The enslaved worker in Brazilian historiography

Image: Bruno Scramgnon


On the contrarycommon sense, slavery itself is a recent phenomenon in human history

From 1530 to 1888, slavery was the central shaping element of the future Brazilian nation, having been responsible for Brazil's own national unity in 1822. Luso-Brazilian slaveholders first explored the natives of the coast and then the black-africans. In colonial slavery, published in 1978, Jacob Gorender recalled the contradiction between the important status objective of the enslaved worker in Brazil's past and the little importance given to it, until recently, in the national social sciences.

Em Sons of Khan, Sons of Dog: the enslaved worker in Brazilian historiography [FCM Editora], I presented an essay on the Marxist interpretation of the Luso-Brazilian and Brazilian process of concealment of the central social and productive role of the enslaved, up to 1888. This study summarizes my investigations, begun in 1977, when I was exiled, on Pre-Columbian Black Africa. Colonialism and slavery in Rio Grande do Sul, in the Centre byHistoire de l'AfriqueAt Catholic University of Louvain.

Studies that I continued when addressing, later on, the slavery of the natives on the Brazilian coast and slavery in antiquity, since I judged a better knowledge of these themes as necessary for a more perfect understanding of colonial slavery. During my investigations, I had the privilege of establishing intellectual and fraternal ties with, among others, historians Jacob Gorender, Clóvis Moura, Décio Freitas, Robert Conrad, Manuel Correia de Andrade and José Capela, an Africanist, from whom I learned a lot.

Class and Race

In this book, I defend the essential continuity, in overcoming, between the enslaved worker, especially black Africans, in the pre-1888 years, and the free contemporary worker, of all colors, in the post-Abolition period. Also for this reason, in my historiographical work, I abandoned the use of the category “slave” for “enslaved worker”. This is because it describes more precisely the essence of that relationship, the fact of being an enslaved worker, and because it was the root, in Brazil, of the free worker, in which he fully metamorphosed in the post-Abolition period.

I also believe that, in the past and in the present, the silencing of the demiurgic character of the enslaved black worker is mainly due to classist reflexes and, only secondarily, racist ones. Covered classist reflection and fueled by racist ideology, product of colonial slavery. Therefore, anti-black racism would constitute an epiphenomenon of slave exploitation, which can assume new functions in the post-slavery period.

Let us see, first, the meaning of the category “slavery”. Servitude arises with the subjection of one being to another, by force, for purposes that are not just economic. In turn, slavery is a form of full servitude characterized by three determinations. First, the captive is treated as a commodity and can be sold, rented, etc. Second, in theory, the enslaver appropriates the totality of the work product and defines the duration and intensity of the enslaved's effort. Finally, slavery is permanent and hereditary.

Recent Phenomenon

Contrary to common sense, slavery itself is a recent phenomenon in human history. It only emerged when the level of development of social production allowed the enslaved person to produce, in addition to enough to sustain himself, a permanent surplus appropriated by his exploiter. Surplus that would justify the submission effort of the worker as a slave. In general, slavery spreads when labor productivity, commercial exchanges and private appropriation of land expand. It is essentially an economic relationship, appearing in different regions of the world, with different designations.

The growth of material productive forces allows for the emergence of different forms of exploitation relations and corresponding modes of production. In European Antiquity, slave relations and modes of production would have emerged in the Eastern Mediterranean, expanding in Homeric Greece, with a true apogee in Hellenic Greece, from the years 320 BC.

Initially, the patriarchal slave-owning mode of production was organized around the small Greek agricultural-craftsmanship, the oikos, of a few hectares, worked by the patriarch, his family and, not always, by a small number of captives. The multifaceted productive effort was oriented towards supplying the needs of the extended family nucleus and a meager trade. The subsistence production sphere of the oikos, dominant, and the mercantile sphere, dominated, tended to limit servile exploitation. It made no sense for the small community to produce more than it consumed.

Small-mercantile slave production

The patriarchal slave mode of production spread throughout the Mediterranean world. At the origins of Rome, around the eighth century before our era, the small holding of the free peasant dominated, essentially worked by his family and, more rarely, a captive. In the Republic, the conquests, initially in the Italian Peninsula, produced a growing number of captives and amounts of land incorporated into State assets – age publicus – that were distributed among the plebs and, above all, among the senatorial aristocracy.

