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Brazzil - Brazil/USA - April 2004

Brazil, No Promised Land for Confederates

Historians of the Confederacy in Brazil are keen to stress the
importance of a wide range of issues which encouraged Southerners
to abandon Dixie and emigrate to Brazil. Consequently, they
tend to gloss over another attraction of life in Brazil, which
was similar to the one they had left behind: slavery.

Guy Burton

This week, I stayed up way past my bedtime to watch Steven Spielberg's Amistad. When the film came out in 1997 it was immediately suggested that this was the film which would address the issue of slavery as Schindler's List tackled the Holocaust.

The Amistad was a Spanish ship which transported slaves from West Africa to Cuba during the 1830s. But during the voyage the slaves rebelled and massacred much of the crew and demanded the survivors return them to their native land. Instead of sailing east, they ended up off the coast of the United States and so began one of the most contentious court cases in the young republic up to that time.

The case eventually ended up in the Supreme Court, where the former president, John Quincy Adams, spoke in favour of the Africans. During an idle moment I surfed the web and found his argument. By comparison with the film version, where he is played by Sir Anthony Hopkins (one of the few occasions where Hollywood offers us a Briton as a good guy), it is lengthy and wordy—and dramatic.

Over 20,000 words and 36 pages of A4 paper in, and with more than half the speech to come, one of the judges dies. Whether it was to avoid listening to Adams, I don't know, but it's a shame it wasn't included in the film.

Spielberg also gets Adams-Hopkins to say some words at the end of his filmed courtroom scene, which never actually occurred. Adams-Hopkins offers the pronouncement that slavery is one of the last unresolved issues of the American Revolution. If it meant war, then so be it.

Even though he uses artistic license in his tale, Spielberg's contribution is a valid one. In John Joseph Ellis's Founding Brothers, a revisionist view of the men who helped shape the American state and its political culture and traditions during the 1780s and 1790s, the historian notes that they left the issue of slavery well alone.

Even at the end of the eighteenth century, division was hardening between North and South. Even George Washington, the country's deified first President, preferred to show his preferences by acting to prepare for his slaves' freedom after his and his wife's deaths rather than encourage open debate.

The American Civil War, when it came, was not solely to do with the question of slavery. It was to do with states' rights and economic and social dislocation occurring in the two geographic parts of the United States.

But the conflict, even if it started out gentlemanly, could hardly be described as civil before long. Predating the First World War by fifty years, it was the first to introduce slaughter on an unprecedented scale, through the aid of technology, not least the use of the machine gun.

But even without mechanised warfare, the conflict ensured extreme levels of revulsion and repugnance. In 1864, the Unionist General Sherman plundered his way through the South, a strategy aimed at disheartening the Confederate rebels. Property was vandalised or confiscated and Southern families made to fear for their lives. War, it seemed, was no longer on the battle ground; it was coming into their homes.

With the end of hostilities in 1865 the Unionists were in no mood to be magnanimous. Yankee tax collectors arrived swift on the heels of the victorious armies, determined to make the South pay for the war. Congress branded three and a half million Southerners as traitors and declared 150,000 of the Confederacy's leading citizens guilty without trial and stripped them of their citizenship.

For many Southerners, this attitude convinced them that the Union was determined to make them suffer and destroy their way of life if possible. Unsurprisingly, many began to think they no longer belonged in their own land and looked to emigrate.

Going South

While Mexico was close, another country further away, offered promise and possibilities. In 1860, Brazil had passed a law to make it easier for immigrants to settle. At the time, Brazil was relatively unpopulated, with vast tracts of land; the authorities had initially targeted their legislation at European immigrants, but in the context of the recent American conflict, it would suit disposed Confederates as well.

But the links with Brazil went further than simply law. Although most foreign governments maintained a neutral stance during the Civil War, even in the last year there was discussion about the possibility of an alliance between the Confederates and Brazil under its emperor, Dom Pedro II. Although it came to nothing, Pedro wasted no time in inviting the war's losers to leave the United States and move to Brazil. And at first glance, it wasn't difficult to see the attraction for Southerners.

Not only was there land to be had, but much of Brazil was commensurable to the Southern way of life. Whereas the Civil War ensured America's future lay in the direction of the industrial North, the South's traditional, aristocratic, agricultural economy was mirrored in Brazil. From a South dominated by farmers, Brazil had an incentive to bring such people to their lands, not least because it would help cultivate the empty spaces within the interior.

Historians of the Confederacy in Brazil are keen to stress the importance of a wide range of issues which encouraged Southerners to abandon Dixie and emigrate to Brazil. Consequently, they tend to gloss over another attraction of life in Brazil, which was similar to the one they had left behind: slavery.

