- Feeding the City: From Street Market to Liberal Reform in Salvador, Brazil, 1780–1860 by Richard Graham
Richard Graham offers a richly detailed portrait of the relationships of commerce, patronage, and regulation that worked to provision the city of Salvador, capital of the northeastern province of Bahia, Brazil. Refuting stereotypes of a rigid caste system, he shows how the mundane but essential labor of slaves and freedmen and women afforded opportunities for economic and social advancement. These networks of supply also influenced some of the vital political questions of nineteenth-century Brazil, including the outcome of independence and the rise of a liberal market economy.
In Salvador, slaves possessed a remarkable level of personal autonomy which helped to imbue the urban provisioning system with great entrepreneurial energy. Slaves regularly hired themselves out as wage laborers or worked as vendors, making regular payments to their masters. They also often lived independently in rented quarters. The fortunate could accumulate enough wealth to purchase their freedom and slaves of their own, not necessarily in that order. Such flexibility helped to preserve the social hierarchy—Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888—but also encouraged assertiveness among slaves. [End Page 795]
Using rich notarial and other archives, Graham describes the range of activities needed to feed the city. The most ubiquitous figures in the trade were street vendors, mostly black women, who sold all manner of foods, manioc and meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, and prepared foods. Although the business of selling food on the street was often precarious, depending on credit from Portuguese merchants, many vendors were able to accumulate wealth in the form of gold jewelry and perhaps a small home. A few became solidly middle class. Fresh produce was grown small gardens in and around the city, but supplies of the two basic staples, manioc and beef, required extensive provisioning networks reaching into the hinterlands. Because Salvador is perched on a narrow peninsula, canoes and ships delivered most of the city’s manioc meal across the Bay of All Saints (Bahia de Todos os Santos). The crews of these vessels were largely of African origin, and their skilled labor won them considerable trust and autonomy. Some slaves even became ship captains and held authority over free sailors and passengers. Slaves also drove cattle from ranches in the interior to a livestock fair and finally to urban slaughterhouses. Stevedores and porters were essential for conveying provisions from boats to waterfront shops and then up the zigzag streets to elite homes on the bluffs of the “upper city.”
Along with vigorously entrepreneurial slaves, another curious feature of Salvador’s provisioning system was a lack of craft guilds. The Brazilian diet of manioc and beef had little place for prominent European food trades, for example, bakers of wheat bread or hog butchers who preserved ham and sausage. The colonial beef supply had followed the medieval Iberian tradition of a semi-private monopoly contracted out to wealthy merchants, but officials replaced this system with a public slaughterhouse in the 1780s. Although Graham speaks at times of corporate identity among workers, he could have done more to explain its workings. One such expression of solidarity emerged in 1835, in the aftermath of the Malê slave rebellion, when nervous city officials ordered stevedores and porters, slave and freedmen alike, to wear registration bracelets around their wrists. Refusing this symbolic imposition, which smacked of slavery, the workers staged a massive strike that threatened to starve the city until the order was rescinded.
The urban provisioning system became a crucial battlefield in the war for Brazilian independence when patriot leaders imposed a siege on Portuguese-occupied city. The province of Bahia was a strategic hinge between the independence minded southern colonies, and a more royalist Amazonian north. Knowing that loss of the city would have reduced Brazil to a rump state around Rio de Janeiro, patriot leaders commissioned the former British admiral Thomas Cochrane to blockade the harbor. With...