Short Essay on the Institution of Slavery in Latin America

Plantation economy-sugar in the north and coffee in the south- had played a decisive role in the early economic development of Brazil. The fazenda, as the plantation was called, was not just an economic system. It was a massive social and political structure run by the fazendero, who was literally the master of all that he surveyed.

Gilberto Freyre, the noted Brazilian sociologist, has said that the fazenda was a total way of life and at its focus was the patriarchal family which lived in the big house at the heart of the fazenda.

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Fazenda was at one and the same time a system of production; a system of labour (slavery); a system of transport (the ox-cart, the horse), a system of religion (family Catholicism with a chaplain subordinate to the master of the house); a system of sexual and family life (patriarchal); a system of bodily and household hygiene; and a system of politics (nepotism and patronage).

The white landowner was the master, the head of the system; and slaves on the fazenda were his absolute subjects. The relation between the white and the coloured races in Brazil was shaped by two factors: the system of economic production, which was monoculture and latifundia; and the scarcity of white women among the conquerors and explorers.

Latifundium was a system of very large landholdings producing generally a single crop. All over Latin America, large lands were held not simply for producing cash crops but to exercise social and political domination with land lying fallow.

The counter part of latifundia was minifundia (small, subsistence plots) tilled by the Indian peasants, or those who worked on the latifundia. The fazenda economy, especially sugar rising, required a large labour force and therefore the great demand of slaves.

The shortage of white women had led to the miscegenation of the white male and coloured female. An important aspect of the life on fazenda was that the coloured mistress of fazendero and their mulatto children also lived in the patriarch’s house.

The status of these women varied, some became domestics, others concubines and a very small number lawful wives. Many illegitimate mulatto sons inherited portions of the estate, a small number becoming legitimised first.

Another notable aspect of the slavery was that it was a custom to baptise the slaves; and once a member of the Catholic community, they came under the guidance of the clergy who saw them all as members of God’s family on earth; and sometimes defended them against harsh treatment.

In these above-mentioned respects, slavery in Brazil and the Spanish America in general had a different twist from the slavery as practiced in the US. This has led some to even argue that slavery was a gentler institution in the southern hemisphere. The mulatto off springs of the patriarch had a different lifestyle than that of a slave.

A slave was free to marry a non-slave; and by law their children were to be free. A slave, appointed guardian of a free man’s children, became free. Syndicates of slaves were formed to help buy each other out; and by the 19th Century, manumission was widespread. The noted historian, Frank Tannenbaum has written that both law and custom had made possible various forms of obtaining manumission.

In 1888, when slavery was abolished in Brazil, it is estimated that there were three times as many Negro freemen as Negro slaves; moreover, abolition was achieved without violence or civil war.

This is not to suggest that slavery was any less repugnant or any less exploitative and dehumanising in Latin America. No gainsaying, slave life on fazenda was short and brutish. But it certainly was not lonely.

Slave hostility and resistance to the fazenda system was universal. Runaway slaves would form their community in inaccessible areas. There were very serious and widespread insurrections, such as the slave revolts in Bahia in 1830s and in the coffee regions in the 1840s.

Slavery was abolished not because of any philanthropic reason, but because modernisation of agriculture towards the end of the 19th Century had found the system of free labour more profitable. Abolition brought in several waves a very large number of white immigrants who took advantage of a rapidly modernising economy.

Negroes were unaccustomed to participation in the competitive market economy. Whites were better skilled and were also preferred in jobs that required skills and craftsmanship. Negroes were pushed to the social and economic periphery of the society.

The successes in the industrialisation drives after the 1940s brought more opportunities for lower end jobs for the Negroes and the mulattos. Most of them are part of the industrial and agricultural work force in Brazil and elsewhere too. However better skilled and better paid jobs have remained with the whites-the descendants of the immigrants.

Post-abolition, a more notable development in the case of Brazil and other countries too is the extent of miscegenation and the growth of mixed populations, which makes any racial typing impossible.

Besides, gradation and segregation on the basis of white or Negro blood does not work. This is not to suggest the absence of social distancing and discrimination; it exists, more so because skin colour and facial features denote other forms of differentiation.

