happy abolition day

FavelaWikipedia tells us that on this day, May 13, 1888, "Princess Isabel … of the Empire of Brazil signed the Lei Áurea into law, formally abolishing slavery in Brazil."

And since Brazil’s was the last government in either North or South America to recognize the legality of slavery, Princess Isabel’s abolition marks the end of slavery in the Americas.

Isabel’s slave-owning subjects did not take it well. Edward Glaeser, in Triumph of the City (which I mention here, here, and here) describes the aftermath:

Rio’s shantytowns began in the late nineteenth century, when Brazil was lurching out of its quasi-feudal past. In the 1870s and 1880s, when other New World countries, like Argentina and the United States, elected their rulers, Brazil was ruled by an emperor, a scion of Portugal’s ancient house of Braganza, and slavery was still legal.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, about 40 percent of Rio’s population — eighty thousand people — were slaves. As abolitionism grew as a political force, slaves increasingly ran away to the city to escape plantation life. Runaway slaves in Rio formed shantytowns called quilombos in the nineteenth century, which were the ancestors of favelas. Emperor Pedro II disliked slavery, but fear of a political backlash may have kept him from trying to emancipate the rest of the country. Finally, in 1888, when the emperor was out of the country, his daughter, acting as regent, signed Brazil’s emancipation proclamation, making it the last country in the Americas to end slavery. The emperor had been right to fear a backlash. In the next year, a military coup, backed by oligarchs outraged by losing their human chattels, toppled the Braganza dynasty.

The first true favela had its roots not in urban Rio but in the impoverished countryside of northeastern Brazil, where an itinerant preacher and erstwhile abolitionist, Antonio the Counselor, founded a town called Canudos, populated by former slaves, and started a tax rebellion. Canudos had grown to thirty thousand people by 1895, so the Counselor’s refusal to pay taxes was no mere whiskey rebellion. In 1896, open war broke out, and the government sent thousands of soldiers to take the town. Before Canudos finally fell, about fifteen thousand people were killed.

While the Brazilian army won, the parsimonious government opted not to pay the soldiers. They responded by setting up their own village, unconsciously aping the Counselor they had just defeated, in the hills outside Rio. That shantytown became the Morro da Providência, the ur-favela. Over the next seventy years, hundreds of thousands of poor peasants, many of them freed slaves, came to Rio. The dilapidated dwellings may not look like much, but they beat working on a plantation for one’s former master. Just like the freed American slaves who populated U.S. cities in the twentieth century, the freed Brazilians chose urban promise over rural poverty.

Foreign visitors tend to compare the poor in Rio with other people they’ve seen, perhaps poor residents of America’s ghettoes, who are almost invariably better off, but that’s a mistake. The favela’s residents don’t usually have the option of living in Los Angeles, and they should be compared with the people, largely unseen by foreign eyes, living in the poor rural areas of Brazil. Rio has plenty of poverty, but it’s nothing like Brazil’s rural northeast.

One possible quibble: When Glaeser says that "the Counselor’s refusal to pay taxes was no mere whiskey rebellion," I take his point to be that the Canudos rebellion was a full-scale war, while America’s Whiskey Rebellion was a minor incident in comparison. It’s true that the Whiskey Rebellion didn’t see the level of violence that occurred in Canudos, but if we accept Murray Rothbard’s interpretation of the events, the Whiskey Rebellion was not only bigger than the standard history reveals; unlike the Canudos rebels, the Whiskey Rebels actually won:

Rather than the whiskey tax rebellion being localized and swiftly put down, the true story turns out to be very different. The entire American back-country was gripped by a non-violent, civil disobedient refusal to pay the hated tax on whiskey. No local juries could be found to convict tax delinquents. The Whiskey Rebellion was actually widespread and successful, for it eventually forced the federal government to repeal the excise tax. ("The Whiskey Rebellion: A Model for Our Time?")


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