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Brazzil - History - May 2004

Fooling the British, the Brazilian Way

While the British wanted slavery abolished in Brazil, Brazilians
with an economy dominated by sugar, depended on slave
labour. Brazilians knew, however, they would not be left alone
if they didn't do something. So was born the image of seeming
to do something while not doing very much at all.

Guy Burton


Picture I've been writing my blog for a month now. I had originally set it both to chronicle my activities as a candidate ahead of the London elections in June and to explore subjects about Brazil. But I've also found it useful to pontificate more generally; essentially it's my little corner of the World Wide Web which is my soap box—and mine alone.

I racked my brains, trying to think of a title. I thought about what I was writing: it would be general stuff; thoughts and observations about life, politics and society; maybe even a book review or two. Window dressing, in other words. But `Window dressing for the soul' didn't have quite the right ring to it; in fact it seemed rather pretentious.

As I thought about what I might call it, I was copied into an email from a reader who had forwarded my article on military service in Brazil from a couple of months ago to his friends. "Do you have to do this?" he asked them, several of whom were like me: British, but with Brazilian passports.

"He's exaggerating," was one of the responses. "It used to be like that, but not anymore. Had he got hold of a particular form when he turned 18 he would have been spared the annual trip to the consulate. He's stirring, trying to make an impression: para inglês ver."

Para inglês ver. I thought about it. Yes, it had a ring to it. I liked its sound and what it hinted at. Making an impression; stirring. Yes, that would do. And given what I wanted to write about would involve observations about Brazilian politics, culture and society, it would help. A few days later when it came to fill out the name on the heading of my blog, Para Ingles Ver it was.

But what does it mean? Well, it's originally Brazilian and literally means `for the English to see'. At its most basic it is used to describe when something should be done—and to all intents and purposes on the surface it is—while underneath nothing happens, nothing changes. In the case above, my readers believed I was making a big song and dance about military service in Brazil when the reality today is that few people do it.

Where did this expression come from? For that you have to cast your mind back to nearly 200 years ago, when Brazil first became independent. Unlike the other South American countries where liberty came at the cost of blood and war, Brazil's experience was relatively more peaceful.

The Portuguese king, João VI, had returned to his homeland after a decade spent in exile from Napoleon Bonaparte's forces in Rio de Janeiro. He left his son, Pedro. But tensions grew between the colonial power and its colony, resulting in Pedro's cry of independence in 1822.

At the birth of independent Brazil was the midwife: Britain. An ally of the Portuguese crown, it also saw commercial advantage in a free Brazil. But those benefits would only be achieved through peace and compromise between Portugal and Brazil. London therefore brought the two sides together to thrash out an agreement, including outstanding issues such as compensation to Portugal for the loss of its former colony.

However, the negotiations took longer than expected; and there was irritation on both sides. By 1825, progress was going slower than expected and Britain decided to take charge of matters. An agreement was signed between the two in August, leaving the British diplomat, Sir Charles Stuart, to begin the next stage: drawing up a treaty between Britain and Brazil.


At the time Britain was a world power, a leading commercial nation. Economically it was one of the most dynamic in Europe and was on the verge of the Industrial Revolution. Like all nations, it pressed for advantageous terms for itself, which included preferential trading rights and the abolition of the Brazilian slave trade.

Unlike Brazil, Britain had already abolished slavery both at home and in its colonies. But to the United States—who also had a large slave population and an economy (mainly in the South) dependent on their labour—Britain's moves were seen in a less than philanthropic light.

Indeed, as one US minister at Rio repeatedly sent in his despatches to Washington during the 1840s, "the impelling irritation that disgusts Brazil with Great Britain, is her conduct in regard to the slave trade and slavery…

"The scheme of self-interest attributed to Great Britain is her design of monopolizing or controlling the markets of colonial produce, and making the free labour of her own colonies in the East and West Indies the sole suppliers of these articles, to the destruction of Brazil, of Cuba, and the slave states of the United States…"

But Brazil was weak, economically and militarily compared to Britain. So when in November 1826 the two countries finally reached an agreement, the treaty specified the slave trade as a form of piracy and gave the British the right to search ships flying the Brazilian flag for slaves.

Despite Britain's power, slaves continued to be shipped across the Atlantic from Africa, to arrive on Brazilian shores. The British government became convinced the Brazilians were not doing enough to stop the trade, which they had agreed to. As a result, in 1831, the authorities at Rio introduced an enactment, which laid out penalties for involvement in the trade.

But despite the instigation of this new law, there was little political will in Brazil to enforce it; an alliance of planters, merchants and politicians saw to that. Between 1831 and the late 1840s it is estimated that more than 700,000 slaves were illegally transferred into Brazil.

In 1845, the provisions which gave British warships the right to search Brazilian ships came to an end. Understandably, the Brazilians saw no merit in renewing them. But they hadn't counted on British public opinion, which had developed into a missionary zeal to bring an end to the slave trade and ultimately slavery itself. And the response was not long in coming.

