Roughly half of all the slaves who made the trans-Atlantic passage from Africa to the New World from the 1500s to the 1800s disembarked in Brazil, where slavery was not abolished until 1888. How did slavery affect the economic development of Brazil? Nuno Palma, Andrea Papadia, Thales Pereira, and Leonardo Weller discuss the evidence and research, with occasional contrasts to the US experience of slavery, in “Slavery and Development in Nineteenth Century Brazil” (Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics, Summer 2021, 2:2, pp. 372-426, subscription or library access needed). They write:
Prior to abolition in 1888, slavery was a pronounced and pervasive feature of Brazil’s economy. More African captives arrived on Brazilian shores than anywhere else in the Americas. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, 4.9 million Africans landed in what was a Portuguese colony in the Americas until 1808, an independent joint kingdom with Portugal from 1808 to 1822, and then the Brazilian Empire from 1822 until
the Republic was proclaimed in 1889, the year after emancipation. The total number of
Africans transported to Brazil corresponds to 46 percent of all the enslaved arrivals in the New World and double the number who arrived in the whole of the British Caribbean.
In comparison, the slave trade to the United States was much smaller: only 388,746 slaves disembarked there …
The Brazilian slave trade started in the Northeast of the country during the 1560s. Africans were put to work in the first large-scale sugar plantations of the Americas, … Brazil’s Southeast caught up as a major destination for slaves in the eighteenth century,
during the gold rush in Minas Gerais and other regions. Most Africans entered that region through Rio de Janeiro, which became the largest slave port in the world … A large share of the captives who arrived during the nineteenth century were forced to work in the booming coffee sector, which began in the hinterland of Rio de Janeiro state and subsequently expanded across the plains of São Paulo. The coffee plantations in Rio depended more on slave labor than those in São Paulo, which also employed European migrants, especially
from the 1880s on. An inter-regional slave market grew following the end of the trade with Africa in 1850, after which enslaved people were moved in large numbers from the declining Northeast to the booming Southeast.
Slavery in Brazil was distinctive in a number of ways. For example, it was common for common for slaveowners to have a relatively small number of slaves, like 5-10, rather than slavery being solely focused on large plantations. In addition, slaves were often forced to work in domestic industries, not just in producing a good for export. The authors write of slavery in Brazil:
All sectors depended on slaves. They made up half the sailors in the domestic maritime industry and were also put to work in foreign trade, including in the slave trade itself. Slaves were the backbone of the jerk beef processing industry in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. They also worked in whale fishing and processing, mainly in Santa Catarina, Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro. In Minas Gerais, in which the largest slave population in the country was concentrated, most captives produced goods for domestic consumption, such as foods and textiles. … The human capital of slaves is well documented in Minas Gerais, where up
to 30 percent of the captives who worked in construction and textile manufacturing
were specialized laborers such as carpenters or overseers.
In comparing Brazilian slavery in the 19th century to US slavery, one central difference is that even after the United States banned the importation of slaves in 1808, the US slave population increased substantially in the following decades, because the children of slaves were born into slavery themselves. Conversely, Brazil’s slave population decreased during the 19th century. One difference was that the possibilities for slaves to become free were higher in certain areas of Brazil.
Additionally, the [Brazilian] slave population shrank because many were able to gain freedom. Some did so through self-purchase or government programs designed to buy people out of slavery in the decades that preceded emancipation; furthermore, children of free men and slaves were not automatically free but had a good chance of becoming so. As a result, most Brazilians were free but not white: according to the 1872 census, 4.2 million non-white free
people, 1.5 million slaves, and 3.8 million whites lived in the country.
Not only was slavery more prevalent in Brazil than in the United States; it was also a more fluid institution that allowed the enslaved to gain freedom on a larger scale. However, though they were free, former slaves were still at the bottom of society, suffering from persecution and racism. As in the US South, landowners and other local oligarchs actively limited
the outside options of former slaves in order to keep extracting cheap labor from them, often through the use of vagrancy laws. Additionally, poor whites saw free Afro-Brazilians
as competitors for jobs, and elites pushed for racial whitening through immigration from Europe. Often, former slaves performed the same jobs that slaves did, with the benefit of some mobility across the country and without the obligation to pay rents to their masters.
In an American context, one sometimes hears claims that US economic growth of the 19th century was fundamentally based on slavery, and in particular on the interrelationship between slavery and cotton production. Most US economic historians are unpersuaded by these claims. But if the combination of slavery and cotton production was so fundamental to development of the US economy, why didn’t it do more to help 19th-century economic development in Brazil?
As the authors discuss, large-scale cotton production and cotton exports to Great Britain were already firmly established in the late 1700s–well before cotton became a staple crop of the American South. The story of cotton market in the early 19th century is more complex than I can address. But around 1820, Brazil was the one global cotton producer whose exports stagnated, while cotton exports from the US, Egypt, and countries of South Asia increased substantially. One reason seemed to be that Brazil has been growing “long-staple” cotton, and producers of that kind of cotton enlisted Brazil’s government to block increased production of the “short-staple” cotton that became preferred over time. The authors write:
Either way, slavery certainly did not turn Brazil into an industrial power like the United States. Although Brazil does not represent the ideal control for assessing a counterfactual for a more industrialized state like the United States, we can draw some conclusions regarding the impact of slavery on industrialization from the Brazilian experience. After all, if slavery affected the trajectory of capitalism and growth, as the new history of capitalism claims, we should be able to detect these mechanisms in the country that imported most slaves.
Instead, as the authors discuss at some length, Brazilian cotton farms that depended on slave labor competed with farms that relied on free labor. The Brazilian coffee industry did not grow to global prominence in the 1880s and 1890s until the period in which slavery was diminishing, and when most of the coffee plantation workers were recent European immigrants rather than slaves.
In general, the regions of Brazil where slavery was greatest were slowest to mature economically, as was also true in the United States. The presence of slavery tended to discourage free labor–which after all, preferred not to find itself competing with slave labor. Areas of Brazil with more slavery also tended to a lower investment in education and human capital. The authors write:
[T]he abolition of slavery allowed municipalities to exploit their potential to become manufacturing centers. … This result also highlights the presence of potential distortions in the Brazilian economy brought about by slavery: locations with high potential for industrialization, as evidenced by post-abolition developments, were actually disadvantaged earlier on due to a continued focus on cash crops fueled by the prevalence of slave-based production. If we consider the fact that slavery discouraged free migrants from settling, slavery might have also been harmful through this additional indirect channel. …
There is no evidence that slavery benefited the societies that relied largely on it. Not only is slavery abhorrent from a modern normative perspective, but it also mostly had negative development consequences: while slave-owners and a few narrow sectors profited from it, overall society lost out. … The case of Brazil lends credibility to the view that slavery benefited a small elite but delayed overall economic development in the societies where it existed, as has been argued for the US South.