio de Janeiro (1780-1860). São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2022, 448 pages (

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