Brazilian Historian João José Reis delivers the first Stanley J. Stein Honorific Lecture

Tuesday, Mar 24, 2020

On Thursday, March 5th, the Brazil LAB hosted the 2020 Stanley J. Stein Lecture  honoring the life and work of the Princeton Professor Stanley J. Stein (1920-2019), a visionary historian of Brazil and Latin America and author of the classic Vassouras: A Brazilian Coffee County. 

The lecture When the African Hid Themselves: The 1857 Strike in Bahia was delivered by João José Reis, Professor of History at the Federal University of Bahia and one of the world’s leading scholars of slavery. Reis is the author of the internationally acclaimed Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, Divining Slavery and Freedom: The story of Domingos Sodré, an African Priest in Nineteenth-Century Brazil, and Death is a Festival: Funeral Rites and Popular Rebellion in Nineteenth-Century Brazil, among other books. Isadora Moura Mota, Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University, was the discussant. Her research  focuses on comparative slavery, abolitionism, literacy, and the African diaspora to Latin America. The event was opened by Stephen Kotkin, John P. Birkelund ’52 Professor of History and International Affairs and Director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. Kotkin emphasized the trailblazing work of Stanley Stein in History as well as in the studies of Brazil and Latin America at Princeton.

Reis’ lecture drew on his recent book Ganhadores: A Greve Negra de 1857 na Bahia (Companhia das Letras, 2019), which deftly documents the social, cultural and political lifeworld of a strike of African street workers (ganhadores) in the north-eastern province of Bahia. According to Reis, the ganhadores waged the first strike in Brazilian history “to freeze for many days a vital sector of the economy in one of the country’s major cities.” The strike was an “anti-tax movement” in Salvador, the epicenter of the transatlantic slave trade. The two thousand protestors fought against regulating measures enacted by the municipal government. By that time, Africans and Brazilian-born enslaved workers both comprised more than 40% of the population of Salvador. Among the slaves, Africans represented around 70%.

“The 1857 strike was the most eloquent collective response to fiscal pressure and police control measures against African ganhadores, a unique movement in the annals of slaveholding society in Brazil and even in the Americas,” Reis said. 

For Reis, the 1857 strike “rewrites Brazilian labor history, particularly the history of the labor movement, placing African urban workers in a prominent and dignified place.” The African ganhadores collective resistance in Salvador can also be turned into “a memory of resistance” to be used by “social movements, namely labor and black movements” in present-day Brazil. 

“This lecture has also a lot to do with Stanley Stein’s teaching and worldviews,” Reis stated. He recalled meeting Stein twenty five years ago, when he was a visiting professor in Princeton, and stressed the way Stein pioneered the study of slaves and their communities, seeing them as complex social, economic and cultural actors.

In her comments, Moura Mota drew attention to “the moral economy that the slaves developed alongside their masters” and that historical attention to the “lived experience of street workers” enables us to recover. For her, Reis’ work both emerges from and helps to crystallize “an ethnographic eye towards slave activism” through which ganhadores appear as possessing an awareness and will to affect social change (as opposed to the archives that reduce their movements to mere actions). Moura Mota also argued how such work enables us to think deeper about “the street as a site embedded within the economic, cultural and labour economy” of Brazil. For Moura Mota then, the ganhadores’ stories of activism need to be read as also indexing “how anxieties about Africans influenced categories of governance” in Brazil.

The lively discussion that followed raised provocative questions about the role of women in the street-workers strike and how Africans organized themselves to demand limits to state power and discrimination. In his response, Reis drew attention to the morally and materially complex racial world of 19th century Bahia. “There was an African bourgeoisie in Bahia (as opposed to a Black bourgeoisie of Brazilian-born elites) because to invest in slaves was the only way of becoming wealthy,” Reis argued. Alongside the fact that the state patronized slave owners, “ex-slaves invested in slaves, occasionally even slaves invested in slaves.” Reis reads into these historical antecedents “a society hooked to capitalism in which property was sacred.” 

The 2020 Stanley Stein Honorific Lecture was organized by the Brazil LAB. Co-sponsored by the Program in Latin American Studies, the Department of History, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and the Department of Anthropology.