Movers of Slaves

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Sept. 29, 2003

Movers of Slaves:

The Brazilian Community

in Benguela (Angola), c. 1722-1832 1

José C. Curto

Dept. of History

York University

Brazil was by far the single most important destination of the slaves exported from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean. A recent re-assessment of the volume of the Atlantic slave trade indicates that, of the 9.7 million Africans landed alive in the Americas between 1519 and 1867, 41 percent or close to 4 million arrived in the land of Vera Cruz, as Brazil was initially known.2 Much of this massive forced migration did not take place under the context of the traditional triangular trade, involving European merchant capital and trade goods, African slave suppliers, and slave-based economies in the Americas. Rather, following the second half of the seventeenth century, it operated largely under a bilateral context. To ensure a steady supply of new slave labour for the expanding plantation, mining and urban economies they serviced, Brazilian merchant capitalists began to gain an increasingly important share of the slave trade from western Africa. The strategy involved was multi-faceted: creating amongst African slave suppliers a taste for their own cheap, slave produced trade goods such as sugar cane spirits and tobacco; developing their own merchant navy to lower transportation costs; and forwarding their own representatives to slave exporting towns along the western coast of Africa to manage their commercial interests.3 As this bilateral connection evolved during the eighteenth century, Brazilians on both sides of the Atlantic thus became central agents in the forced movement of large numbers of African slaves to the land of Vera Cruz.

Who were these Brazilian movers of slaves? In the case of the Brazilian trade diaspora in nineteenth century West Africa, the question has already been the object of a great deal of scholarly attention.4 But these communities, with their origins in the northeastern Brazilian seaport of Salvador (Bahia), were not the only ones from the land of Vera Cruz established along the western coast of the African continent. Others still were found on the littoral of West Central Africa.5 Of these, the ones who settled in Benguela, the second largest slaving port in the Portuguese colony of Angola, may well have been the most important. The origins of this community lay not in Salvador but in Rio de Janeiro, the emporium of southern Brazil. Little is known about this other Brazilian diasporic community. Nevertheless, its role in moving large numbers of slaves to Rio de Janeiro was as significant if not more so, than those forwarding captives from West Africa to Salvador.

It was perhaps in recognition of this important function that, once the process of census taking took root in late eighteenth-century Angola, Brazilians residing in Benguela came to be regularly enumerated as a distinct population group. The first count of Benguela’s population most probably took place in early June of 1796, when the newly arrived Governor, Alexandre José Botelho de Vasconcelos, had the core of the town enumerated by household.6 Another, far more comprehensive, enumeration by household was produced late in February of 1797, most likely to represent the town’s population at the end of the previous year.7 In neither of these early censuses, which exit but in summarised form, were Brazilians classified as a distinct group of residents. Rather, they seem to have been listed as part and parcel of the enumerated urban population. In November of 1797, Manuel José de Silveira Teixeira and José Caetano Carneiro, two mid-level military officers, were entrusted with producing far more detailed demographic information: a nominal list by household in which the inhabitants of Benguela were enumerated by colour, age, occupation, social condition, and marital status.8 These far more comprehensive nominal lists may well have served as a model for the year-end summary census relating to 1798, where Brazilian residents were listed, for the first time, as a distinct population group. During the following twenty-one years, at least another eleven summary censuses were produced in Benguela, as the Portuguese central government in Lisbon sought to acquire ever more precise information on its subjects spread the world over for fiscal and defensive purposes.9 In each and every case, Brazilians residing in this port town were enumerated as a distinct population group, by colour and gender. Unlike their counterparts in West Africa prior to the 1830 ban on slaving in the South Atlantic, the Brazilians in Benguela thus represent a community that is particularly well documented.10

Our objective is to reconstruct and analyse this Brazilian diasporic community, particularly during the last four or so decades of legal slaving in the South Atlantic, when the sources evidencing it are especially rich. Before proceeding, however, a few issues relating to the documentation at hand need to be addressed. Between 1798 and 1819, one of the categories used by census takers to enumerate the urban population behind Cattle Bay was naturalidade or birthplace: while some residents were Africans by virtue of their place of birth, others were Europeans, and others still Americans. Since only subjects of the Portuguese Crown could circulate and trade within its domains, including those overseas,11 these Americanos had to have been born in Brazil, the sole colony in the Americas under Portuguese suzerainty. If there is little doubt as to the Brazilian origin of these Americanos, it is also evident that the summary censuses do not cover the community as a whole. Birthplace could not have captured all of the Brazilian residents of Benguela. Brazilian born were not the only ones that made up this community, which also included persons born elsewhere who had Brazilianised over years of life in the land of Vera Cruz and subsequently taken up residence in central Angola. Moreover, all of the Brazilian-born in the Benguela summary censuses were listed as civilians. Soldiers, ecclesiastics, and colonial administrators, amongst whom males from the land of Vera Cruz were always prominent, were not enumerated according to birthplace. Exclusions such as these would have limited our discussion to Brazilian-born civilians. But, as it happens, a relatively large number of non-civilian Brazilian and Brazilianised individuals appear in various other primary documents.12 Incorporated into our discussion, they not only allow a fuller reconstruction and analysis of the Brazilian community in Benguela, they also lend a human face to the anonymity of the aggregate data found in summary censuses.

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