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EP 8: Know Your History - Slavery in Brazil

Updated: May 21, 2020

Season 1 Foundations

Episode 8 Know Your History....Slavery in Brazil

"I imagine there can be but one place more horrible in all creation than the hold of a slave ship, and that place is where slaveholders and their myrmidons are the most likely to find themselves some day."

Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua

When tracing your ancestry, it’s important to know your history. Today, we will continue our discussion of slavery outside of the U.S. by examining the impact of the slave trade in South America - specifically, Brazil.

The Overview

It is estimated that 10-14 million Africans were enslaved and brought to the Americas. So far on American Origin Stories, much of our examination of the slave trade has focused on the United States and parts of the Caribbean. However, less than 10% of Africans were taken to the eastern shoes of the United States. Many African went to the Caribbean but an overwhelming majority of Africans were transported to the South America. Therefore, it's imperative to our understanding of history to know where others were taken in the African Diaspora.

South American countries like: Colombia, Venezuela, Peru and more were impacted by this devastating slave trade. But the country with the largest, most entrenched and enduring slave society was Brazil.

A Story

"Waking after a night’s heavy drinking at the court of a strange king, Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua found his companions gone and his hands tied.

It was the start of a nightmarish journey that saw the low-ranking Muslim civil servant from west Africa sold into slavery and shipped to Brazil in the middle of the 19th century.

Years later, a free man living in Canada, he recounted the horrors of his experiences in a dictated memoir" – the only published account of its kind for an African-born slave in Brazil.

Mahommah wrote of his experience: 'I imagine there can be but one place more horrible in all creation than the hold of a slave ship, and that place is where slaveholders and their myrmidons are the most likely to find themselves some day."

Ultimately, he escaped and fled to NY in 1847. Later, Mahommah wrote and published a biography of his kidnap published by American abolitionist Samuel Moore in 1854.

Brazilian Slave Society

"If a nation can progress only by using the forced labor of an extra-legal caste, then it is a mere first approximation of an independent and autonomous state. If a race is able to develop in a latitude only by making another race work to support it, then that race has not yet attempted to acclimatize." Thomas Skidmore

Quick Statistics

Span of time: ~1530-1888

Total Africans Imported: ~4 Million

Primary Cash Crops: Coffee & Sugar

Other work: mining gold

Emancipation Legislation:

  • 1871 Free Birth Law (Rio Branco Law)

  • 1888 Official Abolition (The Golden Law)

Brazilian slave society was the largest, most enduring, and in some time periods, geographically the most expansive. And when it ultimately ended, much of the society had realized that slavery was no longer sustainable if the society was to succeed in the longer term. The rest of the Atlantic world had ended the trading of enslaved people and the practice of enslaving African laborers.

After some failed attempts to legislate the end of the slavery, Brazilian legislation eventually enacted two laws that set the path for complete emancipation. First, the Rio Branco Law in 1871, which stated that children born to enslaved parents would be legally free. And then full emancipation in 1888, through the Golden Law, ending the legal practice in Americas.

Key Differences-Brazil & the U.S.

Number of Imported Africans:

  • Brazil had approximately 4 million humans brought to its shores and enslaved. Many Africans continued to be brought from Africa, while generations of African descendants were born in Brazil, raised in the culture & language.

  • The U.S. had just under 400,000 - the population growth heavily depended on reproduction. By the 1800s, most enslaved were second, third, even fourth generation American-born.

Freedom Potential

  • Brazil: The legal system provided multiple avenues for enslaved people to become free. In fact, some free people of African descent owned enslaved Africans because slavery was so ingrained in the society. By then end of slavery in Brazil, three quarters of people of African descent were free.

  • US: Laws began to evolve to make slavery race-based, permanent, and inheritable, thus making freedom quite difficult for black people born of enslaved parentage.


  • Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, as the last country in the Americas to do so. However, Brazil did not engage in a war to end the practice, nor were slave owners compensated for the "loss."

  • The U.S. abolished slavery in 1863 and the last enslaved people set free in 1864 upon the end of the Civil War (with ~750,000 war-related deaths).

Check out the full episode to hear more about Brazilian slave society. Available on Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Play & more!

Guest Bio:

Dr. Daryle Williams

University of Maryland College Park

"Dr. Williams (PhD, History, Stanford University, 1995), Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland, is Co-Principal Investigator on AADHum and Enslaved, two collaborative projects in black studies and digital humanities sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Williams was lead editor on "The Rio de Janeiro Reader: Politics, History, Culture"​ (Duke University Press, 2015) and serves as Area Editor (Brazil pre-1888) on the "Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography" (Oxford University Press). Single-author publications include "Culture Wars in Brazil: The First Vargas Regime, 1930-1945"​ (Duke, 2001), winner of the American Historical Association's John Edwin Fagg prize, and several articles and book chapters on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Brazilian cultural and social history. His current book project is "The Broken Paths of Freedom: Liberated Africans in Nineteenth-Century Brazilian Slave Society."

Williams has held grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright Scholar Program, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship Program, and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

Prior to serving as an associate dean, Williams was graduate studies director in the UMD history department and associate director of the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora.

Williams and his husband live in Washington, DC.

Learn more about Dr. Williams, and his work with


Key Epsiode Resources:

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