The international abolition movement has been a well studied complex moment in the history of the Atlantic World. Brazil offers a rich quarry to mine but also presents a number of challenges in part due to the mythical burning of all records pertaining to slavery immediately after abolition in 1888. From Slavery to Freedom in Brazil examines the agency of slaves in Bahia and the networks of communication that were created between seemingly disparate groups in Brazilian society in the fight against the oppressive institution.
The book is divided into four thematic sections that trace the process of abolition throughout Bahia and is enhanced by detailed chronology and glossary. Beginning with the debates to end the slave trade in the 1830s, Graden illustrates the complex world of enslaved and free blacks in Northeastern Brazil and the ways in which such diverse communities participated in the broader context of resistance. As the author argues, slaves and free blacks living in the port city of Salvador, Bahia “disseminated first hand accounts about events, persons, and resistance related to international abolition” (14). Without turning a blind eye to the role of Bahian officials, the position of the government is more fully developed alongside that of slave resistance, offering the reader a detailed and comprehensive picture of the struggle to end the slave trade and abolish slavery.
Graden relies on the writings of well known abolitions such as Luis Gama, himself a former slave and later an outspoken journalist. In addition, he also utilizes works by Antônio Frederico de Castro Alves, “the poet of the slaves” (85). Yet Graden also turns to important legislation, newspaper articles and in a well thought out strategy looks to the rich heritage and cultural traditions of Candomblé to better understand religion as a vehicle for resistance to slavery. In doing so he weaves the religion into the broader spectrum of political life in Bahia as evidenced when he analyzes the protests over high food prices and subsequent riots that occurred in 1858. Police began to raid Candomblé terreiros (houses of worship) in an attempt to stem the tide of growing unrest (113).
As external and internal pressure to end slavery was intensified in the late 1800s, Brazilian officials were forced to walk a fine line between immediate abolition and the phasing out of slavery. One factor that emerged in this debate was the impossibility of negating the slave contribution to Brazilian life. Graden’s examination of religion, as well as other cultural traditions of the slaves and free black communities, shows how intrinsic these mores were to the broader scope of a Brazilian identity much in the same way that Eugene Genovese’s work does of slave life in the United States. Both studies focus on how the institution of slavery was seen as a necessary component of economic survival and social control yet an undeniable facet of national, regardless of how newly emergent, culture and identity,
For those interested in colonial history, as well as the history of slavery and abolition, From Slavery to Freedom is a welcome contribution. Slavery and abolition was wrought with contradictions and heated conflict, not only among the slaves and those charged with their continued oppression, but also among the various segments of society who were vulnerable to enslavement, such as free blacks, but also those who wanted to see an end to the institution. Many parallels can be drawn between diverse nations that sought an answer to how best resolve the issue of slavery while at the same time maintain national integrity.
One of Graden’s main contentions, the existence and utilization of networks of communication to foment resistance to slavery, among the enslaved and free blacks, needs to be brought into sharper focus. I believe that there is more at stake than just an informal understanding of the cultural traditions of the oppressed in question. As can be seen in the work of Elizabeth McAlister on Haitian Rara, observing religious rituals and the engagement in play has a much a much deeper meaning than...