In February of that year, the US minister in Brazil wrote to his Secretary of State that the former American consul in Rio, Mr Slacum, had been invited by a British diplomat, Mr Samo, to read some correspondence which had come from London:

"Mr Slacum found in a late letter… a most significant remark to this effect:- `The Govt of H.M. is now fully convinced of the bad faith of the Impl Govt in respect to its treaty obligations upon the African slave-trade, and is determined to fulfil the terms and stipulations of the treaty with Brazil for its suppression, independently by its own means and in its own way.'

…Mr Slacum was struck by the sentence, and, reading it aloud in the hearing of Mr Samo, that gentlemen, as if about to reveal something and suddenly checking himself, said:- `Will you be here in April?' `Why?' said Mr Slacum. `If you are here then, you will see some fun.'"

The `fun' to which the diplomat referred was the application of what became known as the Aberdeen Act. The Royal Navy began boarding Brazilian ships in search of illegal slaves and treated them as if they were pirates. Indeed, given the unilateral approach of the British and the lack of an agreement with the Brazilians, the burden of proof was pitched much lower—but still the trade continued.

The problem persisted because despite the lack of political will to deal with the trade, Brazilian politics was in a state of chaos. Four Liberal governments followed each other in quick succession between 1844 and 1848, all troubled by factional splits within.

Eventually in May 1848, as news of the revolutions which were sweeping across Europe arrived in Rio, a new head of government was announced: Francisco de Paula Sousa e Melo.

Riots and Chaos

The main priority of the new administration was to bring to an end the tension with the British. That could only be done by tackling the slave trade. A bill was passed which repealed the 1831 law which had made the slave trade illegal.

But it also meant that retrospective action could be taken against those traders since that date. The result was uproar and anger, resulting in riots and the collapse of public order. The government quickly decided to shelve its planned law and resigned.

From London this seemed to be the final straw: the Brazilians couldn't be trusted to effectively halt the slave trade. British warships stepped up their activity, but it didn't seem to be delivering any results. Still the number of illegal slaves entering Brazil continued.

As if matters couldn't get any more extreme, in 1850 the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston decided to step up efforts. No longer would the Royal Navy be limited to searching Brazilian vessels in international waters: from now on they would be free to pursue slave traders into Brazilian territorial waters, driving them onto the shore or dragging them out of port. On one occasion there was an exchange of fire between the HMS Cormorant and the military installations which guarded the coastal town of Paranaguá.

Power in Brazil had by now transferred to the Conservatives, who recognised the extreme British measures showed up the military weakness of the Brazilians. Despite having close associations with the political alliance in favour of slavery and its trade, they realised Britain's actions wouldn't let up until something was done.

A few months later the Brazilians waved the white flag of surrender by passing a law which maintained the previous provisions lain out in the 1831 bill, stating that the trade was illegal and giving the government greater powers to deal with it. Just over a year after this bill was put into effect even the British had to admit that the slave trade was now destroyed.

Sugar and Slave Labour

During this period of external pressure between 1826 and 1852, the Brazilians were seen by the British as unwilling participants on the matter of abolition. They became increasingly exasperated by the failure of successive governments to stop the trade, even though they recognised it was illegal.

For the Brazilians though, there was a lack of enthusiasm: the nature of the economy, dominated as it was by sugar, depended to a great degree on slave labour. Halting the trade would dry up the supply of that labour, not least because of the low life expectancy of slaves.

However, they recognised they would not be left alone by the British if they didn't appear to be doing something. And so was born the image of acting, of seeming to do something about the slave trade, while not doing very much at all. These new laws will stop the trade, Brazilians would tell the British, while saying to each other, para inglês ver: it's only for the English to see and believe we're doing something.

By the 1850s the trade was stopped. But still the practice of slavery continued. For the next thirty years the matter would rise up the political agenda. As Brazil developed economically, the importance of slave labour became weaker. The economic pole shifted from the sugar fields of Bahia and the north to the coffee plantations in São Paulo and the south.

Rather than slaves, European immigrants were seen as a better source of labour; industrialisation and urbanisation slowly broke down the consensus. Several efforts were made to abolish slavery, but they floundered: questions of compensation to the former owners and the prospect of a gradual emancipation over a generation created heat and tension between slavery's proponents and abolitionists. One after another a bill was proposed or floated, only to collapse. Para inglês ver, thought many abolitionists: there's no will or commitment to bring it to an end.

When it did come it was different to the previous attempts. There was no gradual process proposed, no conditions attached. In May 1888 the Princess Regent, Dona Isabel, who was acting for her father the Emperor away in Europe at the time, finally signed the law which would bring an end to slavery. And it wasn't only para inglês ver.

Guy Burton was born in Brazil and now lives in London where he is a candidate for the Liberal Democrats in the London elections next month. He began in blog in March as a way of recounting his campaign experiences and to explore various subjects he's interested in. It can be found at http://guyburton.blogspot.com and he can be contacted at gjsburton@hotmail.com

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