Following the opening of the slave export trade from Cattle Bay to Rio de Janeiro in 1722, Brazilians became an ubiquitous feature of Benguela. Central agents in the movement of half a million slaves from this central Angolan port to Guanabara Bay, they persisted in Benguela as long as the trade itself continued. Whites and especially mulattos and blacks, men, but also a few women, engaged in various occupations, some free, others convicts, others still freed, and even slaves periodically arrived in Cattle Bay from the land of Vera Cruz to manage and to support the enslaving connection with Rio de Janeiro. The declining post-1795 slave exports, the 1808 relocation of the Portuguese Court in Rio de Janeiro, the independence of Brazil in 1822, and the 1830 ban on slaving in the Atlantic world reduced but did not end the Brazilian presence behind Cattle Bay. Even under these circumstances, the captives shipped from Benguela remained a most lucrative leg of the Atlantic slave trade for the merchants based around Guanabara Bay.
The continuous presence of Brazilians in Benguela offers important implications for our understanding of the South Atlantic. This was clearly a world on the move: beyond the thousands of slaves shipped from Cattle Bay to Rio de Janeiro in any given year, smaller numbers of all kinds of people headed in the opposite direction to underpin their movement. Moreover, since slaves, forros, and free mulattos and blacks were, regardless of birthplace, part and parcel of this Brazilian community, their presence in Benguela further indicates an earlier “back to Africa” movement from the land of Vera Cruz than that associated with West Africa following the mid-1830s. The 1835 Malê uprising in Bahia or the subsequently expanding abolitionist movement in Brazil did not generate the first slaves, former slaves, and their descendants to return to the “motherland.” Another return had been quietly underway well before.
And the implications are no less significant at the micro level. The Brazilian community in Benguela played more than a determining role in the economic life of this central Angolan port town. If its slave exports went overwhelmingly to Guanabara Bay, there was little imported that did not originate within or was re-exported through Rio de Janeiro. The connection between Guanabara Bay and Benguela was enslaving in more ways than one. And it was precisely because of such an intense economic dependency that Brazilians were able to exert a great deal of influence over Benguela’s political life. Not only did some occupy key positions in the municipal and colonial governments, thereby protecting the interests of their financial backers in Rio de Janeiro, but they also nearly succeeded is wrestling this part of Angola from the Portuguese Crown. Yet another area where Brazilians played a fundamental role was in the demography of Benguela, not to mention that of its hinterland. An early, not to mention prolific, student of central Angola remarked en passant that by about 1850, which roughly coincides with the end of the slave export trade in the region, the “sons of Brazil” had vanished.60 If this was indeed the case, it also true that Brazilians left behind relatively large numbers of sons and daughters through their liaisons with enslaved, freed and free local women. How could it have been otherwise when so few brought their women with them? In short, if Benguela and its hinterland can be said to represent the “mother” of a significant percentage of the pre-1850 population of Rio de Janeiro, the enslaving connection also resulted in Brazil as the “father” of an appreciable portion of the population of central Angola.
Table I. Probable Brazilian Male Residents in Benguela, 1797