The United States’ Influence on the Delay of Abolition in Brazil


(I came across this paper that I wrote in December 2012 for a HIST350 course and decided to archive it here on my blog. I believe that more high quality historical scholarship should be public, so I’ll be adding more of my work to this site. My thesis is on US Virgin civil rights leader Rothschild Francis is already posted here. Because of WordPress formatting I cannot include the footnotes, but I will include a bibliography at the end.)

Almost from the instant that European explorers set foot in the Americas, slave labor dictated the development of the economy, trade, race relations, politics and even the genetic make-up of most of the American colonies. After benefitting from hundreds of years of legal slavery, however, many European nations had passed abolition laws in their colonies by the mid-nineteenth century. Newly independent Latin American nations abolished slavery even earlier. By contrast, slavery maintained a particularly stubborn hold on the United States and Brazil for several decades after their fellow nations outlawed the practice. After a bloody civil war, the United States finally passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, and Brazil’s Golden Law freed all its enslaved people in 1888. Though Brazil was the last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery, the United States directly contributed to the delay by providing ships that allowed the African slave trade to continue in Brazil, by Matthew Fontaine Maury’s plan to use Brazil as a “safety valve” for would-be emancipated North American slaves, and because the migration of Confederate slaveholders who came to Brazil to continue the practice of their peculiar institution.

Brazil was one of the first Latin American colonies to utilize enslaved Africans in the early sixteenth century. Brazil’s rich soil and warm climate provided the ideal environment for the Portuguese to grow sugarcane, but processing it into sugar was extremely labor intensive. Mill lords (senhores de engenho) each owned hundreds of enslaved people to mill the sugarcane and boil the juice down into cakes for export. Initially, the Portuguese sugar producers built their economies on the labor of Indigenous peoples, but many of these workers died from exposure to European diseases or simply escaped from the plantations. The sugar producers then turned to enslaved Africans to fill in the labor force.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, high demand for coffee and the discovery of gold in Northern Brazil created an even greater need for slave labor in the eyes of Brazilian growers and exporters. Before the 1850’s, more than four million enslaved Africans were imported to Brazil, which amounted to forty percent of the total number of Africans taken to the Americas, and ten times the number of enslaved people who were sent to the United States. Slave labor had become an integral part of nearly every industry in Brazil at that time. Latin American historian Laird W. Bergad credits Brazil with developing “the largest and most diversified slave labor system in all the Americas.”

While Brazil was utilizing slave labor on such a massive scale, most of its neighboring nations had already outlawed slavery, and England was putting pressure on Brazil (now independent from Portugal) to end slavery. The British, who had abolished slavery in their own nation in the 1830’s, tried to stamp out the Brazilian slave trade with treaties, but Brazil did not cooperate with the laws. By the 1850’s Britain began using warships to try to stop the slave trade in Brazil. Still, Brazil continued to import enslaved Africans despite British regulation, though they did not accomplish this feat entirely on their own.

Many U.S. nationals also happened to be particularly adept at circumventing slave trade laws in the early nineteenth century. There had been laws prohibiting the United States from participating in the African slave trade for decades. The first of these laws was passed in 1794, and several other laws were passed to fortify this ban in 1800, 1808 and 1812. Yet, in the 1820’s ships were captured in Mobile and New Orleans that contained hundreds of enslaved Africans. Ships from Baltimore, New York, Providence, Boston and Salem routinely sailed to Brazil to sell enslaved people to slave dealers. Baltimore gained a reputation as the primary meeting place for Brazilian pirates who did not follow Portuguese commerce regulations. U.S. foreign and trade policies did not condone the slave trade, but many private businessmen–especially those with a personal investment in slaveholding–were willing to ignore slave trade regulations.

Though the African slave trade had been officially banned in Brazil in the 1830’s, it actually increased dramatically during that decade in large part because of the United States’ contribution through shipping. Brazil was the largest slave market at the time due to demand for sugar, coffee and gold, and opportunistic Americans used their unique advantages to forge business partnerships with Brazilian slave traders. The United States had recently built up its navy, gaining military power to rival the slave-trade patrolling British navy. Matthew Karp points out that, suspiciously, “slaveholders remained disproportionately involved in naval affairs throughout the antebellum era.” Southerners usually claimed national security as their motivation for a strong navy, but since the U.S. had the military power to refuse to allow the British navy to search their ships, many U.S. and Brazilian nationals worked together to smuggle hundreds of thousands of Africans to Brazil. W.E.B. DuBois took notice that the slave trade in the Americas “came to be carried on principally by United States capital, in United States ships, officered by United States citizens, and under the United States flag.”

