The Slave Laws of Brazil


What you need to know before visting Brazil's historic mining towns
The international community, primarily Britain, could not allow an economic powerhouse like Portugal to have the unfair advantage of low labor costs after the other nations had abolished slavery, and international pressure mounted for Portugal to follow suit. Britain sent the Royal Navy to patrol the west coast of Africa to intercept ships engaged in the illegal slave trade and threatened to stop slave ships that tried to travel to Brazil. The continually increasing price of slaves also helped to undermine the status quo.

The trading of slaves continued in Brazil until 1850 with the passage of the Eucébio de Queiroz law. The “keeping” of slaves, however, remained legal for another thirty-eight years. In 1835, slaves revolted in Salvador, and the revolt in Belem brought together a united front of indigenous fighters and African slaves. There were smaller revolts elsewhere up and down the coast.

During the War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay between 1865 and 1870, slaves in Brazil could earn their freedom by joining the military. Then on September 28, 1871, the Brazilian parliament passed the Rio Branco Law, also described as do Ventre Livre (Law of the Free Womb), freeing the children born to slaves on Brazilian soil. The enacted measure made slave owners responsible for these offspring until they reached the age of eight. After that, the owners could either release these children to the government for compensation or have them stay on to work at the plantation until age twenty-one when they would be free to leave.

Parliament passed the Saraiva-Cotegipe law in 1885, freeing all slaves when they reached age sixty-five. Slavery came to its official conclusion in Brazil with the enactment of the Lei Aurea (the Golden Law) May 13, 1888, freeing the country’s remaining 700,000 slaves. By then, the evolving economy to coffee and other crops besides sugar had already reduced the need for slaves.

The slaves were given nothing for all they had endured. For them, freedom meant a different kind of hardship, laying the foundation for the huge underclass of citizens who live below the poverty line that is evident to visitors on Brazil tours today. With no compensation for their financial loss, the plantation owners became disenchanted with the monarchy.

The illegal use of slaves continued after the passage of the Golden Law, making it A lei nao pegouf, a law that did not take hold, the term Brazilians use for such circumstances. Since 1888, a number of decrees have been issued to eliminate the illegal practice of forced labor on the sugar plantations and in other industries.

Today the National Library of Brazil houses the documents that chronicle this period of history. Visitors on Rio de Janeiro tours may visit the library which is located on Avenida Rio Branco though fluency in Portuguese is necessary to read about Brazil’s centuries of slavery.