 The small subsistence property remained in the interior of the Peninsula. In the urban outskirts, along the roads, in regions served by waterways, etc., with easy access to markets, a mode of production was consolidated, which I define as small-mercantile, oriented predominantly towards commerce. The rustic village (rustic villa) had a few dozen or more hectares and a dozen or so of specialized or not specialized enslaved workers.

Its production aimed to supply what it could of what was consumed by the owner and captives and produce as much as possible for trade. The mercantile sphere, in this case, dominated the subsistence sphere. The level of exploitation of captives was framed and tended to be limited by the seasonal nature of production, the seasons of the year, the specialized and multifaceted character of production, etc. Roman landlords did not own large properties dedicated to agriculture, but several scattered rustic villages.

Mainly due to the limited nature of the means of transport and the consumer market, the trials of forming large estates of thousands of hectares and hundreds of captives did not prosper. The trials attempted in Sicily failed. The small-mercantile slave production mode did not develop into large commercial slave production. It evolved, when the properties were concentrated, through the colonato, to a more productive mode of production and feudal relations.

enslavement and ethnicity

Captives captured in wars, raids, piracy, trade, etc. they came from multiple regions of the Mediterranean basin, without any ethnic group knowing the monopoly of slavery. Brought across the Sahara, a few black Africans were enslaved, not infrequently in domestic activities, since, due to their rarity, they fetched high prices.

Justifying and rationalizing the Greek slave society, Aristotle proposed that the “slave” was an inferior and incomplete being by nature, born to serve as an instrument at the service of his superior, his owner. His inner inferiority would surface in his outer anatomical and somatic traits. Greco-Roman slaveholders strove to see physical inferiority in captives.

In antiquity, the universalization and naturalization of slavery and the disdain for physical work gave rise to little concern with origins, living conditions, languages, etc. of the captives, with the literature of the time focusing on the best means of subjugating and exploiting them. Only the servile wars gained some prominence in the Roman essay, with emphasis on the great insurrection commanded by Spartacus, in 73 to 71.

Judaism forbade only the enslavement of Jews. Christianity allowed it without exceptions, preaching, since always, the submission of the enslaved to the enslaver. By dissociating the spiritual life, in which all were brothers in Christ, from the material one, in which masters and slaveholders were different and superior to servants and slaves, Christianity was able to become the official religion of the slaveholding Roman Empire.

slavery in Portugal

Slavery was transformed into a relationship of production and subordinated dependence, and in the feudal world, it was a step backwards from more productive and advanced forms of production and domination. The wars between Muslims and Christians fueled the slave trade, especially in Iberia. Christians and Moors enslaved each other in the name of the true faith. However, prisoners converted to Christianity or Islam were not released. In this case, religion acted as a superstructure that justified economic exploitation.

In the 1444th century, in command of the assault on the communities of the African Atlantic coast and the search for a way to the Indies, the Portuguese Crown received from Rome the monopoly over those seas and the right to enslave the inhabitants of the coast, in payment for the expenses and effort with the spread of Christianity. In XNUMX, the royal chronicler Eanes de Zurara described in Guinea Chronicle, the first significant landing in the Algarve, in southern Portugal, of Berber and Black African captives captured on the northern Atlantic coast of Africa. He recalled that, despite being desperate, the captives were favored by the new situation, as they would obtain, in exchange for the imprisonment of the bodies, the eternal liberation of the souls.

Returning to the Aristotelian explanation, the Lusitanians mainly justified the slavery of black Africans by their proposed physical and cultural inferiority, expressed in the black body and in the low cultural level of the prisoners, who arrived from the African coast, periphery of the Black Continent. A non-functional explanation for Moorish slavery, already synonymous in Portugal with a slave, with a cultural level equal to or higher than that of the Lusitanians. Black Africans were called “black Moors” and, when they outnumbered Muslims, simply “blacks” and “negros”. For the first time in history, a community became, for centuries, the dominant seedbed of captives. Thus was born Western anti-black racism.

equal carelessness

Lusitanian intellectuals were unconcerned with origin, languages, traditions, history, etc. of the black Africans they came into contact with or enslaved, considered inferior by the State and the Church and, consequently, by the free population. Centuries later, when the original Afro-descendant population dissolved into the Portuguese population, it was eradicated from traditions, memories, toponymy, etc. Portuguese. The racism of the times of the slave trade and slavery justified the despotic Portuguese dominion over the African colonies. The record of the passage of the Moors through Portugal was also erased. Racism, in general, and especially anti-Black people, is strong in Portuguese culture today.

