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Robert W. Slenes
Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Brazil

Confidence and Crisis in a Peculiar Market: The Brazilian Internal Slave Trade During a Period of Mobilization against Forced Labor, 1850-1888

Paper to be delivered at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery and Abolition

Yale University, October 1999


Between the end of the transatlantic slave trade in 1850 and abolition in 1888, the Brazilian internal slave trade was similar to that of the American South in its autonomy and in the large population transfers it effected. Yet, it also displayed significant differences. In this essay, I survey research on the Brazilian trade, particularly stressing the peculiarities of this commerce, when compared to that of the United States. I examine economic and demographic patterns to understand the functioning of the market and its impact on slave experience. Furthermore, I focus on the Brazilian trade's most distinctive aspect: its existence in a context of increasing national and international mobilization against forced labor.

The first two sections of the essay examine the demography and economics of the internal trade and their implications for social history. I show that two relatively independent regional slave markets existed in Brazil, each structured by its respective export economy. In the Northeast, slave prices roughly paralleled those of sugar, while in the Center-South they followed those of coffee—unlike the case of the American South, where slave prices everywhere moved in tandem and, after the mid-1820's, followed trends in cotton prices. These data contest the view that the Brazilian interregional trade simply reflected the decline of the sugar economy and transferred slaves from sugar to coffee in the Center-South. Major interregional movements of slaves did occur, particularly in the 1870's; but this was because Northeastern sugar planters, while purchasers of slaves, were unable to absorb all the workers put on the market by small owners, urban property-holders and agriculturalists in more severely-depressed non-sugar sectors.

A second peculiarity of the Brazilian case is that interregional transfers of slaves seem to have occurred overwhelming through sale, contrary to what happened in the American South, where a large minority or even a majority of slave migrants moved with their owners. The small migration of owners may indicate that sugar planters still enjoyed acceptable profits, even through the 1870's.

In the 1850's and 1860's, coffee plantations in the Center-South (Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo) were supplied primarily by bondspeople in the intraregional trade. Only in the 1870's, when the demand for slaves in these provinces rose considerably, did people sold from other regions predominate. While transfers of workers within the Center-South followed the same pattern identified in the Northeast, recent work suggests that another slave sector also thrived: that producing farm products and livestock for the cities and increasingly-specialized plantations. Within the coffee sector itself, there was no major transfer of slaves by sale from "decadent" regions to newer areas. Even the oldest counties of the Paraíba Valley continued to be net importers of bondspeople through the 1870's. Nonetheless, there seems to have been a significant migration of slaveowners with their holdings (probably youths with their inheritances) out of these localities.

In proportional terms, the annual volume of interregional slave transfers from 1850 to 1880 was about the same as it was in the pre-bellum United States. However, since more of these transfers were realized by sale, their impact on slave community ties was probably much greater. Recent research has shown that slave families in the medium/large slaveholdings of the Center-South had a significant presence, as well as relative stability, when compared to those in small holdings. Given new data on the persistence of slavery on northeastern sugar plantations, families there may also have been relatively "protected." The same cannot be said for slaves in holdings that were losing people to the internal trade.

Recent work has also suggested that the sudden switch to internal sources for plantation labor had consequences for master/slave relations. Before 1850, slaveholders' disciplinary strategies distinguished between new Africans and resident hands of long standing. The latter (creoles, acculturated Africans and their families) had greater access to better jobs, garden plots, and manumission. The onset of the domestic trade, however, meant that most of these more favored workers would now be treated like new Africans. Slaves who were sold under these conditions would have particularly suffered a reduction in life chances, since most left smaller holdings, where "paternalism" buffered the friction between masters and workers, and went to larger, more impersonal, properties. Frustrated expectations, therefore, may have contributed to an increase in slave unrest after 1850. In any case, the influx to the coffee areas of an especially large number of "strangers" during the 1870's, probably did contribute to the rising slave violence against masters and overseers that has been documented by recent studies of this decade and the 1880's.

The last section of this essay places the market in human property at the center of the politics of slavery. Bondspeoples' productive lifetimes made them relatively long-term investments. In a time of increasing challenges to forced labor—from external pressures to internal political and popular movements, including slave unrest—this aspect of wealth in people turned the "peculiar market" into a weather vane of expectations about the future of slavery and a focus of action by those who wished to undermine or defend the institution.

Evidence that investors were beginning to lose confidence in the long-range future of slavery appears in the early 1860's, during the American Civil War. Changes in the age-price profile of girls and young women, relative to that of boys and young men—coinciding with a sharp decline in formal slave marriage rates in the Paraíba Valley—strongly suggest that slaveowners had begun to reconsider the value attributed to a woman's reproductive capacity, out of fear that slavery would not last much beyond the present generation. This change largely occurs before the 1871 "Law of Free Birth"—which explains why the law was economically palatable to slaveowners and also politically necessary, as a means of assuring investors that no further challenge to slavery would occur. The law was remarkably successful in this respect over the short term; in the 1870's, the demand for slave labor in the Center-South was robust, reflecting immediate economic conditions and confidence that the life expectancy of slavery was greater than that of young slave adults.

In 1880-81, however, the major coffee provinces—fearful that the Northeast was losing its bondspeople and, therefore, its political commitment to forced labor—created a prohibitive tax on slave imports. This, combined with rising abolitionist sentiment and slave unrest, led to the collapse of the slave market in 1881. Slave prices and the volume of sales plummeted; banks stopped giving loans on slave collateral; soon the ratio of slave prices to rental rates indicated that investors foresaw abolition in the early 1890's. An 1885 attempt to revive the slave market and shore up confidence in the institution over the short term (by creating an official table of slave prices declining to zero over 13 years) could not revert the crisis. By 1887, investors and even slaves were predicting imminent abolition.