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 wordyand 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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 email@example.com