Such was that insouciance that, until recently, the two main scholars of black slavery in Portugal were the Brazilian José Ramos Tinhorão and the Englishman AC de CM Saunders. The approach by Portuguese historiography to the enslavement of the Moors was equally late. Until recent times, the cohesion of the dominant Lusitanian historiography in defense-justification of slavery and the trafficking of Moors and Africans through Portugal was monolithic.

Since the 1507th century, the Portuguese State has harshly repressed all criticism of slavery and the slave trade, in Portugal and, later, in Brazil. The two Portuguese critics and isolates of slavery, the priest, grammarian and nautical pilot Fernão de Oliveira, born in 1699, and the humanist Jewish doctor António Nunes Ribeiro Sanches, born in XNUMX, died abroad fleeing from the Inquisition, leaving no intellectual descendants. His criticisms were practically canceled by the official culture and by the Portuguese State. Meanwhile, Portuguese intellectuals wrote detailed works on the populations, especially in Angola and Mozambique, which they made an effort to know, to dominate them – João Antônio Cavazzi, António de Oliveira de Cadornega, etc.

Colonial slave mode of production

The Lusitanians landed in America to exploit it, not to civilize it. The Portuguese free arm was not functional for the exploitation of the great American mercantile agriculture, due to the abundance of vacant land. José de Sousa Martins recalled that, where the land is free, the arm must be enslaved, and vice versa. The development of the market, the advancement of production techniques, the abundance of captives, a climate with virtually no winter, etc. enabled the genesis of mercantile slave production, exploiting thousands of hectares and hundreds of captives, swayed by strong productive tension born of a market in continuous expansion. It was called colonial slavery due to its dependence on the external market. In it, the productive sphere of subsistence, aimed at supplying consumption mainly by direct producers, was strongly dependent on the sphere oriented towards production for the market.

In Brazil, sugar production began with the enslavement of coastal natives. Once this population of about six hundred thousand inhabitants, mainly of the Tupi-Guarani culture, had been decimated, it could no longer sustain sugar expansion. The need for knowledge that would facilitate the conquest produced a rich European literature on the coastal populations, who strongly resisted their domination. Among countless other authors of magnificent descriptions of the natives of the Brazilian coast, the notable Pero Vaz de Caminha, the Calvinist Jean de Léry, the German mercenary Hans Staden, the Lusitanian Pero de Magalhães de Gândavo, the Jesuits Manuel da Nóbrega, José by Anchieta, Fernão Cardim.

Dedicated to the slave trade, Portuguese merchants initially supplied the Spanish colonies with captives. From the middle of the XNUMXth centuries, in the rich Luso-Brazilian sugar captaincies, with the capital accumulated in the factory of Brazil, the Luso-Brazilian plantation owners began to buy increasing amounts of African enslaved workers.

a great deal

Black Africa was bled in favor of mercantile and slave accumulation. Black Africans were a real find for the Lusitanian Crown, for merchants and, above all, for the enslavers of the Luso-Brazilian colonies. Trafficking produced taxes for the Crown and profits for slavers, as opposed to capturing and enslaving Americans. Black Africans were enslaved in a land they did not know and came from different regions of Africa. The color of the skin justified slavery and marked the enslaved. Above all, black Africans proved to be an inexhaustible workforce, unlike the natives. Even before the arrival of the Europeans, Black Africa was experiencing an important circulation and internal sale of African captives.

In general, captive women were incorporated as wives and men as aggregates in the extended families of African domestic communities. The exploitation of households and wives was consuetudinally limited and, above all, due to the lack of extensive commercial production, the absence of private ownership of land and the limited development of local and regional mercantile exchanges. This form of incorporation did not require extraordinary costs of control and submission from wives and households. The descendants of the latter surpassed disqualifying status by two or three generations. African domestic societies never knew slavery, in the full sense of the category, contrary to what is commonly proposed.

