Note from BBT: Rio De Janeiro. When you hear the name of this Brazilian city, what comes to mind? Beautiful women? The famous Christ the Redeemer statue? Copacabana beach? If you’re a soccer fan, maybe you’re familiar with the Maracanã stadium. How about the Selaron Steps or Sugar Loaf Mountain? They’re all symbols of Rio de Janeiro. Now, how about enslaved Africans? They don’t quite fit onto the postcard image you have of Rio, do they? Well, if you were a foreign visitor to the city in the 19th century, you probably would have seen a whole lot of black-skinned people. They were descendants of the Africans that entered Brazil through Rio de Janeiro, a city where hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans entered.
Think about this. Twice as many Africans entered Brazil through a port in Rio alone than all of the enslaved Africans that were brought to the entire United States. The story of the region and community that became known as Pequena África, a section of 19th century Rio de Janeiro meaning Little Africa, is worthy of a documentary or even a full-length film in itself.
‘Little Africa’ is the historic home of the Afro-Brazilian community in the Port Region of Rio de Janeiro. The name was given by samba songwriter Heitor dos Prazeres in the early 20th century. The region became known as Little Africa after the slave trade became illegal in Brazil in 1831 (although the abolition of slavery did not take place until 57 years later). Between 1850 and 1920, freed slaves remained working in the region. Freed blacks and Africans from Bahia or the interior traveled to Little Africa in search of work and a sense of community.
Little Africa often welcomed blacks from all over the country, where simple homes, religious centers, spaces for daily living, political and artistic mobilization, and an increasingly strong sense of cultural identity. ‘Little Africa’ became the epicenter of black culture in Rio de Janeiro and it was in this context that samba emerged as a musical genre, gaining visibility throughout Brazil.
It’s a fascinating story that’s been rarely told in Brazilian history books or in studies of the African Diaspora and global black history. Another important story from this era in Rio was that of Cândido da Fonseca Galvão, who was known as Dom Obá II d’Africa and the ‘Prince of the People’ having become a representative of ‘Little Africa’. Galvão often visited Brazil’s Imperial Palace and was known to participate in meetings with Brazil’s emperor of the time, Dom Pedro II.
The more we learn about the Little Africa, the more we come to understand how black brazilians of the era learned to become, in many ways, self-sufficient with many blacks in the community having skills that helped them survive in a racist society. As Brazil would soon after begin its shift into free labor, it also demonstrates the policy of bypassing skilled black labor for the millions of European immigrants that were pouring into the country at the time.
With the recognition of this forgotten history of Rio de Janeiro now being officially recognized by UNESCO, I hope that more information about this period and its people continue to become accessible to the public.
A Black Rio. Slavery and Freedom in 19th century Rio de Janeiro
By Ynaê Lopes dos Santos
Rio de Janeiro was the largest slave city in the Americas. Reading this sentence may cause some strangeness for those who know Rio de Janeiro only through its postcards. For those who have a little more knowledge about the city’s dynamics, this phrase can be a historical ballast that explains the strong presence of the black population today, as well as the recent recognition of Cais do Valongo, or Valongo Wharf, as a World Heritage Site.
However, behind the less than honorable title acquired throughout the 19th century, there are several economic relations, political choices and social and cultural reinterpretations that, unfortunately, are not usually taught in the classroom. In the nineteenth century, Rio de Janeiro was a black city, a city of the enslaved, freed and free. A city in which it was possible to see the weight of slavery, while new senses of freedom were constantly being woven.
Rio de Janeiro already had an expressive enslaved population in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, it was only after 1808, with the transfer of the Portuguese royal family, that the number of enslaved people grew visibly. It would not be an exaggeration to say that men and women from different parts of the African continent in the condition of enslaved people were the manpower that made the entire transformation of the city’s urban fabric possible, making the former capital of the Vice Kingdom to become the Court of the Portuguese Empire.
With the Proclamation of Independence on September 7, 1822, Rio de Janeiro was elevated to the rank of Court of the Empire of Brazil. There a good part of the political elites that controlled the country lived and got together. Elites, that is, composed mostly of slave owners. Thus, the political weight that the city gained in 1808 was confirmed in 1822. And the weight of slavery too.
As there are no coincidences in History, it was not by chance that the Cais do Valongo was the largest landing port for enslaved Africans in the Americas. Created in the last decades of the 18th century, in the region of the current neighborhoods of Gamboa and Saúde, Valongo was a veritable complex formed by the Cais, Lazareto (where enslaved Africans who arrived sick were sent), the Cemitério dos Pretos Novos, or cemetary of the new blacks, and the African buying and selling barracks. It is estimated that approximately 1 million enslaved Africans landed in this port, whose history was buried after the deactivation of the Cais (in 1831), and only recently revealed.
