Slaves of Yesterday and Today

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The abolitionist debate in the politics of the Second Reign

At the end of 2021, Ivana Jinkings, from Boitempo editorial, invited me to write the preface to one of Astrojildo Pereira's books, Interpretations, published in 1944. In that year, the Second World War and the Brazilian Estado Novo were marching towards their end, with the already predictable defeat of the Axis and the deposition of Getúlio Vargas, orchestrated more by the right than by the center or the left. And Astrojildo had already been excluded from the leadership of the Communist Party, then still called “from Brazil”, and from the Party itself.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, the author approaches some of his favorite literary themes, among them, the work of Machado de Assis. In the second, it discusses scenarios of our social, political, cultural and economic history, particularly the period of the Second Reign. In the third, it analyzes aspects of the profile of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, and ends with a long comment on the duties of intellectuals in the post-war and post-Estado Novo that are approaching, with promises of democratization.

I will not repeat the preface here. I intend to focus on an aspect that caught my attention, based on an essay in the second part, “Rui Barbosa and slavery”. In it, Astrojildo starts from the opinion written by the then deputy Rui Barbosa on the so-called “Project 48 A” of the cabinet headed by Prime Minister Manuel Pinto de Sousa Dantas, to make a detailed review of the parliamentary debate regarding the end or maintenance of slavery.

The project, presented to Parliament in mid-1884, provided for a gradual abolition of slavery until December 31, 1889. It was signed by the son of Senator Dantas. But in fact, says Astrojildo, Rui Barbosa himself had written it. This one, to join the government, ended up losing the position of deputy; but this did not prevent him from writing the opinion of more than 200 pages on the project that he himself had written.

The slaveholders' reaction to the project was brutal and immediate. Conservatives rallied against the proposal; the liberals split, which cost Sousa Dantas his job, who was deposed by a vote of no confidence a few weeks after the bill was presented. One of the vectors of conservative anger was the fact that the project provided for the freeing of slaves without compensation to their owners.

The debates that followed, on the platform and in the press, were heated and heated. And what stands out in the eyes of today's readers is its extraordinary relevance at the beginning of the XNUMXst century.

One sees the succession of words and arguments that, mutatis mutandis, are repeated today ad nauseam, particularly after the 2016 coup against Dilma Rousseff and the rise, in 2018, of the current usurper of the Planalto Palace, who I refuse to call president.

There they are, in the words of the debaters themselves, the fencing of the “hope” of the abolitionists against the “hatred” of the slave owners. Abolitionists insist on the thesis that their purpose is “civilizing” and that the succession of laws that limited slavery brought countless benefits to the country's economy. But the slaveholders always argue that the purpose of putting an end to slavery “offends against the right to property”, which will lead the country to economic, social and political “chaos”, to the “shake of public order”, to the exploitation of the “classes”. wealthy and orderly”. There is also no shortage of those who assert that abolition is a “communist” project (sic!) and that it aims to bring the “pirate ship of the International” to Brazil (sic! sic! sic!).

We also see in the defense of the project by the Sousa Dantas cabinet, which was very cautious in its procedure, the disposition of “neither going back, nor stopping, nor precipitating”, which reminds us, although with other intentions, that argument of “slow distension, safe and gradual”…

There is also no lack, when the Golden Law was finally approved and signed in 1888, the feeling of frustration on the part of the abolitionists, which Rui Barbosa summarized by calling it an “atrocious irony”. Reason: the abolitionists defended that, once the abolition was done, it would be the prelude to an agrarian reform, with land distribution and state aid to former slaves, to fix them on the land and also to “put an end to latifundia”. None of this happened, and the then nascent Republic asserted itself over a mass of disinherited people and over an enclosure of outdated and retrograde institutions – which, for the most part, remain today and struggle to expand their political and economic reach.

A non-negligible element of Astrojildo's essay is to demonstrate how the abolitionist debate was central to the politics of the Second Reign, underlining the courage with which its leaders fought for the cause. Which also helps to relativize the arguments of those who see abolition and the campaign that led to it only as an innocuous farce.

* Flavio Aguiar, journalist and writer, is a retired professor of Brazilian literature at USP. Author, among other books, of Chronicles of the World Upside Down (Boitempo).


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