With the arrival of the Europeans, the circulation of women and captives was redirected to the European outposts on the coast, where equally powerful Black African enslaving kingdoms emerged to supply the castles, trading posts and European slave ships. As women were preferably kept in Africa as wives, in general, 2/3 of the captives disembarked in Brazil were men, which limited the African demographic consequences caused by trafficking.

blacks selling blacks

The answer to the question why blacks sold blacks is simple. In Africa, there were no blacks, as in Europe there were no whites. On the Black Continent there were African nobles, commoners, warriors and peasants, patriarchs and aggregates divided and opposed by social, cultural, linguistic, national, age, gender, etc contradictions. As in Europe, there was no ethnic solidarity between Europeans, there was no ethnic solidarity between Africans, a sociological category external to those societies. It is an arbitrary ideological construction to propose a culture, language, customs, etc. pan-African, pan-European, pan-Asian, etc.

Perhaps five million captives arrived in Brazil, taken from multiple regions of Black Africa, with emphasis on the Gulf of Guinea and the current Angolan and Mozambican coasts. In addition to sporadic concentrations of captives of the same origin in some regions and periods of colonial and imperial Brazil, it dominated a myriad of Africans of diverse languages, cultures, traditions. The difference between many of these captives can be compared to that of a peasant in the Algarve and a farmer in the Baltic countries.

Colonial slavery worked like a machine to grind bodies, languages, traditions, cultures, etc. of the enslaved, who were commonly disembarked in the Americas at a very young age. In dominant form, the enslaved worker toiled a lot, slept little, ate poorly, was treated harshly and dressed and lived precariously. Their cultural expressions were commonly repressed. The average lifespan of the population in the Colony and the Empire was low, that of captives even more so. The constitution of stable enslaved families was limited. Generally speaking, popular Africanized Portuguese became the slaves' dominant language of communication. After the Abolition, as the years went by, there remained shreds of memories of slavery itself and, even less, of Black Africa, more resistant in unique situations: in cities, in quilombos, through religions of African origin, etc.

Justifying the exploitation

For centuries, Luso-Brazilian and Brazilian intellectuals, especially priests, large landowners, high administrators, produced detailed works justifying black captivity and proposing the best way to subject and exploit enslaved people. Among others, André João Antonil, Jorge Benci, Manuel Ribeiro da Rocha, Azeredo de Coutinho, etc. stood out. With black slavery consolidating itself since the mid-XNUMXth century, there was no anthropological concern for Africans, identical to that known by the populations of the Brazilian coast.

The same happened after Independence, in 1822, maintaining an unshakable defense of slavery with moral, legal and economic arguments. Intellectuals were extremely rare and, even more so, dissident activists with the slave trade and the slave trade, such as the Lusitanian Antônio Gonçalves Chaves, in the early 1820s, established as a charqueador in Rio Grande do Sul, and the military José de Queirós e Vasconcellos [ 1772 – 1833], the Smash, from Rio Grande do Sul, who tried to promote armed uprisings of captives since 1803. The existence of this impressive John Brown from the Pampas was and continues to be ignored by Brazilian historiography.

Intellectuals, politicians, the Emperor, etc. They continued to unconditionally support slavery and disregard the fate of those enslaved, even after the end of the international slave trade, in 1850, imposed by the British. At that time, the movement for the abolition of international trafficking and American slavery had been strong in Europe for decades. In the Empire of Brazil, the slaveholding monolithism only began to crack in the 1860s, with the concentration of captives in the coffee growing center-south and with the abolitionist war in the United States. We lack systematic studies on the reasons for the cohesion of slaves in Brazil.

Abolitionist Revolution

In the 1860s, in Brazil, the polemic-propaganda against and in favor of the emancipation-abolition of slavery advanced strongly in newspapers and in prose and verse literature. For the first time, enslaved workers were beginning to gain support among the free population. In those years, the poetry of Castro Alves sang the emancipation of the enslaved, as a revolutionary act of the enslaved, in the here and now; Bernardo Guimarães published the magnificent novel At Escrava Isaura, from 1875, generally beyond misunderstood by the historiography and criticism of Brazilian literature of the XNUMXth century, for being the almost white enslaved protagonist.

In 1864-70, the War against Uruguay and then Paraguay and, in 1871, the farce of the so-called Free Womb Law cooled abolitionism, which resumed conclusive momentum in 1884-5, with the alliance between revolutionary abolitionism and the struggle of the enslaved. Slavery collapsed with the mass abandonment by captives of coffee plantations, especially in São Paulo, supported by radicalized abolitionists. In 1888, more than three centuries of hegemony of colonial slave relations and mode of production came to an end, with various free labor relations taking effect in the country in a dominant form. Abolition was the only known victorious social revolution in our country.