Although most of these enslaved Africans were bought by people who lived in other regions of Brazil, a significant number of men, women and children were employed in urban activities. That’s because Rio de Janeiro was a city that depended on the enslaved to function, mainly during the first half of the 19th century.
Africans acquired by urban landowners joined thousands of other existing captives (Africans and their descendants) in carrying out a series of jobs, among which the earning activities stand out. A specific working relationship in the urban world.
The earning activities consisted in the possibility of the enslaved to lease their work force to third parties. Such enslaved people had a worded agreement with their owners: they were to pay a previously stipulated amount weekly or fortnightly, regardless of the means by which this money was acquired. On the other hand, earning workers had greater traffic autonomy, moving around the city more easily. Such autonomy was essential for these men and women to go out in search of work. However, these enslaved people also turned this autonomy into an opportunity to have better material living conditions, as well as to give new meaning to life in slavery and the possibilities of freedom that a slave city could give.
Many earning slaves managed, for example, to negotiate with their owners the possibility of “living on their own”, that is, of living independently of their masters. Many rented rooms and/or shacks in the city’s downtown. Others lived in more distant parishes, in houses where they could have their autonomy respected. Those slaves for hire were also responsible for their livelihood, both in terms of food and clothing.
The slaves for hire performed countless activities. They were shippers of goods at customs, litters, sellers, confectioners, masons, barber surgeons. Although there was strong competition for work – the offer was not always so great –, many of these enslaved managed to save some money and bought their freedom or that of their relatives. Even if it was the exception, what is observed in cities like Rio de Janeiro was a significant percentage of freed persons, that is, freed men and women.
The acquisition of legal freedom was on the horizon of the enslaved who lived in Rio de Janeiro. Many who conquered it continued to work for hire, now as freedmen. But manumission was not the only way to experience freedom. Along with the slaves for hire, the domestic slaves, the hired slaves and the freed and free, they transformed the city’s streets into a space for work, resistance and leisure. Men and women in different legal conditions, which made Rio a black city.
The countless travelers visiting Rio de Janeiro throughout the 19th century were impressed by the number of black men and women who worked in the city. As such, the records they left about the period of their visits to Rio became important documents for historians. We have written records of their impressions, as well as productions of lithographs and engravings of “scenes of the city”.
These documents present part of the complexity that marked the dynamics of Rio de Janeiro. Many activities are registered in these documents, which leave no doubt about the central character that the work of these enslaved and free black men and women had for the functioning of the city. Many travelers were surprised (and sometimes delighted) by the new meanings that the black population attributed to public spaces. The meetings at the city’s fountains were not just to get drinking water, but also meeting points for co-workers, couples, colleagues. However, like any document, it needs to be critically analyzed. Often, these travelers didn’t have a full understanding of all the uses that the black population made of the city.
A dimension that escaped the gaze of these foreigners was the fact that Rio de Janeiro had been a “hidden city”. Many enslaved, trying to leave captivity, fled. Such escapes could be to the outskirts more distant from the downtown region of the city, and often resulted in the formation of mocambos or quilombos. But there were the enslaved who fled without leaving the city. Greater transit autonomy allowed Rio to become a hiding place for slaves who worked in the city itself and for slaves who came from more distant regions.
This dimension reveals how the black population made use of the racial condition of slavery in their favor. The authorities responsible for the administration and order of Rio de Janeiro had no way of defining, in advance, whether a black person was free or enslaved. This difficulty led to many municipal laws being drafted to try to control the circulation of the enslaved population. But there were many cases in which enslaved people pretended to be freedmen, experiencing provisional freedom, which could last for days, months and, in more exceptional cases, years.
Even those who didn’t flee could reframe the senses of freedom amidst the urban fabric of Rio de Janeiro. The houses of Zungú, well known in the first half of the 19th century, allowed the black population to meet around the production of angu to make drums, eat and drink together, rest, find their romantic partners. Black brotherhoods were also spaces in which new senses of freedom were woven. As well as the batuque drums, dances, capoeiras.
It was not by chance that after the promulgation of the Lei do Ventre Livre, or Free Womb Law, on September 28, 1871 – in a context marked by the advance of the abolitionist movement – many enslaved women and mothers from different parts of the Empire headed to Rio de Janeiro in an attempt to guarantee the freedom of their sons and daughters. To reach the capital of the Empire and manage to find the necessary legal help, these women connected to an important network of solidarity created by the black population that lived in Rio de Janeiro, thus revealing the existence of important protagonists in that city.
Men and women (African and Brazilian-born), freed slaves and freedmen who constructed a black Rio, and those who fought so that this city could also be a space of freedom.
My heart aches for Black bodies all over this world. Black bodies of the past, Black bodies of the present and Black bodies that are to come.