From Slavery to Servitude: Making Free Labor Unfree in Nineteenth-Century Brazil

This story was originally published by the Davis Humanities Institute on January 29th, 2018, but is no longer hosted there after a website update. I am re-posting it here for that reason.

In 1888, Brazil became the last country to abolish slavery. But the seeds contributing to its demise had been planted decades earlier. As Assistant Professor of History José Juan Pérez Meléndez revealed in a talk on Tuesday, Jan. 23rd, Brazil implemented laws regulating free immigrant labor as early as 1837, marking a period of transition from the use of black slaves. But perhaps because slavery was so entrenched in Brazil, its free laborers were, in practice, far from being truly free.

The demand for migrant labor in Brazil came about as a result of the Brazilian government seeking to build up the nation’s canals, roads, bridges, and aqueducts. Because of their close cultural ties and their location essentially between Brazil and Portugal, Portuguese living in the Azores were targeted by Brazilian officials as representing the optimal labor force.

Most migrant laborers, or colonos, in Brazil ended up becoming craftsmen, domestic servants, or transport workers. In many cases, the work available to them mirrored what was available to black slaves. This connection did not go unnoticed to Brazilians, who deemed colonos to be the “filth/excrement” of Portugal. This was compounded by the fact that most colonos lived close to each other in Rio de Janeiro, in a hostel known as the deposito.

It was in this light that the Brazilian Work Contract Law of 1837 was passed. In structure, it harkened back to British colonies’ regulations regarding indentured servitude. Less concerned with smoothing the transition from slave to free labor, the Work Contract Law instead focused on taking advantage of Portuguese migrants. For instance, the Law allowed colonos to be impressed into the Brazilian army, and gave the Brazilian empire jurisdiction over Portuguese minors.

Additionally, the Law made it more difficult for colonos to free themselves of their servitude. Indeed, it stated that debts left unpaid by colonos, particularly that relating to the cost of their transport to Brazil, could be doubled, and that there would be jail time along with that. Thus the Work Contract Law helped to promote the portrayal of Portuguese immigrants, specifically Azoreans, as criminals.

Between 1837 and 1839, the colono trade began to fall apart, primarily because the companies paying for colonos’ transport to Brazil became financially unstable. Though the flow of Azorean workers to Brazil was relatively short-lived, Pérez Meléndez notes that the culture of regressive labor management tactics employed in their management set a precedent that would be replicated in other countries later in the century.

And it should also be said, when Brazil finally turned away from slavery in 1888, it was in large part because it had a new source of labor to turn to: European immigrants. Perhaps Brazil felt especially comfortable in making this transition because it had previous experience with Azorean colonos in the 1830s.