Black Peasantry of Para, Brazil 1850-1950

A review of Freedom in Amazonia: The Black Peasantry of Pará, Brazil, 1850-1950, by Oscar de la Torre Cueva.

Brazil looms large in the recent historiography of the African Diaspora in the Americas given that 4 of out 10 enslaved Africans who crossed the Atlantic in the era of the transatlantic slave trade landed in what became this continent-size country. However, there are still significant regions of Brazil lacking systematic, comprehensive research on the history of people of African ancestry. Oscar de la Torre Cueva brings both new data and a new interpretation of the Amazonia as he puts together three central themes of this scholarship. First, he addresses how emancipation intersected with questions of citizenship and belonging (see Frederick Cooper, Thomas Holt and Rebecca Scott, Beyond Slavery: Explorations of Race, Labor, and Citizenship in Post Emancipation Societies. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Second, he participates in the growing sub-field related to the interactions of Africans and Amerindians under colonialism in the Americas, a line of research ranging from edited volumes (Matthew Restall (ed.), Beyond Black and Red: African-Native Relations in Colonial Latin America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005) to recent monographs (Rachel O’Toole, Bound Lives: Africans, Indians, and the Making of Race in Colonial Peru. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012). Third, de la Torre Cueva also focuses on historical memory and community-based narratives through the analysis of oral histories collected from descendants of maroon communities – an unusual approach in this field (see the acclaimed Richard Price’s Alabi’s Word. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990). All of these fascinating and long debated questions shape the central line of his inquiry: how a black pleasantry emerged from both maroon communities and slave quarters in the second half of the nineteenth century in the state of Pará, Brazil.

Chapter 1 serves as an introduction by showing how the commemorations of the centennial of abolition of slavery in Brazil (1988) renewed both political and academic interest in the histories of maroon communities (quilombos). New policies sought to protect and issue formal titles to the land historically occupied by descendants of runaway slaves. By June 2011, when 997 communities had initiated claims to receive formal land deeds, 108 had already received them (p. 2). Almost half of this latter group was located in the state of Pará in the Amazonia, the focus of this study.  By that time, the concept of quilombo had changed to include not only communities of runaway slaves, but also black communities who had occupied abandoned plantations as well as those who had worked on land donated by the Catholic Church. However, de la Torre Cueva uses the term quilombo only to designate the descendants of runaway slaves.

The author argues that former maroons developed new projects, strategies, and ideas about how to be free peasants after emancipation. His study relates to the larger field of post-emancipation by inquiring how the newly freed controlled their labor, how they maintained their family structures, and how they gained access to land.

These larger questions depended on specific settings during the post-emancipation period. In the Brazilian Amazonia, collecting forest products such as nuts was an additional strategy to assure self-subsistence, which connected black communities with markets controlled by export merchants (p. 13). Plantation crops faded after abolition in 1888, when export merchants rather than planters were at the apex of political and economic networks. Initially, the marketing of nuts gave these communities income beyond subsistence agriculture as well as leveled their position in negotiations with export merchants – thus augmenting their autonomy. But as these merchants advanced credit tied to the extraction of nuts, black communities became entangled in debt peonage –thus falling into forms of coerced labor.

This study begins with the slave trade to Amazonia in the second half of the eighteenth century; continues through the process of “peasantization” and “caboclization,” when African and locally-born slaves adopted cultural and economic habits of Amazon peasants in the mid-nineteenth century; and concludes before the massive intervention and investment from the Brazilian federal government in the 1960s, when this region was altered to unprecedented levels.

