Racialized Frontiers: Slaves and Settlers in Modernizing Brazil

Brazil was built on the enslavement of indigenous peoples and millions of Black Africans. Of the 12 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. Even though slavery was formally abolished in 1888, the country’s exclusionary institutions, racist social fabric, and myopic national fantasies speak to the persistence of racialized domination to this day. This reality was buttressed by a deliberate effort at “whitening” Brazilian society through various state-sponsored immigration projects and frontier colonization plans throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. In spite of the myth of being a “racial democracy,” Brazil has forged a stratified, unequal citizenship and everyday life is marked by an ongoing “poverty of rights.” Scholars in all fields decry the widespread police brutality against Black men (a genocide in the making), for example, and the impervious structural violence that impinges on morbidity and disparities in care and mortality among Blacks across the country. 

The Brazil-Africa nexus and anti-racist struggles have been at the center of the LAB’s reflections from the start and, in the last two years, Visiting Professor Lilia M. Schwarcz, Miqueias Mugge and João Biehl have developed the research hub Racialized Frontiers: Slaves and Settlers in Modernizing Brazil, in collaboration with Isadora Moura Mota (History) and Lúcia Stumpf (USP Postdoctoral Fellow). This initiative also includes other Princeton faculty and graduate students as well as Brazilian colleagues. The hub’s activities (workshops and visualization efforts) have been supported by a Magic Grant from the Humanities Council. 

Um casal de africanos (Lunara)

An African couple (1902 postcard). Courtesy of Museu Histórico Visconde de São Leopoldo.

Racialized Frontiers takes a longue durée approach to the legacy of slavery and racialized politics in Brazil. We reframe Brazilian modern history from the perspective of the embattled entanglement of African diaspora and European immigration. We pay particular attention to the experimental role of frontiers in shaping ideas of nationhood and an exclusionary color-based form of citizenship, all the while harboring unexpected insurgences. Our projects bring together Princeton and Afro-Brazilian scholars who draw from alternative bodies of evidence (such as photographs and oral accounts) and creatively engage with the digital humanities. In doing so, we want to highlight contributions of historically marginalized subjects to stories we tell about Brazil and the future.

Freedoms | Liberdades is a visual exploration of different phases of slavery and the beginnings of post-abolition life in the country (with a focus on the slave trade, rural and urban enslaved labor, slave rebellions, slavery in the borderlands, family and community life, healing and religiosity). We have already organized workshops with Princeton and Brazilian scholars reflecting on rare images found in Firestone Library and in out-of-the-way archives in Brazil. In the coming years, we will produce a curated digital platform of storied images and essays critically analyzing the institution and experience of slavery and freedom in Brazil. Freedoms | Liberdades hopes to help decolonize perception and thought on the past of slavery, the “precariousness of freedom,” and its present-day legacies.

The hub’s second project focuses on Insurgent Immigrant Archivings. João Biehl and Miqueias Mugge have been working closely with librarian Fernando Acosta-Rodríguez in the creation of an archive at Firestone’s Rare Books and Special Collections of letters, registers, manuscripts, and representations left by poor European immigrants who settled in Brazil’s 19th century southern frontiers. This is very much a work-in-progress and we look forward to expanding it through acquisitions and collaborative efforts in scanning and preserving rare community records. 

Sklavin

"Sklavin" (slave). Lutheran baptismal register. Comunidade Evangélica de Hamburgo Velho. Courtesy of Torben Eskerod.

Our scholars began analyzing these rare materials and have been organizing events to discuss findings and workshop manuscripts. Biehl and Mugge, for example, are currently studying the letters exchanged by a young German-Brazilian soldier who fought in the War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay (1864-1870) with his family living in the Old German Colonies (as they were called). The great majority of the Brazilian soldiers were poor and illiterate (including freed slaves) and Carlos Schnell’s letters—written in an oral German dialect blended with Portuguese expressions—are the only surviving lower-rank account of South America’s bloodiest war ever. They are also analyzing the writings of a seditious immigrant, Johann Georg Klein. This teacher and lay pastor was at the center of the Mucker civil war that shattered the German-Brazilian settlements in 1874 (and saw fearful authorities equating rebellious settlers with runaway slaves and wild animals and treating them as such). Through such studies, our group wants to highlight how settler communities were integral to Brazil’s imperial efforts and how war brought together freed slaves and poor settlers, crystallizing both racial hierarchy and a shared sense of abandonment.

Early settlement in Novo Hamburgo

"Im Urwald" (in the forest). Courtesy of Museu Histórico Visconde de São Leopoldo.