Week 5 – 2/6 Slavery in Brazil and the Caribbean

35 thoughts on “Week 5 – 2/6 Slavery in Brazil and the Caribbean

  1. cal72013 February 5, 2013 at 9:48 pm Reply

    This week, the difference between African slave labor in the Caribbean and North America really stood out to me. Davis mentions higher death rates in the Caribbean because “it was much cheaper to work slaves to death and buy replacements from Africa than to ‘breed’ new generations of slaves from infancy,” (110). This difference comes from the money-making goals of the Caribbean. Unlike North America, it seems the Europeans who moved to the Caribbean did not want to start a new colony or obtain religious freedom; they wanted to get rich as quickly as possible. This is evidenced by the “absentees,” (115) who ran their plantations from England. Another difference Davis mentions is that in Brazil, “racial intermixture was much more widely and openly accepted than in North America,” (120). Schmidt-Nowara talks also about how Africans were able to maintain or create their own culture in spite of the Europeans. He gives the example of the Yoruba in Cuba who matched their “orishas,” to the catholic saints, so they could continue to practice their native religion (37). Eventually, the native Yoruba religion mixed with Catholicism creating a new religion. Some have believed that these differences came out of a lack of racism or more humane treatment of slaves, but Davis states that it is just the fact that “blacks outnumbered whites nine to one,” (123).

    • taymn February 6, 2013 at 1:04 am Reply

      I also found it fascinating how Africans were able to evolve in a way that allowed them to hold on to some of their beliefs while assimilating to an extent. That assimilation could be exemplified in the more frequent “intermixture” seen in Brazil.

    • Daniel Land February 6, 2013 at 4:31 am Reply

      Despite high death rates, Davis asserts that slaves would have preferred Jamaica to North America. In Jamaica there existed a developing culture and some degree of opportunity, whereas in North America they would be surrounded by whites and feel alienated.

      • Gahbrielle Armrdi February 6, 2013 at 11:28 am

        I agree. The hardship of slavery, probably seemed easier to tolerate for a slave “surrounded with his or her own people”(Davis 123). Jamaica’s cultural values still resonate today. I still find it interesting that, although outnumbered, slave owners still seemed to maintain power.

  2. taymn February 5, 2013 at 10:45 pm Reply

    Slavery, as it came about in the Caribbean and Brazil, seems to be a result of greed formed in an attempt at entrepreneurship by the Spanish and Portuguese. When he arrived in the New World, Christopher Columbus reported that the natives would make good servants (Davis 9). Davis says, “There was an automatic appeal to slavery rooted in medieval European conception of the globe and the different people that inherited it” (10). Columbus believed, like many others after Aristotle’s similar hypothesis was revealed to the world, that some people were born to be free and others to be enslaved (Davis 11). He was on the verge of conquering the natives: they were, therefore, inferior and fit the description of a natural slave. In Slavery, Freedom, and Abolition in Latin America and the Atlantic World, Christopher Schmidt-Nowara says that the Spanish were motivated by wealth and religion. I found it rather interesting that religion was used both for and against slaves (36). For example, the Curse of Ham was used to justify enslavement and, yet, African-Americans in Brazil used religion against their masters by causing them to be held accountable for their (the slaves’) blasphemy. Religion was also used to form connections with other Africans and, eventually, helped to form African-American culture. I do believe that within this region, at least, slavery was not a result of racism. Slaves came in all forms for the sole purpose of economic gain. Schmidt-Nowara says, “Property in humans defined boundary of slavery and other labor although their treatment came to resemble each other” (20). There was a thin line between natives and Africans. Their only difference was that authorities found it harder to dehumanize the indigenous people.

    • Christine Shaw February 6, 2013 at 8:34 am Reply

      Religion also played a role in the debate over whether Native Americans should be enslaved. Schmidt-Nowara discusses the “ecclesiastical attack on the violence of conquest” and the argument some made that the Indians died without being converted to Christianity. The conquistadors countered this by claiming that, since they had already “demonstrated their superiority,” they were entitled to “rule as natural slaves” (21).

    • Caroline February 6, 2013 at 11:01 am Reply

      I think that although the reason for slavery in Brazil and the Caribbean was not racism, like you said, the Europeans were still racist. This probably means that racism developed after slavery as we talked about before.

      • Gahbrielle Armrdi February 6, 2013 at 11:43 am

        I feel that racism helped keep the slave masters’ in control of the vast amount of slaves.