Chapter 2 introduces the beginnings of plantation society as well as the initial interactions of Africans and Amerindians in Pará. The Pombaline reforms subsidized the slave trade to Amazonia during the century following 1750, when the Companhia Geral de Comércio do Grão-Pará e Maranhão introduced most of the captives. The plantation economy was based on rice, cotton, sugar, coffee, and, lately and most significantly, cacao. This economy was limited to the riverine coast around Belém – the capital of this province – and the region near the mouth of the Amazonas. The Portuguese transformed the Amazon mouth from a colonial backwater into a region connected with the Atlantic through both the slave traffic and the export of produce. Evidence of the earliest Indian-African mocambos or runaway settlements exists from the 1750s (p. 32). By the late eighteenth century, people of African ancestry became highly knowledgeable about the local river systems, which staved off Portuguese military actions against maroon communities. These men and women learned from Amerindians to extract resources from the forest as well as to cultivate manioc in provision grounds to make their own flour. But, more importantly, runaway slaves adopted networks of trade and communication already in place between the Portuguese and Amerindians before the arrival of Africans – the first runaway communities in Pará were in fact Amerindian rather than African. These networks took on military overtones at the time of the Portuguese invasion of French Guiana (1809) and in the Cabanagem Revolt (1835) in the decade following Brazilian independence.  While it is difficult to assert that maroons mobilized plantation slaves or vice versa, opportunities to run away rose in these years and mocambos multiplied. After peace, local authorities tried to curtail commercial networks of these communities by chasing itinerant retail merchants, who broke the monopoly of the big traders, as well as launching a frontal attack to recapture runaway slaves (pp. 50-51).

The Trombetas River, the land of the mythical Amazons and a safe haven for runaway slaves, is the focus of Chapter 3.  As numerous waterfalls dotted the region, which impeded the easy passage of Portuguese armies, this area housed some of the most resistant maroon settlements. This section analyzes how runaway slaves used their relationships with Brazilian merchants of nuts and missionaries to move closer to surrounding towns (p. 55). In connecting with Brazilian society, they sought to maintain their peasant autonomy. For this purpose, they tried to register land titles beginning in the late nineteenth century as they both understood the importance of written records and noticed the increasing presence of nut merchants in the region. This chapter shows the actions of missionaries in advancing treaties between the maroons – who wanted to trade without endangering their autonomy – and the local elites, who wanted to acquire knowledge of the territory controlled by maroons to colonize it (p. 65). The use of oral sources is introduced in this chapter to show how the abolition of slavery is not clearly remembered by the descendants of slave runaways even though the settlements progressively moved down the waterfalls after abolition (p. 72). The end of official persecution led to the dispersal of many communities, but kin ties kept communication among them alive, and these contacts were renewed during religious festivals linked with seasonal work. The appearance of merchant houses demarcating the land where nut trees existed seems to have encouraged these earlier claims by the former maroon communities to obtain official deeds – competition for resources sparked their actions (p. 79).

Chapter 4 analyzes the recovery of the plantation sector between 1850 and 1870, just before the abolition of slavery. This era saw the abandonment of plantations, which were increasingly managed and occupied by former slaves, the rise of the rubber economy, and the gradual abolition of slavery. Apart from the recovery of plantations between the Cabanagem rebellion (1835) and the final demise of slavery, slaves continued incorporating Amerindian agricultural, fishing, and hunting knowledge (pp. 92-93), which introduced them to the material life of a free peasantry. The existence of provision grounds maintained by slaves was the key to this transition. Slaves also hired themselves out to merchants in the town to extract forest nut – which introduced them to collecting and selling these products to itinerant petty traders. As the economy of Pará expanded, planters introduced the task system, in which slaves would be paid for working overtime. This would allow them to obtain certain income and increasingly work alongside free laborers (p. 108). A second transformation was the export of rubber, which became the major Paranaense export by the late 1870s and brought a massive immigrant population into Belém that tested the ability of the countryside to feed this population.

