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  • Negreiros in the South Atlantic:The Community of “Brazilian” Slave Traders in Late Eighteenth Century Benguela
  • Estevam C. Thompson (bio)

1. Introduction

The significance of the slave trade from West Central Africa to Brazil during the eighteenth century is evidenced not only by the analysis of quantitative data found in the extant documentation,1 but also by the study of social, political and cultural interactions between local commercial agents and sailors who visited the region from the late fifteenth century onwards. These interactions permitted the rise of culturally mixed societies that combined customs and institutions from both sides. The members of these trans-national societies were deeply involved in the slave trade, so they crossed the ocean constantly, virtually inhabiting both margins of the Atlantic. Their commercial ties were strengthened by personal relations (relações de compadrio) and they often established sociedades or partnerships, working together to ensure a continuous flow of slaves towards the demanding Atlantic market.

The Atlantic Slave Trade was a complex operation that involved different private agents. Some took care of caravans that moved captives from producing areas in the African interior to the ports on the coast (usually identified as pumbeiros or sertanejos). Others were responsible for the transport of slaves through the middle passage to American markets. These slave traders (negreiros) expanded their influence in the eighteenth century Atlantic Slave Trade when they left the subaltern position of “transporters of captives” to become important businessmen (negociantes). Here they were supported by increasing credits offered in Brazilian markets to those dedicated to the “rescue” of slaves in West Central Africa.

These negreiros became increasingly important not only as slave traders but also by occupying military and administrative positions in the so-called Portuguese Overseas Empire which, in its turn, favored their commercial interests. Many were closely related, usually belonging to the same family (e.g. brothers or brothers-in-law), while others tightened their relations by becoming compadres. They served as testamenteiros (estate executors) for one another – African Economic History v.39 (2011): 73-128 [End Page 73] given they had personal interest in the satisfaction of debts left by a deceased member of the community – and were also tutors of each other’s children.

The huge increase in the slave trade from Benguela during the second half of the eighteenth century fomented the creation of a community of merchants largely connected to the economy and the society of Rio de Janeiro. By then, this “Brazilian” captaincy had become the administrative center for a large part of the Portuguese domains in the Americas and its principal port was one of the busiest of the Atlantic world. Not only had its internal production of sugar and cachaça (sugar cane brandy) grown substantially, demanding ever increasing numbers of slaves to operate the sugar mills and to serve as domestic labor, but Rio de Janeiro also provided enslaved laborers to different regions in Brazil (e.g. Minas Gerais) and to external markets such as that in the River Plata.

In order to provide captives for the growing internal and external slave markets of Rio de Janeiro, powerful representatives of metropolitan interests merged with sugar barons from the region. Together, they supplied slave traders with the commodities necessary to carry out commercial transactions in the Reino de Benguela or kingdom of Benguela, especially in form of textiles imported from Europe and Asia and locally produced sugar cane brandy. Gerebita, as the valuable Brazilian spirit became known in much of West Central Africa, was used as currency, as well as for spiritual and social-political purposes, throughout the sertões or backlands of the region.2 Thus, Brazilian alcohol became an essential commodity for the success of caravans reaching slave producing areas deep in the interior. Control over increasing supplies of gerebita gave the community of slave traders based in Benguela and their partners in Rio de Janeiro a favored position in the market.

The development of Portuguese captaincies in the Atlantic depended on a continuous and increasing supply of slaves from Africa. As one historian has pointed out, “Brazilians needed the African slave trade to obtain the black laborers on whom virtually every significant sector of their export...


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