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  • Ambivalent Authorities: The African and Afro-Brazilian Contribution to Local Governance in Colonial Brazil*
  • A. J. R. Russell-Wood

A theme common to all regions of the Portuguese seaborne empire was dependency on non-Europeans for the creation, consolidation and survival of empire: for defense, labor, construction of towns and forts, transportation, production of raw materials, sexual gratification and, in the case of the Estado da India (Portuguese forts, towns, cities and factories from the Swahili coast to Japan and Timor), on merchants, brokers and interpreters to provide access to suppliers, distributors, commercial networks, and even vessels and capital.1 Through conversion, peoples from Japan to Africa and America, contributed to the flock of the church militant and, in some more limited cases, as missionaries, catechists, and secular priests. One exception was Brazil where Amerindians were not admitted into the regular or secular clergy.2 The one area in which the Portuguese crown was not willing to countenance indigenous participation was appointment to public office, be this in the imperial bureaucracy, or election to city or town councils other than in Cape Verde and São Tome. In Asia and Angola persons other than of exclusively European parentage on both sides and even New Christians may have served on town councils, and some non-Europeans held clerical positions, but the policy forbidding persons of African [End Page 13] descent to hold office in church or state was adhered to in practice.3 Brazil was unique in at least two regards. First, perhaps in no other European colony was dispossession (from an indigenous perspective) so complete. The Portuguese assumed sovereignty over indigenous peoples and their territories and saw Brazil as a tabula rasa where the Portuguese were free to establish cities, institutions, governance, commercial practices, and to implant their religious beliefs, writing and numeracy systems, values, and mores. Secondly, among European overseas colonies in the early modern period, Brazil was unique in that by the end of the colonial period (1822), a transplanted population of African-born and their American-born descendants comprised a demographic majority which exceeded the indigenous population and persons of European origin or descent.4

My purpose is to engage in an exercise in compensatory history in two regards: first, by focussing on a largely ignored facet of the African and Afro-Brazilian presence in the colony: namely, participation by persons of African descent in governance at local and district levels; and, secondly, by placing local and regional governance—rather than metropolitan and imperial—center stage. Where appropriate, the distinction will be made between African-born (hereafter Africans) and Brazilian-born (hereafter Afro-Brazilians or Creoles). To be African was tacit acknowledgment of having been transported to Brazil as a slave. He or she might then receive a “letter of freedom” (carta de alforria), as too could an Afro-Brazilian slave. Both were free and, in legal terms, had the same standing as blacks and mulattos born as free persons in Brazil. In short, there were slaves, freed and those born free. To be African-born or Brazilian-born was yet another factor—in addition to ethnicity (nação), civil status, coloration, and language—which weighed against a shared identity among persons of African descent in Brazil.5 By the eighteenth century, Brazilian-born free persons comprised a” significant sector of the Brazilian population. Nowhere was there a more concentrated presence of African- and Brazilian-born slaves than in what was to become (1721) the captaincy of Minas Gerais. A high rate of manumissions, coupled with a free Creole population, made this a region with a [End Page 14] high incidence of persons of African descent who were free persons.6 This demography, together with a rich municipal, gubernatorial, and crown documentation, make this an especially attractive area to study persons of African descent in public office. While Africans can not be ruled out as holders of public offices described here, the reality is that persons of African descent who held local and district offices or who were officers and soldiers in black and mulatto militia regiments were overwhelmingly Afro-Brazilians. As holders of public offices at local or district levels, they were more likely to be...


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