- Dutra’s World: Wealth and Family in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro
Antonio José Dutra's story is endlessly instructive. Born in Africa, and without ever knowing his parents, he was shipped out of Africa in the trans-Atlantic trade to become a slave in Rio de Janeiro, probably in the 1810s. Sometime before 1827, Dutra had bought himself free from slavery and began to prosper as the owner of a barber shop. Gradually he bought slaves, 13 in all—Frank rightfully makes much of the pervasive ownership of slaves as a damper against any early popular abolitionist sentiment—who worked in his barbering business and doubled as a band of musicians who could hire themselves out when business slowed. He also owned two buildings, one housing the barber shop with his living quarters above, while his eldest daughter, Ignacia de Jesus Dutra, lived with her husband next door in the other house. Years earlier Dutra had freed and educated her. Now he could afford to support his five minor children and current woman comfortably, paying for three daughters and one son to attend school. Following his wishes, Dutra was given a Catholic burial.
From the time of his death in 1849, when proceedings were set in motion to divide his property among his children, Dutra's story expands. Ignacia showed none of the timidity supposed true of nineteenth-century women. Worried that her husband, whom she neither liked nor trusted, would get his hands on her inheritance, she declined to act as executor and instead maneuvered for the court to delay the final distribution of the estate until her divorce (an ecclesiastical separation, not a divorce in the modern sense allowing re-marriage) was decreed, their conjugal property separated, and her husband was safely out of the picture. In the interim, Dutra's second-named executor managed the property, bringing in a profit from hiring out the band and renting one house, and so paid for the younger children's food, clothing, and school fees. And through it all we learn what it could mean for a freed African slave, a liberto, to re-make his life. [End Page 300]
But Frank's concern is not principally with Dutra or the webs of meaning from which Dutra made sense of his life. Frank is no fan of microhistory, which he mistakenly understands as being a single case without contexts. Instead, drawing from nearly 1,000 post-mortem estate inventories coupled with the work of economic historians, he uses quantitative methods to describe the changing investment patterns of a large middling population. Dutra, he tells us, is representative of this group. What does he conclude? Before the African trade ended about 1850, slaves in Rio, being plentiful and cheap, could be bought even by former slaves with savings accumulated from their wages, and sent out as day laborers, street vendors, or domestics to return a steady income. More savings, more slaves. In Frank's account all that changed in 1850. Without fresh supplies from Africa, locally born slaves and those Africans already present in Brazil were traded internally at escalating prices. Real estate, always expensive and favored by wealthier investors, became still more costly. When slaves were cheap, forming the bulk of the wealth owned by middling groups, wealth was more equally distributed. As slaves became fewer and more expensive, those who could sought other investments, especially, by Frank's argument, stocks and bonds, which appealed to more sophisticated buyers but were outside the understanding of illiterate men and women like Dutra. Wealth became more concentrated in the hands of fewer, richer people, and the Dutras were edged out of the market.
There is much here to query, but there can be no doubt that Frank does us a great service in calling attention to the middle ranks of society and their strategies for acquiring wealth. Hopefully other historians will follow his lead, investigating primary sources he...