The struggle to maintain slavery occupied the concerns of the dominant classes until after the final crisis of slavery. It is enormous historiographic nonsense and an offense against the struggle of captives and radicalized abolitionists to propose that Abolition was a conspiracy by whites and slaveholders to get rid of captives. On the contrary, the ruling classes strove to extract labor from the enslaved until the last possible second. The late end of slavery culminated in the hard historical struggles of enslaved workers supported, in the last decades of the institution, by radicalized abolitionism.

The Republican Counter-Revolution

With May 13, 1888, and especially after the Republic, on November 15, which was federalist, conservative and land-owning, the abolitionist movement dissolved and, once again, there was a strong silence about the slavery past. In the 1890s, the so-called “scientific racism” was already consolidated, the ideological superstructure of European imperialism expanding worldwide. He proposed a hierarchy of races, from the most perfect, the very white Nordic Europeans, to the most imperfect, the Africans south of the Equator, beyond black.

A good part of the Brazilian intelligentsia adhered to the so-called scientific racism that cast unavoidable anathema on the mixed-race society of Brazil. This was the case of the mulatto doctor from Maranhão Nina Rodrigues [1862-1906] who, paradoxically, leaving the curve, published valuable studies on slavery, Africans and Afro-Brazilians. Renowned intellectuals such as Euclides da Cunha, Monteiro Lobato, Oliveira Viana, Sílvio Romero embraced the proposal of a “cure” for Brazilian miscegenation through mainly Italian immigration, in the context of Italian Unification.

The so-called project of “whitening” Brazilian society through immigration was never taken seriously by the dominant property classes that, for centuries, prospered by exploiting the work of enslaved blacks and fighting for Africans to arrive in abundance in Brazil. Today, they don't raise a word against the entry of Haitians, Bolivians, etc., disciplined “low price” workers. On the contrary, a few authors opposed the strange views of the so-called scientific racism, being marginalized by the social sciences, with emphasis on the courageous Manuel Bomfim and the impressive black intellectual Manuel Querido [1851-1923].

The most explored

With the Abolition, the “May 13th” entered the world of free labor terribly ill-equipped: they were manual workers and rarely specialized; they did not have capital, since they had not claimed the land, focusing on the conquest of civil freedom; they spoke rustic patterns of popular Portuguese; the vast majority were illiterate; they had fragile family ties; they moved from forced labor to free labor; suffered the weight of racism, etc. In large part, with former freedmen and free blacks, they ended up constituting a super-exploited sub-proletariat, bordering on indigence.

In the 1920s, the “anathema” launched by “scientific racism” over Brazil, due to the mestizo character of its society, was no longer functional for the dominant classes. In 1922, the founding of the PCB registered the national entry of urban workers into politics and the social movement, demanding a socialist order. With the advance of industrialization in the Center-South, the federalism of the Old Republic (1889-1930) was put to an end and the Getulist construction of Brazil's nation-state began.

The new hegemonic justification rhetoric of the dominant classes was constructed mainly by Pernambuco sociologist Gilberto Freyre, a scientific neo-racist, in 1933, with Big house and slave quarters. In this sacralized work, he proposed that miscegenation was necessary for the acclimatization of Western civilization in the Tropics. He thus integrated, in a hierarchical way, the association of the said three races that would have founded the Brazilian nationality.

racial democracy

For Gilberto Freyre, the Portuguese could not work under the scorching sun, but they had the intellectual qualities to discipline and put to work, especially the Africans and their descendants, whom he presents as brutish and ignorant blacks, but true productive animals, resistant to the tropical climate. In his view, the Indians, lazy and indomitable, would only have supported the Lusitanians. Big House & Senzala, written at the height of Nazism, has pages of gruesome anti-Semitic racism.

Miscegenated in Europe by the Moorish invasions, unscrupulous fornicators, softened by Roman Christianity, the Lusitanians would have softened slave relations in a patriarchal sense that introduced whites and blacks into a [hierarchical] world tending to be alien to racism. A corollary of Freyre's thesis of the three races was therefore the full dominance of “Brazilian racial democracy”, defended, until recently, tooth and nail, by the dominant classes, as an official and unofficial doctrine in the so-called democratic and dictatorial regimes.

