Freedoms | Liberdades: Storying Images of Slavery and Post-Abolition in Brazil

Project coordinators: 
Lilia M. Schwarcz (Professor of Anthropology, University of São Paulo; Visiting Professor, Princeton)
Miqueias Mugge (Associate Research Scholar, PIIRS; Brazil LAB Teaching Fellow)
João Biehl (Susan Dod Brown Professor of Anthropology, Brazil LAB Director)

Research fellow: 
Lúcia K. Stumpf (University of São Paulo)

Freedoms | Liberdades is a curated digital platform of storied images of the institution and experience of slavery and freedom in Brazil. The digital platform will present images speaking to different phases of the slave system and the beginnings of post-abolition life in the country, exploring themes such as the slave trade, rural and urban enslaved labor, slave rebellions, runaway slaves, slaves in borderlands, family and community life, childhood and aging, healing, cultural manifestations, and religiosity. The project innovates by focusing both on rare images found in Princeton’s Firestone Library Rare Books and Special Collections Department and in out-of-the-way archives, as well as by its multi-scale contextualizing and textualizing.

Voyage pittoresque dans le Brésil

Maurice Rugendas. Voyage pittoresque dans le Brésil. Paris, Engelmann & cie., 1835. Courtesy of Firestone Library.

Of the twelve million enslaved Africans brought to the New World almost half (5.5 million people) were forcibly taken to Brazil as early as 1540 and until the 1860s. Brazil was the last country in the West to abolish slavery in 1888. Enslaved people were depicted in numerous media (drawings, book engravings, lithographs, paintings, photographs, sculptures) and these representations circulated widely in Brazil and internationally. Surviving in multiple national, regional, and local archives, the images convey the power dynamics and human values of slave-owners and publics, the certainties and ambiguities of artists and authors, as well as the suffering and agency (albeit constrained) of the objectified (evident for example in the clothing, accessories, scarifications, gait, gazing and posing of the enslaved). Rather than an all-encompassing digital database, Freedoms | Liberdades privileges the contrast between mainstream representations and out-of-the-way images that speak to Afro-Atlantic visual cultures and histories created within the “flux and reflux” (in the words of anthropologist Pierre Verger) between Africa and the Americas. Slavery and freedom, power and survival are the key terms informing our quest for structures, patterns, negotiations and swerves. Freedoms | Liberdades contributes to academic and public efforts to decolonize perception and thought on the past of slavery and the “precariousness of freedom” and its present-day legacies.

The platform will connect images to short essays, explaining the making of the representations and critically analyzing their content and circulation. Using latest zooming technologies, the platform will also show particular details that might illuminate alternative realities and silences and thus shift our commonly held assumptions about the representation and experience of enslavement. Finally, images will be linked to other historical data, such as maps, censuses, newspapers, and legal and administrative records. In subsequent phases, we will add images of enslavement from Africa and other South American and Caribbean countries, exploring the circulation of visual schemes of captivity and freedom-seeking across the Americas. 

See also: 2020 Rapid Response Grant: “Freedoms/Liberdades” Visualizes Slavery and Abolition in Brazil.