History of Slavery and Abolition in Brazil

Written by on August 30th, 2013

350 Years of Slavery

From its discovery in 1500, Brazil has been a hub for human trafficking in South America. From about 1600 to 1850, some 4.5 million enslaved Africans were taken to Brazil; this is ten times as many as were trafficked to North America and far more than the total number of Africans who were transported to all of the Caribbean and North America combined.1


In 1550, Brazil became a major importer of African slaves, making slaves an estimated 38.3 percent of the population of Rio de Janeiro, its capital city.2 This pattern continued as nearly four million slaves were imported into Brazil during its colonial era. In a 2010 Brazil census, it was found that “97 million Brazilians, or 50.7% of the population, now define themselves as black or mixed race…making African-Brazilians the official majority for the first time.”3


The enormity of the slave trade’s foothold in Brazil was so far-reaching, that the nation largely failed to develop an effective anti-slavery movement, even while many other nations around the world were making revolutionary reforms. Throughout the 1700s and early 1800s, slavery was being weeded out in the British Empire, North America, and France. Brazil, however, still had nearly one and a half million slaves with the number of slave imports only accelerating at 5.7%.4

It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that reformist activities began to foment at institutions of higher learning. Young lawyers, students, and journalists started to urge their fellow Brazilians to follow the example of the liberation of the slaves in North America. In 1873 Joaquim Nabuco began his fight against slavery in Brazil inspiring the formation of the Brazilian Anti-Slavery Society. He declared that “there is no freedom nor independence in a land with one million, five hundred thousand slaves!”5 The struggle for total abolition kept moving forward under his leadership, and finally on May 13, 1888, the imperial family passed Lei Aurea, “the Golden Law”, making Brazil the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to formally abolish slavery.6

The Aftermath

Even after the slave trade was abolished, years of exploitation continued to have profound effects on Brazilian society, including deep social divides and the widespread expansion of prostitution. Ever since the late 19th century, prostitution has been “part of the cultural landscape in the early period of Brazil’s modernization and urbanization, as slave or ex slave women turned to offering sexual services” for survival.7 Such long-standing slavery in Brazil created a vast lower class and extreme inequalities. According to the CIA World FactBook, 21.4% of Brazil’s 196.6 million inhabitants live below the poverty line.8


Today, just one hundred and twenty-five years after slavery was abolished, Brazil still faces the repercussions of its near 400-year human trafficking legacy. There is an urgent need for resurging abolition efforts to combat a battle that has moved from the brutality of plantation life to brutality in the streets: sex trafficking. The extreme economic inequalities give children and teens no other choice but to find work wherever they can, turning the sex trade into modern-day chains of oppression. Ripples of ancient systems and dehumanization still linger across Brazil, yet when we look at Brazil’s history, we see that abolition proves to be an inevitable force. It is a story that prevails, with heroes that rise up even in the harshest of circumstances, and it’s time to open up the history books to write a new legacy of liberation.

1. José C. Curto, Renée Soulodre-La “France, African And The Americas: Interconnections During The Slave Trade,” p. 4
2. José C.Curto, Renée Soulodre-La “France. African And The Americas: Interconnections During The Slave Trade,” p. 4
3. Phillips, Tom, “Brazil census shows African-Brazilians in the majority for the first time,” November 17, 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/nov/17/brazil-census-african-brazilians-majority
4. Etlis, David, “Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” p.44
5. Carolina Nabuco, translated and edited by Ronald Hilton, “The Life of Joaquim Nabuco,” p. 75
6. International Labour Organization, “Forced labour in Brazil: 120 years after the abolition of slavery, the fight goes on,” May 2008, http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/features/WCMS_092663/lang–en/index.htm
7. Cristina Pimenta, Sonia Corrêa, Ivia Maksud, Soraya Deminicis, and Jose Miguel Olivar, “SEXUALITY AND DEVELOPMENT: Brazilian national response to HIV/AIDS amongst sex workers,” http://www.abiaids.org.br/_img/media/Relatorio%20prost%20feminina%20INGLES.pdf, p. 15
8. “CIA World FactBook,” https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2046.html. 

  • This article is such a wealth of information for modern-day abolitionists. Understanding the history of a geographical area is so key. Many forget that important piece. Thanks for sharing such an in-depth piece.

  • Natalie

    How can I get Involved and find out about your outreaches to Brazil this summer??

  • Martinho-zinho Ribeiro

    It is important to note that before this Brazil was a peaceful place just full of natives and lots of gorgeous land but the white men came bringing in slavery, destruction, famine and death. They called it “Progress”