However, in recent years, the hegemonic classes in Brazil carried out a radical rock-horse in their ideological proposals on the issue, starting to propose that not only did racism exist, but that everything in Brazil was “racism”, and “racism”. structural racism”. A strange and radical metamorphosis that has been ignored in its profound senses by Greeks and Trojans, laymen and specialists.

In the 1950s, Brazilian Marxism with a reformist and Stalinist bias denied the social organization of slavery, by defending a semi-feudal Brazilian past, where peasants and landowners - Nélson Werneck Sodré, Alberto Passos Guimarães, etc. They defended, therefore, the struggle for a modern capitalism, under the direction of a proposed “progressive bourgeoisie”, and not for socialism. However, authors such as Edison Carneiro produced important works on slavery, denying, however, its referential character. On the other hand, intellectuals defended, in a Weberian perspective, the capitalist origin of the Brazilian social formation practically since the Discovery, confusing commercial capital with capitalism. They recognized the existence of enslaved workers but proposed their inability to move history – Caio Prado Júnior, Ruy Mauro Marini, FHC, Florestan Fernandes, etc.

overcoming without continuity

In the 1950s, two Marxist intellectuals, Benjamin Péret, a French Trotskyist, and Clovis Moura, a communist militant, proposed the slavery character of the Brazilian past; the centrality of the enslaved; forms of servile resistance such as class struggle; the need for the destruction of slavery to advance Brazilian society. They were literally canceled by the pecebistas and conservative intellectuals of the time. The rediscovery of Clóvis Moura in recent years has taken place almost ignoring his landmark work, from 1959 – slave quarters rebellions: quilombos, insurrections, guerrillas.

On the contrary, the so-called Escola Paulista de Sociologia prospered – Florestan Fernandes, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Octávio Ianni, Roger Bastide – which defended the despotism of slavery; the existence of racism; the impotence of the enslaved in determining the past, without ignoring the mastery of relations and the slave mode of production. The slave-owning coffee growers of Oeste Paulista and the immigrants were presented as agents for overcoming slavery and modernization in Brazil.

In 1964, Florestan Fernandes, then a Weberian and functionalist, published a book proposing the isolated organization of blacks to integrate themselves as workers in capitalist society – The integration of black people into class society. An enormously successful work in the USA, where it was translated, contributing to the ongoing discussion of anti-Marxist and anti-workers policies for the black movement, as Wanderson Chaves recalls in his important work A questnot black: the FoundationFord and the Cold War (1950-1970). In a way, Florestan Fernandes can be considered the theoretical father of “black identity” in Brazil.

A Copernican Revolution

In 1950-60, with the relative de-Stalinization of the USSR and the advance of the anti-colonial and socialist revolution in the world, a greater space was opened for interpretations of the past from the point of view of the workers. In Brazil, brilliant historians reinterpreted Brazil's past with enslaved workers as a reference, with an emphasis on work and resistance, with emphasis on Stanley Stein, Emilia Viotti da Costa, Décio Freitas, Ciro Flamarión, etc.

Still under the dictatorship, while urban and rural workers struggled to gain autonomy in the never-before-known Brazilian society – the birth of a PT, CUT, MST and MNU at that time tending to be classist and anti-capitalist –, Jacob Gorender, in 1978, a former political prisoners, published colonial slavery, scholarly thesis on political economy, based on a revolutionary Marxist interpretation of the Brazilian past.

Jacob Gorender, former leader of the PCB and founder of the PCBR, by proposing the dominance of the historically new colonial slave production mode, and placing the enslaved as the builder of the past, dissolved the false opposition between a feudal Brazilian past and a capitalist past since the beginning of colonization. The thesis and its consequences gave rise to a rich university debate, although the book, like later works by that author, was directed at political activists, as part of the discussion of the paths of the Brazilian Revolution.

The End of History and the Eternal Capitalist Reign

Over the next ten years, the world neoliberal counter-revolution advanced, victorious in 1989-91, when it led to the dissolution of the USSR, capitalist restoration in the so-called socialist countries and a world conservative tsunami. In the context of the proposal of the end of history and the death of the revolution and socialism, the effort to relax Gorender's theses that placed the enslaved worker at the heart of the interpretation of the Brazilian past and, therefore, of contemporary times was exacerbated..

