Photos and research reveal the everyday childhood of black children in pre-abolition Brazil


Note from BW of Brazil: The era of slavery in the Americas conjure up various images and feelings, particularly for those of African descent. Brazil was the recipient of the most African slaves, around 4 million, and was the last country in the New World to abolish this brutal institution (in 1888). But what did these slaves look like? What did the children look? What could photos from this era reveal about these people whose very existence was only seen through from viewpoint of their servitude to their masters? Recent archives have provided another glipse into this era, just before the abolition of slavery (between 1865 and 1885)  and as the saying goes, the images are worth “a thousand words.” Take a look for yourself. Below is how blogger Silvio Matheus saw the images. Below Matheus’s comments are comments by the researcher. Do feel free to leave a comment. 

Research reveals the everyday of the childhood of black children during the slavery era

by Silvio Matheus

How these photos tell us so many things. The black child made invisible even in the photo. The others, well-dressed from head to toe, and she, the black child, with her bare feet on the ground. And still there are people that argue against the struggle for racial equality and equity.


[Photo makes evident that there is a black girl, probably daughter of those enslaved on a farm, with clearly distinct garments from those of the women on the boat. The girl is barefoot denoting a mark of slavery and poverty. The other time of this image refers to the letters found above each woman portrayed. The one that didn’t have a letter above her image is the girl. This fact explains, in a certain way, that this girl is not visible in the same manner as the women and is also not hidden (text of the researcher)]


Black and poor children, mainly, were and continue being invisible and muted in Brazil. This is one of the conclusions of a paper based on photographic images of the children and their childhood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period marked by the abolition of black slavery in Brazilian society and the transition from monarchy to republic.


Coordinated by Professor Anete Abramowicz, of the Federal University of São Carlos and Fellow of CNPq Research Productivity, the study entitled Representações da Criança e da Infância na iconografia brasileira dos anos 1880-1940 (Representations of Children and Childhood in Brazilian iconography of the years 1880-1940) aimed to portray how the children were registered in this period and recognize the iconographic source as a legitimate document to construct the child’s story.


For the researcher, Brazilian society is “adult-centric and there is no social space for children whose comments are not considered legitimate in the hegemonic discursive order.” One of the conclusions we reached is about the invisibility of children in this period and we also found black children in portraits that include scenes of everyday life without reference to slavery and that somehow ‘do away’ with a certain dominant iconography in this period, marked by the picturesque and exotic of slavery and the invisibility of children in society,” says Professor Anete Abramowicz.


In the study were used pictures and photos of the school archives and historic museums located in São Paulo, Paraná, Mato Grosso do Sul, Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, Paris and Portugal. “There doesn’t exist in Brazil nor internationally, a work in this cleavage: blacks and children represented. It was a work that continues to this day, because the pictures are very rare,” says the researcher.

Another picture that greatly moved me was this one:


The expressiveness of this child’s look; what must she be thinking and thinking about in the time she lived, of the situation that she found herself, and especially when she looked at the other white children observing how they were different in all conditions. This expression won’t leave my mind. This expression will certainly continue to push me to continue steadfast in the anti-racist struggle for equality and racial equality in this country. Be it on the streets, on the blog, in public and private institutions, wherever. I cannot and we cannot falter. (Written by the author of the blog)


Check out the interview with the researcher

Popciência – What reasons led you to study the representation of Brazilian children and childhood through iconography?

In 1960, the historian Phillipe Ariès wrote a book that was translated into Brazil later named História Social da Criança e da Família (Social History of Children and Families), which became a kind of ground zero of a social conception of the child and childhood. In it, he constructed a concept called “sentimento da infância (sentiment of childhood),” which means the birth of the particularity of the child in relation to adults, and modern feeling towards the child. This concept, despite having received numerous criticisms, intended to configure the social history of the child and childhood, as never before in history. The methodology used by Ariès was iconography. It showed when and how children, especially children of the sons of nobles and bourgeois classes, appear represented in the frames of the painters. Again, there are many methodological criticisms also to this work. In every manner, we decided to take iconography as a valid, very effective methodology and we seek, from a central theoretical framework of race, images of black children in the proposed period. There doesn’t exist in Brazil nor internationally, a work in this cleavage: blacks and children represented. It was a work that continues to this day, because the pictures are very rare.

Popciência – Why was the profile between the years 1880 to 1940 chosen for research?

In proposing an iconographic work of the child and childhood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we planned, on the one hand, to leave a record of children who were rarely portrayed especially in this period. On the other hand, to recognize the iconographic source as a legitimate document in the invention and contribution to the construction of the child’s history in this period. Children occupy a seemingly peripheral place in history in general and this is reflected in the difficulty in finding pictures of them and about them. At the same time that it is not they that write their own history, nor are they recording their pictures, children have their story told and portrayed by others. In first moment of the historiography of Brazilian slavery, economistic interpretations obscured the more accurate knowledge of the relationships between enslaved themselves, just as those with the freedmen and poor whites. With rare exceptions, according to Jovino (2010), there was neither greater silence nor invisibility than that which focused on women and enslaved children. This is corroborated in a section of the pioneering work of Mattoso (MATTOSO, Katia Queiroz. O filho da escrava. Em torno da Lei do Ventre Livre (Son of the slave. Around the Law of the Free Womb. Revista Brasileira de História (Brazilian Journal of History), São Paulo, vol. 8, no. 16, p. 37-55, March/Aug. 1988 p. 38), commenting on the difficulty of working with sources (in this case post-mortem inventories), which do not allow to transpire aspects of everyday life, claiming that there is a reducing anonymity in slavery: “what can one then say about the slave children who are doubly transformed, and doubly slaves?” In reality, we wanted to portray infamous lives that, as Walter Benjamin says, lives that leave no trace. This is our vision of what is most important in research in the humanities: capturing lives and viewpoints that escape a certain historiography, to tell the story from the perspective of the invisible, the infamous, those whose voices don’t resonate.

Source: Onde Negra, CNPq. All photos by Militão Augusto de Azevedo between the years 1865 and 1885

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. Boa tarde, colegas do Black Women of Brazil

    Venho através desta mensagem agradecer a forma como vocês divulgaram a publicação que fiz sobre essa pesquisa. Com certeza ela assume grande importância no cenário nacional onde a população negra vem travando diversas lutas por políticas e condições de igualdade e equidade racial.
    Desde já, expresso meus mais sinceros agradecimentos.
    Um grande abraço e parabéns pelo trabalho de vocês.

    Silvio Matheus – Criador e Editor do Onda Negra

  2. I had this discussion in a group recently. I said that I will henceforth cease using the term of “slave” and “slave master”. Words have tremendous power. After all, “Slaves” were not taken from Africa. PEOPLE were taken from Africa and held captive for forced labor. A friend put it thus: “I’ve been criticised by people for saying that our Ancestors weren’t owned. I’ve learned to summarise my position as succinctly as possible, using non academic language. I say that they were neither pets, nor property, so had neither masters, nor owners. I refuse to legitimise white supremacy however inadvertently, by dignifying their actions by using their own dishonest terms”

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