  3. Christine Shaw February 5, 2013 at 11:45 pm Reply

    In the readings for this week, Davis discusses the differences in the cultures of some of the colonies. In Barbados, for example, where a small, elite planter class turned the island into an “amazingly effective sugar-production machine” (115), many of them made it their goal to return to England. The contrast between the planters’ desire for wealth combined with the ostentatious ways they used their money and their hatred of the African slaves who they depended on was interesting, given how the wealthiest in Brazil “posed as patriarchs and community leaders.” In contrast, British planters pursued “purely capitalistic” courses of action. A somewhat surprising result of this mentality was fewer cruel punishments of slaves along with offering rewards. Of course, this brings up the question of why other plantation owners didn’t pursue similar methods of increasing slave productivity.

    • ewm1 February 6, 2013 at 2:36 am Reply

      An interesting note is just how tiny this elite planter class was. Of the approximately 65,000 people in Barbados, 40,000 were black slaves, and only 175 were considered “big planters.”

      This argument that slaves did not work as efficiently as paid workers was actually later used by abolitionists supporting a move over to free labor, citing that plantation owners would get a higher return on their investments out of an economically incentivized worker.

    • Caroline February 6, 2013 at 11:07 am Reply

      I thought it was interesting too that slave owners discovered that treating their slaves well made them more productive. I wonder if the reason slave owners still treated their slaves poorly was racism.

  4. ewm1 February 5, 2013 at 11:49 pm Reply

    Brazilian and Caribbean slavery grew very quickly in the sixteenth century as a result of the expanding international market for sugar. It grew so quickly, in fact, that slave traders transported 95% of African slaves brought to the new world to the south of what later became the United States. The heavy demand for sugar across the world led Brazil and the Caribbean to industrialize themselves, and, at times, slaves in the field even resembled “prototypes of modern assembly line production” (104). At this point one of the inadequacies of slavery emerged as slave owners, who were economically motivated, had to force their slaves into difficult labor to make a return on their investment in each slave. Feeding and housing these people was expensive, and often this uneducated labor led to complications. Of course, its profitability only led to further technological improvements in sugar refinement by the seventeenth century.

    • Daniel Land February 6, 2013 at 4:10 am Reply

      I thought it interesting that Spain, unlike other European nations, never developed a major sugar industry in the new world – the common explanation has that Spaniards were overly focused rather on gold and precious metals (109).

    • Christine Shaw February 6, 2013 at 8:48 am Reply

      The success, economically speaking, of the Caribbean and Brazilian sugar plantations seems to contrast the resulting loss of “all social and moral boundaries” that arose from the European perspective that the West Indies lay “beyond the boundaries of treaties and international law” (Davis 110). While the planters’ only purpose was to gain money, there were no enforced limits on crimes like theft, murder, or law-breaking.

  5. Daniel Land February 5, 2013 at 11:58 pm Reply

    Some of Schmidt-Nowara’s comments regarding the middle passage forced me to reassess my understanding of the voyage. Of particular interest was a quote taken from a Portuguese physician, who while describing the hardships of the journey notes that “…after only a few days at sea, they [the Portuguese traders] start to throw slaves into the ocean”. This immediately brings to mind the Zong massacre – an event which, though several hundred years later, involved a similar ejection of human cargo. Prior to reading this quote I imagined that it was the uniqueness of such a style of execution serving as the primary source of historical significance of the Zong Massacre. However, such a comment apparently referring to at least Portuguese (though not British) traders in general acting in this manner has led me to reevaluate this interpretation as placing undue emphasis on what was actually a common occurrence (assuming that the practice of throwing unsustainable slaves overboard was likewise accepted among 18th century British slave traders). The Zong’s particular notability, then, would stem from either the relative size of the massacre (around 142) or the legal uniqueness of the insurance claim. In any case, the Zong slaveholders would have hardly been the first to come up with the idea to toss excess slaves overboard for resource conservation purposes. Also it is prudent to note that the physician’s comment could more or less constitute an exaggeration.
    I additionally must comment on Schmidt-Nowara’s analysis of Portuguese Jesuit Antonio Vieira, who “preach[ed] resignation to the enslaved” and “justified slavery but in complicated and apparently contradictory terms”. With regards to the first quote, the idea of accepting one’s own unjust situation in order to focus on alleviating the sufferings of others as a basis for reforging a new identity pervades Christian teachings. However, from a religious perspective, the word “resignation” hardly brings justice to this sense of belonging and purpose brought about by such an ideology, or the positive change in mindset due to a newfound identity. That such would constitute a “justification of slavery” to me would entail a grand misunderstanding of a theme prevalent throughout the course readings: that at its core it involves dehumanization and a loss of social identity to which such aforementioned ideology proposes the means to alleviate. Of course, such unprovable assertions about psycho-religious states of 17th century individuals involve issues which neither I nor Schmidt-Nowara is likely competent to properly evaluate, and I must admit it is difficult for me to track either his confusion or conclusions expressed on page 24.