Royal Navy commander Charles Wise also witnessed, with his own eyes, that ships with U.S. flags were trading rum and muskets for African slaves in Angola. He made this observation in 1858, a full fifty years after the slave trade was outlawed in the United States. Obviously it was somewhat difficult to import these enslaved people into the U.S., but traders could make huge profits from selling them to Brazilians slaveholders. Historian Gerald Horne remarks, “the importance of this African Slave Trade to Brazil has not been sufficiently recognized in the nation that was one of its principal beneficiaries–the U.S.” Undoubtedly, the United States’ active participation in the slave trade allowed Brazil to import enslaved Africans in great numbers and with greater ease than they every could have done without U.S. assistance.

Some Americans had bigger plans for importing enslaved people into Brazil than shipping them from Africa. Matthew Fontaine Maury saw the Amazon as a “safety-valve of the Union” and wanted to send enslaved people and their enslavers to Brazil so that they could continue practicing slavery. This plan may sound far-fetched, but Maury was a respected Confederate, and a renowned oceanographer who has been compared in his field to “Columbus, Galileo, Harvey and Newton.” As the Civil War pressed on, Maury’s idea would have been appealing to some Southern slaveholders who wouldn’t want to remain in a country where slavery was abolished.

Maury could see that slavery was coming to an end in the United States, but he did not imagine that Southern slaveholders would give up the people they owned without compensation, so he thought it logical to sell them to Brazil. In 1851 he wrote in a letter to his cousin,

Brazil is a slave country, and all the travelers who go there, I am told, say that the black man, and he alone, is capable of subduing the forests there. To make it clear that the people of Amazonia will have slaves–they are very near to the coast of Africa, and if they cannot get them in one way they will get them in another. The alternative is, shall Amazonia be supplied with this class from the United States or from Africa? In the former case it will be a transfer of the place of servitude, but the making of no new slaves. In the latter it will be making slaves of free men, and adding greatly to the number of slaves in the world. In the former it would be relieving our own country of the slaves, it would be hastening the time of our deliverance, and it would be putting off indefinitely the horrors of that war of races which, without an escape, is surely to come upon us. Therefore I see in the slave territory of the Amazon the SAFETY VALVE of the Southern States.

Maury was clearly confident that Brazil had no intention of abolishing slavery any time soon, and he felt that the U.S. could benefit from slavery even if it it was abolished in the states. He did not give any validation whatsoever to the abolitionist idea that it was immoral for a human to be enslaved, but instead sought a kind of loophole around the freeing of slaves. He framed his argument as a situation which would generously provide Brazil with a new shipment of slave labor so that they would not have to go to Africa to gather more enslaved people.

Maury’s letter also seems to reveal a thinly veiled uneasiness about the presence of free Blacks in the United States. Many Southern slaveholders were terrified at the prospect of their property becoming free humans, capable of even more retaliation than they sought as captives. In Brazil, manumission was actually fairly common practice, but as Maury’s argument suggests, American slaveholders were less willing to free their enslaved people. After the Nat Turner Revolt in 1831, many slaveholders lived in constant fear of slave revolts and would have been open to any other solution besides their former chattel becoming free. While Maury presents his plan as a benevolent offer to Brazil to import new enslaved people without having to go all the way to Africa for a new shipment, in reality, he was just looking for a place to unload hundreds of thousands of people who had been oppressed and beaten for their entire lives, in order to avoid their possible vengeance.

The other option was for slaveholders to preemptively move to Brazil with their enslaved people before abolition became a reality in the United States. There were six major settlements of Southern slaveholders in Brazil, though all but one, “Americana,” failed. Still, the migration is significant, as it was very rare, if not unprecedented, for a large group of Americans to leave the United States in search of a better quality of life.

Though Maury did not follow his own plan to move to Brazil (he denounced the U.S. after the Civil War and moved to Mexico [where slavery had been illegal for decades]), he promoted slavery in Brazil and many Confederates did move there. Once the Civil War ended and the Confederate States of America (CSA) failed, many wealthy planters moved to Brazil to continue their lifestyle. Horne estimates that about ten thousand Confederates relocated to Brazil in the late 1860’s and early 1970’s. Many of these expatriates wrote letters to their friends and families back home in the United States, so we have written records of their racist attitudes toward and impressions of Brazil when they arrived.

Though the U.S. and Brazil both held on to slavery into the second half of the nineteenth century, race relations differed greatly in the two countries. The greatest difference was the fact that in the U.S. people of African descent never comprised more than about 16% of the population. In Brazil, however, a large percent of the population were at least partly of African descent. Virginians like Richard Morton were shocked to find that it was “no uncommon thing for a free black man to be invited to the table with white persons.” He was so uncomfortable socializing with Black people that when he went to a dance, he found a “fellow of [his] height” to dance with, rather than dancing with the girls who were too dark for his taste. Though there were men who wrote to their friends about the incredible beauty of Brazilian women, there were also men like Levi Holden who wrote that the women were “very dark…and very ugly. In no part of the world can so much ugliness and so few good looks be met.” Many men wrote in astonishment at the fact that Black men held professional jobs and even high positions in the Catholic Church.