Micro-history shapes Chapter 5, which delves into the black communities of the plantation of Santo Antônio da Campina, in Vigia, Pará, where new spaces of work, leisure and residence emerged in the aftermath of abolition. While this estate required exceptional investment in labor and capital to maintain the machinery of the tide mill, both violence and incentives shaped the master-slave relationships as in most plantations in the Americas. The author describes the move of slaves to freedom in the second half of the nineteenth century as the slave-owner of this plantation began to invest more in real estate than sugar production (p. 127). This case shows how urbanized elites left some of the plantations to the control of former slaves. By the 1920s, and after a succession of property sales, a former slave became the administrator of the estate. The former slaves now formed a self-defined community: Cacau. Rather than sugar, the agricultural calendar was determined by manioc, the main subsistence product. Here the author uses local songs to flesh out his assertion that local celebrations provided the basis to establish kin networks and thus to connect different communities across the patterns of geographical mobility determined by fishing and extracting products from the forest (p. 133). These former slaves claimed land that they cultivated based on a moral economy of occupation. The author argues that they used three main elements to develop these narratives: “an imagined document, a series of encounters with different landowners, and the traditions of access to land circulating among peasants” (p. 134). By the mid-twentieth century, this black community had elaborated a complex narrative of their origins and rights to live in these lands based on these elements – however, note that this was a narrative of loyalty rather than rebellion. As new landowners arrived to this region, the people of Cacau had to renew these narratives to defend their rights, eventually by including a claim of being a “maroon-descendant” community in the 1990s.

Chapter 6 focuses on early twentieth-century networks between the black peasantry and the export sector based on the collection and marketing of nuts in the Trombetas region. This study covers a two-pronged process in which the former maroons first moved to the lands below the waterfalls, which were covered with nut trees. Then, during the twentieth century, landowners and merchants sought to control these same lands. The knowledge about the location of castanhais, the nut trees, initially provided the former maroons with a better position when negotiating with elites. In turn, merchants tried to secure wage labor from the maroons through strategies leading to debt peonage and the manipulation of their workers’ balances (p. 184). While the former maroons were successful at protecting their autonomy, they remained subsumed in poverty. As time went on, merchant elites enlarged their wealth and increased their political power. Some former maroons gained material benefits as they became intermediates in the relationships between merchant elites and black communities. However, they also served elites by advancing their own interests in securing both land and labor.

Former maroons’ resistance against attempts to privatize nut tree fields during the interwar period at the height of Brazil nut exportation provides the fabric for Chapter 7. This movement included a sector of nut traders, who allied with the black communities in order to stave off the privatization of common lands initiated by new Italian and Portuguese merchants and a small group of politicians (p. 188 and 197). Cases concentrated during the 1920s show a pattern of collective response with xenophobic overtones against new ethnic groups and their increased influence in the export economy. These revolts brought together peasants, workers and even local traders against the newcomers (p. 212).  This study shows that the idea that the castanhais were of public access was deeply rooted in the popular culture, which lends additional credibility to the success of black narratives of belonging to the land introduced in previous chapters.  This moral economy of land tenure and use had additional sources ranging from Amerindian practices to the strategies of the modern rubber workers to get out of poverty. While designating public policy on land, authorities of the new Brazilian republic ignored this culture beginning in the 1890s, which led to increasing unrest in the 1920s. The new regime of President Getúlio Vargas, under his “state interventor” Joaquim de Magalhães Cardoso Barata, changed the tone by siding with the poor but did little to actually change politics in the 1930s (pp. 217-218). The panorama of unresolved problems regarding land use set the stage for the increasing violence of the last third of the twentieth century – a period outside the reach of this study.

In sum, this dissertation covers the creation of a narrative by maroon communities at the intersection of local and global politics in the post-emancipation context. This study is at its best when it brings together the actions of black communities, elites, and the forces of external markets. As in many regions that underwent emancipation, people of African ancestry envisaged citizenship and belonging through land and family, but in Pará they also developed a narrative based on the conquered rights to extract and market the resources of the forest. In this way, this work brings together material and cultural life in a dynamic way by showing the intersections of people’s agency with market forces. This work is ideal for studying the post-emancipation period in the Americas–an era less researched than the overwhelming rise and fall of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery – from both bottom-up and top-down perspectives. Thus, it is an essential study to fully comprehend the regional underpinnings of Brazilian slavery and abolition.

Alex Borucki
Assistant Professor
Department of History
University of California, Irvine

Primary Sources

Arquivo Público do Estado do Pará (Brazil)
Instituto de Terras do Pará
Paróquia de Alenquer, Pará
Oral interviews in the State of Pará
Newspapers and Periodicals of Pará (1921-1932)

Dissertation Information

University of Pittsburgh. 2011. 269 pp. Primary Advisor: George Reid Andrews.


Image: Photograph by Oscar de la Torre Cueva.

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