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DiamondMiningAs in most countries of the Americas, the African Diaspora in Brazil involved the coerced migration of Africans through the transatlantic slave trade. Brazil, in South America, was the principal destination for all Africans sold as slaves across the Atlantic. Recent estimates available in Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (www.slavevoyages.org) show that Brazil alone received about five million slaves between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries; almost half of the total number of slaves carried across the Atlantic.

Most of these slaves were used to produce sugar, gold and coffee. In 1822, with independence from Portugal, Brazil continued to participate in the transatlantic slave trade until 1850, when it permanently closed the ports for all vessels carrying slaves from Africa. Brazil has a long history of involvement in the slave trade and, as a consequence, the African Diaspora largely shaped the formation of Brazilian culture and society.

Although the first Africans arrived in Brazil in the sixteenth century, massive migration of enslaved Africans began in the first half of the seventeenth century. This migration was directed mostly to the sugar plantations located on the coast of Northeast Brazil; notably to the present day states of Pernambuco and Bahia. Records of sugar plantations from Bahia, one of the principal sugar producers in the Americas during the seventeenth century, suggest that the labor force used in these plantations changed from predominantly Amerindian to African during the 1620s.

In 1572, for instance, only seven percent of the labor force working in the Engenho Sergipe in Bahia was composed of Africans, with the remaining made of Amerindians. However, in 1638, all the slaves working in the same sugar plantation were Africans or descended from Africans (Schwartz, 1985, pp. 65-72). In other words, in the first half of the seventeenth century, the transatlantic slave trade had increased so much that it completely transformed the labor force of the principal sugar plantations of Brazil.

In the beginning of the eighteenth century, the African Diaspora in Brazil spread to the interior of the country with the discovery of gold mines in the state of Minas Gerais. A number of Portuguese colonists rushed to these mines and along with them they brought many more African slaves. Most of these slaves arrived through the port of Rio de Janeiro, in Southeast Brazil, which emerged a major trading post of the Portuguese Empire. These slaves were then transshipped to Minas Gerais via Paraty or marched overland directly from the Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro. In Minas Gerais, slaves not only toiled in the gold mines but also erected some of the most beautiful buildings of colonial Brazil (Boxer, 1962, pp. 35-54). Many of them still exist in the cities of São João del Rey, Mariana, and Ouro Preto.

The wealth of gold in Minas Gerais also enabled some Africans and their descendants to rise from slavery to prominence. One example is Antônio Francisco Lisboa, also known as o Aleijadinho, meaning “the little cripple,” given the signs of a debilitating disease he had contracted at some point of his life, probably leprosy. Aleijadinho was an architect and sculptor, son of a Portuguese carpenter and an African slave, whose works marveled the world, such as his sculptures in soapstone of the twelve prophets at the sanctuary of Bom Jesus de Matosinhos at Congonhas (Magalhães, 2006, pp. 237-241).


Slaves disembarked in Brazil came from various African regions. The majority of them came from the Bantu linguistic groups of West Central Africa, where today are the countries of Angola, Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many of these slaves were sold into the slave trade as a result of debts, crimes or wars among different African polities, such as the kingdoms of the Kimbundu, Kikongo and Umbundu speakers of Angola (Karasch, 1987, pp. 11-21). However, many other slaves came from West Africa, especially from the Bight of Benin. These slaves belonged to several linguistic groups, such as Fon, Hausa, and Yoruba. A large number of them were sold as prisoners of wars waged by the kingdoms of Dahomey, Hueda, Allada, and Oyo (Verger, 1976, pp. 104-217).

Some of them were Muslims originated from the Sokoto Caliphate in Nigeria and carried their beliefs and ways of life to Brazil, especially Bahia, where in 1835 they rebelled against their owners in one of the most violent conflicts in the history of Brazil, known as the Malê Revolt (Reis, 1993, pp. 73-136). Brazil also received slaves from other parts of Africa, such as the Upper Guinea coast, where today is located Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Gambia, and Sierra Leone, as well as Southeast Africa, especially from Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe (Karasch, 1987, pp. 21-28).

Fazenda_Santa_MariaIn the nineteenth century, the center of gravity of the African Diaspora in Brazil shifted to the Paraíba Valley, situated between the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The decline in gold exports provided planters with cheaper access to slaves brought from Africa. These slaves were used to produce coffee in large plantations (Klein & Luna, 2010, pp. 90-105). Some of these plantations still exist and provide a rich testimonial of the African Diaspora in Brazil, such as the Fazenda Santa Maria, now adapted into a hotel called Hotel Fazenda Arvoredo (Fernandes, Cerqueira, Bráz, & Novaes, 2009, p. 169). Even after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1850, Brazilian planters in the Paraíba Valley continued to use slaves to grow coffee, which emerged as the chief product exported from Brazil during the most part of the nineteenth century.

