First steps to freedom

Crossroads of Freedom: Slaves and Freed People in Bahia, Brazil 1870–1910
Walter Fraga, translated by Mary Ann Mahony
2016, Duke University Press
313 pages, plates, paperback

WHAT would the slaves of Bahia have felt on 13 May 1888, the day slavery was finally abolished in Brazil, the last country in the western world to do so? Fortunately, we can get a sense of the euphoria and celebration of this momentous event from the award-winning work of Walter Fraga, whose Crossroads of Freedom provides unique insights into what happened next following the emancipation of the slaves from the sugar plantations of Recôncavo. “They looked like people who had seen heaven,” wrote one Bahian legislator. But others who observed the scenes of jubilation in Salvador noted how shocked former slaves were, lost for words by the enormity of what had just happened, offering evidence of the challenges many would face thereafter. Freedom was the beginning, as Fraga’s carefully researched book shows, and for many former slaves it inaugurated a struggle to make a future for themselves and develop an identity in one of the region’s most important slave-owning areas. The author offers a way of understanding this period in terms of continuities, as both slaves and plantation owners adjusted over time to their new reality. Fraga explores the thorny questions of how former slaves and slave-owners began to relate to each other after abolition, and the strong sense of resentment felt by many plantation owners who continued to expect paternalistic respect. The latter often tried to use their paternalistic ties to invoke “gratitude” during the transition from slave to wage labour in an effort to ensure they had sufficient manual workers in the fields. While there was massive disruption to the plantation economy – and in many cases new threats of social conflict between the freedmen and their resentful former owners – the emphasis on continuities is important because it demonstrates how the abolition of slavery did not represent the abrupt historical shift to a new form of society that much historiography prior to this work had given us to believe. It was a transition, and as with most transitions this has taken a long time and in some respects may still be under way. Crossroads of Freedom, therefore, draws attention to the legacies that have endured for descendants of former slaves in Brazil and the important role that contemporary social policies such as affirmative action can play in the country. By the time it was abolished in 1888, Brazil had been the destination of an estimated four million slaves from Africa – 40% of the total number of slaves brought to the Americas. This had a profound imprint on Brazilian society – today more than half of Brazil’s population (54%) declares themselves as black or mixed race – but it would take another 120 years before social policies were introduced that genuinely began to address the legacies endured by social groups descended from slaves. Since the 1960s Black Awareness Day, today celebrated on 20 November, has marked the contribution of black people to Brazil and, more recently, the anniversary of the death in 1695 of Zumbi, one of the last kings of Quilombo of the Palmares, who is a symbol of black resistance to slavery.