Machado de Assis and the ownership of people

Soledad Sevilla, untitled, 1977


The issue of slavery in Machado's novel

For an average reader, it should already be commonplace to know that the work of Machado de Assis dialogues with the most pressing issues of his time – especially in Brazil, but also in Europe and America. The author not only did not shy away from public discussions, as he often wrote about slavery, about diplomatic issues, internal political disputes and, of course, about art – the most expensive object of his work.

Such debates (which were held on the pages of newspapers in Rio de Janeiro) systematically entered his literary production: a synchronic study of his prose, poetry and theater together with the chronicles demonstrates this (as is the case of the research of Lúcia Granja[I] and Marcelo Lotufo[ii]). That is, any accusation of some kind of silence or disregard of the writer with issues such as slavery seems out of place for him, and we could recommend the famous short stories “The case of the rod” or “Father against mother”.

In the novel, still, the issue is also strong, whether in the most superficially thematic aspect (as, for example, is the case of the slave Prudêncio das The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas) or even structural (as demonstrated by the now classic essay by Roberto Schwarz[iii]). Let us see, then, the last book published by the author while he was still alive, the Aires memorial (1908)

In it we follow a typical case of Machado's novel: a rarefied and furtive plot, a very digressive style with a high level of self-referentiality and a very daring form: that of a diary of a retired diplomat between the years 1888 and 1889. It is not surprising. that the novel has the abolition of slavery and the end of the Empire as its historical background (in spite of the fact that the diary does not reach the 15th of November), and, moreover, that people from the class of property owners are chosen as protagonists. slaves with their petty interests. The sequence of the diary that goes through abolition, then, is of interest to note in what terms the debate on manumission took place between this class and the intellectuals who belonged to it – as is the case of José Marcondes Aires, the editor of the diary .

At this moment, between the end of March and the beginning of May, we have a large landowner, the Baron of Santa-Pia, who, enraged by the proximity of liberation, decides to manumission his captives by his own strength, as he “condemned the idea attributed to the government of decreeing the abolition[iv], which he justifies in the following terms: “I want to prove that I consider the government’s act to be spoliation, for intervening in the exercise of a right that only belongs to the owner, and which I use at my loss, because that is how I want and can”[v].

The baron's plan is, in this sense, to free his slaves before the government does so, by accusing the act of spoliation: he, someone who subjects people to the condition of a thing, without name and without history; and, thus, demands — like a good part of the owners of time — an indemnity not for the captives who were kidnapped and destroyed for generations, but for himself, for being usurped from his things, which, in reality, are people — a problem that Machado had ironically treated in an 1888 chronicle of the series Good days![vi] published in News Gazette, an abolitionist and republican newspaper from the end of the XNUMXth century.

Santa-Pia’s plan, however, is not carried out, due to the intervention of his brother, who assures him that “with the immediate manumission, he harms his daughter, his heir”, and the baron would not have the intention of “denying the eventual right of the daughter to the slaves”[vii]. The inheritance of people who have their lives plundered until death on a farm that is experiencing a series of problems of a productive nature, this is what we have in mind here; and the baron still weighs that, even freed, the captives would not leave the farm, but would remain “earning the salary that I am going to assign them, and some even with nothing”[viii].

It should be noted, therefore, that the baron of Santa-Pia will in fact remain with his slaves, as is also the case with Aires, whose captive José stays with himself after manumission – with the arrival of the Lei Áurea, Aires himself he does not fail to note that, even with it, “we will not be able to put an end to private acts, deeds and inventories, nor erase the institution of history, or even of poetry”[ix], which no doubt tried to be done by a considerable number of Brazilian intellectuals in the XNUMXth century, the time when Machado de Assis was writing his novel.

The case unfolds even more cynically at the end of the diary-novel: after the death of the father, the daughter decides to get rid of the farm – it should be noted that the region of Paraíba do Sul, where the land is located, was in a very significant productive crisis at that time. In this sense, her decision, at first, would be to sell it, but the groom convinces her to donate it to the slaves after one of the two potential buyers refuses the sale price (due to the crisis?); as Tristão, the bridegroom, would have said: “Since the freedmen keep the hoe for the love of the young lady, what prevented her from taking the property and giving it to her former captives? Let them work for themselves”[X]. Any resemblance to more contemporary discourses that impute freedom to the poor through peripheral entrepreneurship or similar sayings must not be a coincidence; they just transmuted into terms more ideologically close to us.

It is known how the manumission process in Brazil ended up compensating the owners and not the people enslaved for generations, who, even more, were left to their own fate with speeches like this one by Tristão. These young legatees of the ruling class then left Brazil for Portugal, after their marriage, leaving behind Rio de Janeiro in transformation, which would see in the time of Machado de Assis the cleaning of Rodrigues Alves, and, in the old metropolis, the regicide of the last Portuguese monarch; meanwhile, they themselves, the passionate young men, rich and already promised a life of political success, insinuate to those who have been brutalized that work in the fields will free them.

Fidelia and Tristan are looking for an idyll, a country love like a painting by Theocritus, as mentioned by the counselor in his diary; however, it must be remembered that the field and the land between us was never a space of loving realization: it was, in fact, the place of the deepest brutalization – of people and other living beings that were there.

Machado de Assis is writing this novel during the first decade of the twentieth century, this belle-époque fluminense, which after the War, evoked idyllic memories of a beautiful past in which life was enjoyed without worries. It should be noted, however, along with the Brazilian writer's astute eye, that this past is constituted by a ghost, and founded, above all, on brutal exploitation and destruction — and the rulers have always sought to invert this history. It would be the case, then, to return to the formulation of one of the most poetic modern thinkers, a contemporary of the old Machado:

Those who, until today, have always been victorious are part of the triumphal procession that leads today's lords to pass over those who today bite the dust. The spoils, as is customary, are also taken in the procession. They are usually given the name of cultural heritage. They will be able to count, in the historical materialist, on a distanced observer, since what he can encompass of this cultural heritage comes, in its globality, from a tradition that he cannot think about without being horrified.

Because it owes its existence not only to the efforts of the great geniuses who created it, but also to the anonymous enslavement of its contemporaries. There is no document of culture that is not also a document of barbarism.[xi]

* Guilherme Rodrigues He holds a PhD in Literary Theory from Unicamp's IEL.


[I] To focus on just two cases from his vast production: GRANJA, Lúcia. Machado de Assis: before the book, the newspaper. Sao Paulo: Ed. Unesp, 2018; and “From magazines to books: Machado de Assis, Jules Verne and their editors”. in: spellings, v. 40, 2021, pp. 131-43.

[ii] LOTUFO, Marcelo. “'Instinto de Nacionalidade' and the short stories 'Aurora sem dia' and 'A parasite azul': a proposal for a synchronic reading for Machado de Assis”. in: Ax of Assis in Line, v. 13, 2020, pp. 25-43.

[iii] SCHWARZ, Robert. A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism: Machado de Assis. São Paulo: Editora 34, Two Cities, 2012.

[iv] In the entry for April 10, 1888 (we reference only the dates of diary entries in the remainder of this article).

[v] ibid.

[vi] Chronicle of May 19, 1888, in which the voice of the chronicler incorporates an owner who freed his slave Pancrácio before the May 13 manumission.

[vii] Aires memorial, April 10, 1888.

[viii] ibid.

[ix] Aires memorial, May 13, 1888.

[X] Aires memorial, April 15, 1889.

[xi] BENJAMIN, Walter. "About the concept of history". in: The Angel of History. Org. and trans. Joao Barrento. Belo Horizonte: Autêntica, 2020, pp. 12-3.

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