What has resulted is a ‘colour class system’, where colour has been integrated into the general social order, as one of the various criteria which identify people in a status system. To elaborate the point here, along with colour, other variables such as income, occupation, education, family background and finally physical appearance determine a person’s social status.

The majority of Negroes and mulattos, because of their experience of slavery and resulting integration in the labour force- formal and informal-has been unable to achieve any significant social mobility.

Thus, socio-economic factors and discrimination combine to keep darker skinned people in the lower ranks of the society. Nevertheless, social mobility is possible for, as the Brazilians say, ‘money whitens the skin’.

Black consciousness movements have been outspoken against the unequal terms of Negro participation in the economy and the polity. Brazil’s ‘colour class system’, includes not colour and facial features alone, but factors of education, income and occupation too.

The system thus lends better social and economic mobility and is clearly less racial than say the racism and racial discrimination in the US. Probably, it is for this very reason, Brazil did not have the kind of Black Power movement that had emerged in the US and the Caribbean.

It is because coloured have greater access to life chances detracts from any growing consciousness on the basis of race or colour. Most Negro protest groups that have appeared in Brazil have proved short did not live; nor have political parties and electoral games raised the issue of race and colour in a sustained manner.

The same thing can be stated for Cuba prior to the 1959 revolution. Cuba had the similar ‘colour class’ system. Notwithstanding nearly half a century of socialist ideology and practice, colour discrimination exists in Cuba too.

The revolution has no doubt clearly abolished excesses in this area and eliminated its overt manifestation, but the Cuban government had been more concerned with the general redistribution of goods and services than singling out colour for particular attention. As a result, racial discriminatory attitude remained intact and is being discovered now by the socialist regime.

In sum, ethnicity plays a crucial role in determining the life chances in Brazil and the Spanish America; and race does not operate in such a way as to demarcate distinct groups. Ethnic labelling is used to demarcate distinct boundaries, in some cases as a form of exclusion but in others in order to minimise the exploitation that certain type of socio-economic contacts bring about.

Since group identity has been on the basis of culture, often linked to somewhat isolated Indian communities, it has not led to the emergence of a consciousness of race or ethnicity in any political form.

Black protest movement has been minimal and Indian mobilisation has also generally been limited and localised, peaceful and limited to their demanding recognition of collective rights.

Latin American societies are more ‘colour class’ society where colour is only one of the many variables that shape someone’s life chances and status. Ethnic minority nationalism has not flourished in any political sense and only ambiguously in a cultural one because historical trends, and the lines of social and economic division, have not favoured its emergence.

The grossly disproportionate distribution of wealth and power all over Latin America has meant that lines of conflict have not been drawn between racial, which would have been virtually impossible, or ethnic groups but that oppression has been suffered by one class at the hands of another.

Where class and race have overlapped, such as in the Indian communities of Mexico and Peru, resistance has taken the form of affirming distinctive cultural traits rather than forming dissident or separatist racial or political movements.

However, greater Indian consciousness and movements such as those of the landless in Brazil or the armed uprising in Chiapas, the recognition of their rights in some of the democratic constitutions for instance that of Colombia and Venezuela, and many Latin American countries declaring themselves as multicultural may mean that situation is changing; and the question of ethnicity, especially of Indian ethnicity, is becoming one of the central issues in the politics of Latin American countries.

Slavery had a different meaning and impact on the English- speaking Caribbean. Its abolition around 1830s brought in waves of ‘East Indian’ indentured labour to work on the sugar plantations. The ex-slaves set up their own independent villages, and most of them drifted to the cities as mining and other urban activities began towards the end of the 19th Century.

A dominant feature of the Caribbean societies became the hostility between the Africans and the ‘East Indians’ with both of them claiming sufferings and deprivations at the hands of the planters’ class and seeking to inherit the mantle of political power when these countries gained independence in the 1960s.

Black consciousness, the Black Power Movements, race and ethnicity political parties and mobilisation have remained the features of the political process of countries such as Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago.

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