    • taymn February 6, 2013 at 1:08 am Reply

      It is all very sad but goes to show that slaves were only property to their owners and to those who sold them.

  6. Gahbrielle Armrdi February 6, 2013 at 12:13 am Reply

    Davis highlights the fact that the vast majority of the slaves came to the new world because of sugar. The middle class consumed more of this cash crop by 1850 than the upper class. This means that sugar became a part of everyday life for the majority of the British population. Sugar seems to be moving from a luxury good reserved for the aristocrats to a necessity. One example is the major influence of sugar on British culture—tea. However, the process of producing vast amounts of sugar cost slaves more than just labor. According to Davis, “In northern Brazil slave women with a missing arm were common in sight”. Limbs lost over sugar. This gives evidence that slaves were simply property from a slave owner’s perspective. I found it interesting that African slaves were preferred by slave owners. According to Schmidt-Nowara, settlers were willing “to employ enslaved African instead of Indian labor”. Since the African slaves had more skill due to experience, slave owners started buying more African slaves instead of enslaving the natives.

    • ewm1 February 6, 2013 at 3:07 am Reply

      And let’s not forget the fact that the natives had a tendency to flee back to their home if they were ever enslaved, whereas Africans would have a very difficult time of this. I think plantation owners purchasing African slaves was merely an extension of the economic nature of slavery. It was less risky to purchase an African slave, than enslave a native.

  7. John Marks February 6, 2013 at 10:04 am Reply

    Good morning, everyone. My name is John Marks, and I’m a Ph.D. candidate in the History department here at Rice, studying race and slavery in both the North and South American contexts. You all have some very interesting comments about the rise of slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean, and I thought I might add some things for you to think about for your discussion of these texts, and as you move forward in this course.

    1. Many of you commented on the differences in the culture of enslaved people in Brazil and the Caribbean vs. North America, especially as it pertains to religion. It’s important to note that although the cultures of various New World slave societies may have differed, enslaved Africans everywhere had an important impact on the cultural development of their respective regions. In places like Brazil, Barbados, and other sugar colonies in which enslaved Africans made up a vast majority of the population, enslaved people retained (in one form or another) far more African cultural traditions than in places like North America, where people of African descent made up a far smaller portion of the total population. That is not to say, however, that enslaved people did not have a major impact on the cultural development of North America; rather, enslaved people there often co-fabricated new cultural traditions with Europeans, as well as maintaining some African cultural traditions in their private lives, however circumscribed that privacy may have been. (See: Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together, and Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.

    2. I think it’s also important for you to not spend too much time attempting to assess the relative harshness or mildness of slavery in on region vs. another, something historians have in recent years begun shying away from. Slavery was rarely “better” in one place than it was in any other, and certainly wasn’t ever good. In Brazil, an enslaved person might have been able to retain far more of their African culture, and the large proportion of the population that was of African descent may have given them a greater sense of community; however, they were far more likely to die in Brazil due to the brutal, dangerous work of sugar production, and the generally unhealthy disease climate of rice swamps. Conversely, in North America, enslaved people had a far greater chance of surviving longer and developing a meaningful family life, but the small percentage of enslaved people in most places made African cultural retentions far more difficult.

    If you’re interested in reading more about the African religion in Brazil, I suggest looking into the work of James H. Sweet, especially his recent book Domingos Álvares.

    • Caroline February 6, 2013 at 2:58 pm Reply

      In your post, you state that “Africans everywhere had an important impact on the cultural development of their respective regions.” Does this mean that Africans changed European culture? If so, how? What were some of the changes in European culture?

      • John Marks February 6, 2013 at 9:54 pm

        While I can’t speak to the extent to which Africans influenced European culture, many historians argue that in addition to Europe affecting the development of American culture, American cultures had a large impact on European culture as well. Because African influences helped form part of this new, American culture, you could certainly make the argument that Africans changed European culture in some ways. More perversely, perhaps, Africans changed European culture by introducing dietary and clothing changes through the staple crops whites forced them to produce in the Americas.

    • ewm1 February 6, 2013 at 2:59 pm Reply

      Hello, John, thanks for commenting here. You say in your second point that historians have begun shying away from comparing slavery’s harshness in different regions. It seems, though, that even in our readings, we see comparisons between religious, economic, and societal variations in these regions. Why stray away from discussing the harshness of the servitude itself? Could you explain why, or give an example of when this has happened?

