All Commentary
Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Abolition, Brazil, and the Last Confederates

Race, slavery, abolition, and Confederados in Brazil

Picture thousands of country folk down south, gathered for fried chicken, barbecue, and beer. “I Wish I Was in Dixie” plays on infinite loop. The stars and bars of the Confederate battle flag are everywhere, including belt buckles and trucker caps. Many of the partiers are descended from Confederate soldiers. Not all are white, and very few speak English.

It is the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, and the unlikely locale of this unusual gathering is Santa Barbara d’Oeste, a rural Brazilian town colonized by Southern families fleeing the (re-)United States.

“For many of the residents,” according to the Associated Press’s Jenny Barchfield, “having Confederate ancestry is a point of pride that’s celebrated in high style at the annual ‘Festa dos Confederados.'”

Most of the original Confederate immigrants “were lured by newspaper ads placed in the wake of the war by the government of Brazil’s then-emperor, Dom Pedro II, promising land grants to those who would help colonize the South American country’s vast and little-explored interior.”

The emperor wanted agriculturally skilled colonists, and the former Johnny Rebs wanted to escape the rule of the Yankee carpetbaggers.

It may be tempting to conclude that another attractive feature of their new home was that the institution of slavery survived in Brazil. In fact, holding human beings as property was legal there until Dom Pedro’s daughter, Dona Isabel, acting as regent in her father’s absence, signed the Lei Áurea into law on this day, May 13, 1888, formally abolishing slavery in Brazil. And since Brazil’s was the last government in either North or South America to recognize the legality of slavery, Princess Isabel’s actions marked the end of legal slavery in the Americas.

But it’s unlikely that the legal status of slavery affected the Confederados’ decision to leave North America and start a new life south of the equator. These migrants were not from the aristocracy of plantation owners and slaveholders. They were mostly the working-class farmers who had had to compete with slave labor in the antebellum economy, and the system of slavery worked to their disadvantage.

About half the Confederados found life too hard and too foreign in the land the emperor granted them, and they eventually returned home. The rest assimilated into Brazilian society. At the time, over 40 percent of Brazil’s 10 million people were of African heritage, and about a third of them were enslaved. After abolition, being multiracial eventually became the norm. Today, no country outside of Africa has a larger population of African descendants.

Barchfield writes, “Mixed-race guests at Sunday’s party seemed unruffled by the omnipresent Confederate flag.”

“To me it’s a positive symbol of my heritage,” said Keila Padovese Armelin, a 40-year-old mother of two who describes herself as a “racial milkshake.” “For us, it doesn’t have a negative connotation at all.”

Of course, African-descended Brazilians have the luxury of viewing the flag as both historical and exotic. In the United States, it is still either a symbol of ongoing resistance or of ongoing intolerance and oppression.

Everything about the racial history of Brazil is different from the US experience. And if abolition came later to the South American country, racial harmony — or at least the blurring of the racial categories — seems to have developed considerably sooner.

The process was already underway before Dom Pedro invited the defeated Southerners to his shores. Historian James McMurtry Longo writes,

In his first and in all subsequent cabinets and government appointments, Pedro II selected Brazilians for leadership positions regardless of race. Isabel … grew up seeing men of all races serving [her] father in positions of authority.

As her father’s student, daughter, and heir, Princess Isabel followed his example. Race never played a role in her social life, political relationships, alliances or disagreements. It may have been the most important lesson Isabel learned from him.

According to economist Edward Glaeser, in his book Triumph of the City, “Emperor Pedro II disliked slavery, but fear of a political backlash may have kept him from trying to emancipate the rest of the country.”

So it was while he was abroad that his daughter Isabel signed her country’s emancipation proclamation. Abolition was a popular cause in Brazil, and her subjects acclaimed Isabel as “the Redemptress” (A Redentora). Pope Leo XIII conferred on her the Golden Rose for her role in eradicating slavery from its last bastion in the Americas.

But her father “had been right to fear a backlash,” writes Glaeser. “In the next year, a military coup, backed by oligarchs outraged by losing their human chattels,” overthrew the monarchy.

Isabel wrote, on the day after the coup d’état that deposed her family, “If abolition is the cause for this, I don’t regret it; I consider it worth losing the throne for.”

The former slavers were now in charge, but abolition proved to be irreversible, and over time, Brazilians began to integrate.

Half a century later, author Stefan Zweig — Ludwig von Mises’s Viennese contemporary — saw Isabel’s lost empire as a model for the rest of the world.

The “central problem that forces itself on each generation, and more than ever on ours,” he wrote in 1941, “is the answer to the simplest and still most important question, namely: what can we do to make it possible for human beings to live peacefully together, despite all the differences of race, class, colour, religion, and creed?”

In Brazil: Land of the Future, Zweig wrote,

On the basis of its own ethnological structure, Brazil — had it adopted the European mania of nationality and race — would have become the most strife-torn, most disintegrated country on earth.…

But to one’s great surprise one soon realizes that all these different races visibly distinct by their colour alone live in fullest harmony with one another. And in spite of their different backgrounds they compete only in trying to discard their original peculiarities in order to become Brazilians as quickly as possible.

Zweig approvingly called Brazil’s social strategy “the principle of a free and unsuppressed miscegenation.” In the United States, we call it the melting pot.

But if Zweig is right that Brazil’s model for the rest of the world is one of tolerance and general liberality, he may still be wrong about the flight from “original peculiarities.” The racially mixed descendants of Confederate soldiers don’t seem to be discarding anything. They proudly commingle a diversity of backgrounds that many in the north would perceive as irreconcilable.

Today we can celebrate the anniversary of the demise of chattel slavery in our hemisphere. We also celebrate the divergent histories of the United States and Brazil — how differently freedom was achieved, and how amicably the descendants of Africa and Europe, by way of the American South and South America, can find common cause in beer and barbecue.