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Revisiting the Casa-grande :
Plantation and Cane-Farming Households in Early Nineteenth-Century Bahia
A few years ago, a book reviewer described Gilberto Freyre as "a favorite straw man" among scholars interested in the history of the family in colonial and nineteenth-century Brazil. That may or may not be a true and fair statement. But, if true, it merely indicates the lasting influence of Freyre's views and arguments on the historiography. In effect, Freyre's first major work, published in 1933 with the title Casa-grande & senzala (literally, The Plantation Big House and the Slave Quarters but translated into English as The Masters and the Slaves), and its sequels remain basic points of reference for research not only on the family in Brazil, but also on a whole range of other topics and issues in Brazilian history.1 [End Page 619]
This essay, which also takes Freyre's work as a point of departure, uses rare early nineteenth-century census materials from a major sugar parish in the Northeastern province (now state) of Bahia to investigate the structure and composition of households belonging to plantation owners and wealthy cane farmers. It examines, in other words, the casa-grande—or planter household—that not only figures in the title of Freyre's most influential book but also holds a central place in his and other interpretations of Brazil's past. Indeed, for Freyre, the family structures that would shape Brazilian society from the colonial period into the nineteenth century were to be found within the casa-grande. "The social history of the Big House [casa-grande]," he wrote in one of his best-known passages, "is the intimate history of practically every Brazilian, the history of his domestic and conjugal life under a slaveholding and polygamous patriarchal regime."2
At least as they have been commonly understood in the secondary literature, Freyre's arguments about the planter family and household closely matched those put forward by Antônio Cândido in his 1951 essay on "the Brazilian family."3 Scholars have often taken both authors jointly as the major source for what might be called the traditional view of planter households and families [End Page 620] or—even more broadly—the traditional view of "the Brazilian family."4 According to most scholars' interpretations of that view, the plantation household was dominated by a white male patriarch, the planter, and brought together not only his immediate family—wife and legitimate children—but also his nonwhite mistress or mistresses (either free or, more often, slave women) and their illegitimate offspring. It further included numerous extended kin, free retainers of various sorts, and also, of course, slaves. The patriarchal casa-grande household, in turn, supposedly had its origins in the pattern of large-scale slave-based plantation agriculture that first emerged in the sugar-producing areas of colonial Northeastern Brazil and then later spread to other regions of the country. In short, within this traditional view associated with Freyre, the large, extended, complex, and polygamous patriarchal planter household best typified "the Brazilian family" in the colonial period and during much of the nineteenth century.
Since the late 1960 s, however, the historical literature on family and household in Brazil has undergone enormous expansion. Much of that expansion [End Page 621] has come from research using late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century manuscript censuses, or household lists, from various districts in the provinces of São Paulo and Minas Gerais in Southeastern Brazil. The newer census-based research convincingly shows that complex extended households were not the norm in that region. In most districts, on the contrary, a majority of households were organized around a simple nuclear family unit or were headed by a lone individual (in both cases, with or without slaves or free nonkin dependents). It is not surprising, then, that households in those districts tended to be small. Moreover, women (often unmarried mothers) headed a significant share of...