The recovery-modernization of Gilberto Freyre's neo-patriarchal visions was consolidated in the historiography of slavery, defending: the dominance of consensus, negotiation and collaboration, instead of opposition and resistance, between enslavers and enslaved; tolerable slavery where captives would work little, eat a lot, and be seldom punished; emancipation as wide doors to freedom; the proliferation of servile land plots; stable, long-term enslaved families; the defense of captivity by the captives.

In general, these arbitrary and often totally fanciful proposals were constructed by generalizing and romanticizing isolated and singular phenomena, never structural in slave society. These apologetic readings of the past assumed and still assume the status of historical truth supported by the strength of the social classes interested in them, since they corroborate the proposals for the end of history, Marxism, socialism, revolution and the perpetuity of capitalism.

slavery rehabilitated

In this context, after the publication of the magnificent study Slavery rehabilitated, in 1990, against the neopatriarchal theses, Jacob Gorender suffered a massive attack, personal academic and intellectual, supported by the mainstream media, which resulted in the systematic cancellation of his theses on slavery. At that time, in the context of the triumphant world counter-revolution of the years 1989-91, a good part of the left that claimed to be Marxist changed their T-shirts, imitated the ostriches, and plunged into deep confusion.

In the following years, Brazilian historiography experienced a few years of almost silence on slavery, following the worldwide trend of approaching mild themes, such as the history of private life, sexuality, customs, witches, princesses, kissing and so on. go. The renewed interest in African and Afro-Brazilian history was associated with the almost total abandonment of the study of the modes and social relations of production, work and resistance of enslaved people, etc. Through other paths and with other arguments, the shroud was once again thrown over the enslaved worker and his demiurgic character in the Brazilian past.

Since the 1960s, in the context of the Vietnam War and the struggle for civil rights, imperialism, big capital and the Yankee State have proposed identity policies to combat the black American classist and revolutionary movement, with emphasis on the Black Panther Party. Black panthers, the political expression of the subaltern African-American classes, were crushed by dozens of extrajudicial executions and long prison sentences, while collaborationist black movements were supported and financed.

black identity hegemony

Black identity politics proposed the dominance of racial opposition, between whites and blacks, and denied social and economic contradictions, between exploited and exploiters, between capital holders and capital producers. Thus, he defended the isolated and autistic organization of black workers, independent of other communities that experienced identical exploitation, since all oppression was racial and not social. It claimed specific concessions, for a small elite, and never universal, for the entire marginalized black community, as the Black Panther Party had demanded – employment, education, health, quality housing; freedom for imprisoned blacks, etc.

These were policies aimed at tricking subaltern Afro-descendants and gaining the support of the black middle classes favored by initiatives for better incorporation into capitalist society, superficial and piecemeal. At the end of the 1970s, Abdias do Nascimento, a former integralist militant, where he worked alongside Plínio Salgado, landed in Brazil in 1978, after a long stay in the USA, claiming to be a political refugee, and proposing a still rustic acclimatization to the Yankee identity to Brazilian society, without achieving great success, at a time of advance of the class struggle in the country.

The marked victory of the neo-liberal counter-revolution reinforced the ebb and disorganization of the world social movement. With the new situation, imperialism and big capital strongly boosted identityism in Brazil, to radicalize the atomization and weakening of the social movement and leftist organizations. Black identity began to be defended by the main state apparatuses, by multinational companies established in the country, by the globalized media – Folha de São Paulo, Estado de São Paulo, Globo, etc. It was the ruling classes doing a historic somersault in the apologetic narrative about Brazilian racial and social relations, in the eternal defense of their privileges.

Back to the workers

Identitarianism, tested as a State policy in the last years of the FHC government, was increasingly embraced by the PT's social-liberal administrations, which turned their backs on the workers. A movement inaugurated, in the USA, by the Bill Clinton administrations [1993-2001], when they promoted globalization and the deindustrialization of the country, which led them to abandon, due to the middle classes and identity claims, the manufacturing worker, their traditional electorate. In Brazil, there has been a greater emphasis on black identity than on gender, sex, nationality, etc.