The Americans’ reactions to the lifestyles of free Black people in Brazil highlight the major differences between the eras of slavery in the United States and in Brazil. While Brazil was fairly open to allowing free Black people to participate in all arenas of society, many of these transplanted Americans could not even begin to imagine giving a Black person rights. John F. Pickett, a former Confederate, did not find Brazil an acceptable place to move because Brazilians “lacked the same social prejudices against blacks that were felt by most Southerners.” There were Brazilians who had abolitionist sentiments at this time, but perhaps U.S. nationals stunted the prospect for freedom for enslaved people in that region. The influx of slaveholders and their racist attitudes in Brazil could have crippled the cause for abolition in Brazil for several more years.

Many Confederates were so appalled by the lack of prejudice against free Black people that they packed their bags and moved either to Mexico, or slinked humbly back to the United States. A contemporary scholar named Louis Aggasiz noted, “the absence of all restraint upon the free blacks, the fact that are eligible to office and that all professional careers are open to them, without prejudice on the ground of color, enables one to form some opinion as to their ability…the result is on the whole in their favor.” Attitudes were not as harsh toward people with darker skin in Brazil, and many Americans did not approve. More than two thirds of migrants to Brazil ended up returning to the United States, citing language barriers, differences in religion (Protestant Confederates did not approve of Catholics), the inability to vote in Brazil, and their strange acceptance of free Black people as reasons for their return.

Though many Confederates urged Brazil to continue slavery for their own benefit, Washington officially advocated for Brazilian abolition so that Brazil would not gain a competitive advantage in trading. President Grant recognized that when Brazilians earned a profit from sugar and coffee they used their money to buy British goods, not American goods. As slavery was now abolished in the United States, Grant also did not want Americans to have to compete with slave labor when it came to manufacturing. The government’s official position was that Brazil should abolish slavery, but their motives were just as selfish as the ex-Confederates who wanted slavery to live on for their own benefit.

Regardless of the United States’ mixed messages, Emperor Dom Pedro II was the catalyzing force for abolition in Brazil. Dom Pedro, who ascended to the Brazilian throne at age five, believed in gradual abolition and successfully enacted decrees that steadily and systematically freed all of the enslaved people in Brazil. Between the years of 1864 and 1888 Dom Pedro freed enslaved people who had been seized by British patrols, anyone enslaved person who had served in the army, children born to enslaved parents, enslaved people over sixty-five years old, and finally, under the Golden Law, all slaves. There were coffee growers who opposed freeing their work force, but overall Dom Pedro II successfully enacted a top-down system of abolition.

Though Brazil will be remembered as the last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery, the influence of the United States on the deferral of this policy is undeniable. Without the participation of the U.S. merchants and ships, Brazil would not have been able to engage in the African slave trade and continue importing enslaved people for as long as they did. In addition, even U.S. nationals who conceded to slavery’s defeat in the United States encouraged the continuation of slavery in Brazil by transferring both enslaved people and enslavers to the Latin American nation. Matthew Fontaine Maury was the originator and promoter of this plan, even though he did not actually participate in the migration to Brazil. When Confederates did move to Brazil, they brought with them racist and prejudiced attitudes toward Black people that were much more rigid than how Brazilians viewed Black people. American slaveholders believed that by the virtue of being Black, Africans were meant to be enslaved, and they brought those beliefs with them to Brazil. It was only after a mass migration of Southern slaveholders back to the United States that gradual abolition gained momentum in Brazil. Dom Pedro II’s Gold Law may have been enacted years sooner had it not been for the Confederate interest in keeping slavery alive in Brazil for as long as it benefitted the United States.


Bergad, Laird W. The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Chasteen, John Charles. Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.

Degler, Carl N. Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971.

DuBois, W.E.B. in The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

Horne, Gerald. The Deepest South: The United States, Brazil and the African Slave Trade. New York: New York University Press, 2007.

Karp, Matthew J. “Slavery and American Sea Power: The Navalist Impulse in the Antebellum South.” Journal of Southern History 77 (2011): 283-324.

Marx, Anthony W. Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of South Africa, the United States and Brazil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Maury, Matthew Fontaine. A letter to his cousin dated Dec. 24, 1851 in A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury, U.S.N. and C.S.N., Diana Fontaine Corbin and Nannie Corbin, University of Virginia, 1924.

Smith, C.A. Southern Literary Studies. The University of North Carolina Press, 1927.

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