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Joaquim Nabuco, Abolitionism and the End of Slavery in Brazil

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Joaquim Nabuco, Abolitionism and the End of Slavery in Brazil
Leslie Bethell (KCL)
Latin American History seminar
19 February 2013

This is a guest post by Angie Goodwin, one of IHR Digital’s interns from the University of West Virginia.

Joaquim Nabuco

Joaquim Nabuco

How did the abolition movement in Brazil unfold?  Who were the key players? And why did it take an incredible amount of time to rid Brazil of slavery?  These questions are at the forefront of Dr. Bethell’s presentation.  The core of the abolitionist movement encircled one man, Joaquim Nabuco.  Bethell addresses the comparisons of Nabuco to Lincoln.  Both men extremely beneficial to the cause of freeing enslaved persons, but their paths were much different.  Dr.  Bethell’s examination of Nabuco’s life offers insight about slavery in Brazil and the long road to freedom.

In the mid 19th century slavery was still in full swing in the United States, Brazil, Cuba and Puerto Rico.  There were an estimated six million slaves within these areas.  It was difficult to get a precise number due to the amount of illegal methods being used to smuggle slaves.  Two issues come into play of why slavery lasted longer in the west, economics and racism.  The main cash crops (cotton, coffee, and sugar) grown in these areas were labour intensive.  Slave owners were willing to turn a profit by whatever means necessary.  Brazil was unique in the fact that unlike the United States the economic factors were the driving force.  Racism was a mute point as an overwhelming percentage of the population were those of colour or mixed identity.  Several attempts were made by the Emperor Dom Pedro to take steps toward freeing the slaves.  Each time the legislation was met with bitter resistance with no moral or social defence.  Money was the only agreement made by the conservatives pointing out that without the manpower the economy would collapse.

Slavery in Brazil (wikipedia)

Slavery in Brazil (wikipedia)

In an attempt to over ride parliament Dom Pedro created a new opening in government for a liberal candidate.  In 1879 Nabuco was elected on the platform of religious freedom; he would soon shift his attention to abolitionist movements.  He himself had been an enslaved person until the age of eight.  He had always had a soft heart for those in the same condition, but did not pursue the abolitionist cause until much later in life.  During his first term in office he submitted a modest bill (1880) that would allow for freedom with compensation to slave owners.  It fell through.  Nabuco had very little public support and felt it would be better to gain global opinion before trying to submit a new bill.  His travels abroad helped to cement his passion to crusade those affected by slavery.  He spent a significant amount of time in Europe especially in Great Britain.  Nabuco worked with the political elite using their insight and experience to devise a new plan of attack.   Nabuco’s intense expedition would come full circle only after several more attempts were made to move towards an agreement.  Finality on the matter came in May 1888, the Lei Aurea (Golden Law) was signed and the slaves in Brazil were free.  Nabuco continued working to secure rights for the newly freed people.  He would find more resistance as most of the abolitionist groups had given up the cause once the slaves were free.

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