With the support of imperialism, big capital, the State and the Joe Biden administration, black identity became the dominant rhetoric of the fifth PT administration, which began in January 2023, due to its new nature, already incapable of yielding anything substantial to the world of work, despite having been the origin of PTism. Throughout the world, the abandonment and combat of the political, social and historical referential character of the working class has been and is being undertaken. Not infrequently, it has been denied its very materiality – “post-industrial society”, etc. In Brazil, this movement required a leap in quality in the forms of denial, in recent times indirect, of the centrality of enslaved workers in the past, in order to better support this same thesis in the present.

Even romanticized and sweetened, the history of slavery continued to implicitly and explicitly refer to the opposition between the enslaved and the enslavers, between the holders of wealth and the dispossessed of the wealth they built. A reality corroborated by the situation of most of today's Afro-descendant communities. Two large and complex movements of denial and tendency to obscure relations of exploitation in the past and of slavery itself were then undertaken.

racial exploitation

First, the economic and social character of slavery is replaced, opposing workers and their exploiters, by the racial character of a society dominated by the exploitation of blacks by whites, against the most blatant historical evidence. The Colony and the Empire, with a population with a stronger African origin than today, had a not inconsiderable number of blacks and browns who owned, above all, small numbers of enslaved workers. It has even been proposed that the marginalization of black populations would have originated from post-1888 racism, and not from the sequels of slavery, including racial discrimination.

Efforts were also made to directly link the Afro-Brazilian population to a fantasized, unitary and homogeneous Africa, without exploiters and exploited, without going through slavery. The denominator of a Brazilian with some Afro-descendancy would therefore not be having enslaved workers among their ancestors, but being descendants of Africans from the diaspora. Which gave rise to a movement to cultivate invented African roots and rejection by the national community.

The spotlight was withdrawn from the millions of African men and women and their descendants who died working as slaves in Brazil, to focus them on the very rare cases of freedmen and free black men who got rich, in slavery, becoming slaveholders, of course, or already in Republic. They are presented as paradigms in the proposal of black entrepreneurship, rhetoric about the possibility of significant advancement of poor Afro-descendants in the food chain of capitalist society, through “effort”, “self-exploitation”, etc.

wonderful new world

For decades, our dominant classes covered up the demiurgic character of the world of work, denying exploitation, when slavery was proposed as benign, and advancing a furious defense of the rhetoric about Brazilian racial democracy. Now, they abruptly reverse the sign. In unison with imperialism and big capital, they carry out the same procedure, ignoring slavery itself, in favor of fantasy Africanity, and proposing the inexistence of class exploitation, replaced by race exploitation.

If in the past the dominant classes defended, with weapons in hand, the total absence of racism, now they propose the opposite. They propose that racism has always inhabited and organized a Brazilian society without class contradictions. A world formed and rocked, yesterday as today, by the oppression of blacks by whites, all rich, racist and exploiters. This despite the tens of millions of exploited whites scattered across Brazil. Workers who never lived on someone else's effort, barely managing to live on their own. And to close this crooked sum, they divide the country into two racial blocs: translucent whites, exploiters, and everyone else, as long as they have a tiny drop of non-European blood, just like the old American racist proposal.

By denying the existence of class contradictions, the black identity proposal, advanced by the ruling classes and imperialism, hides large property and capital as instruments of production and reproduction of exploitation. They abandon the universal basic demands of the population – work, salary, health, housing, education, security –, promising the social emancipation of the country through anti-racist education and positive discrimination measures for a privileged few.

They suggest the revolutionary character of demagogic and anodyne measures that, after being applied for sixty years in the USA, resulted in almost nothing in favor of the oppressed. They only helped to dampen the already fragile mobilization and organization of the working and oppressed classes, without granting absolutely anything of substance to a huge marginalized African-American population, besides unemployment, unskilled jobs, police violence, imprisonment, the right to join the armed forces to go die in some imperialist war.

In Brazil, paradoxically, identity and its program, especially black, are embraced, only coated in leftist language, by important factions of the left that claim to be Marxist. Left rooted in the middle classes, almost strangers to the world of work, doped to the bone marrow by electoralism.[1]

* Mario Maestri is a historian. Author, among other books, of Sons of Ham, sons of the dog. The enslaved worker in Brazilian historiography (FCM Editora).


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[1] Conference delivered virtually at the 1st Meeting of the Brazilian Studies Network, IELA-UFSC, May 2023, XNUMX.

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