Whereas President Lincoln emancipated the slaves at the end of the Civil War, in Brazil the institution continued to exist. Lincoln's speedy decision left thousands of former slave-owners in a quandary, not least because they received no compensation and were left without labour to rebuild their farms following their devastation by the Unionist armies.

But even as the slaves became legally free men and women in America, so too was the abolitionist movement gaining steam in Brazil. Several attempts had been made in the preceding thirty years to end the Atlantic slave trade and to enable slaves to attain their freedom after a certain period of service; but as with the pre-war United States, the question of slavery in Brazil was tied up with the nature of the state and regime.

Although a law would be passed in 1871 to hasten an end to slavery and compensate their former owners, the issue was to heat up until another law was passed, freeing all slaves with immediate effect in May 1888. A year later a military coup would occur, exiling the emperor and ending aristocratic, landholder rule in favour of a republic dominated by oligarchs with their links in the military and emerging industry.

While some Confederate colonists, or Confederados as they became known, pined for the life they left behind in America, they took advantage of the official invitation and land grants offered by the authorities. Colonists from Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky set out in organised groups by chartered steamboat to the South American country, their first port of call being the imperial capital of Rio.

As awareness of the country grew and the first colonists sent correspondence back to their friends and relatives, more joined them in Brazil, eschewing the need to travel together, some coming out individually or as a family.

In some cases the former slaves of the Confederados came too. But while it may initially seem odd to imagine a recently freed slave departing for a country where slavery was still common currency, in Brazil the opportunities for black people were much greater than they would be in the South during the Reconstruction.

Whereas racial differences were starker in America, in Brazil the relationship and prejudice was more subtle. The country in which these former slaves landed was home to a greater level of miscegenation than the one they had departed.

Compared to the South, there were greater numbers of more visibly mixed people; and a black Brazilian who had white ancestry would not be considered black as he would have been in the American South. This gave him greater freedom and a better chance of social mobility than he would have had in America.

Color Shock

Understandably, for many of the white colonists who arrived, this experience was a disorientating one. As Eugene Harter, a former US consul in São Paulo and a third generation Confederado has noted in his book, Lost Colony of the Confederacy, many of the first arrivals were clearly shocked by the sight of so many darker-skinned people in Brazil. Although they had been forewarned by advance scouts, the nature of racial relations was an unsettling one. Many never got over the experience and found it difficult to be in the presence of many Brazilians.

To a large extent the majority of these new immigrants, the Confederados, settled in the southern Brazilian provinces of São Paulo and Paraná. The towns of Americana, Campinas, Juquiá, New Texas and Xiririca are among those which sprouted up. One community, Rio Doce, was established in Espírito Santo, north of Rio, and another on the Amazon River at Santarém.

For the most part these communities took up land granted by the authorities in the interior, preparing it for cultivation. The first years were among the hardest and in the following twenty years a number of immigrants gave up life in Brazil, returning to their homeland.

Many who remained were attracted not only by the availability of land, but by the hope (rather than promise) of striking gold and other precious minerals. But by the 1860s the gold rush was at an end, exhausted in the early part of the century.

As with most immigrant communities, the Confederados kept to themselves and maintained a strong identity with their homeland. While Brazil was a Portuguese-speaking and Catholic society, the Americans kept their English language alive and attended Baptist and other Protestant church services. As late as the 1950s, some of the older Confederados still spoke English with a Southern accent along with Portuguese.

The process of assimilation meant that of those who stayed, the second and third generations could still identify themselves as both Brazilian and American. Several returned to the United States to join the armed forces when the country joined the First World War, while one of the original colonist's granddaughters said to a historian, William Clark Griggs, in his 1987 book, The Elusive Eden: "It is a strange feeling; it is as though we were a composite of two cultures."

This distinct identity was also helped by the exclusionary attitude of the early Confederados. For many of the first and second generation, marriage took place within the community, or with Americans; marriage to Brazilians with their racial mix, was considered taboo. But as increasing numbers of Confederado children married outside of the immigrant communities, this sense of separation became weaker.

In his book, Eugene Harter asked whether Confederados and their children were Brazilians or Americans. But as the community entered into its fourth and fifth generation, married outside the established families and forgot their English, surely the question should really be do the present day Confederados consider themselves to be anything other than Brazilian?

Guy Burton was born in Brazil and now lives in London. He has written on various issues relating to Brazilian society and culture for Brazzil. He has recently set up a blog, http://guyburton.blogspot.com and can be contacted at gjsburton@hotmail.com

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