      • John Marks February 6, 2013 at 9:51 pm

        See my response to Daniel Land’s comment below, the same answer would apply here as well.

    • gna32013gahbrielle February 6, 2013 at 2:59 pm Reply

      In my opinion, I don’t feel that African-American’s in the North wanted to hold on to African culture. I feel that as time went on and more generations of African-American’s had never seen Africa, there was a sense of associating Africa with being less civilized. By the 20th century African American women made Madame C.J. walker rich with their purchase of the first “perm” or straightener. This preference for straight hair shows the influence of European culture on slaves that eventually penetrated into black culture.

      • John Marks February 6, 2013 at 9:43 pm

        It’s undeniable that Africans imported into North America attempted to retain some African cultural ways—burial practices, religious practices, foodways, clothing and hairstyles, among others. Many of these cultural traditions combined with European culture to form a distinctly American culture, while others remained within the black community, eventually (as enslaved people began to increase naturally rather than through importation) becoming the basis of a distinct African American culture. You can’t read a 20th century preference for straight hair back onto enslaved people to make a judgment on black culture during slavery.

    • Christine Shaw February 6, 2013 at 3:02 pm Reply

      In your post, you mention that enslaved Africans affected the cultural development of many regions, though to different extents and in different ways. Since the cultural traditions that Africans were able to maintain varied, I was wondering, are there certain traditions that were more likely to survive than others?

      • John Marks February 6, 2013 at 9:57 pm

        This is an interesting question, and unfortunately, not one I have a great answer for. I would say the cultural traditions that were most likely to survive were the ones that were most important and best known by the enslaved people in a particular region. I would say that both religion and foodways seem to have been particularly prominent.

    • Daniel Land February 6, 2013 at 3:02 pm Reply

      Hi John, I was wondering if you could elaborate on your comment that “slavery was rarely better in one place than it was in any other”. Don’t the various discrepancies listed provide a substantial basis for such comparison between slave communities?

      • John Marks February 6, 2013 at 9:46 pm

        What I was trying to suggest is that while we have ways we can compare similarities and differences between different slave societies and different time-periods, it is extremely difficult, and ultimately, I think, inappropriate, to place a value judgment on one form of slavery based on these differences. We are better off exploring the differences, and investigating why they existed, but we don’t gain much from trying to determine which form of slavery is “better.”

    • taymn February 6, 2013 at 3:22 pm Reply

      In “Slavery, Freedom, and Abolition in Latin America and the Atlantic World”, Christopher Schmidt-Norwara mentions that in the late eighteenth century, the Bourbon monarchy allowed free people of color to purchase “legal whiteness” (Schmidt-Norwara 45). This statement makes me wonder how the authorities of the slaveholders made slaves feel about their race. You mention, in your post, that enslaved people retained more African cultural traditions than in places where their numbers were not as great. How can we tell if this is true if the Spanish (who were in place in the South American sugar colonies where enslaved people were prominent) were the ones allowing, even if for a short amount of time, the ability for slaves to denounce their race and their culture? That must mean that, overtime, Africans started to view themselves to be as inferior as their “conquerors” had upon their enslavement.

      • John Marks February 6, 2013 at 9:50 pm

        This is a fascinating practice, one that comes to bear on my research quite directly. This process of purchasing whiteness (known as the gracias al sacar was something done by free people of color—most commonly those born free, and often ones of mixed racial ancestry—in order to gain privileges only available to whites, such as certain honorific titles, military benefits, entry into universities, among others. The purchase of whiteness was done because of the limits to respectability faced by whites because of a Spanish and Spanish-American commitment to white supremacy, not any type of self-loathing by blacks in Spanish America. Ann Twinam (who is at UT) wrote a fantastic book called Public Lives, Private Secrets that deals with this issue in much greater depth than Schmidt-Nowara does, so I recommend looking up her work if you want to investigate this a bit further.

      • John Marks February 6, 2013 at 10:42 pm

        Sorry, I meant “limits and barriers to respectability faced by blacks, because of a white commitment to racial supremacy”

      • John Marks February 6, 2013 at 10:44 pm

        See: Ann Twinam, “Purchasing Whiteness: Conversation on the Essence of Pardo-ness and Mulatto-ness at the End of Empire,” in Andrew B. Fisher and Matthew D. O’Hara eds., Imperial Subjects: Race and Identity in Colonial Spanish America (Duke University Press, 2009): 141-166.

  8. Gahbrielle Armrdi February 6, 2013 at 11:40 am Reply

    I have that book by Sweet!

    • John Marks February 6, 2013 at 9:58 pm Reply

      It’s one of my favorite books. It won the Frederick Douglas Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale this year.

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