Fooling the British, the Brazilian Way

Fooling the British, the Brazilian 

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.
by: Guy


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

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

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

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

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
and he can be contacted at

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