However, at this time slaves came from other Brazilian provinces in the same way that American planters of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana imported slaves from Virginia and the Carolinas after the prohibition of the slave trade to the United States in 1808. As a consequence, in the nineteenth century the Paraíba Valley had the largest concentration of Africans and people with African ancestry in Brazil until the abolition of slavery, in 1888, when many ex-slaves decided to move to the cities in search for jobs and a new way of life (Slenes, 2004, pp. 327-333).

All in all, the African Diaspora in Brazil through the transatlantic slave trade deeply shaped the history of Brazil. Signs of African influence is present in almost every aspect of Brazilian culture and society, from music and festivities, such as samba and carnival, to religion and culinary, as viewed in the cults of African deities of the candomblé and the delicious appetizers sold by baianas on the streets of Salvador da Bahia. As a result of the intensive use of African slaves in the production of sugar, gold and coffee from the early years of colonization until late in the nineteenth century, Brazil has today one of the largest populations of African ancestry outside Africa and a rich cultural heritage left by millions of men, women and children of the African Diaspora.

Daniel B. Domingues da Silva is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at Dillard University, New Orleans, and Ph.D. candidate in History at Emory University, Atlanta. He has written on the slave trade between Brazil and Angola and is currently working as a consultant for the Portal of African Origins, a public collaborative project which seeks to trace the inland origins of millions of Africans sold as slaves across the Atlantic during the last century of the transatlantic slave trade.

For more information on the transatlantic slave trade, including the African Origins Project, an endeavor to trace the geographic roots of those taken during the slave trade, please visit: www.slavevoyages.org/tast/about/origins.faces

Boxer, C. R. (1962). The Golden Age of Brazil, 1695-1750: Growing Pains of a Colonial Society. Berkeley: University of California.

Eltis, D., Richardson, D., Behrendt, S., & Florentino, M. (2008). Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Atlanta: Emory University,      www.slavevoyages.org.

Fernandes, N. L. B., Cerqueira, Í., Bráz, D., & Novaes, A. (2009). Fazenda Santa Maria (Hotel Fazenda Arvoredo). In J. L. Alquerés (Ed.), Inventário das Fazendas do Vale do Paraíba Fluminense (2nd ed., pp. 153-170). Rio de Janeiro: Instituto Cultural Cidade Viva, Instituto Estadual do Patrimônio Cultural.

Handler, J. S., & Tuite Jr., M. L. (2008). The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record. Charlottesville: Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library, hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery.

Karasch, M. C. (1987). Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro, 1808-1850. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Klein, H. S., & Luna, F. V. (2010). Slavery in Brazil. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Magalhães, F. (2006). Aleijadinho and His Time: Faith, Ingenuity and Art. In F. Magalhães & A. H. Curti (Eds.), Ajeijadinho e Seu Tempo: Fé, Engenho e Arte (pp. 236-266). Rio de Janeiro: Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil.

Reis, J. J. (1993). Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia.  (A. Brakel, Tran.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Schwartz, S. B. (1985). Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society, Bahia, 1550-1835. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Slenes, R. W. (2004). The Brazilian Internal Slave Trade, 1850-1888: Regional Economies, Slave Experience, and the Politics of a Peculiar Market. In W. Johnson (Ed.), The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas (pp. 325-366). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Verger, P. (1976). Trade Relations between the Bight of Benin and Bahia from the 17th to the 19th Century. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press.


1. Sugar Works and Plantation, Pernambuco, Brazil c.1640
Source: J. S. Handler and M. L. Tuite Jr., The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library, www.hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/ image reference NW0062-a (accessed on May 2nd, 2010).

2. Diamond Mining, Brazil, ca.1770s
Source: J. S. Handler and M. L. Tuite Jr., The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library,  hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/ image reference juliao06 (accessed on May 2nd, 2010).

3. Statue of Prohet Joel, Sancturay of Bom Jesus de Matosinhos at Congonhas, 1800-1805
Source: F. Magalhães and A. H. Curti (eds.) Aleijadinho: Fé, Engenho e Arte. Rio de Janeiro: Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil, 2006, p. 78, photo by Marcel Gautherot.

4. Fazenda Santa Maria
Source: Inventário das Fazendas do Vale da Paraíba Fluminense sponsored by the Instituto Cultural Cidade Viva and the Instituto Estadual do Patrimônio Cultural, www.institutocidadeviva.org.br/inventarios/ (accessed on May 2nd, 2010).