Roquinaldo Ferreira on Atlantic Entanglements in the Era of Abolition (Angola and Brazil, 1820s-1860s)

Monday, Apr 12, 2021
by Daniel Persia

On Thursday, April 1, the Brazil LAB hosted the 2021 Stanley Stein Lecture “Atlantic Entanglements in the Era of Abolition (Angola and Brazil, 1820s-1860s),” featuring Roquinaldo Ferreira, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. Ferreira’s lecture—focusing on the geopolitical dimensions of the transatlantic slave trade during the 19th century—was held in honor of the life and work of Princeton Professor Stanley J. Stein (1920-2019), a visionary historian of Brazil and Latin America. Assistant Professor of History Isadora Moura Mota (Princeton University) served as the discussant, alongside event moderator and Brazil Lab Associate Director Thomas Fujiwara. 

Ferreira began by situating the discussion geographically, drawing attention to the complex web of relationships in an Atlantic world encompassing Brazil, West Central Africa, Cuba, and the United States. The usual Africa-Europe binary of colonialism, Ferreira suggested, is insufficient, as it does not account for colonialism born out of local and Atlantic dynamics. Ferreira employed the term “translocality” to encapsulate the connections in this region, affirming that local dynamics are always embedded in the global, and vice versa. Zeroing in on 19th-century West Central Africa, Ferreira highlighted that regions north of the Congo River were not under Portuguese control, leading multiple forces—British, French, American, and Brazilian included—to attempt to stake their claims. These forces often exploited the language of abolition as a tool for the advancement of colonialism. Moreover, Brazilian independence in 1822 had an undeniable impact in redrawing the boundaries of Portuguese colonialism. Following Brazilian independence, the upper echelons of Portugal began articulating a new view for the South Atlantic, namely, to transform Angola into a “new Brazil.” 

Notable in Ferreira’s analysis was his insistence on rethinking the notion of abolition and its traditional associations with freedom. Abolition was not about ending the slave trade, Ferreira argues. Abolition was a “vector in a process to create new forms of forced labor.” Ferreira also highlighted the imbalance of historiography when it comes to abolition, with much more written about West Africa than West Central Africa, which was the true “epicenter of abolition.” 

Ferreira called for a more thorough interrogation of abolition from multiple viewpoints, including those of the creole elite, Portugal, and, most importantly, the enslaved people themselves. While the creole elite advocated for the continuation of the slave trade as the backbone of the local economy, Portugal insisted on abolition—not for ideological reasons, but rather to maintain the labor force in Angola, with the hopes of developing a plantation economy. But our attention should not be directed solely toward these larger economic forces and state factors, says Ferreira. Enslaved people were integral to the process of dismantling slave trade networks in Angola, and their perspectives and participation are key components of these histories that have often been overlooked. 

A rich discussion followed Ferreira’s lecture, grounded in opening remarks from Professor Isadora Moura Mota and compelling questions from the audience. Mota drew attention to Ferreira’s transnational approach to history, which allows Brazil and Angola to emerge from the margins of a Eurocentric narrative to shape 19th-century history. She suggested that any efforts to decolonize Brazilian history—to “write a history that is accountable to all”— would ultimately need to reimagine Brazil’s relationship with Africa. Ferreira affirmed that, with the tools of social history, it is indeed possible to rethink the archive and continue pursuing this vital project of decolonizing world history. 

The event was co-sponsored by the Program in Latin American Studies, the Department of History, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and the Department of Anthropology.